Sunday, August 18, 2019

Phil Kniss: Running the race against the wind

Running the Race
Luke 12:49-56; Hebrews 11:29-12:2

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Well, now.
Isn’t that a great Gospel reading for the times we live in?
—these polarized and high-conflict times?
“I came to bring fire to the earth.”
“I came not to bring peace, but rather division.”
“From now on, even close family members
will be set against each other.”

Jesus, what were you thinking?
Things are already in a mess around here.
Help us out here, Jesus!
Aren’t you called the “Prince of Peace”?
Aren’t you the Great Reconciler?

Were you just having a bad day, there in Luke 12?
I mean . . . we’ll give you that.
We’ll let you go on a rant every now and then.
After all, we do affirm your full humanity, so you’re allowed.
But please, and soon, turn back the dial!
Come back to your soft and gentle and accepting Jesus
that we have come to love so well,
that artists have painted on the pretty pictures
we have hanging on our walls.
Come back to your safe self . . . please?
The one we sing songs about:
“What a friend we have in Jesus . . .”
“Healer of our every ill, light of each tomorrow,
give us peace beyond our fear . . .
“Jesus, help us live in peace,
from our blindness set us free,
fill us with your healing love,
help us live in unity . . .”

Where is that Jesus in our Gospel reading today?
Isn’t that the Jesus we really need?

Yes, of course, Jesus was in favor of peace.
Old Testament prophets like Isaiah predicted a Messiah of peace.
“For to us a child is born . . . and he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father . . . Prince of Peace.”
Jesus self-identified as a reconciler and peace-bringer.
How many times did Jesus pronounce peace on someone,
as a blessing, “Peace be with you”?
To his disciples, he said,
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” and,
“Be at peace with each other,”
Just two chapters earlier in Luke,
he sent out his disciples in pairs,
urging them to find a home that would take them in,
and then say to that household, “Peace to this house.”
And he said, “If someone who promotes peace is there,
your peace will rest on them;
if not, it will return to you.”

Peace. Reconciliation. Shalom.
Those are at the heart of Jesus’ mission and identity.
So how do we understand the harsh words of Luke 12?

I think there are at least two specific reasons
this text jars us.
And we have to come to terms with those
if we want to understand and embrace the real Gospel,
the real Good News in this text.

One reason is simply cross-cultural.
Jesus inhabited another culture and language and rhetoric—
far removed from us,
foreign to our experience,
not the way we talk or think.
In the rhetoric of first-century rabbinic Judaism
in the Middle East,
speaking in hyperbole—exaggeration—was normal,
as way to make an important point.
Like when Jesus said elsewhere that to be his disciple,
we had to hate our brother and sister and mother.
No, not really, not the way we talk.
So let’s not just take words like this at face value,
as if they came from 21st-century Westerners.
Jesus is not advocating that we square off
and go to battle against our own family members.

But the more significant reason his words jar us,
and maybe harder-to-swallow reason,
is that we have tamed Jesus to fit our own sensibilities.
We are almost deaf to this hard-edged voice of Jesus,
because we have re-created Jesus in our image.
We don’t want a judg-y Jesus.
Our religious life is easier to navigate,
if we worship a Jesus with the same value system
we already have,
if we worship a Jesus who underwrites our morality,
and does not challenge it.

However, that’s kind of hard to maintain when we remember
the kingdom of God Jesus came to announce
is an upside-down kingdom.
The reign of God
that Jesus declared in words and embodied in action,
was essentially an inverted system of power,
an inverted moral framework.

Whereas the Roman Empire—
and every other imperial system of power,
including the iron-fisted leaders at the top of
Jesus’ religious community, the Jewish hierarchy—
whereas they were formed and shaped by coercive power,
and led the masses through superior strength
greater political power,
and the threat of violence,
Jesus offered up himself in humility and self-sacrificing love,
and “became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus lifted up the lowly, and shamed the high and mighty.

Of all the Gospel writers, Luke spells this out the most clearly,
from the beginning.

It’s Luke that records Mary’s song:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

It’s Luke that tells about Jesus’ dedication in the temple,
when that wise old man that hung around the temple, Simeon,
took baby Jesus in his arms and said to his parents,
“This child is destined to cause
the falling and rising of many in Israel,
and to be a sign that will be spoken against,
so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”
And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Luke doesn’t hold back when summarizing the preaching of
John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus,
“You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? . . .
The ax is already at the root of the trees . . .
trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

It’s Luke that records Jesus’ first one-sentence sermon in ch. 4.
After reading from the scroll of Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor . . .
freedom for the prisoners
recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim Jubilee.”
He then turned to the congregation,
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
And after a few more words
that challenged their narrow view of God’s love,
the synagogue became furious,
and a mob nearly threw him off a cliff.

It’s Luke that gives the flip-side of the Beatitudes—
the woes against the rich, and powerful, and happy,
and well-fed.
Luke records Jesus’ sayings that
“Foxes have dens and birds have nests,
but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
“Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me
cannot be my disciple.”
And there’s plenty more where those came from.

And it’s not just those few years of Jesus’ active ministry in Judea,
that were so high-conflict and high-cost.
They continued into and through the apostolic period.
1 Peter 3 quotes Isaiah, calling Jesus,
“A stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”
Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “We preach Christ crucified:
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”

And let’s not forget, maybe the most shocking one of all,
the text from Hebrews in today’s lectionary, that we just read.
We easily hone in on that poetic conclusion of the text,
that uses the metaphor of a race,
to talk about the life of faith.
See, we have fans cheering us on as we run—
“surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses . . .
we throw off any extra weight that slows us down,
and run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

But we spend less time with the verses that precede that,
that describe the obstacles on the race of faith.
Drawing from stories in Israel’s own history,
the writer mentions, that by faith,
many “were tortured . . . suffered mocking and flogging . . .
even chains and imprisonment.
They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,
they were killed by the sword;
they went about in skins of sheep and goats,
destitute, persecuted, tormented . . .
They wandered in deserts and mountains,
and in caves and holes in the ground.
And, the world was not worthy of them.”

