After examining greed and giving, we are faced with the world-toppling power of the kingdom of God, and the ways we can participate through practices of generosity.
Jesus, create in me a generous heart.
English is actually a pretty boring language. It is very rigid in some ways, and strangely amorphous in others; but overall when you compare English with other languages it typically comes up pretty short. Today’s scripture is one of those instances, where we really miss the impact of exactly how Luke is telling this story, and how Jesus is teaching his followers. We read the first verse of this passage as “I came to bring fire to the earth…” This is a pretty startling phrase in and of itself, but in Greek the words are in a different order. In fact, many times in Greek the speaker or author will rearrange the words to make an impact, to catch the reader’s attention. And this passage is one of those instances. Instead, the way Luke intended us to hear this first sentence is, “Fire I came to bring on the earth…”
“Fire!” This is a word that causes movement, concern, even panic. If someone were to walk in this room and simply say “Fire!” everyone in this room would move. There would be no sitting still, no passive listening to say, “Hold on, let’s hear her out.” We would jump to action, and our adrenaline would kick in immediately.
Jesus is playing on this same response. He wants to shake us up, to awaken us out of our slumber. Jesus is deliberately pulling the fire alarm in the hopes that we will pay close attention to his teaching.
Two weeks ago, we talked about greed. Last week, we talked about giving. This week, the passage gets even more forceful, even more difficult to come to grips with. Just when you think Jesus might be about to let up a little and soften his tone, he ramps up and shouts “Fire!” What gives? Why the alarm?
And as we keep reading this passage, it seems even stranger and more dire. He says directly that if we think the only thing Jesus came to bring on earth is peace, we are sorely mistaken. But wait a minute. How does that work with all of the other examples of Jesus bringing peace, even being the Prince of Peace himself? Even if we only look at Luke’s gospel, it begins with an announcement that God was about to “guide our feet into the way of peace.” It ends with Jesus proclaiming over his followers “Peace be with you.” Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son, with a peaceful reconciliation between father and son, not the division of father and son! Jesus blesses the people he heals with peace repeatedly. He tells his followers to greet people with peace as they traveled and ministered.
So what gives, Jesus? Why the sudden reversal? Why are you shouting about fire, telling us that you’ve not come to bring peace but the sword, and that you’re going to divide households against each other? This seems very, very strange. Are you building a kingdom, or burning something down in flames?
Fire is not something we welcome in our culture. It is something we avoid, protect against, something we fear. There are fire extinguishers on the walls and fire alarms all around us because we know how dangerous fire can be. We have all seen the damages that fire can cause. This past Saturday I was driving to get breakfast for my family and bring it home and I noticed that the police had blocked off a street. I couldn’t see why, but I assumed it was another traffic accident that frequently happens on the curve near our neighborhood. Then, several days later, my son pointed out that a house had caught fire on the road outside of our subdivision. My wife didn’t believe him until she drove past it, and sure enough there was a gaping hole in the middle of the house. A beautiful home, which we have passed by every day without even thinking, was suddenly completely torn apart by a fire. Half of the house looked fine, but the center was completely destroyed.
But that’s not even the type of fire Jesus is describing here. This isn’t a contained, controlled fire that leaves some pieces untouched. The picture he paints is of a wildfire, that is kindled and eventually rages out of control, wherever the wind blows. As a kid, I remember traveling with my family on vacation in Florida, and we drove right through the middle of a forest fire. It was burning on both sides of the highway, and the flames came far closer to the road than we were comfortable with. I remember feeling the heat on my face as we drove down I-95, something I never would have expected to feel while safely in the family minivan. It was terrifying!
If you watched the news of the past few years and saw the ravaging wildfires that have burned on the west coast and in the Smokey Mountains, you know the danger that these types of fire cause. What once looked like wonderful, peaceful, ordinary towns are completely reduced to chaos. Nothing is left untouched, everything must be started again. A wildfire has a power unlike almost anything else to reduce our world to complete chaos, ash and dust.
And yet, wildfires are one of the most important ways in which life is reborn in a forest. In a very counter-intuitive way, it is in the midst of the destruction and devastation that a wildfire creates that something beautiful can emerge. Nature is ordered in such a a way that the forest is not destroyed in fire, but instead is reborn. Trying to hold these fires at bay seems like the most loving thing to do, but in fact if forests do not experience the pain and devastation of a forest fire on a regular basis, they lose out on the prospect of new life.
Fire clears out the underbrush, weeds and insects that keep new trees from growing. The healthiest trees are even able to survive a wildfire and experience a significant growth spurt in its wake. And the ashes from burned trees nourish the soil and provide a better place for animals to come and live. In fact, researchers in Florida allowed one area of forest to remain untouched by fire for 40 years. At the end of the experiment, the forest lost 90% of its plant species, and one species of bird completely disappeared. The ashes of a forest fire, as destructive and chaotic as they may seem, are a seed-bed for new growth and life.
