Interpreting the Present Time

Sermon Preached on August 18, 2019 – Pentecost + 10
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME

Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Luke 12:49-56

Interpreting the Present Time

The summers of my memory have a time-less quality to them, as if there’s all the time in the world. Last Sunday, Ken and I spent almost 7 hours getting to Tanglewood to experience Yo Yo Ma performing Bach’s complete cello suites. Extraordinary and sublime, everyone held their breath while a true master played. There was a sense of immediacy – no one wanted to miss a single moment; and then there were the silences, which Ma played as masterfully as he did the notes and phrases themselves. To hold thousands of people enthralled for two uninterrupted hours, that’s power; to let them soak in the silences – that’s absolute gift. We were suspended beyond time, together, something rare in our ever rushing, always plugged-in lives. A moment to appreciate and savor, a moment of time-lessness.

And the antithesis of where we find ourselves this morning in Luke’s Gospel. There’s no time left. Jesus is stressed and time is short. You can feel his frustration and anger; hear the clock ticking, just before he turns toward Jerusalem and his crucifixion.

The mood has shifted – the gentle wandering from town to town is over – and the real march to the end has begun. The wise rabbi, healer and teacher, that’s not the side of Jesus we hear today. Instead, we have a Jesus who has come to bring fire and division. He’s almost out of time, and he still can’t get through to these people. Why can’t they see the signs of the times? How can they still misunderstand? How can he be a peaceful, culturally acceptable, messenger of easy news? When it’s all about to change forever.

The crowds gathered around Jesus would prefer something a little more pastoral, more in line with the wise teacher model. They would rather he stick to comforting wisdom, with the occasional healing miracle tossed in.

Yet, Jesus won’t let them sit wistfully wishing for easier times. He practically grabs and shakes them – ‘Can’t you see? The signs are right before you, God is working in the world in a new way, just as the prophets promised. And that’s going to turn everything upside down, everything will change. You’re going to have to decide where you stand. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Shocking words from our Jesus, though I suppose the disciples weren’t all that surprised. They’d been following Jesus for some time now, and he often said and did difficult things. Jesus wasn’t a comfortable friend to be with, or an easy teacher to follow. He didn’t worry about being nice, or well-liked; instead he often startled, upset and disturbed. We hear it throughout the Gospels – the world had trouble accepting this difficult and disrupting messiah. He was rejected in Nazareth, his hometown. His family thought he had gone mad, and the people of Capernaum ran him out of town. People said he was possessed by demons and/or raving mad. Many of his followers quit when things got rough. His closest disciples would abandon him in his most difficult hour. Crowds turned on him when he was arrested and they called for his crucifixion.

Today in our text, this fiery, divisive Jesus is frustrated with the complacency and the brokenness of the world, and he is about to turn his face toward Jerusalem. Where he will redeem us all. Poised to execute God’s power and promise, Jesus asks with exasperation, “why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Because it was almost time.

For the mid-first century Christians of Luke’s community, this Gospel passage is reassuring. They recognize the divisions he is describing – life wasn’t easy for them, as they chose to follow this radical Jesus above all other attachments. Choosing to follow Jesus was often a choice to leave home; to leave their professions, to leave family. When the political situation got dicey, they were hunted and persecuted. As we hear in the letter to the Hebrews this morning, being a Christian in the middle of the first century was not peaceful or prosperous. It was counter cultural, counter family; contentious and an “all or nothing” proposition. You couldn’t be a little bit Christian or a fair-weather Christian.

This cloud of faithful witnesses suffered and died for following Jesus, confident that the promises of God would be received in the fullness of time. Their conviction nurtured a fledgling Christianity, which we inherited in its maturity.

As 21st century North American Christians, we have a much easier road. We don’t face persecution; we rarely have to answer for our faith. Face it, in New England in particular, we rarely talk about faith at all. We prefer the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach for most of our interactions, particularly those having to do with religion.

