Text Study for Luke 10:1-20 (Part One)

The lectionary committee has done violence to our text by omitting Luke 10:12-15. Richard Swanson writes that, in omitting these verses, the lection “omits the allusion that clarifies this scene. Woes are pronounced on cities that have not offered a welcome to Jesus and his movement,” Swanson continues, “but before those woes comes a reference to Sodom, the city that exemplifies the refusal of the duty of hospitality” (page 159).

I suspect that the lectionary folks desired to make the reading a little less “PG-13” in its content by excising the reference to Sodom. In addition, the lectionary folks demonstrate a consistent distaste for verses which show Jesus as angry, vengeful, and pronouncing judgment on others. This editorial concern reinforces the notion that the “God of the Old Testament” is one of vengeance while Jesus’ “God of the New Testament” is one of love and grace and mercy.

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That simple dichotomy is inaccurate, uncomplicated, and does not respect the authority and integrity of the text. Levine and Witherington suggest that verses such as Luke 10:12-15 “should serve as a corrective” for such simplistic and self-serving (from a Christian perspective) interpretations. In a footnote, they observe that “Jesus has more to say about the reality of Hell (which he calls Gehenna) than Paul, or any other NT writer, save John of Patmos in Revelation” (page 281).

These observations make the universalist hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. However, the textual point cannot be disputed. And it should not be minimized by the fiat of lectionary excisions. It’s in the text, and we should deal with it. That’s especially true when the excised text is necessary for an accurate and fulsome interpretation and reading of the text.

That being said, we can take the opportunity to review the nature of “the sin of Sodom” (whether that actually makes it into the message or not). I will quote Levine and Witherington on the matter. “Regarding the sin of Sodom, which prompted the destruction, the prophet Ezekiel makes clear that the Sodomites were destroyed because of a lack of hospitality, an allusion already prompted by the rejection of Jesus in Samaria (9:54), when James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven. Since,” they continue, “Jesus’ statement appears in the context of households either accepting or rejecting the disciples, the concern for Sodom’s hospitality is here also invoked” (page 280).

Swanson offers these comments. In the ancient Mediterranean world, “wanderers are to be treated as family, welcomed and fed.” This is the principle which is violated if and when any of the seventy are refused hospitality. “thus it was that when the citizens of Sodom sought to abuse and humiliate guests in Lot’s house,” Swanson continues, “he offered them his daughters instead. This is inconceivable in any social system,” he concludes, “except one that places the responsibility for hospitality even above one’s responsibility for immediate family” (page 160).

This connection to the destruction of Sodom puts the the members of the “Seventy Sent” in the role of the messengers to Sodom in Genesis 19. Two messengers came to Sodom, and Lot offered them hospitality. Remember that the Seventy Sent are to travel two by two on their mission. That mission, in Genesis 19, is to offer rescue to those will accept the news of Sodom’s impending destruction. We can see that mission of rescue described in Genesis 19:12. The messengers urgently inquire about the extent of Lot’s family and community. They should get out while the getting is good.

Of course, the two messengers will also bring destruction to Sodom, but not before those who want the rescue have been saved. Swanson’s contention that the omitted verses are critical to our interpretation bear fruit now. The Seventy Sent bear a message of eschatological urgency. The time for “harvest” has drawn near. The message of rescue from destruction is carried by the missionaries and enacted in their healing and preaching. There is still time to respond before the end.

Messengers from Jesus need our welcome. When we include the excised verses in our reading and reflection, I think we get a much more interesting and applicable text for preaching and teaching. If and when someone needs our welcome, we settled folks should pay special attention to what they need and what they say. Of course, that reverses our expectation, especially in our time. We church folks expect to be consumers, not involuntary workers in the hospitality industry. We expect those who bring Jesus’ message to give us something of value before we compensate them with anything approaching hospitality.

Who are those who long for welcome and hospitality in our Christian communities? The mention of Sodom in our text will certainly bring to mind for some in our pews their continuing anxieties and hostilities regarding the welcome, inclusion, and leadership of LGBTQIA+ people in our communities. It should be clear that we cisgender, heterosexual, non-queer people have gotten this all backwards. Those who seek hospitality at our eucharistic table and in our pulpits bring the message from Jesus. If we refuse that hospitality, we find ourselves in the role of Sodom (and all the other villages listed).

