Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Communion to Renew the Covenant: A Sermon for World Wide Communion Sunday

Luke 17:5-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26; Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-9; Psalm 137

In the Christian church year, we are in the season that leads up to Advent.  In the Christian liturgical tradition, some portions of Lamentations that are also read during Holy Week are included in the readings for today.

Both Jewish and Christian interpretations of these passages deal with a spiritual world that is transformed into an alien place overnight.  Psalm 137 tells the story of the Babylonian exile of the 6th century, bce.  “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung up our harps.  For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  The ancient Hebrew people who experienced the original exile were physically uprooted and marched away into captivity in the 6th century, bce.  The commemoration of that day happens on the 9th of Av in the Jewish calendar, which this year was July 19.

The 9th of Av also memorializes the day when the Romans destroyed the Temple in about the year 70.  The foundation of the Jewish community was obliterated.  From then on, the Jewish religion changed from one focused on the Temple in Jerusalem to an itinerant religion in permanent exile until the founding of the nation of Israel in 1949.  As another historical aside, that day – the 9th of Av – was deliberately chosen for the day when the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.

These are powerful texts in the history of the struggle by the Jewish people for justice.  We should use them with respect.  With that in mind, as Christians get ready for the season of Advent, we remember that everything Jesus’ followers had come to trust was destroyed by his death.  Because they were devout Jews, who lived their tradition, they would have turned to these scriptures for solace.  So with this week’s reading we remember our own exile from God’s kingdom, and we claim the promise of deliverance by the Messiah to come.

Even in the midst of his unspeakable grief over the loss of Jerusalem, the writer of Lamentations trusts that God will make things right in the end.  Lamentations 3:19-26 says: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases . . . the Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”   God will restore the covenant with the people.  Remember that when the people were forced out of Jerusalem, Jeremiah stayed behind in the occupied city.  Jeremiah knew the people would return from exile.  He trusted in God so much that he bought a field that had been abandoned by one of the exiles, and agreed to hold it until the proper owners returned.

The lectionary reading from Luke for this Sunday sends us to a scene in which Jesus’ disciples ask him to increase their faith.  But Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  Then Jesus goes on to make the point that no one invites a servant to eat dinner with them.  Instead, the boss commands the servant to make dinner for the boss, and eat later alone.  Jesus tells the disciples they are more like the servants who do only what they are ordered or obliged to do.  Jesus is reminding his disciples that anyone with faith as small as a mustard seed has the power of faith that can propel mulberry trees to throw themselves into the ocean, but service to others is what really matters.  And service to others is far more difficult. The passage from Luke reminds us about the power of even the least amount of faith in Jesus.  And the writer of the second letter to Timothy urges continued courage in the struggle to spread that faith – the gospel of the Christ.

The disciples did not understand what Jesus was talking about when they asked him to increase their faith.  Jesus did not mean that faith as tiny as a mustard seed could literally cause a mulberry tree to throw itself into the sea. What Jesus meant was a radical abandonment of self-interest.  That means a willingness to give up our own well-being and act as servants or slaves who only do the master’s bidding.

Luke’s Gospel is full of examples of fairly well-to-do folks who are concerned only with their own personal welfare.  There is the man who has harvested a bumper crop, and has built huge barns to store all of his wealth in, but that very night he dies.  There are the Pharisees who insist on the front row seats in the synagogues, and demand proper greetings in the streets.  There is the prodigal son, who takes his inheritance and squanders it.  Luke’s Jesus says on several occasions that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last; that the servant is greater than the master.  His point is that whenever we are more interested in the etiquette of seating and service, dinner and entertainment, and how to safeguard our own wealth, we lose touch with the power of God to transform the world in which we live.  The mulberry tree stays firmly planted in the yard.

The problem is that when we do follow Jesus into a life as a servant or slave we very easily find ourselves in a kind of exile.  When we align with the fringes of the communities in which we live – such as the immigrant community, or gays in the military – we are doing something counter-cultural.  Our ministry becomes contrary to what the rest of society thinks is proper or good.  We might get threatening phone calls; our neighbors may stop talking to us.  We may get crosses burned in our front yards.

