becoming wise - part four...
NOTE: My worship notes for Sunday, August 14, 2016 based on the CommonLectionary Texts for this week and the insights from Krista Tippett's book: Becoming Wise.
“You can read the signs of the sky and discern the weather, but not the signs of the times…” to which Jesus adds the scornful designation: Hypocrites! To say that this is NOT one of the pastoral passages of the New Testament would be an understatement. The word hypocrite – hupokrites in Greek – means pretender, play actor wearing a mask, dishonest dissembler who tears down what is valuable by inaction and neglect – what we would call a two-faced slug who carps without helping, critiques without useful alternatives and complains without any intention of making life better. Without any qualification, Jesus tells us this both infuriates him and does damage to the cause of the kingdom.
This passage opens by asking us what we are on fire for – what are we passionate about – when it comes to strengthening God’s loving presence in the world? What energizes us about God’s peace? What inspires us to live sacrificially on behalf of compassion? Jesus then clearly tells us that if we’re play acting, going through the motions of discipleship rather than taking risks for the sake of transforming love then our lives will be turned upside down, purified by God’s cleansing fire and judged as a waste of space.
Because – and this is crucial for us both as individuals as well as for our faith community – we give more attention and time to the easy things rather than those that deepen God’s love: you can read the signs of the sky and predict the weather, but you cannot discern what the signs of the times mean. One Bible scholar updated this asking: To what do we pay close attention and to what do we turn a blind eye? Jesus' sayings challenge us to examine the inconsistencies between attention and neglect in our own lives, but also challenge us to consider whether these inconsistencies reveal a pattern of prioritizing the insignificant while jeopardizing the things of greatest value and importance. Have we given as much attention to the health of our church as we have to our golf score? Or road races? Or music lessons? Have we given as much attention to the maintenance of our spiritual practices as to the maintenance schedule for our car? Where in the scale of our attention to detail does our devotion to the teachings of our Lord rank? Where and how do we make the love of God flesh in our ordinary, everyday, walking around lives?
If you are anything like me, most of the time I don’t want to see my sloppy discipleship. I don’t really want to know how inconsistent I am when it comes to making love flesh. And I certainly don’t want to be called out on these failures in public, right? And that is why the appointed readings of the church call us to wrestle with these hard sayings of Jesus from time to time – because left only to ourselves most of us won’t do it. I won’t, you won’t, he won’t, she won’t, we won’t and they won’t. We need encouragement – and even sometimes a kick in the pants – and that word hypocrite kicks me every time it comes up.
So given the appointed readings – including the Psalm and words of the prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew Bible – I thought it might be valuable to have a conversation today about the three broad challenges Jesus lays out in Luke 12 and see what comes up? And let me be a bit provocative here and qualify why I am eager for us to be in this conversation today: those of us who have grown up in this tradition – or really in any 20th century Christian denomination – have learned a way of speaking together that is fundamentally NICE without offering any significant depth.
There is a line in the Eucharistic Prayer that we’ve been using for the past five years that is both an invitation to more honesty and a challenge for us to live beyond vague niceties. The prayer comes from the ecumenical monastic community in Iona, Scotland and reads like this: For his life which informs our living, for his compassion which changes our hearts, for his clear speaking which contradicts our harmless generalities, for his disturbing presence, his innocent suffering, his fearless dying and his rising to life breathing forgiveness, we praise you and worship him. Clear speaking which contradicts our harmless generalities – it isn’t a phrase that rolls easily off our tongues, is it? And yet without clarity and precision, without depth of truth and nuance of spirit, so much of what we say together is merely nice. And irrelevant. Without shape or form doing nothing to deepen the call to commitment and the values of Christ’s kingdom.
Now this isn’t a new problem for faith communities – and I’m not the only cranky, old preacher who grows weary of our harmless generalities that give the status quo a pass when beloved souls are suffering – did you hear what was proclaimed in both the Psalm and the poetry of the prophet Isaiah? Before the collapse of Jerusalem’s walls in 587 BCE to the invading armies of Babylon, the young prophet to the king of Israel sang a love song filled with sorrow and cries for social justice saying: I gave birth to you and nourished you like a well-tended vineyard only to discover that after all my blessings you returned to me bitter grapes rather than the sweet fruits of compassion.
Ok, so now let me tell you what I’ll do to my vineyard (because you cannot discern the signs of the times): I’ll tear down its fence and let it go to ruin. I’ll knock down the gate and let it be trampled. I’ll turn it into a patch of weeds, untended, uncared for so that thistles and thorns will take over. I’ll give orders to the clouds: ‘Don’t rain on that vineyard, ever again!’ Do you get it? The vineyard of God-of-the-Angel-Armies is the country of Israel. All the men and women of Judah are the garden he was so proud of but when God looked for a crop of justice I only saw them murdering each other. And when I looked for a harvest of righteousness – that is, compassion – I only heard the moaning of the victims.
· We don’t have to be Bible scholars to grasp that God is furious over our neglect. Like the Psalmist said after the agony of Israeli’s first exile: How long will you remain angry with us, O Lord? You have fed us the bread of tears because we let your precious vine be burned up and cut down by our neglect.
· Do you know the great American author James Baldwin? After the riots and ghettoflames of 1965, he wrote The Fire NEXT Time: a call for reconciliation between the races, healing of economic injustices and a renewal of commitment to the common good, much of which still remains disembodied words rather than incarnated love in deeds. He put God’s challenge to us like this:
Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death--ought to decide, indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible for life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.
