The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15c): August 18, 2013
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Preacher: The Rev. Samuel J. Smith, Assistant Priest, St. Michael’s Church
Just who is this Jesus in today’s gospel? Where did the familiar benevolent and caring Jesus go? This is the Prince of Peace; the Word which is Love. How do we reconcile that Jesus with the Jesus of this morning’s gospel?
Over the centuries scholars have provided all kinds of explanations for these verses. Some remind us that Luke is writing for a specific community at a specific time in history, and that he is working to “produce a story of Jesus that makes sense of his community’s present experience.”[i] Issues of wealth and poverty, the delay of Jesus’ return, concerns about the orderly transition of apostolic authority, among others, preoccupy the people Luke is trying to reach; so he provides the words of Jesus that would most deeply speak to this audience.
Others say that Jesus is being “descriptive, not prescriptive” – that is, he is just describing the world as it is, rather than as he wishes it was, or as he will make it.[ii]
Still others refer to the context of the story itself as the reason for the surprising tone. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, and he is helping the disciples understand that the road ahead will be rocky.
Any or all of these explanations for this rather incongruous Jesus may be possible. But rather than explaining Jesus away, what if we instead took him at his word? What might it mean for us to embrace the image of Christ as one not focused solely on peace, but also on justice?
I am sure that most of you, like me, grew up with the soft-focus Jesus of 50s and 60s Sunday School posters. This lily-white Jesus was most often depicted surrounded by either children or lambs, all equally cherubic. As Sunday School children we learned mostly about the peaceful, loving Jesus, made almost a surrogate parent – perhaps the father we wished we had.
These images are not only undoubtedly inaccurate, they also limit Christ – perhaps even strip away his power.
There is a tradition in this diocese of a service of recommitment and renewal of vows during Holy Week every year. All of the priests of the diocese are invited to a service of renewal at the Cathedral, followed by a lunch, hosted by the bishop. In addition, each year the bishop gives each participant a book that he has chosen. This year that book was The Color of Christ: The son of God and the Saga of Race in America.
The book explores the images of Christ that American Churches have employed throughout our history. It recounts the myth of the “Publius Lentulus Letter,” supposedly written by a Judean governor during Jesus’ lifetime to a Roman officer. This fabricated letter, actually dating back to the middle ages, describes Christ in this way:
He is a man of medium size… His hair is of the color of the ripe hazel nut, straight down to the ears, but below the ears wavy and curled… His brow is smooth and very cheerful… His nose and mouth are faultless… He is terrible in his reprimands, sweet and amiable in his admonitions, cheerful without loss of gravity… His stature is straight, his arms beautiful to behold… He is the most beautiful among the children of men.[iii]
The authors go on to explain that the Puritans and the Americans of the nineteenth-century knew the letter was a fraud, “but as slavery expanded and whiteness became a symbol of civic status, the reputation of the letter ascended… When the civil rights era demolished the idea that Jesus was white and showed the letter to be a lie, the legend died. The images it inspired did not.”[iv]
The most iconic image of Christ of the 20th century, which certainly drew on this myth, was painted by Warner Sallman. I bet you can recall the image: it shows Jesus with smooth white skin, long flowing brown hair, a full beard, and blue eyes. Painted in 1941, by 1944 it had sold more than 14 million prints.[v]
That familiar painting is but an example of the ways that the image of Christ has been molded to fit the needs of the community. And I think in large measure we are really no different today. Many of us embrace the peaceful Jesus, because the status quo is working pretty well for us. Our lives are good; why should we rock the boat?
In last week’s gospel lesson, nine verses before this one, Jesus says, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Throughout the gospel of Luke we learn that this kingdom represents a new order governed not by might but by forgiveness (as exemplified in the Lord’s Prayer), not by fear but by courage (again and again Jesus says, “be not afraid”), and not by power but by humility (as beautifully stated in the Magnificat, the Song of Mary). But as theologian David Lose reminds us, “those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming kingdom for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to).”[vi] Hang on, my friends; I am afraid that he may be talking about us!