To paraphrase the desolation of the exiles in Babylon in Psalm 137, sometimes we feel like leaning our guitars against the wall, and throwing ourselves down on the banks of the Potomac River at the Watergate amphitheater across from the Pentagon, and weeping.  How can we possibly sing the Lord’s song of justice-compassion in a land where highly qualified men and women are denied their calling as warriors because of their sexual orientation?  How can we possibly sing the Lord’s song of liberation in a land where immigrants have no right to food, clothing, shelter, and medical care?  How can we sing the Lord’s song of love in a land where hatred and fear holds sway?

The kind of faith Jesus actually taught is trust in the power of choosing to participate in God’s Kingdom of justice-compassion, which changes the very contours of the world – or, in 21st century language, shifts the paradigm.  The paradigm shift Jesus spoke of most often is the radical abandonment of self-interest individually, collectively, socially, politically, globally.  Prophets – such as Habakkuk and the writer of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and Jeremiah himself – not only believed, they knew that God would act in real time to return the people to their land, and restore God’s covenant.

But how does God act? Psalm 37 tells us we should rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him. The expectation seems to be that we don’t have to do anything.  Somehow a bolt of lightning will strike, and the world will be transformed: Slaves will be free; poverty will end; racism and bigotry against immigrants and other outcasts will be a thing of the past.  The wolf will eat grass like the cow, and the lion shall lie down with the lamb, and a little child will play in the snake pit without fear.  Many Christians believe that will happen in the twinkling of an eye when Jesus comes back, riding in the clouds.

But the early Christian leaders – including the Apostle Paul, and the ones who wrote the Gospel stories – realized very soon that when Jesus did not reappear, the people began to lose heart. When we believe in a God that resides only in the Temple, which we listen to only on Sunday, and which we expect to intervene on our behalf, the result is alienation – exile from God’s love – powerlessness, hopelessness, and fear.  The same thing happened during the long years of Babylonian exile in the 6th Century bce.  So what did the prophets tell the people?

“How long . . . shall I cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save?” the prophet complains – and God answers: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets so that a runner may read it.  For there is still a vision for the appointed time . . . .”  Habakkuk  2:2-3.

“Covenant” does not mean passively waiting for God to do something spectacular. “Covenant” means active partnership in God’s work to restore God’s rule.  And God’s rule has always been justice-compassion.  When we trust the spirit of covenant with justice-compassion in our hearts, we can transform the way we live life on this planet.  The writer of 2 Timothy says, “. . . for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love . . .” (2 Tim. 1:7).  That’s what it means to cause mulberry trees to transport themselves into the sea.

“Covenant” means a never-ending reclaiming of spirit from the ease of complicity with the powers that seem to be.  Covenant is counter-cultural.  This is why we most need to wait for the Lord and to trust – to have the kind of faith that does shift the paradigm.  Psalm 37 says, “Trust in the Lord and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.  Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.  Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.  He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.”  God will act by giving us the courage to begin and to continue the struggle, no matter how long it takes.

We know that Jesus died in the service of God’s covenant for justice-compassion.  If he had not been engaged in that work, none of the Roman leadership would have cared.  But what did he do?  He invited the marginalized to eat with him.  He included the poor and the sick and the outcasts in his entourage.  He even invited himself to dinner with one of the collaborators with Rome – Zacchaeus – who was properly hated by everyone in Jesus’ group.

“Covenant” does not mean passively waiting for Godot.  “Covenant” means active partnership in God’s work to restore God’s rule.  And God’s rule is justice-compassion.  Whenever we do that kind of work – such as making sure immigrants have a chance at being treated fairly in work, housing, and health care, or standing for truth and justice against lies and gross unfairness wherever and whenever we encounter them – we are participating with God in the great work.  We are living the incarnation of the Christ.


On this Sunday, all over the world, the Body of Christ – the Church – and all those who would follow Jesus’ teachings, are celebrating the one Sacrament that separates Christians from all other spiritual practices. We know that Jesus died in the service of God’s covenant of justice-compassion. If he had not been engaged in that work, none of the Roman leadership would have cared, and we would not be here today. We know that whenever we engage in that same work, we embody the Christ, and bring the realization of God’s kingdom to a closer reality.

On the last night with his disciples, as they lounged at their dinner, Jesus decided to try one last time to make them really understand what he was doing, and what it really meant to follow him  He picked up a loaf of bread, and spoke into the hubbub of their conversation: Listen! – he said – This bread is like God’s justice in this world. Then he tore the loaf into two pieces.
[Break Bread]

This is God’s justice in the hands of the Romans and the Temple authorities who collaborate with them. Believe me, one of you is going to turn me in to them soon. If not tonight, then as soon as the Passover is finished. Whenever you eat together after this night, remember that, and remember me. For this is my body, broken for you.

Then Jesus picked up the jug of wine. This wine is also like the Kingdom of God – it is the blood of the paschal lamb, painted on the lintels and doorposts of our people as a sign that they belong to God and not to Pharaoh’s Empire. But this cup that I drink is a new cup. It is a libation of my blood poured out for justice for all those who choose to share it.
[Pour Wine]

Drink it. All of you who are willing to engage in the work and participate in God’s covenant of justice-compassion, and remember.

One: The gifts of God for the People of God
All: Thanks be to God

THANKSGIVING [Based on The New Century Hymnal Prayer of Thanksgiving, p. 20]

All: Eternal God, you have called your people from east and west and north and south to feast at the table of Jesus the Christ. We thank you for the spiritual food of bread and wine, body and blood. By the power of your Holy Spirit, go with us to the streets, to our homes, and to our places of work and play, so that whether we are gathered or scattered, we may be the servant church of the servant Christ, in whose name we rejoice to pray. Amen.

Hymn: God Reigns O'er All the Earth NCH #21

BLESSING [Based on the United Church of Christ Statement of Faith]

Go now in peace, secure in the knowledge that all who trust God’s promise will find forgiveness of sins and fullness of grace, courage in the struggle for justice and peace, the presence of the spirit in trial and rejoicing, and eternal life in God’s realm, which has no end.


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Figs, Fires, and Fate

Luke 13:6-8; Judges 9:7-15

Luke seems to borrow from Mark when he suggests that the fig tree the owner wants to cut down has been barren for years.  But Luke does not take Mark’s metaphor.  In Mark’s gospel, the story of the fig tree cursed by Jesus brackets Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple (Mark 11:11-21).  Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan argue in The Last Week that Jesus’ unreasonable curse of the fig tree that is without fruit in the off-season calls attention to the condition of the Temple under Roman rule.  The Temple cannot properly serve the people (produce good fruit) under the corrupting influence of the Roman occupation.  Unlike Mark’s Jesus, Luke’s vinekeeper suggests giving the fig tree a second chance.  “Let it stand, sir, one more year . . . Maybe it will produce . . . but if it doesn’t, we can go ahead and cut it down.”  Later, in Luke 21:29-30, he has Jesus use the fig tree’s leafing out in the spring as a metaphor for the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God.

Mark considered that the kingdom of God had already arrived with Jesus.  For Luke, writing 30 to 50 years after Mark, the kingdom of God has not yet arrived, but should arrive soon.  So, Luke’s Jesus first says, “repent or perish.”  Then – perhaps to soften the blow – he assures with the parable of the barren fig tree that God is working to cultivate and enrich the soil in order to give sinners one more chance.

Luke’s parable appears only in his Gospel.  It is highly likely that he invented it; although the Jesus Seminar Scholars were apparently reluctant to consign it to the realm of sayings not original with Jesus.  Whether Jesus used the metaphor or not, the fig tree has been reprieved for a year.  Prudent gardening practice has become the first century equivalent of “tough love.”  Three strikes and you’re out.  One more chance, then it’s compost for you, Sinner.

Luke’s “parable” of the barren tree is included in the Revised Common Lectionary for the third Sunday in Lent, Year C.  In the context of the other readings for that day, which include the preceding verses in 13:1-5, “. . . Luke’s Jesus is clearly the son of a violent god: '[U]nless you repent, you will all perish . . .,' he says – twice.  Apparently Jesus’ God is inclined to give Luke’s hearers one more chance before cutting them down, but that hardly translates into compassion.”  On its own, without the dogmatic gloss supplied by its combination with the other readings, Luke’s vignette is merely a metaphor that softens the judgment that went before.  We can speculate that Luke is once again making following Jesus a safe occupation for Roman citizens.  The radicality of the free gift of grace is not there.

Biblical scholars – liberal or conservative – agree that fig trees in the Bible are metaphors for the people and leadership of ancient Israel.  The condition of the fig tree was a metaphor of Israel’s spiritual condition.  In Matthew’s version of the fig tree legend, a frustrated and hungry Jesus curses the barren fig tree, then tells the disciples that if they trust and do not doubt, they also can kill fig trees with a curse.  In fact, they can move mountains into the sea with a word.  But beware the temptation to follow Matthew and Luke into anti-Semitism and black magic.  Luke’s fig tree might represent the members of Luke’s community who were reluctant to buy into the Christian version of Judaism that was rising toward the end of the first century.  The implication is, with some careful nurturing, they might produce fruit for the kingdom after all and join the Christian faction.  If they don’t, then leave them out of the community.

Matthew wanted to replace Torah with his story of Jesus because he considered that Jesus was the fulfillment of Israel’s deepest hope and desire.  Matthew’s contribution to the meaning of fig trees is to declare them incapable of ever bearing fruit again – an unfortunate anti-Semitic trap for the unwary.  Further, the followers of Jesus who “have faith” (NRSV translation) and do not doubt will posess the same power Jesus does to not only render fig trees permanently barren, but to move mountains into the sea.  Whether the phrase is translated “to trust” (Five Gospels) or to “have faith,” it is difficult to read the passage as a metaphor that calls for radical transformation of all human life.  Anti-Jewish sentiment underlies it like a watermark.

Perhaps for the above reasons, the Elves who put together the RCL consider neither Mark’s nor Matthew’s radical fig tree metaphors. Sunday morning hearers of the Word are left with Luke’s gentle conventionality.

However, the parable of the trees in the Jewish book of Judges 9:7-15 may hold a clue to both Mark’s and Matthew’s evangelical conviction that Jesus had indeed restored the kingdom of God to earth.  The parable of the trees is never encountered in the normal years of readings from the RCL.  It is part of the 400-year legendary history of the Hebrew people, after their escape from Egypt, and the death of Joshua – the successor to Moses.  During this time, the tribes of Israel experienced nearly constant wars with their neighbors, and internecine squabbles among themselves, as local leaders attempted to set themselves up as kings or rulers over all the tribes. The parable of the trees is a sarcastic allegory, challenging the legitimacy of Abimelech’s claim to be king.  It is part of the argument the leaders of the Hebrew tribes had before the advent of King Saul about the dangers of forming a monarchy. (As an interesting aside, given my use of this parable, “Abimelech” means “My father (God) is king.”)

The fig tree, the olive tree, and the grapevine all represented survival, abundance, and riches for the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.  In the parable, all are invited in turn to be crowned king of the trees, and one by one they all decline.  They are content to continue to provide their own life-giving fruits to the people.  The bramble is the only one that agrees to rule.  But the bramble is only used for starting fires – a somewhat ambiguous usefulness.  Fires are essential for life, but – in careless or evil hands – fire is the supreme destroyer of life.  The bramble warns that if the people are not acting in good faith – if Abimelech is not who he claims to be – destruction by fire will be their fate.

In the ancient parable, when the one who is considered the least valuable is the only one willing to rule, the result will be disastrous unless the people act in good faith, and in alignment with God’s purposes.  Bringing the metaphor into the first century, Jesus becomes the itinerant bramble, who is worthless in the eyes of imperial Rome.  Mark’s gospel points out that the corruption in the Temple had reached apocalyptic levels.  The fig tree is cursed and dies.  Matthew’s gospel leaves no doubt that the paradigm has changed.  Jesus cursed the fig tree and it died, and his followers can do the same.  Luke has apparently forgotten that Jesus came to set the earth on fire (Luke 12:49).  Has Luke missed the power and the point once again?  Or is Luke the master of subversion who has deliberately obscured a dangerous proposition?


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Luke 12:54-13:5

Who knows why Luke strung together the sayings that he did, why he chose them, and why he put them in the order he decided?  The verses from 12:54-13:5 seem to form a progression.  Luke’s Jesus starts with another example of his frustration with his followers.  “You phonies!” he yells, “You know the lay of the land and can read the face of the sky, so why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?”  He follows that with what seems to be a clarification: “Why can’t you decide for yourselves what is right?”  He finishes with a warning that is pure Luke: “. . . If you don’t have a change of heart, you’ll all meet your doom in the same way [as those Galilean sinners who had their own blood mixed with the Roman sacrifices, or the Siloamians who had the tower fall on them].  In other words, “Repent or Perish!” Luke made up both the incident of apparent cannibalism perpetrated by Pilate, and the accident that killed 18 workers in Siloam.

The Elves fudge the non sequiturs by dividing this portion between Proper 15  and the third Sunday in Lent, Year C.  (We will deal with Luke’s version of the parable of the fig tree next week.)

Christian tradition has interpreted these passages as apocalyptic warnings.  If they were – if Luke intended them to be – then the parable of the fig tree could arguably be included.  The Jesus Seminar scholars generally agree that the advice to settle matters out of court and the parable of the fig tree may go back to the historical Jesus.  But they were not necessarily associated with one another.  Luke (and the other evangelists) and his community were apocalyptic thinkers.  They expected a final judgment, with rewards and punishments, before Jesus would return again to establish God’s kingdom.  Present-day scholars argue among themselves about whether or not Jesus himself was apocalyptic.  Nor would they agree that the sayings have anything to do with one another.

This blog is taking the liberty of reading another meaning into these passages.  That is the only way they can even begin to be useful to 21st century followers who do not believe in a coming non-environmental apocalypse, nor in an afterlife of punishment/reward, nor in the return of Jesus literally from the sky to establish any kind of permanent kingdom on earth.  Taking the readings at face value, and from a 21st century point of view, is of course anathema to scholars.  But if Luke could do it in the 1st century, we can do it now.

Despite right-wing largely Christian denial, scientists are reaching consensus on the fact of global climate change.  It is happening now, and it is irreversible.  The task for humanity is to learn how to cope with the inevitable.  But what do we hear from self-described “progressive” Christianity?  A Google search brings up arguments from the right against global warming, but very little from the left in main stream, presumably “liberal” Christian denominations on how to deal with it.  Indeed the silence is deafening regarding so-called “clean coal” technology, cap and trade legislation, mountaintop removal mining, off-shore oil drilling, support for alternative energy resources . . . in short, the Christian “main stream” has nothing to say.  The 21st century equivalent to the fictional Siloamians whose tower fell on them might be the 29 miners who died in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine back in April.  What mainline Christian church is going to preach against the continued use of coal and the continued rape of the mountains of Appalachia?

Jesus’ words echo down the canyons of the millennia:  “You phonies!  You know the lay of the land and can read the face of the sky, so why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?”  But who is listening?  Bob Dylan screamed a warning in the 1960s that the political times were changing.  But now the very web of life that sustains humanity is changing, and the churches are saying and doing nothing.