Like the prophets and Jesus, Baldwin understood that the agony of race hatred – discrimination against all people but especially people of color, women, immigrants and those of the LGBTQ community alongside a stubborn unwillingness on the part of our nation’s white middle class to pay more attention to the pain our privilege causes – was proof that even in God’s churches and synagogues and mosques, we are better at reading the signs in the sky than discerning the signs of the times. And such willful naiveté and ignorance always results in flames: sometimes they are flames of judgment, other times the fire of destruction, but they could also become the burning desire for healing and embodied love if God’s people were on fire with a passion for the kingdom. Krista Tippett puts it carefully in her book Becoming Wise:
W.E.B Dubois called the color line the problem of the 20th century. The conundrum of the twenty-first is that with the best intentions of color blindness, and laws passed in this spirit, we still carry instincts and reactions inherited from our environments and embedded in our being below the level of conscious decision. There is a color line in our heads and while we could see its effects we couldn’t name it until now… What is being called for today is a challenge to our human nature… which (as it occurs) over time can create new instincts and lay chemical and physical pathways for (radical love.) “The human condition is one of belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship,” writes johnpowell. “We are not going to melt into one another. And yet, we do have a calling to become a beloved community, beloved of all people and beyond people to a beloved relationship with the planet.
In 2016, what I see in both the rise of Donald Trump’s hateful nostalgia for white supremacy and the so-called good old days as well as the righteous anger and frustration of parts of the Black Lives Matters movement is the fire of judgment. Too many of us know too well the tools of anger and hatred better than the tools of love and community. Too many of us actually believe that love is “wimpy.” Tragically that’s one of the consequences of knowing more about the signs in the sky than the signs of the times – and it’s come back to haunt us. Right now in America – and throughout so much of the world, we are facing the fire THIS time – it could either be the fire of a passionate blessing and love or the consequence of further neglect and deceit – the jury is still out – but soon to render a verdict with profound implications.
And THAT brings me back to my conversation opener: when churches – God’s people – are on fire for God’s compassion and Christ’s kingdom of justice and peace then, to paraphrase another 60s insight, we become part of the solution rather than part of the problem. But if we take the church for granted, if we’re distracted or dishonest or so disinterested in kingdom work that we give injustice a pass, then we become kindling for the flames of judgment. So I would like us to talk together – avoiding harmless generalities – about the three challenges in the words of Jesus for today.
· First, what is this congregation passionate about? Please note that I am not asking what YOU personally are passionate about nor am I interested in what the larger church or another church is on fire for when it comes to healing the world. What I want to hear from you is what you sense OUR church is passionate about? What are WE on fire about? So what do you think?
· Second, what does your baptism mean when it comes to this fire? In today’s lesson Jesus links fire with baptism reminding us that we have been given grace not as a private blessing, but as the inspiration to share grace and right relations with the world. It might be said that the blessing of God’s grace gives us the assurance that God will be with us always – even on a Cross – so we need not fear or equivocate when it comes to challenging and healing suffering. So, what does your baptism mean to you about living with passion in a broken and divided world?
· And third, how do you react to being called a hypocrite by Jesus? Not by me, I a hypocrite, too, but by Jesus? It has been said that our need for control may be the point of the final part of this text where Jesus addresses our inability to realize what’s really happening all around us. What he’s asking is why do we choose to remain blind? Understand that Jesus is talking only to those who can read the signs in the sky and wonders why they can’t also figure out the “present time.” So this isn’t exactly hypocrisy in a traditional sense, it’s more like bad vision or selective memory, and pertains only to those who claim to be his followers. So how bold and risky is your commitment to healing the wounds of our brokenness? If we always play it safe – if we always defer to the so-called experts or smartest people in the room rather than trust the Cross of Jesus more than anything else –then BAM the slam of hypocrisy fits us all. So what do you think about this – right now?
One of the hidden blessings that I believe is being given to us as a congregation by God as we wrestle with our financial challenges – and vision for the future – comes down to fire: passion or judgment. If we have a fire in our bellies and the flame of love in our hearts for Christ’s gospel of love, we’ll figure this mess out – we will rise up stronger from this moment than ever before, bringing the blessings of our God to a broken world in wonderful and sacred ways. If, however, we play it safe, trusting only the so-called experts, or the moneyed class or those who have longevity but are disinterested or distracted by the values of God’s kingdom, then… then we won’t. We’ll join that long list of nice people who know very well how to read the signs in the sky but cannot figure out the meaning of the signs of the times.
And to be completely transparent, I think the jury is still out. We have a long tradition of trusting and supporting the status quo – a lengthy intellectual legacy more comfortable with bourgeois culture than radical compassion and justice – and many among us know more about the wisdom of the market place more than the blessings of the Cross. That’s why I believe this is a time latent with possibilities for true renewal where we shake off the bondage of elitism and embrace the sacrificial journey of Christ’s beloved community of faith, hope and love. For while many of us share a deep love that is sacred – a connection with the Lord and one another that is truly revolutionary in our age of disposal friendships and bottom line marketplace ethics, there are also deep roots of privileged indifference and arrogance working to nullify this love. So I truly don’t know whether the fire to come will be passion or judgment.
So let me leave you with a challenge that some say comes from Cherokee legend, others suggest Billy Graham and still others ascribe to St. Francis of Assisi: Seems that once upon a time grandfather was talking with his grandson and told him that there are two wolves inside of us which are always at war with each other. One of them is a good wolf and represents things like kindness, bravery and love. The other is our shadow wolf and symbolizes things like greed, hatred and fear. After a short time for thought, the grandson looks up and says, “Grandpa, which one wins?” To which the grandfather replies: the one you feed. This IS the good news for today for those with ears to hear.