081819 Pentecost 10c Is. 5:1-7; Heb. 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Every nation has a story that it tells about itself. Usually it includes a picture of its origins, a history of victories and defeats, and the challenges it has faced. It puts the nation in the best light so that its citizens will be proud. It’s true of the United States; and it’s true of Israel. The prophet Isaiah used Israel’s story to call the nation to repent and refocus. Last week’s news showed how this nation’s story is being changed to justify abhorrent policies. The Emma Lazarus poem at the Statue of Liberty was rewritten by Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the Citizenship & Immigration Services agency, to say Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge. How might Isaiah’s words help us strengthen our roots to refocus our nation’s purpose when leaders are upending our heritage of compassion?
Isaiah paints a picture of Israel that emerged from the story they told about themselves: God chose them during a time of suffering to fulfill an important role in the world. They believed that God promised them a better life, a land of promise. God had great visions and high expectations for them, providing everything they needed to fulfill their calling: abundant land, vineyards, watchtowers, rain, hedges and walls. But as a result they believed they were entitled to trample on other people because God’s purpose justified it. They trampled on the lives of the native peoples of Canaan as they conquered the promised land. Under Solomon, slave labor was used to build magnificent buildings. They only recognized their failures after being deported into exile. It was in Babylon that so much of the Hebrew Scriptures took shape, where Israel’s self-understanding was forged. Even then, they held onto the belief that they were God’s special people. The Psalmist writes, You brought a vine out of Egypt, and cast out nations to plant it. They didn’t see their failure as displacing native peoples or enslaving fellow human beings. Those actions were still justified by being God’s chosen people. The exiles saw their failures coming later in their history, when kings of a divided nation systematically perpetrated injustice. Recognizing those failures led the exiles to important acts of repentance, and a humbler posture among nations. But it didn’t lead them to face their sense of entitlement over others, because they still saw themselves as God’s chosen. So they didn’t name the deeper root of their sin: their mistaken identity.
Many people in the United States believe that this country was also chosen for a purpose. As with Israel, that belief has made some people feel entitled to trample on the lives of others. Like Israel, we trampled on the lives of the native peoples of the Americas. Like Israel, we enslaved fellow human beings to build or economy. Like Israel, some of our leaders today systematically perpetrate injustice. Like Israel, many today are waking up to the increasing systemic injustice in our country. And yet, also like Israel, our sense of entitlement keeps us from naming the deeper root of our sin – our mistaken identity. We call it American Exceptionalism rather than Chosen People.
When we turn to the Gospel, we find a passage that has caused me grave consternation: Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! For most of my life that text has been very disturbing – at odds with the Jesus I know. But recently it is the experience of so many that it is no longer odd. Many friends and family have been finding it difficult to live in peace with each other because of profound disagreements about what Jesus said. When Jesus spoke these words, he was referring to people accepting or rejecting him and his message. Today it is a matter of which Jesus. Jesus has been divided. His message is interpreted to support radically diverse positions that divide family members amongst themselves.
Jesus doesn’t let people off the hook for getting it wrong. You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Jesus expected people to understand both what he stood for and what was going on in their world. The division he brought was around how people respond to his radical call to reject all that opposes the reign of God. Economics, social status, political views and race may oppose or support the Reign of God, but they must be interpreted according to signs of the times. People must usually leave their comfort zones to align with the Reign of God; many are unwilling to do that, no matter what their religion is. Jesus loves those people but will not hide the cost of discipleship. Since the comfort zone is usually on one side of the dividing line, being too comfortable is a good sign that we are on the wrong side of Jesus.
The Letter to the Hebrews calls people who leave their comfort zones the cloud of witnesses. Some of their names are Abel, Abraham, Moses, Noah, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets. The Scriptures tend to overlook women’s contributions, so there are no women’s names on that list. But Abraham never would have fulfilled God’s promises without Sarah. Moses never would have achieved liberation without Miriam. Barak would have failed if it weren’t for Deborah. Jephthah made a vow to God to assure his victory and it cost the life of his daughter whose name we do not know. The history of salvation has been bloodier because women leaders were not named.
Others didn’t get names either: they won strength out of weakness, received their dead by resurrection, were tortured, refusing to accept release to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword; went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. These are the ones who kept Israel from straying too far from the promise, but most of them are not known by historians. To its credit, the Bible includes some of them. It has been called infrahistory – the silent underground of unspectacular lives, the bedrock over which the well-known events of history are played out. In other words, the direction the world takes does not always depend on those who are famous – kings, queens, presidents and senators – but on those who go about their lives doing small, heroic tasks and don’t get much attention; who may lose more often than they win; whose contribution comes through their weakness rather than their strength.
The people in charge are rarely on the side of the Reign of God. Authorities and Rulers usually pull people and nations towards entitlement and away from repentance. They see their job as making people feel good about their country. In Israel, Kings and priests did that, while prophets and poets pulled Israel back to its true calling. Every nation needs spiritual people who will keep them aligned with their values.
There are countless examples of people like that, but last week I came across one that bears repeating. In December, Basque athlete Iván Fernández Anaya competed in a cross-country race in Burlada, Navarre. He was running second, some distance behind the leader, Abel Mutai – bronze medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the London Olympics. As they entered the finishing straight, he saw the Kenyan runner – the obvious winner of the race – mistakenly stop about 10 meters before the finish, thinking he had already crossed the line. Fernández Anaya quickly caught up with him, and instead of exploiting Mutai’s mistake by speeding past and claiming an unlikely victory, he stayed behind and, with gestures, guided the Kenyan to the line and let him cross first.
Those are the ones who move the moral fabric of a nation forward. They are the cloud of witnesses. How do we draw on their strength and become one of them? How do we take our place on the right side of Jesus? How do we become the kind of people who can help our nation root out the deep sin that keeps us from thriving as people? Hebrews shows them running their races with great suffering; now they sit in the stands watching us strip down for the race as we lay aside everything that weighs us down, including sin, which makes us focus on ourselves rather than on the race.
We must get close to those folks so their faith can rub off on us. And we must step out of our comfort zones to put ourselves in situations where we will be rubbing shoulders with some of them. What gets us to do that – to step outside our comfort zones? It doesn’t come naturally for most of us. We must open our eyes to see how life works; that it really is found outside our comfort zones, where we are not in control; where we need faith and hope. That doesn’t make sense to our minds until we stop and notice that that’s the way life works. That’ s called wisdom. For me it took sitting on many upturned paint cans for hours to realize that the conversations I really wanted to be part of were happening in places I couldn’t be while sitting on a comfortable couch. It occurs where people live with hope because they don’t already have everything they hope for. If I am treated justly I don’t need to hope for justice. If I have a home, I don’t need to hope for a home. I need to be with people who have those basic hopes. Life also occurs where people live with faith, because they won’t accept the world as it is. They will choose to risk being treated unjustly to advocate for others for whom unjust treatment is not a choice. They will leave their home to work for those whose faith needs to be strengthened.
In all of this we are invited to look to Jesus: his joy, his throne, his cross and his shame. We will waver between comfort and security, joy and shame. But as we surround ourselves with the cast of characters God has given us, plus the cloud of witnesses, we might just have an edge in the struggle to be faithful. And our nation might have an edge in restoring its values. May it be so.