Repent or perish! Luke’s Jesus says.  That means, Change or die.  But the change that Christian tradition has insisted upon is accepting as provable fact that Jesus was crucified to save us from “sin”; that he walked out of the tomb and vanished in the general direction of Antares, with the promise that he would return; and unless we turn away from personal petty sin, when Jesus comes back, we won’t be part of the kingdom.

Luke may have shrouded the radicality of Jesus’ message with his emphasis on the wealthy, but the opposition to the normalcy of Roman imperial theology is clear for those with eyes to see.  From Mary’s Song (Luke 1:46-56) to the resurrection and appearances of Jesus, the Roman empire (and all empires, whether governmental or corporate) has been put on notice.  Repent or perish.  Establish systems of justice or face the consequences.

Today, the establishment of systems of justice must be economic, social, political, and ecological.  Otherwise, as Isaiah said of old, “. . . the Lord comes out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity; the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no longer cover its slain” (Is. 26:20-21).  Sure enough, the oceans are rising, the glaciers are melting, whole species are disappearing daily, and human babies are born already alergic to the Planet.  No lightening bolts are required from some grandfather almighty in the sky.  There are definite consequences for polluting the waters with oil, destroying the mountains for gold and coal, and hiding government malfeasance behind a screen called “national security.”

Repent or perish.


Saturday, September 4, 2010

Riches and Readiness

Luke 12:13-53

This portion of Luke is routinely divided by the Revised Common Lectionary among Propers 13, 14, and 15,  in Year C.  Verses 21-32 are skipped, in favor of the version in Matthew 6:25-34 (Propers 10 and 11, Year B).  The result, as these commentaries continue to complain, is that Christian dogma is preserved at the expense of biblical integrity.  Like other portions of Luke, this sequence has its own theme: Don’t be greedy; don’t worry about how you will live, and be ready for the kingdom when it finally comes.  The Jesus Seminar Scholars point out what might be a thematic progression from wealth and possessions to watchfulness and alertness, and ultimately judgment against those who get tired of waiting.  All of it was put together for Luke’s early Christian community.  Brief portions are believed by the Jesus Seminar to reliably be attributable to the historical Jesus (12:16-20, 22-25, 27-28).

It is easy to accuse Luke of conventionality.  After all, he always adds his own pious commentary at the end of the sayings from Jesus that were part of the oral tradition.  It is impossible to know why he did this.  One theory is that his editorial additions deliberately took the edge off Jesus’ radicality so that the Way could be practiced under Roman imperial noses.  For example, in 12:16-21, Luke uses a saying lifted from Thomas 63:1-3 (see The Five Gospels p. 508).  In Luke’s hands, the concern is what will happen to the stuff the rich man has collected.  Luke implies that God will demand the rich man’s life because he has saved up for himself, and therefore is really not rich in God’s terms.

Luke then has Jesus go on to explain, “That’s why I tell you: don’t fret about life – what you’re going to eat – or about your body – what you’re going to wear. . . .”  He lifts this nearly verbatim from Matthew’s great sermon on the mount.  But he intersperses this discourse with his own comments.  Regarding Jesus’ question, “Can any of you add an hour to life by fretting about it?” Luke’s Jesus says, sarcastically, “If you can’t do a little thing like that, why worry about the rest?”  Luke ends this part with his own heavily veiled challenge to imperial society: “These are all things the world’s pagans seek, and your Father is aware that you need them.  Instead, you are to seek God’s domain, and these things will come to you as a bonus.”

But Luke has not yet finished his sermon.  He goes on to reassure his readers: “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it has delighted your Father to give you his domain,” yet he means no challenge to Rome.  He tells the people to sell their belongings, donate to charity, and pile up wealth in heaven where it cannot be stolen or destroyed.  He further diverts attention from radical, distributive, kingdom-realizing justice by delivering a warning about what happens to faithless slaves who are not prepared for the master’s return.

