on the way with Jesus: “it’s a hard way”

Luke 12:49-56

My friend and colleague Jim Somerville,
pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church,
asked this intriguing question at Preachers’ Camp this past summer:
“What if we were all on a very slowly sinking Titanic,
and each morning, we awoke to the news,
‘Well, we’re down another few inches’?”

(Because just to be clear, we are—
metaphorically speaking.)

Would we dress up and attend the fancy dinners
and shop and go to the movies and the shows,
check facebook to see how many people liked our post,
and argue about the trivial as if it made a difference?

(Because we do.)

Would we listen to those proclaiming—
well, not doom,
but danger—crisis?
Those expressing the urgent need to do something?
Or would we dismiss them out of hand?

Dante wrote, “The darkest places in hell
are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality
in times of moral crisis.”
Martin Luther King, Jr, “Our lives begin to end the day
we become silent about things that matter.”

And what if it’s Jesus—Jesus himself—
issuing the warning—proclaiming the danger—the crisis?

I invite you now to take out your Bibles,
turn to our passage, and with your pen or pencil
just scratch out verse forty-nine.
“I came to bring fire to the earth,
and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Put a big line through that, and then write in this:
“I have come to hurl fire on the earth
and how I am determined it already be ignited”
(David L. Tiede, Luke, in
The Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament
[Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1988] 243).

The last thing we have here
is any kind of a passive waiting—
any kind of a just wishing it would be.
We have rather an active bringing to be.
I have come to burn.
And I’m not going to ignore what’s most true
about this present moment.

It was John the Baptist in this very gospel
who proclaimed, “I baptize you with water;
but one who is more powerful than I is coming;
I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing-fork is in his hand,
to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary;
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”
(Luke 3:16-17).

So from the beginning, fire is linked with destruction,
with judgment, purification, and the Holy Spirit.
And the language and the imagery resonate with the prophetic tradition.
God said to Jeremiah,
“Behold, I am making my words in your mouth a fire,
and this people wood,
and the fire shall devour them” (Jeremiah 5:14).
and Jeremiah said, “There is in my heart as it were
a burning fire shut up in my bones,
and I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot!” (Jeremiah 20:9)

And here’s where I got distracted.
You know, my mind just went to:
“There’s within my heart a raging fire
sealed within my very bones.
from containing it I’m very tired.
time to let the fire be thrown.
Burning, burning, burning,
everywhere I go,
fire the earth with yearning
for the truth of God I know”
(with a nod [and an apology!]
to Luther B. Bridgers, “He Keeps Me Singing,”
in Wesley L. Forbis, The Baptist Hymnal
[Nashville: Convention Press, 1991] 425).

Undistracted, Jesus goes on,
“I have a baptism with which to be baptized.”
And we’ve got to think about that for a minute,
because Jesus had already been baptized, right?
We read about it back in Luke 3:21-22.
And it’s not that Jesus here institutes the practice of rebaptism.
Nor is it, as some suggest, just Jesus looking to his death.

No, this offers us a reflection on all that baptism represents
in the fullness of time.
Here’s the thing:
different events in Jesus’ life, different teachings,
different stories—all bring a different perspective,
a different emphasis, but they’re all part of the one story,
and the whole informs the parts transparent to it.
So here, the whole of Jesus’ story
informs the baptism with the meanings of the whole.

So John’s was a baptism of repentance—
of acknowledging that things are not as they should be,
and that we are not as we should be.
But it was also a baptism of being claimed, was it not?
Of being raised to hear God claiming you.
It’s a death, yes, for we are buried with Christ,
But it’s resurrection for we are raised to new life.

There’s something about a baptism
that’s appropriately process—
that cannot easily be defined. It’s the whole story in one part.
And so, also and somehow,
related to a fire waiting to be kindled.
So a fire that’s not yet—a fire waiting to burn.
And those on the way of God burning with anticipation and commitment.