That is still shocking to some so-called mainline Christians and many, many Evangelical Christians. It is our refusal of hospitality that is the sin of Sodom. This is old news for many who have been in this struggle for a lifetime and more. But it will continue to be new and shocking information for too many in the pews I have faced over the last forty years.

This can be dangerous work for the messengers, as we can see from the text. It will be worth reading this text as if we are the Seventy Sent, but let’s not jump to that perspective too quickly. Let’s focus on our place, most of the time, as the “home team” rather than the “away team.” What do the messengers bring? They bring first of all the palpable gift of God’s peace to the household. They cure the sick and proclaim the presence of the Reign of God. That presence arrives whether it is welcomed or not (see the end of verse 11).

This could be an opportunity to think about our default assumptions when we deal with newcomers to our worshiping communities. We focus primarily on two things: what we have to “offer” to the newcomers (treating them as church-shopping consumers), and how we can assimilate them into the ways things already are (treating them as potential threats to our status quo — threats that must be neutralized to sustain the stability of the current community). Since these are our default responses and assumptions, it’s no wonder that in many of our communities, newcomers pass through our midst with hardly a notice or ripple.

What if, instead, we would regard newcomers as some of the latest recruits to the Seventy Sent? Those who need our welcome are the ones Jesus sends with important messages. Perhaps that message is information about the needs of the community beyond our walls. Perhaps that message is a challenge to be more responsive to that community and the larger world. Perhaps that message is a new perspective, a new way of doing or seeing things, a new connection to the wider world. Newcomers need our hospitality and bring us news.

I learned in parish ministry to regard newcomers as such messengers. “I wonder,” I often thought to myself, “what new thing the Holy Spirit wants to accomplish among us by sending this new person?” Sometimes that new thing was a creative new opportunity. Sometimes that new thing was a challenge to rethink and revise how we did or viewed something. After all, one of the benefits of being a newcomer is that you don’t know that it can’t be done that way.

Jesus equips the Seventy Sent with power and authority to do just what he commissions them to do. And, as we read in the last part of the text, it works! If we can get ourselves out of the way, newcomers can indeed bring new life and mission into our midst. That will produce change, discomfort, challenge, displacement, and disagreement. That’s a necessary part of the process. But the outcome is another victory in the battle against sin, death, and the devil.

“Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, and he invites us to walk with him,” Marilyn Salmon writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “His words here speak to every generation of Christian disciples and inspire a sense of urgency about bringing God’s realm near. As we begin,” Salmon concludes, “we are called to examine customs we create to protect our comfort and ease, beginning with the practice of hospitality.”

Well, that’s a start for the week anyway.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part Four)

Researchers call it the “Last Place Aversion.” Why do people those near the bottom of any social status pyramid treat those beneath them badly? Why do people in low-income groups vote against their self-interest and support systems of inequality? Philosophers and historians have known about this human tendency for centuries. But the explanations offered have not been very convincing.

Until recently. In 2014 researchers[i] suggested that we humans really hate being in “last place.” We will even act against our self-interest if that keeps us out of the bottom of the heap. Nothing makes us happier than having a group or class to look down on. As we move up in status, last place anxiety decreases. As we move down in status, it increases.

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In one set of experiments, people were given random dollar amounts. Then the experimenters showed them where they landed on the dollar hierarchy. Each subject then chose one of two strategies. One strategy gives the player more money as almost a sure thing. The other strategy is higher risk but gives the player the chance to move up in the hierarchy.

All the players chose the almost sure thing except for the bottom two. The last-place player wants to move up. The second-to-the-last place player wants to keep from moving down. Both players are willing to tolerate higher risk than average. The one hates being in last place. The other hates the thought of being in last place.

Last place aversion.

Another experiment is a money-transfer game. The players get random amounts of money. Each player has one dollar less than the next highest and one dollar more than the next lowest. Everyone knows their place on the money ladder. Players receive two dollars more. Each player has to give their extra two dollars either to the person directly above them or directly below them on the money ladder.

