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The Present Time

Rev. Nancy S. Taylor
Aug 14 2016


In today’s reading, Jesus delivers a hard, sharp word. The gentle Shepherd is nowhere to be found. Instead, he is angry prophet. He is stressed, distressed and frustrated. His words are harsh and fierce … and not without judgment.

Because today’s scripture is a hard, sharp word, I am going to read it softly. Listen.

Jesus said: ‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’

‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

On your worship bulletin is printed a warning: “Warning! To enter into the life of this people of God is to encounter Gods’ soul-challenging, life-changing, radicalizing love.”

I submit to you this morning that this is the very love that led to Jesus’ outburst in the passage from Luke’s Gospel.

It is a kind of love that widens and enlarges the subjects of our love from our immediate circles (our family, our group, our tribe, our race, our religion, our nationality, our ethnicity) to everyone … literally everyone.

The love-ethic that Jesus introduced two thousand years ago is really, really hard. It is really hard. Moreover, it is counter-instinctive, even counter-intuitive.

The problem is, the hitch, the thing that Jesus came up against … the thing that makes this love-ethic so hard: humans beings are fundamentally tribal. It’s not our fault. We are hard-wired, from prehistoric times, to be wary of the other, to be protective of our own kith and kin. And, by extension, we are wired to be far less sympathetic to “others”.

Most of us are naturally drawn to and partial to people we identify as “like us”, people we perceive to be similar to ourselves. At the same time, most of us cannot help but harbor biases (even unconscious ones) against outsiders, strangers, those who are different.

Social psychologists who study this phenomenon, contend that we come by this honestly. We inherited it from our ancestors who depended for survival on group living.

So, the first thing to say is this: tribalism comes naturally. It’s not our fault. We’re pre-wired for this. Let’s not beat ourselves up over it.

Until the advent of modern modes of transportation—and until the advent of great metropolises—humans lived in small, close-knit, closed off, communities … communities based on similarities and dependent upon tribal loyalty.

Even in great cities we tend to sort ourselves out by tribe: the Italians in Little Italy or North End, the Chinese in Chinatown, the Germans in Germantown, the gays in the South End, the Irish in Southie, the Brahmins on Beacon Hill, etc.

We are hard wired for tribalism. It is deep inside us. It is primitive, instinctive.

What’s more, this hard-wired instinctive comfort with our own kind (and discomfort or less comfort with strangeness) can lead to a phenomenon called “othering”.

The more I “other” another group (e.g. immigrants, Muslims, refugees, Catholics) the easier it becomes for me to regard the members of that group as less than human … not quite human

In the wrong hands, the phenomenon of “othering” can lead and can enable Colonialism, Imperialism, slavery, genocide. Such othering enabled lynching and witch trials, enabled the Crusades, the Holocaust, the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, the massacre of American Indians in this land.

It is over against this instinctive, hard-wired wariness of the other that Jesus introduces something entirely different, something counter-instinctive. He introduces an ethic, a morality that insists that in the eyes of God, there is no “other”. In the eyes of God—the eyes through which we are asked to look out upon the world—there is only family, only kith and kin.

Jesus insists that we are all kith and kin. That’s what got him into trouble. That’s what led to his outburst in the Luke 12.

Jesus plays with fire by proclaiming that in the kingdom of God enslaved persons are equal to their masters; that women are equal to men; that the occupied Palestinians are equal to the occupying Romans.

In addition, Jesus invites his followers to border-cross where no one had crossed before. As a Jew he crosses into the territory of the Samaritans. As a male he converses in public with a woman he does not know. As a rabbi in an ancient, patriarchal society he welcomes women as his disciples. As a guest in a prominent, reputable house Jesus is followed in by a woman of ill repute, whom he embraces.

Jesus introduces an ethic that is, literally, counter-instinctive. As such, it is disruptive, intrusive, unsettling. Unsurprisingly, it is met with resistance.

Why resistance? It turns out, ancient men rather liked lording it over women, and the occupying Romans rather liked lording it over the occupied peasants of Palestine, while the so-called masters rather enjoyed thinking of themselves as of a higher order human being than those they enslaved … because, if they didn’t, if they ever came to think of “their” enslaved person as an equal, the whole institution would have fallen to pieces … would have become instantly unsustainable, intolerable, ungodly.

We are hard-wired to empathize more strongly with our own kith and kin. Which means this: we are also hard-wired for bias.

Jesus challenges us to resist our own primitive, hard-wiring. In a phrase introduced by our Church Moderator, Deb Washington, Jesus inspires us to be rising Christians, to claim a moral ground that us above and beyond base instinct.

In this passage from Luke’s gospel we meet a frustrated Jesus, a discouraged Jesus, a Jesus who has encountered strong resistance to his teachings, his border-crossing, his upsetting the tables of social order.

And his teachings have driven wedges in households … because, maybe a son has caught the vision of the radicalizing love Jesus teaches and he wants, aches, to free the family’s slave …

But maybe the father didn’t catch the vision and wants to keep his slave and dare not think of his slave as fully human.

As Jesus predicts, this radicalizing love, this love that overwhelms tribalism, can be divisive: setting a father against son and a son against his father.

At the end of the passage, Jesus says this:

‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

Is it not our obligation, then, our obligation to Jesus, to do our best, to interpret the present time, our present time?

Our present time is, in every way measurable—in the newspapers, on television and radio and on line—a fractious time. A divided time. We are divided and dividing in tribes, taking sides.

Our present time is a time of “othering”. Democrats other Republicans. Republicans other Democrats. A candidate for president of the United States others women, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, the educated, the differently abled.

Liberals other the NRA and the NRA others liberals. A lot of us “other” the followers of Trump. The followers of Trump other the media.

A recent report cites the Baltimore Police Department for bias against—for othering— persons with black and brown skin.

It feels as if our nation is reverting to a crude, and primitive tribalism.

The opportunity in this present time is that it’s out in the open. The fear, the othering: we can see it, hear it, smell it, feel it, name it.

We can name that Globalism is changing the world and altering the skin colors of American citizens. We can name that slavery, America’s original sin, haunts and bedevils us still. We can name the gap between rich and poor. We can name the unraveling of the Arab world

Are not these the signs of this time that Jesus aches for us to see, to interpret?

We can name these phenomena and weep over them or rail against them or shrug in despair, but know this: the Jesus movement is an outright attack on tribalism … a renunciation of tribalism as antithetical to the God of all Creation.

Jesus introduces an ethic that insists that in the eyes of God, there is no “other”. There is only family … only kith and kin.

The love-ethic that Jesus introduced two thousand years ago is really, really hard. It is so very hard because it is counter-instinctive.

But our souls—and perhaps the life of our world—depend on it.

“Warning, Christian! To enter into the life of this people of God is to encounter God’s soul-challenging, life-changing, radicalizing love.”

It is not easy. It is really hard. It is completely counter to your most basic instincts.

But I gotta ask: Will you join us? Do you dare?