So, I have a baptism with which to be baptized,
and what stress I am under—
or how distressed I am—until it is completed!
Another translation would be, how I am totally governed by this
until it is completed (R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel of Luke:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections

in the New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary
in Twelve Volumes, Volume IX

[Nashville: Abingdon, 1995] 266).

How many of you wake up sometimes
in the dark hours of the too early morning
thinking about what you have to do,
what you haven’t done,
and then you can’t get back to sleep?
See, I think sometimes Jesus woke up
in those dark early hours
thinking about what needed to be done,
thinking about what he had done,
worrying about what he hadn’t,
wondering about what he would.
And couldn’t get back to sleep.

So when Jesus asks,
“Did you think I came to bring peace to the earth?”
We might hear our response, “Well, yeah! Actually we did!
I mean isn’t that what we were kind of told to expect from the beginning?
wasn’t that what the angels sang in this gospel?
‘And on earth, peace’ (Luke 2:14)?”
But we might also hear Jesus’ response.
“Did you think I came to bring peace to the earth? I wish.
I would so love to sleep through the night.
Love to not worry and stress about all the people God loves
and the creation God loves,
and what we do to each other and to it.
But I find myself divided
between the way the world is and the way of God,
between inclination and commitment,
between what I want and what I will.
I bring a peace but a peace that passes understanding
because it’s on the other side of tough stuff.

On this way—this way of God,
there’s the turn-off for understanding,
and we’re going right by.
It leads to Makes Sense Avenue
and Can Be Explained Boulevard.
But if you can understand it,
it’s not the mystery of God’s transformative truth,
and you’re going to end up settling
for a peace that’s so much less than the one that passes understanding—
that passes understanding—goes right on by—
looking for commitment and obedience and far richer truth
further along the way.”
That’s worth not always sleeping through the night, isn’t it?
Worth some worry in service of hope.

Now Jesus is clearly the locus of this passage:
I came to hurl fire ….” “I am determined to kindle it ….”
I have a baptism ….” “I am under such stress ….”
“have I come to bring peace ….” “no, I tell you ….”
Six cases of the personal pronoun “I.”
Six cases—
which always suggests the seventh case to me.
Doesn’t it to you too, by now?!
The seventh of six to complete—to make perfect,
and the seventh of six, in this case, is us—
you—me.

And it’s very interesting.
This whole confrontative speech, in Matthew’s parallel account,
is directed to the Pharisees (Matthew 16:1-3).
Here in Luke to the crowd—to us.
And that’s how it goes on, right? About us.
About divided households—
divided families,
about priorities more important than family.
peace? I wish.

Then Jesus goes on to offer a comment on weather-forecasting.
For weather-forecasting was evidently much more reliable
in ancient Palestine than it is here in Baltimore!
“When you see a cloud rising in the west,
you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.
And when you see the south wind blowing, you say,
‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.”

Jesus is talking about what’s obvious here,
and what’s clearly consequential.
You see this, and it means that.
You see this, and it leads to that.
And you know this.
Weather in Palestine was determined by the deserts to the east
and the Mediterranean to the west.
The signs of what was coming were obvious.
You see them, and you know what’s coming.

And then Jesus gets irate—impatient—frustrated
with those who don’t see what’s right in front of their faces.
So can we interpret the signs of our times?
Can we look around to see what’s obvious and consequential?

Hear poet Mary Oliver,
“Read one newspaper daily (the morning edition
is the best
for by evening you know that you at least
have lived through another day)
and let the disasters, the unbelievable
yet approved decisions,
soak in.

I don’t need to name the countries,
ours among them.

What keeps us from falling down, our faces
to the ground; ashamed, ashamed?”
(Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings: Poems
[New York: Penguin, 2012] 63)

Do we see war and rumors of war and acts of war,
violence inseparable from—integral to everyday life—
the rage of abuse in the home, on the road, in our schools—
shootings and killings every week,
a growing divide between those who have more than they need
and those who do not have what they need,
greed and pride amidst hunger and loss of dignity,
a rampant, uncontained and exploited fear,
environmental distress,
a veritable contagion of ignorance
and prejudice,
children and youth at such risk.

And too often it’s as if we don’t know any of that—
as if we live as if we don’t know any of that.
There’s no urgency.
We’re down another few inches,
and we’re at the fancy dinner,
shopping and going to the movies and the shows,
checking facebook to see how many people liked our post,
and arguing about the trivial as if it made a difference.

I was reading Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno
on the plane to Nashville and read this:
“The human mind has a primitive ego defense mechanism
that negates all realities that produce too much stress
for the brain to handle. It’s called denial….
Denial is a critical part of the human coping mechanism.
Without it, we would all wake up terrified every morning
about all the ways we could die.
Instead, our minds block out our existential fears
by focusing on stresses we can handle—
like getting to work on time or paying our taxes.
If we have wider, existential fears,
we jettison them very quickly,
refocusing on simple tasks and daily trivialities”
(Dan Brown, Inferno [New York: Doubleday, 2013] 214).

Is that what’s going on?
Denial?
The band keeps playing,
and we’re dancing frenetically
amidst the chaos
with Jesus frantically shouting, “Wake up!
Know what’s going on! Be aware!”

Mary Oliver is, of course—
(would it surprise you to find out
I picked up another volume of her poetry in Nashville?!)
Mary Oliver is, of course, a poet primarily known
for her grateful, appreciative,
wondering attention to our world.
The back of my new book reads:
“Oliver is open to the teachings
contained in the smallest of moments
and explores with startling clarity, humor, and kindness
the mysteries of our daily experience.”
Just like Jesus.

And so she also writes:
“Every spring
I hear the thrush singing
in the glowing woods
he is only passing through.
His voice is deep,
then he lifts it until it seems
to fall from the sky.
I am thrilled.
I am grateful.
Then, by the end of morning,
he’s gone, nothing but silence
out of the tree
where he rested for a night.
And this I find acceptable.
Not enough is a poor life.
But too much is, well, too much.
Imagine Verdi or Mahler
every day, all day.
It would exhaust anyone”
(Oliver, 61).
Ah yes, consider the birds.

So, down a few more inches in the water, do we all panic?
No.
Do we spend the day in doom and gloom?
No. There are the birds to consider and the flowers,
the people we love and moments of wonder, beauty, and grace.
Do we expect responsible people
to be addressing the reality of our times?
Yes.
Do we expect them to relay to us what we need to do
as hard as that may be?
Yes.
Do we need to remind them to do that?
Yes.
Do we sometimes need to be those people?
Yes.

Jesus asks if we will know the present time.
Every Christmas here at Woodbrook,
we annually make a distinction between chronos and kairos.
Y’all know what I’m talking about?
We honor chronos, chronology,
in our creche here in the sanctuary
with figures arriving at different times—
never all there together, right?
But in the narthex, we honor kairos
the inbreaking of truth—
the truth that we are all always at the stable
and the cross for that matter, and in a field in Galilee
and here and now—
all parts of the story informing each part.

We are called to know the present time.
Jesus expects us to know the present moment,
and the Greek word is kairos.
Know the transcendent truth of this moment
in its beauty and wonder
and in its terrifying portent.

Don’t get so caught up in the facts of time you miss its truth.
Now the inverse is important too.
Don’t get so lost in the truth, you lose the facts.
We just don’t need to hear that as much!
And no one said this was easy.
It’s a hard way.
In another Mary Oliver poem, she concludes
“it’s late for all of us,
and in truth the only ship there is
is the ship we are all on
burning the world as we go”
(Oliver, 67).

So good morning, fellow travelers.
On this September 29, 2013,
here’s the news you need to know
about this present moment.
We continue to inch forward
through the vast ocean—
taking on water.
We’re down another couple of inches.
We gather yet to worship,
to study and learn,
to fellowship and serve—
watchful and aware.
We gather committed to God’s truth amidst our reality—
grateful and in prayer.

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