August 18, 2019

The Crisis Jesus Creates

Passage: Jeremiah 23: 23-29; Luke 12: 49-56

Synopsis: How do we understand Jesus’ claim that he has come not to bring peace but division and his rebuke to his hearers because they fail to interpret the signs of the times? The crisis Jesus refers to is like a continental divide on which the water on one side flows to one destination and the water on the other side flows to another. The crisis in our times is the rise of different kinds of nationalism around the world. When the church is true to its calling it’s a fellowship which transcends all frontiers of nation or race or class and thus challenges head-on, by its very existence, the idolatrous claims of racist and nationalist ideology.


Believe me, I didn’t want to preach another tough sermon. Then I turned to our lectionary gospel reading for this Sunday and was confronted with Jesus’ words that he has come not to bring peace but division. He concludes by chiding his hearers because they don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times.


The reading from Jeremiah is even more confrontational as the prophet sharply rebukes those he calls false prophets. These court prophets tell Israel’s corrupt and despotic kings what they want to hear and then enjoy the accompanying social prestige. God’s word counters such dreams and is instead like a fire and like a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces. How can I preach on these texts without my inner voice asking me if I’m the kind of compromised person Jesus and Jeremiah are talking about? Temperamentally, I tend to be a conflict avoider and I’m certainly not a flame thrower. It’s hard to see myself in the role of an Old Testament prophet taking on a despotic king.


I can identify with the Sufi mystic who said that it’s good to go visit the sultan and better yet if the sultan comes to visit you. But much better still is to live far away from the sultan. This is correct in the sense that lots of pastors and religious leaders have lost their integrity by getting too close to those in power. But it’s wrong if we think we can somehow live far away from the political fray and not be affected by it. Sometimes this mentality takes the form of the separatism in the traditional Mennonite community where I grew up, and which I eventually rejected. Sometimes it takes the form of peacebuilding practitioners endeavoring to remain neutral and above the fray with the hope of promoting eventual reconciliation.


I fear that all of this stretches my pastoral wisdom and courage beyond my capabilities. I pray that I can remain self-aware and comfortable with my own vulnerabilities, and still be emotionally secure enough to confront such matters. I pray that I can do this in a way that earns people’s trust, helps us keep our small boat afloat in rough seas, and that together we can guide our boat through the social currents that would take us where they will.


To begin, we need to recognize the social crisis of our day and that Jesus actually accentuates this crisis. This is nothing new. It has always been true but we face it in an especially stark way in our time. This is want I understand Jesus to be saying when he chastises us for not being able to read the signs of the time. It’s not a crisis in the sense of being an immediate emergency. It’s more like being on a continental divide where the waters on one side of the ridge flow to a certain destination while those on the other side flow to another. As biblical scholar Fred Craddock says, “To be placed in the situation of decision is crucial, for to turn toward one person or goal means turning away from another.”[1]


But how can we clearly see that when we’re right in the middle of things? Everything feels like one big muddle. It’s instructive that Jesus spoke these unsettling words as he began his journey to Jerusalem and the cross that awaited him there. The social situation in Palestine was bleak and the whole society was bent to the breaking point under oppressive Roman occupation. The Jewish elites collaborated with the Romans to keep their positions of privilege. Peasants and laborers were pushed into bankruptcy and desperation through the greed of absentee landlords. Zealot rebels were agitating to revolt. All of this came to a head a generation after Jesus’ death when the Zealots were finally able to mount a full scale revolt and Roman armies then swept in, laying waste to the countryside and completely destroying the city of Jerusalem.


Similar situations have been playing themselves out throughout history. To follow Jesus means to follow a third way. Some biblical scholars describe the Jesus movement as the peace party in Palestine. His disciples, however, are often confused and don’t quite get it. Surely Jesus was the Messiah who would deliver them from Roman rule and they refused to consider the idea that he would be killed by the custodians of an oppressive social order.


I find some comfort in this because I can identify with such confusion. We’re able to see more clearly from some social or historical distance. For example, most German Christians, including German Mennonites, supported the Nazis. When my Dad was a young man he went to hear a German Mennonite who spoke in American churches after WWII and apologized for that failure. Dad took it as a warning that we could also be swept up in the same nationalistic fervor if we were not careful.


Yet another example is a religious news report I recently read about how the Russian Orthodox Church has become a major supporter of Vladimir Putin and Russian nationalism and militarism. It has gone to the extent of Russian Orthodox priests, wearing cassocks and holding Bibles, climbing onto nuclear missiles during military parades and sprinkling holy water on them. A church spokesperson called those nuclear weapons “guardian angels,” which are necessary to preserve “Orthodox civilization.” In exchange for such nationalistic religious support, the Russian Orthodox Church has received a boost in its social and political influence.[2]


It’s easy for us to be critical of such an excessive religious embrace of nationalist ideology. But what about us? Do we embrace American exceptionalism? The church in our country has always tended to confuse the gospel with the “American way of life.” Considering how German Christians embraced Nazism and how the Russian Orthodox church today supports Russian nationalism, reminds us that at some point this tendency can harden into a false religion.[3]


Dutch theologian W. A Visser ‘t Hooft worked hard to promote Christian ecumenical fellowship in the decades following WWII and lamented the loss of human solidarity and widespread longing for authoritarian leaders who promised protection in the face of insecurity, and he condemned the way “hate is made a national duty.” He said that “when the church is true to its calling it is “a fellowship which transcends all frontiers of nation or race or class’ and thus challenges head-on, by its very existence, the idolatrous claims of racist and nationalist ideology.”[4]


As many of you know, John Kliewer, the former chair of our church council and a long-time member of our church served in the American Army during WWII. During our regular Tuesday lunches he sometimes talked with me about some of his deep regrets and shared with me a memoir he had written about his experience as a soldier. At first basic training was an exciting adventure but this changed as he adopted common vulgar military language and a tough-as-nails persona. Much of this was the antithesis of his Mennonite upbringing, especially during bayonet training when they were taught how to use the butt of the rifle as a battering ram to the skull and how to dispatch an enemy by jamming the bayonet up into the rib cage.


He developed pangs of conscience and talked with an army chaplain about it. He remembers that conversation as very unsatisfactory. The chaplain spoke mostly in clichés about why it was necessary to kill “krouts” and “japs.” John felt like a traitor for expressing his concerns. He believed that such concerns were and still are much more prevalent in the military than we realize. He partly attributes the high percentage of military suicides to such conflicts of conscience.


Oh my, I said this was going to be a difficult sermon! How do we respond to this as followers of Jesus? We recognize that Jesus does not bring peace as a continuation of the status quo but instead provokes a crisis that we must respond to. For us today that crisis is not the divide between liberal and conservative, traditional and progressive. No it’s the divide between those of us who confuse Christian faith with racism and nationalism, and those of us who know that, as we were taught in Sunday School, “Jesus loves the little children of the world, red, brown, yellow, black, and white, all are precious in his sight.” As Michael Kinnamon writes:

“America First” is not just a disturbing political slogan—a code for division of the human community along lines of nation, ethnicity and race. When embraced by parts of the church, it becomes a theological heresy—denying among other things, the global connectedness of the body of Christ.


Therefore, a modest proposal for peace is that, as Christians, we will agree to not kill each other. To bring it home to our congregation, lets embrace the word peace in our church name as the kind of provocative peace that Jesus brings, a peace that shakes up the status quo. A peace that lives love, grows justice, and welcomes everyone.


[1] Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), 166.

[2] The Christian Century (August 14, 2019): 14.

[3] Michael Kinnamon, “What is church unity for?” The Christian Century (August 14, 2019): 33.

[4] Ibid., 30

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