So tell me again why we are so shocked and surprised,
when Jesus suggests that if we follow in his footsteps,
there will be some resistance and division.

Faith in God, trust in Jesus, submission to the Holy Spirit—
these are not for the faint of heart;
these are not to be taken lightly.

Following Jesus in life
is not merely an invitation to be a nicer person,
and to be kind to the poor and destitute,
and show respect to everyone.
Sure, it includes that; but it’s only a start.

Faith in the God of the Universe changes us.
It involves new creation,
and learning how to live into that transformed identity.
Faith moves us, motivates us to be a new person
and to do new things.

We cannot have genuine faith in a God who rules over all things,
great and small,
and then go about business as usual,
as if having such a faith makes no real difference.

Believing God is who we say God is,
turns everything on its head.
When we wholehearted give ourselves to the Jesus way,
it turns our lives upside-down . . .
. . . which puts us at an opposite angle
to those around us who have not made that choice.

Now I am not suggesting that the goal of the life of faith
is to invite suffering,
or that we strive to be different for the sake of being different.
That kind of thinking gets us into trouble.
Because we then fail to notice and appreciate
the wisdom and goodness
of traditions or perspectives beyond our own.
When we declare our loyalty to an upside-down kingdom,
we are not declaring ourselves to be
adversaries and antagonists
to anyone and everyone else out there in the world.
We can, and must, learn from the image of God
that is reflected in others around us,
including those who do not profess our kind of faith.

But what I am trying to point out,
is that when we conform to Christ,
when we call Jesus Lord, and not Caesar,
when we follow the example of Jesus,
predictably, we will be at odds with a world that is bent toward
a very different understanding of power,
and a different view of God, self, and humanity,
than the one embodied in Jesus.

No, it is not our calling to suffer, per se,
but neither is it our calling to run from suffering,
or accommodate to the majority,
whose morality is shaped by the Empire.

In that respect, our world is like the world of Jesus.
Not only was there the Roman Empire itself, and King Herod,
and all the brutal oppressive powers that came with it.
There was Jesus’ own religious community, and its leaders,
who were infected by those same coercive values of Empire.

Jesus came proclaiming a whole different moral framework,
that unmasks the coercive and violent powers-that-be.
Both Rome and Jerusalem were offended by Jesus.
He revealed their kind of top-down coercive power
to be hollow, empty, weak—
ultimately unable to defend itself
against the life-giving power that Jesus demonstrated.

God’s unconditional love for lepers, outcasts, women,
and for people who didn’t follow the letter of the law—
offended religious and civil authorities.
Jesus’ warm embrace of these outsiders empowered them,
gave them some agency and control over their lives.
And that undermined the authorities—civil and religious.
It sabotaged their ability to control the borders of society.

As we know, and have seen recently,
the powers quake with fear and anxiety and reactivity,
when they are unable to define and control their borders.
We may as well admit it.
Being worried about immigrants crossing our borders,
is a symptom of infection by the values of Empire.
It does not reflect the kingdom Jesus proclaimed.

The way of Jesus is counter to the way of Empire.
We live in a world dominated by Empire,
and it ways of thinking and behaving.
So, Jesus warned his disciples,
and I think would warn us as well,
follow me but know what you are getting into.
There are forces working against the will and way of God.
And those forces are everywhere.
In Caesar’s palace.
In the Jewish temple.
And in your own households.
Follow me, be of courage, but expect push-back.

Yet, despite those dire warnings,
Jesus is not calling us into darkness,
he’s calling us into the light.
He also said, “Take my yoke upon you,
for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Ours is a joyful calling,
we who are disciples of Jesus Christ,
who are citizens of the kingdom of heaven,
have a joyful and life-giving calling.
We do not live in fear or dread of push-back.

We are with a community of people
who take their cues from the kingdom of heaven.
Together we create an alternative way of life in this world—
life that is Christ-centered, community-oriented, self-giving,
instead of self-centered, power-oriented, and adversarial.
If you run this race by yourself, against the wind,
you will soon tire, maybe even turn back.
But run in a pack with others,
run out front for a while, then run behind,
in the draft of others,
and you will go farther and faster with less energy.

Yes, in the life of faith there will be some who will resist.
It is to be expected.
In fact, it is to be welcomed, because it will keep us more honest.
But there will also be a community of those who run with us,
as well as those who cheer us on from the sidelines.
Hebrews 11 calls them the “cloud of witnesses.”
They are the Abels and Abrahams and Rahabs
and Gideons and Jephthahs,
and all the women and men in every generation since them.
They are those who saw life from this upside-down angle,
who reaped the benefits
and suffered the consequences.
They have now gone on to their reward,
but they are looking down on us and cheering us on.

Yes, running the Jesus race can be daunting.
There are pitfalls and obstacles.
There is resistance along the way.
But there is no other race I would rather run,
and no other pack of runners I’d rather be with.

So to all of you, my running partners, help me stay the course.
And to God who charted the course,
and Jesus, who already ran it and shows the way,
and the Spirit whose wind is at our back,
to this Triune God I pray,
“Guide my feet, while I run this race,
for I don’t want to run this race in vain.”

—Phil Kniss, August 18, 2019

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