Why We Can’t Wait
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
June 30, 2019 Third Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 16; I Kings 19; Luke 9:51-62
We just heard one of the strangest passages in the Bible, and yet as hard as it is to understand, it has an urgency that makes it hard to ignore.
The context is that Jesus has turned toward the final stage of his ministry when he will confront the powers of oppression in Jerusalem. His goal is to change the consciousness of society to establish God’s realm of mercy, justice and peace on earth.
Jesus is recruiting a movement around him and sending organizers throughout the countryside. He starts with twelve and quickly trains seventy more. In today’s passage he is trying to help the movement understand the cause and the commitment it requires.
Before we look at what he is saying, let’s step back a few billion lightyears for perspective. There are at least one hundred billion galaxies in the universe, and each has one hundred billion stars or more. We live in a remote corner of one of those galaxies. The next nearest star, Alpha Centauri, is over 25 trillion miles away and would take one hundred years to reach in the fastest space ship we can imagine realistically building. We are a long way from anywhere, we are alone on this little tiny speck in empty space, we have nowhere to go if we don’t make life work here. This is our only chance.
The good news is that the Spirit of the universe is on our side.
The force that set off the big bang and formed the earth and brought life into being and evolved humans and awoke our consciousness wants us to succeed. It created our miraculous minds to be capable of learning and developing the wisdom necessary to evolve into ever greater life.
The Spirit has filled some people over the ages with extraordinary understanding of how the universe works. Jesus was one of them. He attained the most advanced developmental level of human consciousness. He could see the way we have to live in order to survive on earth and make human civilization sustainable. He embodied the ways of the universe, the ways of God.
Jesus served as a messenger to this microscopic living cell of a planet in the middle of lifeless nowhere. He helped us see that every part of its living system matters, even individual humans who exist for just a blink of cosmic time. What matters is that we follow the sacred way of love and life and light, that we lay down our lives to serve the realm of God and fill with its goodness and joy.
Earth’s collective well-being is made up of all that individual well-being.
So lets look at what the universe is saying to us through Jesus right now, when humanity is rapidly destroying the conditions it needs to survive, and human suffering is epidemic.
Jesus had sent disciples out to recruit and organize followers in the towns on the way to Jerusalem. James and John asked Jesus if they should command fire from heaven to destroy a village that was not receptive to his message. The village was Samaritan, and Jesus and his disciples were Jews, and although Samaritans and Jews were extremely similar in almost every way, they could not see their oneness as Jesus could. They could not bridge a polarization that they had inherited from the grudges of generation long past. Samaritans had been known to attack Jewish pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. The violence James and John proposed would not have surprised either side.
The modern Bible says that Jesus “turned and rebuked” the disciples, but early versions of Luke add Jesus saying, “You do not know what Spirit you are of for the Son of Man has come not to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.”
This teaching is important because it echoes a story about the Prophet Elijah who called down fire from a vengeful God to obliterate rivals like the Samaritans. Jesus is saying no, that is not the true Spirit of our creator, we need to grow out of that old way of thinking.
People understand this who attain a Christ-like developmental level of consciousness. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a book, Why We Can’t Wait, that was based on his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” Moderate white clergy had called the nonviolent Civil Rights campaign in Birmingham “unwise and untimely.” They challenged King’s urgency and activism. Meanwhile at the other end of the political spectrum people like Malcolm X were saying the movement was too slow and accommodating, and \ called on it to become violent.
We can hear the wisdom of the universe in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed…. For years now I have heard the word, ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’”
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of [people] willing to be co-workers with God.”
King understood that the human race cannot survive unless we cultivate nonviolence, unless we work as Jesus said, “not to destroy the lives of human beings, but to save them,” even the lives of enemies. This is the nature of the Spirit of the universe that created us, according to Jesus.
At the same time King also understood the urgency of why we can’t wait to establish the realm of God on earth. Human suffering was terrible in his time and it still is today, with record numbers of refugees, with racism still rampant and with economic inequity far worse. And now we have added the knowledge that hundreds of species are going extinct every year because of human activity, and we have little time left to prevent changes that could lead to our own extinction.
Jesus felt urgency, he spoke on behalf of our creator, he spoke as someone desperate to save us, and the three strange encounters with would-be followers in today’s passage are in that context.
The first person promises to follow Jesus wherever he leads, and Jesus responds, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The second says he will follow Jesus after he buries his father, which was a sacred mandate for a faithful Jew, but Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the realm of God.” The third one wants to do what Elisha did when he was about to leave his plowing and follow Elijah. He wants to say goodbye to his family, but Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the realm of God.”
The details here are not important—this passage is not about whether we should sleep in a house or bury our dead or say goodbye to those we love. Jesus preached lovingkindness, for heaven’s sake! He is making these extreme statements in order to underscore what we need to do in a time of crisis. He is explaining what it means to take up our cross and follow his movement, what it means to lay down our lives for others. He is telling us what it takes to change human society and move human consciousness to a new level.
It takes feeling no longer at home in the old place and not yet at home in the new. It takes letting go of our attachment and sacrificing old ways in order to invest all our energy in creating new ways. It takes unwavering commitment that can endure whatever trials are required and not turn back.
This is a universal truth. It is true for us personally when we are undergoing a transformation in our life and experiencing developmental growth. Think of a teenager who is no longer at home in what she was as a pre-teen but is also not yet at home in adulthood. Think how much energy her adolescent rebellion and adjustment will take, how many trials she will have to withstand, how much she must let go as she moves from old ways to new.
The same pattern happens to varying degrees as we move through earlier and later developmental stages, from being little children to older children, from being in a fundamentalist stage to a more objective, rational stage.
The pattern also happens within a movement. Martin Luther King Jr. describes in his book, Why We Can’t Wait, how the Birmingham Civil Rights campaign helped people prepare for the kind of challenges Jesus is implying. The movement trained its nonviolent volunteers intensely and then had them sign a commitment card. The first things the card asked people to promise were to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus,” and to “walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.” They promised to “sacrifice personal wishes” for the cause and to “perform regular service for others and for the world” and to “refrain from the violence of fist, tongue or heart.” The last line says, “I sign this pledge…with the determination and will to persevere.”
Jesus is speaking in today’s passage on behalf of God—the Creator and Spirit of the universe—asking us to sign a commitment card to be part of the movement to establish the realm of God on earth, safeguarding the conditions necessary for life, with mercy, justice and peace.
The voice of the universe in Jesus tells us that we will need to make sacrifices, to persevere, to let go of our old life in order to move into the new. It tells us that we will need to grow and develop as individuals and as a community, and there will be a transition when we no longer feel at home in our old world while the new world has not yet arrived.
The universe tells us something else, as well, something comforting and reassuring. It tells us that we are not alone, however small and remote we may feel, and no matter how great the forces that are arrayed against us. The Spirit of God that we see in Jesus is within and all around us. It will guide and empower us every step along the sacred way toward God’s realm on earth.
Let us pray in silence knowing that Jesus is calling us to be part of this movement. Let us search our heart for the answer we will give him…