Luke’s Rebel Jesus, Part 2: Casting Fire

Sermon for February 28, 2010; Luke 12:49-53

As I preached a week ago, the depiction of Jesus as well as his message in chapters 11-13 of Luke’s Gospel is hard to comprehend. The image of the Messiah in these stories stands in stark contrast to the infant wrapped in bands of cloth and lying peacefully in a manger at the beginning of the gospel; or the risen Lord who suddenly appears to the disciples and says “Peace be with you” at the end of Luke’s book.

For the gospel writer, Jesus is also a rebel who stands toe to toe with the religious and government authorities who have turned from God and God’s people. And it is this rabble rousing, tough loving Jesus that we need to pay close attention to if we are to understand the meaning of this somber and painful season of Lent for our lives and our faith. Otherwise, we can’t move forward toward the hope that is Easter

We know from last Sunday’s scripture reading that Jesus doesn’t hesitate to roar at the Pharisees, lawyers and anyone who practices false piety and ignores the poor and oppressed.  Nor does Jesus, as we discover from today’s passage, sugarcoat the truth about the kingdom of God and his role in God’s new reality for the world. R. Alan Culpepper, dean of the McAfee School of Theology, writes in a commentary on this passage:

“Jesus has come to bring God’s peace, but the work of redemption inevitably brings division also…Although the kingdom of God is characterized by reconciliation and peace, the announcement of that kingdom is always divisive because it requires decision and commitment.”

Jesus knows that his very presence upsets a lot of people. He knows that not everyone is buying into the message he shared some time ago in the synagogue:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus knows that not everyone will be willing to follow him at a time when religious leaders and the Roman Empire are excommunicating and executing anyone who opposes them and their power. Jesus knows there will be people who resist this purifying, renewing, life-changing, baptismal fire of the Holy Spirit that brings healing and not destruction.

And Jesus knows that those who follow—those who embrace the fire of the Spirit—and who make that commitment to lovingly serve and stand alongside the “least of these” will likely endure conflict, not only with the authorities, but also in their own families and communities. Culpepper points out:

“It is all too easy to make commitments in one area of life as though they did not affect other areas also. Jesus warned that those who make a commitment to him will be persecuted, that a commitment of faith also means that our attitude toward material possessions must change, and that moral responsibilities must be taken with even greater seriousness…Jesus warns that persons who make a commitment to him will find their relationships to others, even those closest to them, affected by the commitment. We cannot make a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord without it affecting the way we relate to our friends and family members. Because our commitment to Christ shapes our values, priorities, goals, and behavior, it also forces us to change old patterns of life, and these changes may precipitate crises in significant relationships.”

Following Jesus is difficult and dangerous.  And we forget sometimes that Jesus himself is dangerous and following him may make us dangerous too. As the late youth ministry guru Michael Yaconelli reminds us:

“Jesus was a dangerous man—dangerous to the power structure, dangerous to the church, dangerous to the crowds of people who followed Him. Shouldn’t the followers of Christ also be dangerous? Shouldn’t everyone be awed and dazzled by Christians? Shouldn’t Christians be known by the fire in their souls, the wild-eyed gratitude in their faces, the twinkle in their eyes, a holy mischief in their demeanors? Shouldn’t Christianity be considered dangerous—unpredictable, threatening to the status quo, living outside the lines, uncontrollable, fearless, wild, beyond categorization or definition? Shouldn’t those who call themselves Christians be filled with awe, astonishment, and amazement?

Unfortunately there are times where we expect our discipleship to magically provide us with all the right answers as well as lives that are perfect and perky, 24-7. We expect our following and serving to be comfortable and tame with no fuss or muss. Shane Claiborne, the author and activist who founded “The Simple Way” community in the poorest and roughest sections of Philadelphia, knows this truth well.

In his book The Irresistible Revolution, Shane reflects on how he wasn’t always the simple living guy folks see today– a young man with long braided hair covered by a bandanna, a goatee, thick black rimmed glasses, and home-made kaki sweatshirts and pants who once served with Mother Theresa in Calcutta and brought food and medicine to Iraqi citizens during the first weeks of the Iraq War.

I know there are people out there who say, ‘My life was such a mess. I was drinking, partying, sleeping around…and then I met Jesus and my whole life came together.’ God bless those people. But me, I had it together. I used to be cool. And then I met Jesus and he wrecked my life. The more I read the gospel, the more it messed me up, turning everything I believed in, valued, and hoped for upside-down. I am still recovering from my conversion. I know it’s hard to imagine, but in high school, I was elected prom king. I was in the in-crowd, popular, ready to make lots of money and buy lots of stuff, on the upward track to success…Like a lot of folks, I wanted to find a job where I could do as little work as possible for as much money as possible…But as I pursued that dream of upward mobility preparing for college, things just didn’t fit together. As I read Scriptures about how the last will be first, I started wondering why I was working so hard to be first. And I couldn’t help but hope that there was something more to life than pop Christianity.”