This, I believe, is why Jesus begins ranting about fire, peace, and divided households. He’s describing a very prophetic scene, reaching back to quote some of the most famous pieces of prophecy in the Old Testament. Jeremiah once spoke out about the people of Israel, who had rejected God’s word and begun taking advantage of people in the name of unjust gain. He quoted the leaders of the community saying, “‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” They are claiming to have peace, but ignoring the injustice happening all around them. They’re clinging to peace, but it’s a peace won on the broken backs of the less fortunate. Jesus’ words are an echo of Jeremiah, saying: “You may think you have peace right now, but I’m not here to pat you on the back and embrace this false peace. Look around! You are taking advantage of the poor, the widow, the orphan. That’s not peace at all!”
In the same way, his language about turning families against themselves seems striking and problematic at first…why on earth would Jesus want that to happen? But he’s quoting the prophet Micah, who spoke out against corruption at every level of society. Micah described a family structure in which “…the son treats the father with contempt, the daughter rises up against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; your enemies are members of your own household.” He’s describing a world where families are being torn apart by greed, power and violence. And we have to remember that the household was viewed as the fundamental organization of this society. You weren’t part of a country or a political party, a particular industry or religion. You were part of a household, and that was everyone’s primary source of identity and social structure. And this structure was corrupt, unjust, crushing some while letting others thrive.
Jesus is calling that same image to the forefront here, saying, “I’m not content to simply keep the status quo and elevate some households while putting down others. I’m not here to reinforce and pacify the households that hold power because of their religious status or outward appearance. I’m here to topple the entire system and start over. From this point forward, the most important thing that identifies a person is not their allegiance to a household, but their allegiance to me!” This is a total obliteration of the status quo. A forest fire running through the entire social system, from top to bottom.
Now, statements like this are not entirely popular. Richard Carlson wrote about this passage that the “divinely wrought peace that Jesus inaugurates and bestows involves the establishment of proper relationships of mercy, compassion, and justice between God and humanity. Not everyone, however, wants or welcomes this divine peace plan.” No matter how good we know that a forest fire can be, no matter how much new life can spring up in the aftermath and ashes, whenever someone speaks with the kind of language that Jesus is using here, it sounds abrasive to our ears. I thought Jesus was kind and gentle, humble and merciful, not brash and divisive! What gives?
You see, when Jesus speaks about turning the world upside-down, that message sounds one way to those who are on the top, and a completely different way to those who are on the bottom. For myself, as a middle class white male in suburban Atlanta, this message sounds terrifying! Why are you going to bring fire and a sword, Jesus? Sure, there are some things out of whack here, but largely I’m doing okay. If you turn this all upside down, I stand to lose…a lot! Go back to the “do not worry” stuff, Jesus! That was good, let’s just stay there!
But if you’re a person on the bottom end of the ladder, like the people Jesus was speaking to in this moment, this message sounds very different. If you’re living day to day, sitting at the bottom of a political, social and economic system that is built on entrenched racism, militarism and fear, this message sounds incredible. When Jesus starts saying that he’s coming to topple the entire system and start over from the ground up, you suddenly find some hope. Your heart starts to beat faster and you think, “Yes! This is what we’ve been waiting for. Not someone to turn the world upside-down, someone to turn the world rightside up!”
And this is why it is critical for us to hear this message of Jesus with the right ears, the right perspective. For most of us in this room, we are in positions of power and authority based on our economic status, our class, our race, our gender, or our nationality. And if we read this scripture from that perspective, then we are bound to misinterpret the words of Jesus. Instead, we need to put on the skin of someone else, someone at the bottom of the ladder, someone who does not have our level of privilege and power. We need to read this passage with empathy.
Let’s go back and read this scripture again, but place ourselves in the shoes of our neighbors who are less fortunate, whether that is because of their skin color, gender, socio-economic class, or immigration status. Think of that person, and for a moment try to hear this passage from their perspective, through their eyes and ears. Suddenly, the images of fire and division, prophetic metaphors of toppling the status quo sounds like freedom, and a chance to set things right.
This is our job, not only as Christians, but as the church as a whole. NT Wright put it so well when he painted a picture of our role in interpreting this scripture: “The church has from early on read this chapter as a warning that each generation must read the signs of the times, the great movements of people, governments, nations and policies, and must react accordingly. If the kingdom of God is to come on earth as it is in heaven, part of the prophetic role of the church is to understand the events of earth and to seek to address them with the message of heaven. And if, like Jesus, we find that we seem to be bringing division, and that we ourselves become caught up in the crisis, so be it. What else would we expect?”
So if you are like me, and this passage seems to bristle against what we want to be true of Jesus, if you find yourself wanting to move on past this image, or try to wield it as a sword against our theological enemies, then the gospel lesson today is a massive warning to all of us. If we are uncomfortable with this Jesus, it is because we are sitting atop a system of power that He is bringing rightside up, and He is challenging us to join him in the process.
Now, for the past two weeks, we’ve been addressing some difficult issues: greed and giving. Both are directly related to our money, which seems like a bit of a different topic from today’s passage of families, fires and swords. In fact, this passage of scripture feeds into the exact same stream, and when we view it in the larger context of Jesus’ teachings about money, greed and giving, we find a powerful challenge to take action and get involved in this rightside up kingdom.
