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Splintering Everything to Rebuild from the Bottom Up: The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 18, 2019:
Jeremiah 23:23-29
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

Paul Gibson, the architect of our green service book, once commented that “‘Gospel’ means good news, but it does not always mean cheery news.”* It seems that recently we came to a section in Luke’s story of good news that is good, though not cheery.

Episodes like today’s remind me of a part of C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. A family of beavers takes in the lost children, and tell them about Aslan, the lion hero of the story, and maybe too-obvious Christ figure. The kids are a little worried about this jungle animal that, they hear, shows up at unexpected times, and they ask:

“Is he — quite safe? I shall feel quite nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy?
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” **

That sounds a lot like the Jesus that shines through in today’s Gospel. Or the God of Jeremiah, who is hard to get a handle on, hard to pin down, and always a bit beyond our grasp: a God so close by that we can’t hide, but so vast that God fills the whole sky. The Jesus of Luke’s gospel, remember, is born and in the sky the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom [God] favours” [Lk 2:14]. His very birth exists to bring about peace on the earth, but the mature, probably exhausted Jesus, getting closer and closer to Jerusalem — to the Cross — every day: he clarifies that the peace that God intends for the world isn’t synonymous with comfort, or ease, or inactivity. Nor is it a ‘spiritual peace’ that has nothing to do with our actual lived lives. This isn’t Jesus as our invisible friend there to encourage us when we strike out in a little league baseball game. Instead, this lion-like Jesus who says that whatever we’re doing, we do so as part of the continual approach and unveiling of God’s Kingdom in our world.

And seeing this Kingdom coming, and understanding that we’re called to be a part of it, we live by an ethic that is different, upside down, and surprising. Luke’s famous Parable of the Good Samaritan reflects this: that this ethic involves not just taking care of our neighbour (bandaging them, carrying them, taking them to where they can be restored to health), but expanding our very definition of ‘neighbour.’ (In the case of that parable, the scandalous good news is that the Jew and the Samaritan, natural enemies, are, in fact, neighbours, and they can’t just write each other off.) Jesus reveals God’s desire for peace in that parable. But within it is the inevitability of division, or sacrifice: division of parties that are based on pride in themselves, and suspicion or hatred of ‘the other.’ Division of those who want peace, but cross the street to avoid the difficult work of peace-making; from those who are open to the change and hardship and sacrifice that comes from embracing God’s good news for the poor, and those in need. The message of Luke’s Jesus, and Luke’s Jesus himself, is not safe, not cheery, not tame. But, like the Beavers of Narnia insisted, good.

And this Jesus, he came on the scene in Nazareth, to the synagogue, and proclaims this good news there, ending with “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” [Lk 4:21]. This urgency comes through yet again, in today’s story: you see clouds rolling in, and know rain is coming. You feel the south wind, and say ‘it’s going to be a hot one.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? There’s something, in other words, significant about what’s on the horizon for him, and for them. Again, they’re getting ever-closer to the Cross, that radical sign of God’s love for an often heartless world, the very sign of sacrifice. But I think there is a message there for today, and for all times: ‘Keep your eyes open. And read the signs that are in front of you.’ Look for signs of God’s Kingdom in the world, and join in, be a part of that. And look for signs of what we might call ‘God’s judgement:’ opportunities for change and transformation, in places that need to be turned upside-down in the way that God’s Kingdom does things.

This, I think, is what Archbishop Mark MacDonald was pointing to in a recent column in The Anglican Journal where he writes: “The forces that are destroying your planet are destroying your soul.”*** There is an urgency in this moment, where we’re aware of the need to change the way in which we relate to our planet. And the change needed is bigger than just switching to cloth shopping bags (although it might include it). To carve out a sustainable future for ourselves and future generations, we will need to make sacrifices; the sacrifices associated with real change, and the valuing of ‘love of neighbour’ over ‘love of comfort.’ Archbishop Mark writes: “We must act in a way that is as dedicated and comprehensive as our entrancement to the culture of money.” This conversion from money as our god to love of neighbour as our goal will involve change and sacrifice, a division within ourselves. And the radical nature of this change cuts to the core of the makeup and orientation of our society. It’s a divisive message.

And this is not just the case with the environmental situation. An article this week noted that Kitchener has the highest rising rental costs in the country.**** Or think of how we’re ever aware of the epidemic of gun violence in the States. Or the epidemic of drug-use and overdoses here and almost everywhere. ‘Do we not know how to interpret the present time?’ We interpret so far as to notice these things. But it is a whole other thing to interpret deeply in a way that moves us to begin addressing the cultural, political, financial, legal, personal, societal, religious, and spiritual factors that need to be addressed, and transformed, for real, lasting change to take place.

So… this is admittedly not a cheery message, not cheery news. But it is Good News: That our Lord saw our world as it was, and is, and pointed to another way. And he planted a movement, a Church, to be in that world as a signpost to this different way, that different Kingdom. And we’re not perfect. But there is grace, even in words that Jesus shouts in exasperation. There is grace if it wakes us up to the importance of our lives, and every life, and every moment and every decision as an opportunity to point to God’s way and God’s presence and God’s hope for the world.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, a 20th century Roman Catholic theologian puts it concisely and powerfully in his reflection on today’s gospel: “…the One who brings unity must splinter everything in order to rebuild from the bottom up what had been brought together in the wrong way…. And only out of a shattered Christian, out of a shattered Church, can the bright flame that yearns to see Jesus be kindled.”*****

So let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Briefly Stated: Short Sermons for Year C (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1994), 111.
** Quoted in Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1993), 60.
***** You Have Words of Eternal Life: Scripture Meditations (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991; repr. 2014), 194.