Not Safe, But Good Luke 12:49-56
C.S. Lewis’ Narnia chronicles often are considered either children’s stories or deep theological allegories of the Christian story. I say they are both. The main character in these books is a Lion named Aslan (who, if you’re from the allegory camp, represents Jesus). He’s a real lion, a wild animal with sharp teeth and claws, not a tame cat. He has a big roar. That’s why, before the Pevensy children meet Aslan for the first time in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, they are nervous. They ask Mr. Beaver if Aslan is safe. “Safe?” Mr. Beaver scoffs. “Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good.”
Not safe. But good. That understanding of Jesus doesn’t exactly mirror the Sunday school pictures I recall of Jesus, showing him with his softly- permed hair, perfect teeth, and snow white robes peacefully holding a lamb. He looks completely innocuous– less Jesus-as-a-lion and more Jesus-as-kitty-cat. He is far from the Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson from Luke in which the Prince of Peace, announces, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division”–and goes on to threaten family values and to call for a new world order. I don’t associate any of that with safety or the pretty Jesus pictures of my youth.
Whatever artists have done to him since, in the Gospel of Luke Jesus is never passive or innocuous. Instead, Jesus tells the rich to give what they have to the poor. He invites sick, alienated and lonely people to come and have dinner with him. He tells the religious hierarchy they would be closer to God if they would let go of their rules and rituals and instead embrace other people with fierce passion. Jesus touches untouchables and speaks of a kingdom that is more powerful than the Roman Empire that thinks it dominates the world. In God’s kingdom forgiveness counts more than being right, compassion counts more than revenge, and people are not divided by race, religious convictions, or any other artificial boundaries. We are all one.
But we know—as Jesus knew—what the outcome would be of following such an extreme, committed path of love. Not safe, but good. As Jesus refused to condemn even those who condemned him, he took the strongest stand anyone could against violence. He loved people even as they called for his blood. He loved people even when they destroyed his body. His life was not safe, but it was good. What’s more, Jesus did not keep all that goodness to himself, but extended it to all with wide open arms.
And it seems that now—as then–God is active, engaged, and willing to bring down fire if that is what it takes to change a corrupt world order and bring all of creation home. The catch is that if we are following Jesus–as we claim we are—then we cannot ignore this feisty Jesus in favor of the pasty white, meek and mild one from the pictures of my childhood. As Jesus’ followers, we are called not to be safe but good. Which is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. When Christians rise up as our truest selves we threaten every idol our world holds dear. Those who follow Christ, who embody his dedication to the truth and the poor, are not blessed by the world. They are a threat to it, for they challenge the status quo.
The followers of Jesus have rattled the powers throughout the centuries, more than once in this country. I think of the abolitionist movement to free the slaves in the 1800s, led primarily by Christians who resented the suggestion that black people were any less beloved of God than white people. Their descendants were the suffragettes, the Civil Rights leaders, and the Farm Workers movement, all of whom embraced God’s Word as they pushed this nation to recognize inconsistencies in the treatment of its citizens. Today, the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements continue that struggle, insisting that people of color be treated fairly by law enforcement and the criminal justice system and that no one should be a victim of sexual misconduct. Many voices in these movements cry from their faith convictions.
Most recently, we can be proud that at its National Assembly last week, the ELCA voted that the whole denomination become a Sanctuary Church. What that means, at the core, is that the ELCA is publicly declaring that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. While we may have different ideas about how to fix our broken immigration system and different ways of loving our neighbors, we declare our call to love our neighbor is central to our faith.
Of course, being a sanctuary denomination will look different in different contexts. In some cases it may mean providing space for people to live; providing financial and legal support to those who are working through the immigration system; marching as people of faith against the detention of children and families; having thoughtful conversations about what our faith says about immigration; or redoubling our commitment to programs we already support, such as hosting English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and taking collections for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. Nothing will be proscribed from on high, at the synod or churchwide offices, as each congregation is empowered to interpret how God is calling their community to walk in solidarity with people who need a lion by their side. Not safe, but good.
This isn’t entirely new for us as a denomination. Since 1988, when the ELCA was formed from several predecessor Lutheran bodies, it included in its forming principles the mandate that women could be called to be pastors just as men could. And since 2009, the ELCA has affirmed the waters of baptism as the great equalizer in the LGTBQIA + community as well, endeavoring to welcome all God’s children to the altar–as pastors, as parents, as couples, as agents of God’s grace. These shifts weren’t easy, and many people are still catching up to where the Holy Spirit has been moving the church. But we march on, convinced that if the church is the church, then it follows in Jesus’ footsteps: proclaiming liberty to the captives, good news to the poor, and reordering of our priorities so that they are in line with God’s radical vision of respect and honor for all creation. No, at its best the church is not meek and mild. We are rabble rousers! Fire-breathing dragons! Truth tellers! Catalysts for change! Lions! Hear us ROAR!
If that sounds exciting, don’t neglect to consider the consequences. Today’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews includes a catalogue of people acting on that faith: administering justice, quenching raging fire, obtaining promises, and pulling strength out of weakness. These forebears of our faith did brave and foolish things because they took the Bible seriously, not literally. They believed that God really meant it when God said all of creation is precious to God. They believed that Jesus was serious about honoring the least. They trusted in God, and lived as closely as possible the compassion and mercy and justice God calls for.
That got them in trouble. They were not safe. They threatened the superficial peace people had grown accustomed to. Their actions led to being mocked and flogged and imprisoned and persecuted and even death in some graphic and gruesome ways. Following Jesus is not now (nor has it ever been) safe. Sometimes God’s way of taking care of the world is through our hands and voices and votes, and sometimes even our body and blood.
The Good News is this: Jesus struggles alongside the oppressed and through the oppressed toward liberation for all of creation. If anyone is imprisoned in body, mind, or spirit, Jesus isn’t patiently waiting in the visitor’s room, but is actively campaigning for freedom, and reaching through the steel bars to clasp each captive’s hand in the darkness. If anyone is hungry or cold or running for their lives, Jesus is not oblivious to their need. Jesus labors alongside them to find sustenance and hope and justice. When Jesus speaks of peace it isn’t usually in places where there is no suffering, but in the context of forgiveness, healing, and resurrection where situations seem bleak.
The method Jesus intends to use for spreading this kind of peace around is the Church. It is why the church exists. We are not intended to be a social club, but a dangerous company Jesus uses to change the world. We are here not to condone the status quo but to shake it. Don’t tell our insurance company, but when we are at our best, our ministry isn’t safe–but since it involves following the footsteps of Jesus, it is good. If following Jesus means following him all the way to death, then that is how it must be. Don’t forget that following Jesus into the tomb also means following him into new life. If our baptism takes us to a death like his, it will surely also take us to a resurrection like his.
Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we yearn with Jesus’ own yearning for the wholeness and wellbeing of all. So even if our parents condemn us, even if our children rise up against us, even if governments silence us, even if neighbors ridicule us, even if all we’ve ever loved seem turned against us, we will never be alone. We belong to a community where the waters of baptism are thicker than blood. God’s mantle of acceptance and promise is around our shoulders, strong and serious. No, Jesus is not safe. But he is good. And we are his very own.
Thanks be to God.
You can listen to this sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 8-18-19” name of the sermon.