By Tommy Airey, a homily on Luke 12:49-56 (St. Peter’s Episcopal, Detroit, MI)
For all intents and purposes, in the Gospel this morning Jesus is sounding a whole lot like my high school basketball coach, unrelentingly lighting a fire under our asses, telling us that it’s not his job for us to like him, a rant filled with name calling and rhetorical questions. But this is more than a game: “You hypocrites!” Jesus scolds, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” We know when the Perseids are going to light up the night in Michigan, but we struggle to respond to the signs chronicled by Dr. King: “when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people.”
Like Dr. King, Jesus was doing the work of a prophet, especially in the Gospel of Luke, where at the beginning, the baby Jesus is blessed by old man Simeon as one “destined for the falling and rising of many…a sign that will be opposed” and on the last page of the Gospel as “a prophet mighty in deed and word.” Throughout the entire narrative he embodies Rabbi Abraham Heschel’s definition of the prophet: “to be maladjusted to injustice…to combine very deep love and very powerful dissent, painful rebuke with unwavering hope.”
When Jesus proclaimed “I came to bring fire to the earth” it was neither mission statement nor goal nor prediction. He was declaring what was and is inevitable about the response to his truth-telling. Jesus’ life was a lamentation about how power and violence and injustice works in our world—and what happens when a prophetic movement of whistleblowers refuses to cooperate with the status quo. This was precisely what the author of Hebrews articulated about those legends who had gone before, receiving the inevitable culmination of their courageous faith: tortured, refusing to accept release…who suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death… sawn in two…killed by the sword…destitute, persecuted, tormented…wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
In the Gospel this morning, Jesus vulnerably unveils his own humanity, resisting what he knew would be the excruciating road to come, joining these ancestors in prophetic faith—“excruciating” from the same root as crucifixion. Jesus blurts out: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” He takes the sacrament out of the church and practically equates it with waterboarding: a unique brand of torture used to cast fear into resisters of empire. Jesus was echoing the anguished sentiment of Psalm 69:
Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me!
Just a few pages earlier, Jesus told his followers to expect the same thing:
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
This was after Jesus told the powerful and privileged religious leaders:
Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed.
Historically, predictably, the art of engraving both the monuments and the memories of the prophets required a smoothing of the rough edges of critique, a containing of the fire. In his essay The Subversion of Christianity, the French philosopher Jacques Ellul bluntly wrote, “History bears witness that in generation after generation there has been a highly respected social class (that of priests) whose task is to make Christianity the very opposite of what it really is.”
A dozen years ago, in his book Democracy Matters, Dr. Cornel West contrasted a minority report of the faith, a prophetic Christianity with what he calls Constintinian Christianity—a powerful, influential, respectable, imperial version that thrives by being connected to power by legitimating it. It becomes a kind of sacred canopy to provide cover for those benefiting from a grossly unjust order. Since the 4th century, when the emperor Constantine strategically blended the faith with imperial policies, there has been a herd instinct at work in Christendom, social benefits beckoning us towards respectability and legitimacy.
The same ways and means of de-prophetizing Jesus over the past 100 generations has been at play in re-shaping Dr. King’s legacy over the past fifty years. Arundhati Roy, in her book Capitalism: A Ghost Story chronicled this succinctly. She writes:
Martin Luther King Jr made the forbidden connections between Capitalism, Imperialism, Racism and the Vietnam War. As a result, after he was assassinated, even his memory became a toxic threat to public order. Foundations and Corporations worked hard to remodel his legacy to fit a market-friendly format. The Martin Luther King Junior Centre for Non-Violent Social Change, with an operational grant of $2 million, was set up by, among others, the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, Mobil, Western Electric, Procter & Gamble, US Steel and Monsanto. The Center maintains the King Library and Archives of the Civil Rights Movement. Among the many programmes the King Center runs have been projects that “work closely with the United States Department of Defense, the Armed Forces Chaplains Board and others”. It co-sponsored the Martin Luther King Jr Lecture Series called ‘The Free Enterprise System: An Agent for Non-violent Social Change’.
So, brothers and sisters, the challenge of re-claiming the legacy of both Jesus and King is always before us. When we take it on, Jesus warns us that family reunions and Thanksgiving dinners have a tendency of becoming intense and awkward: “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” All of us who grew up in households proudly blending God, family and Country or who work with employees or clients caught up in the ranting struggle to Make America Great Again, have experienced the truth of Jesus’ words, when we’ve gathered enough prophetic courage in these settings:
- to question homophobic attitudes
- to call out the idol of American exceptionalism
- to resist patterns of patriarchy
- to lament the loss of indigenous land—to violence and greed
- to admit that certain policies, mentalities and practices have, over centuries, privileged those who look like me
- to explain why saying All Lives Matter misses the point in a culture where clearly the lives of some matter far less than others
As the psychotherapist Rabbi Edwin Friedman attested, the strong self who stays connected and boundaried—what he called the well-differentiated member of the family, the church, the organization, the team—she becomes a threat to the enmeshed “unity” of the system. Both Rabbi Friedman and Rabbi Jesus warn that we can expect projection and scapegoating from those who desperately need us to be their foot soldiers, to get in line, to be team players, to be unified during these trying times.
Over the past five years, as I’ve been in a process of learning what it means to be a straight ally, I continue to hear pastors talk about the need, above all else, to foster unity in their congregations—the need to be patient with people and their attitudes about sexuality. They say, “We can’t push them too far, too fast. They might leave the church and it will ruin the chemistry that we’ve worked so hard to cultivate.” “We must be unified at all costs,” they say. Jesus’ words in the Gospel this morning, I believe, call us to something more important than unity for the sake of unity. Otherwise, as Dr. King warned, each of us is liable to become “an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.”
Are there times, though, when we must heed wisdom and discernment and be silent? No doubt. Sometimes it’s strategic or just wise. Monica Lewis-Patrick, a prophet amongst us if there ever was one, was just telling Lindsay and I about a time recently when she was sitting in a room with many powerful city leaders. Anger was percolating within her as they downplayed the effects of water shutoff and home foreclosure, but there was Something telling her to stay calm and just listen this time around. That silence led to other, more productive encounters where her voice was heard and cherished. It was part of a grander prophetic strategy, an 18 mo. mapping project being unveiled today at 2pm.
I’ve also been in a few activist circles recently who have lamented a culture overwhelmed by an ongoing witch hunt of “checking each other” on patriarchy, homophobia and white supremacy. These are vital issues that require conversations soaked with trust, honesty, safety and nurture. But too often the prophetic has turned into a purity test, another fundamentalism steamrolling our own teammates.
Ultimately, the dual litmus test of Jesus is that the prophetic percolates in a climate of deep love and the accountability that comes with a rigorous commitment to doing our own inner work:
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you…
But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with deep compassion.
But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Ultimately, the fire of Jesus becomes a candle that provides light to examine our own agendas: “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Jesus laments to his disciples. Only in Luke’s Gospel, does Jesus challenge would-be followers to “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow” him. Or as the author of Hebrews puts it: “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” In order to know how to interpret the present time we must learn to breathe in belovedness and to compassionately address our own fears and fantasies, anxieties and egos. If not, the fire of Jesus is liable to either rage out of control or be quenched altogether.