Money, the topic of our last two Sundays, is the currency of the kingdom of man. Power structures are dictated by wealth, and the racial, religious and social divides that rage around us are reinforced by the economics of our world. Why do we care so deeply about a topic like immigration? Because of money! Because we are concerned that too many people will come here, overload our economic system, and take away what resources we have. Why do the wheels of politics turn so slowly, and politicians dodge when important issues that uplift and protect humanity are brought to the front? Because of money! Because money is used to fund campaigns, and in the halls of Washington a lack of money is a lack of power.
Jesus’ messages about greed and giving are perfectly aligned with this vision of the rightside up kingdom. And by placing these ideas side by side, we see that Jesus is providing us with a weapon to help bring about this revolutionary change in our world. It’s not through taking up arms or shouting at people on facebook. The weapon Jesus hands us is generosity.
Generosity: the willingness to take what is at our disposal and joyfully give it away to others. The act of giving without the promise of reward or the avoidance of punishment. Generosity is one of the most powerful weapons we have at our disposal to help join in this rightside up movement of God’s kingdom. Generosity turns the very currency of the kingdom of man against itself. It takes wealth, this weapon that for centuries has been used to keep the powerful in power and the lowly in their place, and turns the weapon of the system against itself.
We tell grand stories of events like the Boston Tea Party, where colonial Americans snuck aboard ship to throw British tea into the harbor. Why did they do this? Because they were tired of being unfairly taxed by an unyielding authority. So they turned the very object of their oppression (tea) into a weapon of resistance. Generosity does the exact same thing. It takes the most valuable currency of the kingdom of man and turns it against itself.
And all of us get to participate. Generosity is something all of us can engage in. Not all of us are called to be writers, or politicians, or civic leaders. Not all of us are called to start a non-profit to help those less fortunate. But generosity is a weapon we can all use. No matter how much or how little we have, all of us can give. All of us can exercise this prophetic voice, by giving something away.
And so, when we view today’s passage in the context of all that we’ve been learning in Luke 12, the words of Jesus are a call to action, a call to arms for the kingdom of God. But we’re not talking about fomenting revolution or violence, but instead to fight back with the weapon used to build the system of this world, to join in God’s project of turning this world rightside up.
So where are we called to participate? What do we do? How do we engage in this revolution of generosity? For the next six weeks, that’s exactly what we’re going to be talking about. How do we fight the fight of God’s rightside up kingdom with the weapon of generosity. How do we turn the systems of a world built on fear, power and control into systems of mercy, justice and hope?
We will be exploring various aspects of generosity, not simply generosity with our money, but also with our time (which is, after all, monetized in our society) and our presence. Through our daily practices and small groups, we will explore several important practices of generosity: practices of blessing, humility, simplicity, hospitality, stewardship, and justice. This will be a challenging six weeks together, but it may be some of the most important weeks we spend together as a community.
As we launch into this season, I want to remind us of our challenge from last week, the Round Up challenge. We want to work together, using this simple tool, to begin building habits of generosity. For those of us who heard it last week and you thought it was a good idea, but you haven’t started yet, jump in! Sign up for RoundUp, so that everything we give together over these next two weeks can be given away freely to Trinity On The Border, to help those being directly affected by the current situation at the southern border.
Before we conclude today, I want us to practice something together. One of the prescribed lectionary passages today is Psalm 82, a psalm with a very direct prophetic voice against the powers of the world. It is a rightside up prophetic psalm. And it can make us uncomfortable, even angry, if we read it from the wrong perspective. But instead, I want us to read this passage prophetically, to envision ourselves in the shoes of someone at the bottom of society. Let’s imagine ourselves as those who are left without a voice, those in our society who have no home, no rights, no money, no power, no privilege. Those whom the laws and structures of our society are stacked against. Picture that person in your mind, and let’s read the words of this Psalm together, aloud. Let’s read this as a prophetic cry to God, asking for his kingdom to come with fire and turn the world rightside up. Asking him to break up the structures we hold onto, even if it costs us our status and power.
Let’s read these words together, aloud:
1 God calls the judges into his courtroom,
he puts all the judges in the dock.
2–4 “Enough! You’ve corrupted justice long enough,
you’ve let the wicked get away with murder.
You’re here to defend the defenseless,
to make sure that underdogs get a fair break;
Your job is to stand up for the powerless,
and prosecute all those who exploit them.”
5 Ignorant judges! Head-in-the-sand judges!
They haven’t a clue to what’s going on.
And now everything’s falling apart,
the world’s coming unglued.
6–7 “I commissioned you judges, each one of you,
deputies of the High God,
But you’ve betrayed your commission
and now you’re stripped of your rank, busted.”
8 O God, give them their just deserts!
You’ve got the whole world in your hands!
That’s an interesting feeling, isn’t it? Whatever that stirs in your soul, whatever that brings to your mind or your heart, Jesus invites us to have our actions match those words and feelings. He invites to participate with the voice of the Psalmist, shaking our fist at a world that discards the lowly and sacrifices the powerless. And the way we get to kindle that flame, the way we get to join that rightside up revolution, is through the practice of generosity.
Our breath prayer this week is: “Jesus, create in me a generous heart.”