If I give the two dollars to the person above me, that person will move higher on the ladder (except for the top person). If I give two dollars to the person below me, I fall one place on the ladder. On average, players offer up or down at about the same rate regardless of position.

That’s true except for one person on the ladder. Can you guess which one? That’s right. The second-to-the-last person almost never gives two dollars to the last place person.

Last place aversion.

Of course, you might say, those are games played by undergraduates in psychology programs. That wouldn’t happen in the real world, would it? Think about people in favor of or against raising the minimum wage. The Pew Research Center did surveys to see which lower income group was more likely to oppose increasing the minimum wage. Which group do you imagine was more likely to oppose that increase? You guessed it. Those people being paid just above minimum wage.

Last place aversion.

Well, Pastor, you may say, that’s mildly interesting. But what’s it got to do with anything here today? I’m so glad you asked!

Jesus turns decisively toward Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. On the way, Jesus and his entourage pass through Samaria. Samaria was the territory between Jesus’ homeland of Galilee in the north and Judea, the location of Jerusalem in the south. Jews regarded the Samaritans as half-breed heretics and traitors. They intermarried with conquerors over the centuries. And they worshiped at a temple on Mt. Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem.

The Samaritans were regarded by many Jews as the lowest of the low. The urgency of Jesus’ mission is underscored by the fact that he passes through Samaria.

It was ancient tradition that local folks, regardless of their background, would offer hospitality to travelers. In the first village they come across, Jesus’ followers are rejected and refused.

James and John regard the rebuff as the highest possible insult. I can imagine something like this going through their minds. “We may be hicks from the Galilean boonies and backwaters. But at least we’re not those damned Samaritans!” I’m not swearing here. At least some Jews were sure that Samaritans were cursed by God.

Now we get to one of the awful parts of the text. “Lord,” James and John ask, “do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” We don’t have to put up with such treatment from those low-lifes. If we do, those bottom feeders will be one up on us. And we can’t let that happen.

Last place aversion.

That psychological reality is written into the fabric of the New Testament. You may not know it, but it is written into the fabric of American history as well.

In 1675 Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion against wealthy landowners in the colony of Virginia. Late in the rebellion, as things weren’t going well, Bacon offered the promise of freedom to white and black indentured servants and Native Americans if they would fight on his side. More than seventy men of all colors took him up on the promise.

In the end, Bacon’s forces lost, and Bacon died from typhus fever. But the wealthy white men learned a powerful lesson. If all the folks at the bottom ever joined forces, they could overthrow the ladder of privilege that kept them all in their place.

The wealthy folks separated out the poor whites from the Blacks and Native Americans. They offered the poor whites legal, economic, and social privileges. The price of those privileges was cooperation in enslaving the Blacks and the Native Americans.

The historian, James Rice, described the situation like this. The alliance of rich and poor Whites “forced Indians and Africans to shoulder the burden of resolving the tensions and divisions within white colonial society.”[ii] Clyde Ford says that “liberty and equality are possible for the privileged few, because they are denied to a great many, based on the color of one’s skin. That fundamental equation,” Ford concludes, “is as true today as it was in the late seventeenth century.”[iii]

Last place aversion.

This is very odd for us who follow Jesus. Just a few verses before our text, the disciples argue about which one of them was the greatest. They may all have felt superior to the accursed Samaritans, but there was still the matter of their internal pecking order.

Jesus puts a child on the seat beside him. “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus tells the disputing disciples in Luke 9:48, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the least among all of you is the greatest.”

For the least among you is the greatest. We’re Last Place Lovers. That’s the discipleship standard. And it’s one of the things that makes us Jesus followers so weird. But how in the world can it be true?

If there’s anything we can say about the God we meet in Jesus, it’s this. You are first in God’s heart. So am I. So is every bit of this beloved Creation. There’s no point in trying to protect my place in the Kingdom of God. Jesus already has that covered.

That’s the good news for today. Last Place Aversion is a waste of time. We’re Last Place Lovers, because we’re all first place with God. So, James and John, the only heavenly fire you’ll get is the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. That fire calls people of every time and place into God’s beloved family. And in that family, everyone is in first place.

What does this mean for us? I’ll make a few brief suggestions. When I’m worried about my spot on the ladder, I’m getting this Jesus-following thing wrong. The Spirit helps me let go of that worry every day.

Whenever we get the chance to dismantle and demolish human hierarchies, we Jesus followers should be part of that work. These are the things that Paul calls the works of the flesh in Galatians 5. I’m thinking about racism, misogyny, heterosexism, classism, ageism, and ableism for starters. We live in a time when some folks want to put all the old hierarchies back in place. So, we’ve got our work cut out for us.

Whenever I get the chance to lift up anyone in a last place, I need to jump at the chance. That’s what Paul calls the fruit of the Spirit. I pray that you and I can be bear that fruit fully and daily. Amen.

[i] “LAST-PLACE AVERSION”: EVIDENCE AND REDISTRIBUTIVE IMPLICATIONS. Ilyana Kuziemko Ryan W. Buell Taly Reich Michael I. Norton. Working Paper 17234. http://www.nber.org/papers/w17234. NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH 1050 Massachusetts Avenue Cambridge, MA 02138 July 2011.

[ii] Quoted in Clyde W. Ford, Of Blood and Sweat, page 117.

[iii] Ibid.

Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part Three)

The Twelve carried with them the assumptions, perceptions, and reactions of men raised and socialized in an honor/shame culture. The evidence is close at hand to our text. Malina and Rohrbaugh note, concerning Luke 9:46-50, that “A squabble over honor status would be typical within any ancient Mediterranean grouping” (page 344). The wrangling over who’s the top banana disciple is certainly a prime example of a squabble over honor status.

It’s worth reviewing the highlights of honor-shame societies from Malina and Rohrbaugh’s work. They contrast such societies to the more “guilt-oriented” Western cultures, although I have doubts about that contrast. Nonetheless, “Honor can be understood as the status one claims in the community together with the all-important recognition of that claim by others” (page 310). Such honor is either ascribed or acquired. In Luke 9, the disciples are wrestling with relative gradations of ascribed honor, since they all have been labelled as part of the Twelve.

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In our text for Sunday, honor challenges and insults abound. Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that Samaritans perceive an honor offense because Jesus is merely passing through. His face is set toward Jerusalem. “Of course the Samaritans perceive this as a slight,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, “while James and John view such rejection of hospitality as insulting; hence their desire to get satisfaction by ‘commanding fire from heaven’ as Elijah did…” (page 345).

It should be clear that the system is working as designed. The Twelve are particularly primed to react to such an insult, given the conversation they’ve been having. They are tightly focused on their status and the honor such status provides them. That honor is tied to the status of their master. Jesus has been deeply disrespected, and such an insult cannot pass unanswered. The response of the disciples, in this system, is not only plausible but required.

Therefore, the surprising response comes, not from James and John, but from Jesus. Life in the Kin(g)dom of God will be anything but business as usual.

I noted earlier that I’m not so sure about the sociological differences between modern, Western societies and the honor/shame culture of the first-century Mediterranean. Indeed, it appears to me that an honor/shame culture has been driving the cultural and political life of American Evangelicalism for two centuries. I think there’s no question that the culture of the antebellum South was an honor/shame culture, with the wealthy White male at the pinnacle of the social pyramid. The defense of White womanhood, the celebration of chivalry, the culture of dueling, and the need for Black people to make up the base of the pyramid are all signs of that culture.

This matters to me because that’s the culture which came out of the Civil War and embraced the mythology of the Lost Cause. That mythology has undergirded White Evangelical culture since the end of the Civil War and has taken firm control of significant parts of the larger American social dynamic, especially the conservative Evangelical Christian part of that social dynamic.

For a full and clear treatment of this culture and its power in American culture and politics, I would encourage you to read (and re-read) Kristin Kobes DuMez’s book, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. “Generations of evangelicals learned to be afraid of communists, feminists, liberals, secular humanists, ‘the homosexuals,’ the United Nations, the government, Muslims, and immigrants—and they were primed to respond to those fears by looking to a strong man to rescue them from danger, a man who embodied a God-given, testosterone-driven masculinity” (page 13). Of course, that “strong man” was Donald Trump.

