A sermon for the 27th Sunday after Pentecost, November 13, 2016
St. James Episcopal Church, Lincoln, California
“So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
As one who always writes out his sermons in full, this gives me pause. Is Jesus really saying don’t prepare in advance? And how does that fit together with our collect for today, “Grant us to so read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest [the Holy Scriptures] that we may ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life?”
First, we should really look at the scriptures, especially the one in which Jesus says this. Jesus is in Jerusalem, talking with his disciples about the destruction of the Temple. The Temple was there, actually pretty new and solid looking—it had been rebuilt by Herod the Great, just a few decades before. Jesus said not even one stone would be left in place—utter destruction. This section of the Gospel of Luke is a picture of chaos, violence, and fear.
By the time the Gospel of Luke was written down, the scenes in this lesson were actually happening to Christians. The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans, and Christians were sometimes finding themselves dragged in front of magistrates and others, imprisoned, persecuted or beaten. Even St. Paul, the earliest writer in the New Testament, wrote some of his letters from prison.
So when Jesus says:
“But before this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to congregations and prisons and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”
…the readers of the Gospel of Luke knew that it was not just a flight of rhetoric. There were real things to be afraid of. Throughout this election campaign and continuing this week after the election, many have been afraid, and with real things to be afraid of. The emotional intensity of this Gospel reading isn’t more than how many people feel right now.
So Jesus said to the disciples, to the Christians of the late first century who were facing arrest and persecution: “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare a defense in advance.” Jesus had empathy for all these people, that is, he knew and felt how they felt. He took them seriously. But he wasn’t so sympathetic with their desire to be let off the hook, to escape the reality that was facing them. They were afraid, but Jesus addressed them as his disciples, not just students or followers, but as people formed by the discipline of Christ’s love, of the values of his compassionate courage, as people whose character is growing into the love of God—love not for self, but for all of God’s creation, especially those who are vulnerable.
When he says “don’t prepare your defense in advance,” what I believe Jesus is saying is that this is not about defending yourself at all, it is not about a plausible speech, it is about presenting yourself as Christ presented himself—an offering and sacrifice to God. The truth of God’s compassion does not make us any less vulnerable, it does not make the truth hurt any less. We are accountable for being Christians, for standing for the truth in compassion, for insisting on respect for the dignity of every person. This is in no way partisan. Every Christian is equally required at all times to stand up with compassion for peace and against indignities against anyone, particularly when the tide of group emotions is running toward scapegoats and victims.
In the earlier part of the lesson, Jesus warns the disciples, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and ‘the time is near!’ Do not listen to them.” It is so easy to grab hold of plausible rhetoric, and people who promise the world, or even eternity, if you only follow them. We certainly have seen that. As Christians, we follow Jesus, and Jesus alone. So how do we distinguish following Jesus, from accepting the word of some bearded guy standing behind a lectern?
Please join with me in a simple exercise of discernment. Don’t tell me what you are thinking, but reflect on these questions in the privacy of your own heart.
In this time of fraught national transition, what is God calling you to do?
Now. What is fear calling you to do?
Finally. What is love calling you to do?
In the long run, as we grow into Christ, who is the love of God, our discernment of where God is calling us to go, and what love is calling us to be will converge into the same thing. And perfect love casts out fear, as real as the fear may be—but that might take a while. That’s OK—the love of God is bigger than all of us.
So, it says, right here in the Bible: “Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. … You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
In conclusion, let’s join once more and read today’s canticle, the First Song of Isaiah, together in unison:
Surely it is God who saves me;
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord Is my stronghold and my sure defense,
And he will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing
From the springs of salvation.
And on that day you shall say,
Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name;
Make his deeds known among the peoples;
See that they remember that his name is exalted.
Sing the praises of the Lord, for he has done great things,
And this is known in all the world.
Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy,
For the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel.