Text: Luke 12:49-57
“Utah Considering Immigration Law.” “20 million Homeless in Pakistan Flooding.” “The days of easy oil are over in the gulf.”“Military ranks surveyed on gay policy.” “Stocks plunge as US trade deficit is wider than expected.” “US Announces New Sanctions against North Korea.” These stories along with debates over freedom of speech, Gaza, genocide, global economy, and human rights topped the National and International news headlines this past week. And let’s not forget local headlines—six arrested for civil disobedience at Wake County School Board meeting. Historians, sociologists, psychologists, scientists, politicians, environmentalists, and a host of other experts spend countless hours of their time trying to interpret these times in which we are living. What does it mean that global warming is occurring? How do we make sense of a global economy? What does the institution of marriage really represent in the 21st century? Are the days of oil dependency over and if so, what next? How has global networking changed how we work and live in this world? But historians, sociologists, environmentalists, and politicians are not the only ones interpreting the present times. Theologians and people of faith have always had a distinct voice in interpreting the times or, if you will, in making sense of what is happening in the world at any given point in history.
As a part of our summer book series here at Pullen, some of you have read Phyllis Tickle’s book, The Great Emergence—How Christianity Is Changing and Why. In her popular book, Tickle offers a sweeping overview of church history and locates us in a moment of great opportunity and challenge. Her basic thesis is that every 500 years the church goes through a time of significant change, or what she describes as the church cleaning out the attic; and within that change something new emerges. She notes that five hundred years back from our twenty-first century places us solidly in the sixteenth century and what is now being called “The Great Reformation.” Marked by Martin Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, the great reformation was an attempt to reform the Catholic Church because of what reformers saw as evidence of the systemic corruption of the church’s hierarchy, which included the Pope. And as a result of the Great Reformation, the church changed.
Five hundred before that, in 1054, we enter the time of the Great Schism—a time in which the church was divided by questions about whose mother tongue would be used in worship and whether or not yeast should be incorporated in consecrated bread. As a result of these debates, the church again changed and new theologies emerged. Finally, Tickle discusses the five hundred years prior to the Great Schism—the sixth century and what in very recent time has been labeled as “The Fall of the Roman Empire” or “The Coming of the Dark Ages”—a time marked by Gregory the Great guiding Christianity firmly into the monasticism that would protect, preserve, and characterize Christianity over the next five centuries.
As Tickle explores the last 1500 years of church history, she asserts that every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable carapace that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur. Furthermore, she argues that we are in one of those times of great upheaval and great emergence—a time when the structures of institutionalized Christianity are being shattered and something new is emerging. The book, which I would recommend not because I buy into all that Tickle asserts but because it is a thought-provoking work, is simply her way of interpreting the present time and what is emerging within Christianity and the institutional church.
Tickle’s work has significant relevance to the question Jesus asks in our lectionary text this morning, “…why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” Luke 12:49-57 is one of those texts that can best be described as confounding and disorienting. It seems to paint a picture of a Jesus that is contrary to much of what we want to believe about who Jesus was and is. We prefer the Jesus who is the friend to sinners; who is the prince of peace; who is calm and loving; who comes to bring unity. But in Luke 12 what we get is anything but a calm, peace-loving Jesus. Instead, we get a stressed out Jesus who is talking about bringing fire and division to earth—“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” It is tempting to hold apart these two portraits of Jesus that the gospels paint: the peace loving, forgiving, grace-filled Jesus and the agitated, sometimes harsh, judging, frustrated Jesus. Looking at these two pictures, I have often wondered who is the real Jesus. But what I have come to understand is that both pictures are important, and for this reason: love must serve justice and justice must serve love. The forgiving, grace-filled Jesus is also the Jesus that demands our all. And the Jesus that demands our all is the compassionate and loving Jesus who forgives and offers mercy. It is my sense that Luke 12 is reminding us of the Jesus that demands our all—that asks of us to do what is right.
There is no doubt that there is urgency in Jesus’ voice in Luke 12. He seems frustrated that his followers don’t seem to understand or get or see what is important about the present time and why they can’t seem to judge what is right for themselves. He wonders out loud how is it that they can interpret the weather but can’t discern and understand the message he has been preaching—one of justice and righteousness; a message that challenges us, even requires us, to step outside our places of privilege and power and security for the sake of something much larger and beyond ourselves.
Jesus’ words in Luke 12 raise several questions for us as we seek to interpret these times in which we live. Jesus is asking: “To what do we pay close attention, and to what do we turn a blind eye? What claims our closet attention?” Fluctuations in the stock market? Evidence of our social standing? Grade point average? Policies and procedures about how we will function as a church? Jesus also asks, “What have we neglected?” Those who don’t have a voice at the table. How we share what have with others. What’s best for the whole rather than what is best for me. The working of the Holy Spirit. Yes, Luke 12 asks, “Have we gotten to a place where we prioritize the insignificant while neglecting the things of greatest value and importance?”
As we wondered about these questions in lectionary group this week, one participant recalled what possibly is one of the most outrageous examples of just how far off the path we can go as humans in interpreting our times. You may remember that in the immediate hours after 9/11 our then president made the suggestion that what we should do was go shopping. It was a grossly misguided interpretation of the time. Jesus is still asking us, “Why is it that you know how to interpret the stock market but you do not know how to judge for yourselves what is right?” What is right for people of faith? Love that serves justice and justice that serves love. What is right? That which serves the whole and not just my or our own self-interest. What is right? To love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Phyllis Tickle has written an entire book on the Great Emergence, exploring how Christianity is changing and why. Her conclusions are based on how she interprets these present times in which we are living. Some of her theories resonate with me, others I question. But I applaud her willingness to undertake to interpret our times on a spiritual level. Her primary premise that institutionalized Christianity is at a turning point, I feel strongly. As I interpret these times for the church and people of faith, the question at hand for me is the question that Jesus asks in Luke 12—“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” As we consider this question within our own church, it is my prayer that we will not simply concern ourselves with the survival of the institutional church or even institutionalized Christianity. But rather, we will risk doing what is right at all costs—practicing a love that serves justice and doing the work of justice that serves a love much larger than any one of us, a love that compels us to act beyond our own interests, a love as big as God.