We value our independence and privacy. We want to be comforted in our distress, (when we ask and on our own terms). Otherwise, honestly, most of us would rather not deal with this Jesus fellow. Certainly not this divisive, fiery, unsettling Jesus who shakes us and makes us look at our lives and the world. The problem’s not that it’s hard – we’re tough, hard-scrabble realists. The problem is that it’s all so personal – to trust in God’s promises, and believe that the love of Jesus will redeem us.

Yet, redemption can’t be aloof, detached, and restrained; redeeming love is personal, and intense. We are redeemed by Jesus, each of us, known and loved. Trust me, Jesus – our fiery, strong, “bring on the world” Jesus can handle the depth and the darkness of our pain and fear, our shame, our failure, our brokenness. There’s nothing in our own personal darkness, or the darkness of the world, that his redeeming fire can’t burn away.

This difficult and divisive Jesus – this Jesus is the Jesus who redeems all that is broken within us, and charges us with addressing the brokenness of the world.

For that’s the last piece of the message this morning. We are called to confront the issues of this world, with the same searing vision and fire-y passion as our redeeming Christ.

Jesus asks, “…do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

The signs of the present time are right in front of us, aren’t they? The injustices and the inequities of our time, crying out to be redeemed: Children and families, and the entire ecosystem in distress – suffering from systemic injustice and oppression.

People impoverished, hungry, homeless, in need of food, shelter, safe haven, and health care – those things we take for granted because they are foundational to living. People who have been stripped of self-agency and respect – which we take for granted because they are foundational to a life of dignity. Jesus, who sees all that is and all that should be, insists that we bring his blazing redemption to these injustices of our present time. Particularly, I would think, those being perpetuated in his name.

Which brings us to the hardest part of our conversation this morning – a portion of what afflicts us can be attributed to our cultural appropriation of Jesus, as if he were just like us.

We know that Jesus was a first century Middle-Eastern Jew; he came from a poor family and his ministry was with and to a people who were occupied and impoverished. He lived and died under Roman oppression.

Yet, as a culture, we have made God and Christ in our own image – fueling a Christian Nationalism that is toxic for us, and ruthlessly indifferent to anyone who doesn’t reflect our image back to us. Christian Nationalism works to merge the two identities of Christian and American into one and the same – distorting both the Gospels and our democracy in dangerous and damaging ways. I can only speak to the Gospel portion of that. Jesus is not an American Christian, he was not white, or English-speaking. He was not wealthy or powerful; he did not subjugate women, or victimize the poor, nor did he approve of colonizing or oppressing peoples.

Rather, Jesus yearns for “the kingdom of God” to break forth into the world in all its fullness. That means that oppression has to go. Greed has to go. Idolatry of all kinds has to go. Same with exploitation, dehumanization, narcissism, and all the other evils we can name that prevent the flourishing of all people and all creation.¹

You and I recognize the disconnect between the Gospels and what is often understood as the Christian agenda. That’s why it’s sometimes uncomfortable being labeled a Christian. We’re afraid people will think we are one of ‘those Christians.’

But friends, our collective silence has allowed these voices speak for all of us. And it’s time. Time to stand up and be all in, like the cloud of witness who came before us. Time to come to terms with our own complicity and to speak up. Time to reclaim Jesus of the Gospel and shine a light on the divisive and offensive injustices being perpetrated in our name.

Time to risk causing conflict in order to bring real redemption and peace. In order to protect others. Because conflict isn’t the worst thing that can happen – allowing others to bear the brunt of our cowardice or complacency would be far worse.

When so much in our present time wounds and destroys, how do we respond? By being willing to move far beyond our comfort zone, extending ourselves for others, risking confrontation and difficult conversations, and reclaiming the fullness of Jesus, and following his way of courageous love.

It won’t be easy, or comfortable, and it might not yield the instant results we hope for. Redemption isn’t easy, comfortable, peaceful, clean-cut kind of work. But in times like these, it may be the only work that matters.


1 Matt Skinner, Commentary on Luke 12:49-56, Workingpreacher.org, August 18, 2019.