Certainly many of us lead comfortable lives, gained in large part because of our work and ambition. But not always. In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin, I have been doing some reading about race in America, and particularly about how we white folk can better understand the influence of racial inequality in our own lives. In his book, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, author Tim Wise explores the ways that being white has formed him, giving him advantages simply because of his skin color. He says this: “Only by coming to realize how thoroughly racialized our white lives are can we begin to see the problem as ours, and begin to take action to help solve it. By remaining oblivious to our racialization we remain oblivious to the injustice that stems from it, and we remain paralyzed when it comes to responding to it in a constructive manner.”[vii]
But too often we are unwilling to acknowledge what is obvious. Christ says in today’s gospel, “when you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘it is going to rain;’ and so it happens.” [Luke 12: 54] We residents of New York City have before us every day clear signs of the injustices of our world and of the desperate lives led by so many of our neighbors. And yet far too often we are willing to deny the obvious – to turn a blind eye not only to those needs, but also to our complicity with their plight, and perhaps more importantly, to the power we possess to help right those inequities.
If you come to St. Michael’s on any Saturday morning, you see a group of faithful people whose eyes are open and who are working to make a difference for our neighbors in need. Our Saturday Kitchen and Pilgrim Resource Center are working to help those who come through our doors with some warm food, perhaps some help dealing with problems, and, most importantly, a warm smile and friendly greeting for each guest. The volunteers in the Saturday Kitchen really see our guests. They confirm that they are people who matter, people who, at least for a few moments, are not forgotten or neglected.
And I imagine that this work changes the volunteers more than it changes the people they serve. And as they change, they begin to change the world. Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”[viii] You see, I believe that Christ is calling us here to change ourselves, knowing that will help change the world. As always, we must start with ourselves and our own world view.
Volunteering with the Saturday Kitchen and supporting it financially is one way you can fulfill this call of Christ. And we are working on a few other ways that we as a community can become more aware of the needs of our neighbors and more proactive in helping. This fall, in partnership with other faith communities here on the Upper West Side, we will be thinking about food injustice, and you will have an opportunity to take the food stamp challenge—to try living for a week on government food assistance. From that experience we hope some will communicate with lawmakers about the experience and urge them to help provide enough for families to eat. We are also beginning work with a group of St. Michael’s members to consider how we as a community can examine more closely issues of racial inequality and take action to help right the wrongs we see.
But make no mistake: this work is not always easy. And we may not always agree about the problems and the solutions. but that’s OK. In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds us that the work he calls us to may be divisive—the way of Christ is often counter-cultural, and can call us into direct opposition with most of society. Jesus is helping the disciples understand that his mission is not to make their lives easier, or to validate some human institution – he is about nothing less than bringing about the will of God. And he recognizes that this work will probably turn everything on its head.
Jesus speaks here of the baptism with which he is to be baptized, a clear reference not to his immersion in the Jordan River, but rather to the crucifixion. If we have anxiety about following his example and daring to call attention to the injustices of our world, we can remember that this Christ who “comes to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit first embraced his own baptism — experiencing harm that we might know healing, undergoing judgment that we might know pardon, suffering death that we might know life, both now and in the world to come.”[ix] Christ became human and then gave himself in death to help us become more Christ-like and more alive—to see the world as it is, and then to insist that we can and will make it better. Every time we take communion, we are reminded of his gift to us, and we are given fuel to go out into the world to help fulfill his vision of love for each and every person.
The Jesus in today’s gospel calls us not to get too comfortable. To understand that we are baptized to be God’s agents in the world, insisting that all of us begin to really see things as they are, and then do something about it—to work together to bring Christ’s love to a world desperate for that gift. Yes, there may be some costs along the way; but oh what joy and peace can be ours in opening our eyes, stepping up, and taking on the mantle that Christ offers! Together, let’s work to live into the reflection of Christ that is ours by birth and baptism. Amen
[i] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=733, accessed 8/12/2013.
[ii] West, Audrey. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010. p. 360.
[iii] Blum, Edward J. and Paul Harvey. The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. pp. 20-21.
[iv] Ibid, p. 21.
[v] ibid, p. 208.
[vi] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=733, accessed 8/12/2013.
[vii] Wise, Tim. White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2011. Introduction.
[viii] Morton, Brian. “Falser Words Were Never Spoken” August 29, 2011: The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/30/opinion/falser-words-were-never-spoken.html?_r=0, accessed 8/17/2013.
[ix] Lose, David, op cit.