Then Luke summarizes four other well-known parables: the parable of the leased vineyard (Mark 12:1-13 [skipped by the RCL]); the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16:1-8a); the money in trust (Luke 19:12-27 [skipped by the RCL – stay tuned]); and the unforgiving slave (Matthew 18:23-35).  He misses or softens the point of all of them, including the parable of the shrewd manager, which is the one that he alone reports.  The concluding warning that Jesus came to stir up conflict appears to apply to internecine squabbles either between traditional Jews and fledgling Christians, or within Luke’s community of believers.

Roman spies would have slipped out the door, to report that these Christians pose no threat at all to the status quo.

But in the saying from the Thomas collection, which is probably closer to the original than Luke’s expanded version, the existential and subversive joke is clear.  We can imagine Jesus’ company around the campfire one night, perhaps griping yet again about how unfair it is that the rich have everthing and they (the itinerant poor) have nothing.  Jesus says, There was a rich person who had a great deal of money.  He said, “I shall invest my money so that I may sow, reap, plant, and fill my storehouses with produce that I may lack nothing.”  These were the things he was thinking in his heart, but that very night he died!  In the blink of an eye, Jesus has leveled the playing field.  No matter how much anyone has, everyone dies.

In Luke’s hands, Jesus’ defiant joke has been bastardized: “You can’t take it with you.”  New age psychologists, self-help gurus, yoga instructors and interior decorators advise that spiritual health includes getting rid of the clutter.  It’s good feng shui.  Jesus’ discourse on trusting God to provide food, clothing, and shelter has become the foundation for the “prosperity gospel,” which is nothing more than a new name for a very ancient attitude:  God intends for believers to be prosperous.  The corollary is, prosperity is a sign of God’s favor.  The secular form is, if you give, you will get.  The social assumption that governs conservative politics is, people are poor because they are guilty of sin: sloth, gluttony, pride, wrath, greed, lust, and envy.  In the midst of the worst global economy since the Great Depression, the hapless unemployed are told to get off your duff and get a job.  And if you want unemployment benefits, we’re going to test you for drugs first.

Luke has Jesus continue speaking without transition until 12:54, making the paragraph on fire and conflict really part of the preceding sermon.  Luke’s Jesus expresses some frustration with the progress of establishing the kingdom.  “I came to set the earth on fire,” he says, “and how I wish it were already ablaze!”  He voices the complaint of every leader advocating change: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and what pressure I’m under until it’s over!”  Then he warns that did not come to bring peace, but conflict.

The entire speech reflects upheaval among the followers of Jesus as they began to organize themselves.  They were often in conflict with Jewish communities who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and were unwilling to replace Torah with the story and teachings of Jesus.  Luke’s Jesus expresses impatience with the difficulty of finally establishing the kingdom of God on earth.

A major theme in Luke’s gospel is the unfolding of the divine plan, beginning with Jesus, and continuing in Acts with the early church.  Civilizations since Rome have been highly suspicious of language that implies a divine plan other than the one put forth by whatever powers that exist at the time, so Luke is careful to put the prophecy in ambiguous terms.  When has there not been conflict among members of families?  But Jesus’ words as reported in Thomas are much more provocative:  “I have cast fire upon the world, and look, I’m guarding it until it blazes.

For 21st Century followers of the Way, this part of Luke’s gospel is testmony to the continuing struggle for distributive justice-compassion.  Despite the claims of the prosperity gospel and the Tea Party faction of the current “conservative” movement, being rich is not a guarantee of a place in the Kingdom.  Having said that, however, “a great deal is required of everyone to whom much is given; and even more will be demanded from the one to whom a great deal has been entrusted” (The Five Gospels, p. 341).  In today’s economic conditions, those with the means to redistribute wealth have the moral obligation to do so, whether it is recognized or not.  Perhaps this is how to read 12:42-48, about slaves who know what their masters want and don’t do it, and slaves who don’t know what their masters want, but at least make an attempt to act properly. This seems to be a non-sequitur in the 21st century.  But when financial corporations and the top 1% of the population continue to stockpile their wealth in treasury bonds and gold instead of investing in viable business, they have only themselves to blame when the system crashes.

Are you ready?