August 14, 2022
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
I am going to preface today’s rather intense readings with a festive announcement: Tomorrow is the feast of Mary’s Assumption. We celebrate Miriam of Nazareth as a woman of faith – no queen with a crown, but an unmarried woman who gave birth in a homeless situation, who fled with her baby as a refugee to escape being killed by the military, a wife who worked alongside her husband in an occupied state, an agonized mother who witnessed the torture and public execution of her firstborn. Of her, Thomas Merton writes “… that God should assume Mary into heaven is not just a glorification of a ‘Mother Goddess.’ Quite the contrary, it is the expression of the divine love for humanity…. If Mary is believed to be assumed into heaven, it is because we too are one day, by the grace of God, to dwell where she is. If human nature is glorified in her, it is because God desires it to be glorified in us too….” She is our most faithful companion in the cloud of witnesses.
The gospel of Luke begins with the proclamation that Jesus will “guide our feet in the way of peace.” Jesus offers words of peace throughout his ministry. We share the peace with one another every Sunday morning. So what are we to make of this week’s lectionary: harsh, provocative language that is anything but peaceful? “Is not my word like fire?” God asks in the reading from Jeremiah, “… like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Champions of faith died gruesome deaths but “did not receive what was promised.” As Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem and his death, he exclaims that (he) “came to bring fire to the earth” and wishes the blaze was already burning! This is not the Jesus we are used to and probably not the Jesus we want. Where is our water-walking, miracle-working, dying-for-me Jesus?
Our first reading is from the prophet Jeremiah, identified by one commentator as, “the best complainer among the prophets of Israel.” He asks, “Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back – those who prophesy lies and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart?” Jeremiah knew all about how tempting it was to buy success by prophesying lies in God’s name, by reassuring the audience that they had the corner on God’s word and God’s will. And he knew the price of speaking the word of God faithfully. Jeremiah was accused of demoralizing everyone in town and was cast into a muddy pit where he almost starved to death. What sustained him? Let’s turn to Paul’s letter.
Paul’s letter to the Hebrews was written as a pep talk to Christians living under a reign of terror in the early church. Let’s especially remember Rahab, the only woman called out by name in the reading. As Frederick Buechner describes her, she “ran an unpretentious little establishment in the red-light district of Jericho.” Through a dramatic combination of faith in Yahweh, a warm heart, and a healthy dose of cunning, she saved Joshua’s spies from the king and was, herself, saved before Jericho went up in flames. Matthew lists her as one of Jesus’ foremothers. The author of Hebrews goes on to give us an entire cavalcade of Old Testament champions, along with graphic descriptions of their trials and tribulations. What sustained them? Like Jeremiah, they gained strength from their faith.
But even these distinguished friends of God – they who “through faith… administered justice and shut the mouths of lions” were tortured, suffered imprisonment, and wandered in the desert – “… though they were commended for their faith, (they) did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”
Walter Brueggemann calls this legacy “the intergenerational mystery of the church” – and it is a marvelous (even miraculous) thing! In effect, our friends in the communion of saints didn’t get it all “done;” God’s work – our work – is unfinished. Our faith is not complete apart from those who have gone before us, as our faith helps to complete the faith of those who are yet to come – sort of an evolutionary way to think about faith. Clearly, ours is not a disinterested faith: Apart from one another, none of us are made perfect.
In her Southern Gothic short story, Revelation, Flannery O’Connor paints us a richly textured reminder of the challenges of such a profoundly communal faith. O’Connor tells about Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a virtuous, upstanding Christian woman who finds herself under physical attack from a young woman she encounters at the doctor’s office. At home, recovering from this unsettling event, Mrs. Turpin rails against God, as O’Connor describes her, “a female Jacob shouting at the Lord over a hogpen…. ” Mrs. Turpin cries: “Why me? What have I done to deserve this? It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.” The blessing she extracts from her encounter with God is a revelation: Mrs. Turpin saw “a purple streak in the sky … (and) a visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast, swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it, a vast horde of souls was rambling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of blacks in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself, had always had a little bit of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable, as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
That image brings us right to today’s gospel, to Jesus, who travels with a fire that burns off all our cover, the veneer of our virtue. We hear the intensity, the urgency, and the stress in Jesus’ words as he moved to face his death in Jerusalem, his clueless disciples at his side. Jesus knew that his message threatened powerful people; he also knew that such prophets didn’t fare well.
Jesus was, as C.S. Lewis described the Christ-figure, “not a tame lion.” He didn’t come to validate human institutions and the values those institutions promote; he came to set in motion God’s radical will for the world. Staking our claim with him inevitably divides us from those who fear giving up their power in the name of peace and justice. The problem is not so much that we are unable to do what this requires – to interpret Jesus’ signs and act accordingly– but it is more, honestly, that we’d rather not. And often, we don’t. We engage in fancy rhetorical footwork to distract ourselves from just how counter-cultural and difficult today’s message is. We’d rather focus on our own cleverness, track the rise and fall of our own self-interest – like Ruby Turpin, categorize and criticize others – interpret, as Jesus said, the appearance of the earth and the sky — anything but face the fact that Jesus was a realist. Face the fact that the challenge of the gospel is that it purifies before it unites, and that this painful process of burning away our virtues is the stuff of Christian life.
Jesus offers the kind of deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to break, to burn, in order to mend. Are we willing to allow God – to work with God – to break our indifference to the guns and addiction that daily threatens our homes, streets, and schools? Are we open to God breaking open our hearts with compassion so that we welcome into our midst the stranger, the refugee, and the immigrant? When was the last time our faith encouraged holy division, holy change, in someone else’s heart? Do we really want God to engage our lives at their core, to burn even our virtues away? Today’s texts declare in unflinching terms what we can expect if we dare to take our faith seriously. They invite us – even compel us – to move beyond safe Christianity; in the words of my Dad’s favorite philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin: to “harness for God the power of love.” They are intended to – and should – disturb our peace.
Revelation ends with Mrs. Turpin walking back to her house. Her apocalyptic vision allowed her “to join the immense sweep of creation,” as Flannery O’Connor put it. “In the woods around her, the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”