Shane writes further about his experience growing up as a youth in a tiny Methodist church in a small town in East Tennessee:

“All the youth used to sit in the back row of the balcony, and we’d skip out on Sunday morning to walk down to the convenient mart for snacks before slipping back into the balcony. I recall thinking that if God was as boring as Sunday morning, I wasn’t sure I wanted anything to do with him…A solemn deadness haunted the place. I learned in confirmation classes about the fiery beginnings of the Methodist Church and its signature symbol of the cross wrapped in the flame of the Spirit. Where had the fire gone?

The Presbyterian Church (USA) seal also bears two flames on either side of the cross—reminders of God appearing as a burning bush that calls Moses to go and free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery; and the Holy Spirit that baptizes the nations at Pentecost and inspires people of different languages to all speak of God’s power and might.

And yet, there are moments where I wonder where the fire has gone in our denomination?  Where is the fire that cries out loudly and prophetically at the injustices that occur in the world?  Where is the divine spark in which Presbyterians are to use to illumine the path for ourselves and others?  Where is the fire that Jesus brings?

Are Presbyterians afraid of the division and danger that comes with following this Jesus who ignites a new world of love and justice before our very eyes? Are Presbyterians afraid of losing their livelihood and lives to stand against the powers that oppress the people of God who have been pushed to the margins—people who are ostracized because of their economic status, their gender, their race, their culture, their sexual orientation, or their disabilities? Are Presbyterians afraid of the consequences that come with getting burned?…

Now, I don’t know about each and every Presbyterian but I do know one Presbyterian that is scared every day about the call to follow Jesus, about the possibility of getting burned…me!

I love and believe in Jesus with all my heart but there are many days where I’m not too crazy about following the guy or listening to the spontaneous call of the Creator or moving with the unpredictability of the Spirit. It’s much easier and comforting for me to preach and teach about Jesus’ love; be kind to folks whom I know and do my small part serving dinner for Rainbow Village, helping set up rooms for the Family Promise program and building homes in Honduras.  Anything beyond that makes me nervous. Anxiety rises quickly inside me when I feel called to speak the truth to power as Jesus did in his day.

I experienced that angst while leaving the local Kroger one evening about a week ago.  Earlier that day, I had decided that during the season of Lent, I would try to speak up for those who often don’t get the respect they deserve in society.  More specifically, I vowed that I would politely and firmly correct strangers, in public, who used the words “retarded” or “gay” to signify something negative in their life.

I imagined a scenario where I’d hear someone say “That’s the most retarded thing I’ve ever heard” and I would respond with, “Excuse me. Do you mind not using those words? It’s offensive to people who are intellectually disabled and who are real human beings with feelings?”  And after this exchange, I could envision the person saying, “Wow, thank you so much for your honesty. You’re so right. I should’ve thought about what I was saying. I know someone who is developmentally challenged. That was insensitive. Thank you for taking the time to tell me I made a mistake.” Silly and a bit idealistic, I guess, but it’s what I concocted in the ole noodle.

So there I was leaving the grocery store, a few hours after I decided on this new practice for Lent, when I heard this teenage girl, whose friend was tagging along behind her, giggles and says to her mother: “Mom, Stacey just said I was retarded!” Then all three of them start laughing.  And suddenly my body clenched and the weight of my groceries got super heavy. I looked straight ahead and kept on walking toward the car, thinking to myself: “I know I should say something but maybe this isn’t the right time to correct them. I’ve got these groceries. It’s late. They’re going to think I’m some weird guy spying on them. It’s just too risky. I don’t feel good about it.”  But actually, while I was thinking that, I was feeling downright awful. My stomach was in knots. I felt guilty.

There was a perfect opportunity to live out my faith, to speak loving truth for those who are daily targeted with cruelty because their brain and motor skills don’t function in the same ways as others. I didn’t say a word because I was too afraid of the consequence. I was fearful that the mom and the two teenage girls might make fun of me or hurl a verbal barrage of insults my way or call me “retarded.”

And who was I fooling anyway to think that I was going to speak up and say the right and just thing…to a stranger…in public? I have a hard enough time speaking up when I hear family, friends or church members say “That’s retarded” or “That’s so gay,”; or utter any type of racial or misogynistic word; or share a joke that degrades a person whose gender, sexual orientation or race is different from my own.

And in the handful of occasions where I was outspoken about the use of harmful and dehumanizing labels, I have been met with resistance over the notion that one’s behavior is wrong or needs to be changed.  People come up with all kinds of excuses as to why their word or label is not offensive or demeaning. Or they call you the exact name you just asked them not to use. Or even worse, they say you’re too sensitive or too idealistic.

Many of us have witnessed petty, patronizing, and pathetic reactions to the use of the word “retard” in the public spheres of politics and entertainment over the past month.  What strikes me is that while public figures are pointing a finger left and right about whether the word should be used or if it’s ok in certain contexts or situations, not a single one seems to be taking the time to talk with the developmentally disabled about the negative impact this word, this stereotype has on their lives.

It’s just easier I suppose to talk the talk and just walk…away. I certainly did. Keep your head down and your mouth shut, that’s what society has always taught us.  Saying what’s right only stirs up trouble and division and you can get hurt, verbally and physically for going against the status quo. That’s been common knowledge for some time…

So thank God there have been folks throughout history who have had more uncommon thoughts! What a world we’d be living in if every single person kept their heads down and their mouths shut, unwilling to speak out against injustice in all of its verbally and physically vile forms!

What a world we’d be living in if there had never been a William Wilberforce, a Frederick Douglas, a Harriet Tubman, a Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Alice Paul, a Martin Luther King Jr., a Ruby Bridges, a Oscar Romero, a Bishop Eugene Robinson, a Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a Nelson Mandela, a Archbishop Desmond Tutu, or a Leigh Ann Tuohy (you know, the woman Sandra Bullock plays in the The Blindside), and many more people like them!

People who knew that following Jesus might bring division among even friends, family and fellow believers, and followed anyway.  People who made commitment, risking their own relationships, lives and livelihood, to follow a God who in Christ sets the world on fire with an unconditional and just-filled love. People who made a decision to follow Jesus who suffers the brunt of all the hostility and division that love brings out of those who hold on selfishly to their power and prestige.

I believe that many more of us, me included, can make that same commitment, and one of my heroes of the faith, Desmond Tutu, makes this profound observation about what that commitment means:

“All of us experience fear, but when we confront and acknowledge it, we are able to turn it into courage. Being courageous does not mean never being scared; it means acting as you know you must even though you are undeniably afraid. Actually, courage has no meaning unless there are things that threaten, that make you feel scared. Whether we are afraid of physical harm or social shame and embarrassment, when we face our fear instead of denying it, we are able to avoid it paralyzing us.”

I find great hope in knowing that we can be afraid to speak out against injustice and still have courage to say and do the right thing from our deepest hearts.  And I find great hope in knowing that we have an opportunity each and every day to be a fire for God’s love and justice.

And if that idea of being “fire” seems strange, let me offer this illustration or story from Shane Claiborne about the time his grandfather and uncle were transporting some hay bales in a brand new truck and trailer:

“When the trailer was loaded to the gills, they hit the road with the hay, my uncle driving and my grandfather riding along proudly. What they didn’t notice was that one of the hay bales was rubbing against the tire. Which is pure trouble, thanks to a little thing called friction. Before long, the hay bale caught on fire, then another and another (it was hay, after all). Eventually, the truck looked like a comet headed down the highway. But my uncle and grandpa didn’t notice…People began to wave hysterically and my uncle nodded back. But eventually, he looked in the mirror, saw the flames behind them, and quickly pulled over. This created new problems, as not the flames that had been behind them raged upward and began to melt the back of the truck.

My grandfather was in the glove compartment. My uncle asked what he was doing, and my grandfather pointed to the pile of stuff stacked on his jacket and said, ‘Well, I don’t want this stuff to burn too.’ But my uncle was not so quick to give in. He snapped back, ‘No, I’ve got an idea; get back in the truck.’ So they did. My uncle put the pedal to the metal and they hit the highway again, this time with the goal of ‘getting rid of the fire.’

My uncle swerved the truck so the hay bales fell off behind them. Fields began to catch on fire. Fire trucks from all the neighboring counties were following them, putting out the damage, and they finally managed to extinguish the inferno.My grandfather told me, ‘Shane, we caught half of East Tennessee on fire.’ We used to laugh and laugh when Pawpaw told that story.”

Shane writes that some years later he realized that his grandfather’s adventure is what

“the kingdom of God looks like. Christians blaze through this dark world and set it on fire with their love. It is contagious and spreads like wildfire. We are people who shine, who burn up the darkness of this old world with the Light that dwells within us. Maybe when we’re dead and gone, people will look around and ask, “What in the world passed through here.”

If you’re still not sure about blazing through this dark world, let me close with one last story, another modern parable, a music video from country singer Garth Brooks, called “Standing Outside the Fire.”

The video is  about this teenage boy who is determined to shine and burn in the darkness of the world, even though his decision causes conflict with his parents and a school teacher…Well, no sense in me telling you the whole tale when you can see for yourself…

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Life is not tried; it’s merely survived if you’re standing outside the fire.

Amen.

Resources:

New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary on the Gospel of Luke by R. Alan Culpepper, 1995

Becoming An Answer to Our Prayers by Shane Claiborne and John Wilson-Hartgrove, 2008

Dangerous Wonder: The Adventure of Childlike Faith by Michael Yaconelli, 1998

God Has A Dream: A Vision of Hope For Our Time by Desmond Tutu, 2004

Standing Outside The Fire by Garth Brooks, 1993

***And please prayerfully consider taking he R-Word Pledge created by The Special Olypics at http://www.specialolympics.org/r-word.aspx***

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