This sermon was preached this morning at First Presbyterian Church in Rome, NY. The text is Luke 12:49-56.
For those who would rather listen than read, you can hear a recording of the sermon by clicking here.
Earlier this week, I received a life-lesson in waiting for the voice of the Holy Spirit. The time came for me to submit this week’s bulletin materials to Kari, your church secretary, and I decided to go ahead and give my sermon a title (even though it had not yet been written). I thought I might focus on Jesus’ statement about bringing “fire to the earth” and explore the ways that Jesus might be “kindling a fire” in our hearts. But on the day after I submitted the bulletin, my point of view on this week’s gospel text was drastically altered during our Thursday evening Bible study at St. James Mission in Utica.
My paradigm shift came from comments offered by a new visitor to our group. He is a young father in his early thirties who is currently going blind. He claims that, as his eyesight has diminished over the last year, he has developed an ability to intuitively sense when he is in an unsafe part of town. While there may be no way for us to scientifically test whether he actually has this sixth sense, let’s take him at his word, for the sake of argument. What this means is that this gentleman has been learning how to see in a new way.
Our visitor told this story in response to the last part of today’s reading, where Jesus asks, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Our friend commented that the people in this story were like he once was: blind to the reality of the world around him. Ironically, it is as he loses his sight that he gains insight.
Jesus’ question to the people comes in the context of a larger discussion that happens in Luke 12. This discussion is prompted by someone who comes to Jesus, asking him to resolve a dispute between family members over an inheritance. Jesus declines to get involved in the conflict and engages instead on a lengthy teaching about the spiritual dangers of greed and anxiety. He invites people to live by a different set of beliefs and values than those embraced by society-at-large. In the portion of the discussion we are reading today, Jesus warns his followers that living by this different set of beliefs and values will inevitably put them at odds with the world around them.
Jesus further challenges the crowd to take a closer look at their lives. All the fuss about money and property rights; does it really lead to better quality of life? Is it really worthwhile to get caught up in playing society’s games? As for the man who was fighting with his brother over their inheritance, Jesus encouraged him to go and try to reconcile with his brother outside of court. After all, what’s more important: the inheritance money or their family relationship?
If we were to take an honest look at today’s world, I think it would be fair to say that ours is no less driven by the powers of greed and anxiety. The teachings of Jesus present us with a way of living that still puts us at odds with society’s beliefs and values. We, no less than Jesus’ original followers, face the daily temptation to buy into society’s illusions about what will bring us true security and happiness. And, like those first followers, Jesus is continually inviting us to take a closer look at the world around us, so that we might become more faithful followers of the way of Christ.
One way that we can take a closer look at our world (or “interpret the present time”, as Jesus put it in today’s reading) is by looking at the world through the eyes of another person. This is a large part of our ministry at St. James Mission. Allow me to give you an example: There are relatively few homeless shelters in the state of New York between the cities of Albany and Syracuse. One day, as I was sitting outside a coffee shop here in Rome, I asked a passing police officer about homelessness in central New York. He told me that we are “blessed to not have that problem here.” At first glance, it would be easy to agree with this officer’s assessment. After all, I am rarely approached by panhandlers in Rome and Utica. I don’t often see people sleeping on park benches or huddled inside cardboard boxes (a common sight in other cities). Could it be that we are immune to the effects of this perennial urban problem?
The answer came for me as I have walked with multiple people as they transition from one place to another. St. James Mission started our Community Chaplaincy program a year and a half ago in the neighborhood surrounding the Olbiston Apartments on Genesee Street. Those who know Utica are probably familiar with this large red-stone building at the corner of Genesee and Clinton. Most of our ministry contacts were located in that immediate neighborhood. As relationships have developed, every single one of the people I met there has moved elsewhere. I have helped individuals find new housing and fill out applications for assistance. What I have discovered is that many of these people have been moving house every three to six months for years on end. Sometimes they travel into and out of inpatient treatment programs. Sometimes they stack up eviction after eviction, each time stepping down the ladder toward more dilapidated housing. Some people go “couch-surfing” or staying informally with a series of friends for extended periods of time. While these urban nomads always manage to have some kind of roof over their heads, they are still ultimately homeless.
Homelessness is a very real problem here in the Mohawk Valley, but it remains a hidden problem as long as the general public is unaware of the particular form it takes in our area. I am learning the truth of this reality from those brave men and women who are willing to share their lives with me as their pastor. To me, they are God’s messengers who help me “interpret the present time” and pay attention to the world around me. Never again can I buy into the illusion that the Mohawk Valley has no homeless people.
Ministries such as Emmaus House, Hope House, JCTOD, and the Rescue Missions are working tirelessly to address this problem. Through our Community Chaplaincy, we at St. James Mission are joining the effort by offering free services of referral, advocacy, and spiritual care to people on the street in Utica. Any of these ministries would be worthy of your support. Consider giving, not only with your prayers and wallets, but with your volunteer time and presence as well. Get involved and look at the world through the eyes of someone who is different from you. This is part of what it means to “interpret the present time”.
There are many other ways in which God is teaching us how to see. Earlier in this passage, Jesus talks about reading the signs set forth by the clouds and the wind. I couldn’t help but think of this as I was driving home from our Bible study on Thursday. There was a most magnificent sunset on the horizon. With me in the car was another one of our regular participants who lives in Rome. We drove west on Route 49 describing the shapes we saw in the brilliant orange and purple clouds. At one point, he said to me, “I think of clouds as art.” I think he was absolutely right. When we look at our world, do we see a random collection of atoms and chemical reactions? Or is there something deeper that lends meaning to this universe? To be fair, Jesus wasn’t exactly speaking about the revelation of God in nature when he spoke about the clouds and the wind in this passage, but there are certainly other passages in the Bible that do point in that direction. One of my personal favorites is Psalm 19:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”
As we drove along toward home, praying grateful prayers for those natural fireworks, I believe I could hear the voice of the heavens telling the glory of God.
If I were to give this sermon a new title, it would be Learning How To See, because Jesus is in the business of teaching us how to see. He teaches us to take an honest look at our world and the empty illusions it holds. He challenges us to look past the surface of our lives and face reality, so that we might learn what makes for true peace and prosperity.
I’ll close with these words from a song by Bruce Cockburn:
“Little round planet in a big universe:
Sometimes it looks blessed, sometimes it looks cursed.
Depends on what you look at, obviously.
But, even more, it depends on the way that you see.”
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, we confess that we, in our spiritual blindness, are unable to see our lives and our world clearly; we need your Holy Spirit to kindle a fire in our hearts, so that we might see you and serve you in every person we meet and every situation we encounter; we ask this for the glory of your most holy name. Amen.