Saturday, August 13, 2016

Interpreting the Signs: Reflections on Luke 12.49-56 (RCL Proper 20C, 14 August 2016)

Interpreting the Signs
Reflections on Luke 12.49-56

RCL Proper 20C
14 August 2016

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

            12.49 [Jesus said to his disciples,] “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!  50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!  52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided:  father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
            54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.  55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.  56 You hypocrites!  You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

            These past three Sundays we have been joining those who had been following this rabbi from Nazareth who had recently taken his place on the stage of religious life in first-century Roman Palestine.  As Jesus begins to turn his way towards Jerusalem and the events that will give rise to the Christian faith we share, he is surrounded by his apostles and disciples, by wealthy farmers and merchants, the desperate poor and by representatives of the religious establishment of his times.  Sometimes he speaks to all those who are gathered around him, sometimes only to his apostles and disciples.  But at all times and in all places Jesus shares a common message:  ‘The kingdom of God is among you now and will come in its fullness at a time of God’s choosing.  So, live a life worthy of the kingdom now.  Live a life preparing for the kingdom that is coming.’

            Two Sundays ago Jesus told the parable of the rich farmer who had forgotten that his wealth was a gift from God meant to be sowed wisely and generously rather than hoarded.  Last Sunday in a series of sayings, Jesus asked us to discover where our treasure was, for there we would find our hearts.  Finding our hearts gives a starting place to choose our priorities as we live in and into the kingdom of God.

            This Sunday we could be excused if we heard Jesus’ words as what some scholars have called ‘texts of terror’.  What are we to make of our gentle Jesus proclaiming that he has come with a sword that will divide families and friends?  What are we to make of our brother Jesus telling us that we are world-wise but kingdom-blind?  Let me share with you my attempt to understand today’s gospel in the light of the last two Sundays.

            My high school offered what, in the United States, are called ‘advanced placement’ courses.  Students who completed an advanced placement course with a grade of ‘B’ or higher were given university credit that they could apply to their undergraduate students.  I arrived at the doors of the University of Denver in the fall of 1971 with several advanced placement credits in my portfolio.  To my surprise the University required me to take a introductory political science course despite my advanced placement history credit.  I was a bit miffed but complied.

            To this day I remember the first sentence on the first page of the introduction of the first book we were assigned to read:  “Where there are two, there are politics.”  My professor, whose name I cannot remember, led us through on a wonderful journey through the world of politics.  From that journey I have taken away a respect for the importance of politics, even as I, and I am sure you, have our moments of disappointment with our political leadership.

            There are many ways to look at politics, but let me offer you my take on the shapes that politics can take.  One way is one with which we are very familiar:  the pursuit of self-interest.  People seek political authority merely to gain the power to indulge their own interests.  Sometimes, these folk will learn a second way:  enlightened self-interest.  They learn the art of giving a little to please the many, even as they continue to make sure that their own interests are well-served.

            If we are fortunate, then we are blessed with leaders who are committed more to the common good than they are to either self-interest or enlightened self-interest.  These are the people who cross party lines and choose the good of the many over the interests of party.  Such leaders are few and often face opposition from within their own circle of advisors, supporters and partisans.  Rarely, very rarely, a unique leader emerges:  one who inspires us to work for the kingdom of God in our own times and places.

            No matter where we are, no matter among whom we are, we live a political life.  Political life requires the sharing of ideas and visions publicly in order to determine which path we are going to take, a path shaped by self-interest, whether unenlightened or enlightened, or a path shaped by the common good that may, just may, lead us closer to the kingdom of God.

            In today’s gospel Jesus is simply telling us what we already know.  If we have chosen to be his disciples, we are immediately faced with trying to discern whether we are following a path of self-interest or a path leading to the kingdom of God.  Discernment sometimes leads to the passionate exchange of views, exchanges which may cause ruptures in our relationships.  Discernment is not always a quiet, contemplative process; it often involves speaking the truth in love and risking misunderstanding.

            Whether we look at the life of our national church, our diocese or our own congregation, we are engaged in a process of discernment about how we will live out our baptismal covenant.  We have heard Jesus tell us that discipleship means being willing to sow wisely and generously the resources we have received from God’s hands and the hands of other disciples.  We have heard Jesus tell us that discipleship means being clear about what our priorities are as we sow these resources in the hopes of reaping the kingdom.

            And today, Jesus reminds us that the life of discipleship is political, not in the sense of partisanship but in the spirit of seeking first the kingdom of God.  There will be times when we find ourselves with different views on how we exercise the stewardship of our resources in fulfillment of our priorities.  This is inevitable.

            This past week I received a letter from my colleague, Andrew Halladay, the vicar of Saint Augustine’s, inviting Saint Faith’s and others to engage in a process of discernment to envision how we might exercise our ministries more collaboratively.  What shape this might take will, no doubt, bring out various views.  But this is the nature of the politics of discipleship.

            This past week Church Committee responded to an initiative to add a third service at Saint Faith’s on Sunday evenings.  Saint Hildegard’s Sanctuary will be led by the Rev’d Melanie Calabrigo, whom many of you have met.  Saint Hildegard’s will bring an arts-based, contemplative approach to the celebration of the eucharist.  We hope that it will attract people for whom more traditional worship does not enrich their spiritual lives as well as others who want, from time to time, another way to nurture their discipleship.  We still have questions about how this initiative will work, but this is the nature of the politics of discipleship.

            On Sunday, 11 September 2016, we will celebrate the sixty-ninth anniversary of the founding of Saint Faith’s and begin our seventieth year of ministry.  This anniversary will bring with it the task of ‘interpreting the signs of the kingdom’, the politics of discipleship, as we discern what we believe God is inviting us to do.  Different views will, no doubt, be shared, but they need not divide us.  We have seek the common good and, if we are very fortunate, we may see the kingdom itself, even if partially, and rejoice together in a shared vision and commitment.

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