DuMez notes that many early-twentieth century Christians thought they had a masculinity problem. They were concerned that Victorian Christianity had made Christian men too soft and even feminized. This concern was echoed in the larger culture through the rhetoric of men such as President Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt had suffered shame as a young man for being a weakling, a fancy-pants fop, and a high-voiced girl. He reinvented himself as a cowboy, an paragon of male rugged individualism, and a combatant in the battles of life. One only has to recall Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech to capture the full flavor of his ideology.

This “crisis of Christian manhood” followed American evangelicalism throughout the twentieth century and continues in the twenty-first. I was taken, for example, by many things that John Eldredge had to say in Wild at Heart. The call to a more authentic masculinity in the face of post-industrial existence resonated with me and many of the men in my life. In the end, however, this perspective always ended in violence, subordination of women, and some honor-based classist and racist hierarchy. Anxieties about the honor of men always risk the call for a fiery end to one’s enemies. For Eldredge, the real model of a Christian man was not Jesus but rather William Wallace (as portrayed by Mel Gibson).

If anything, this rhetoric has gotten far worse and far more violent. It’s no accident that the attention of right-wing domestic terrorists has turned toward the transgender community. The anxiety is always about protecting White Male privilege, power, position, and property. Anything that might complicate that status is “the enemy.” In the 1990’s, the attention was directed toward the gay community more generally. The outcome of that attention was events like the torture and assassination of Matthew Shepherd. The White Male Christian rage expressed then and now is a direct result of the worship of privilege, power, position, and property claimed as the sole possessions of White Christian men.

Let’s be clear, then, that Jesus rejects this understanding of real “honor and shame.” As noted in a previous post, the desire of James and John to punish the Samaritans with a fiery death is not an honorable desire. It is, rather, demonic and receives Jesus’ rebuke. The desire for White male Christian power in our time and space is similarly demonic and requires a similar rebuke. This is not “bringing politics into the pulpit.” Rather, I think we need to respond to claims being made in the culture that coopt and pervert the Christian gospel for the sake of White Christian Male Nationalism.

The disciples cannot perceive the meaning of Jesus’ betrayal and death. We read that in the verses before our text. Nor can many people in our own time. When a nationally-known politician jokes that Jesus didn’t have enough AR-15 assault rifles to “keep his government from killing him,” we know that Christian thinking has gone off the tracks and is completely derailed. I can’t read our text without having this conversation in my head. I’m not quite sure yet how I want to have it in the message I will give. But I know that I can’t avoid the topic.

The “kick ass and take names” approach to following Jesus will get us a rebuke from Jesus and nothing more. The view that following Jesus is one lifestyle option among many on our busy calendar (see Luke 9:57-62) will get us an invitation from Jesus to think this whole thing over again. Neither of these responses is what it means to be a Jesus follower. As a disciple I am called to bear the full cost of Jesus-following in my life and to refuse the temptation to offload some or all of that cost onto others.

I can’t find a lot of “good news” in this particular gospel text. I would like to think that Paul can bail me out in the second reading from Galatians 5, but I’m not sure that’s much help either. I don’t know about you, but I have to sit with this one for a while yet.

References and Resources

Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Kobes Du Mez, Kristin. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part Two)

When I worked with churches in conflict, I sometimes asked a pointed question. “Would you rather,” I would say with some drama, “be right or be in relationship?” For a while, I thought the question was a mic drop sort of query. Then I realized that I was dealing with people who were more honest than I liked. The “right answer” for Christians (as I was assuming) is that it’s more important to be in relationship than to be right. Unity in the Body of Christ is a primary value in the New Testament witness. Some of my conversation partners, however, didn’t see it that way.

“Well, Pastor,” some replied, “of course I’d rather be right. What’s the point, after all,” they continued, “of having a relationship with someone who’s wrong and simply won’t admit it?” I learned that if someone was at that point in a church conflict, the chances that the sides would find common ground and reconciliation were vanishingly small. The desire to be “right” took on existential importance and urgency, sometimes leading to verbal, institutional, and even physical violence.

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The first paragraph in our text for Sunday has some terrifying dialogue in it. “When the fulfillment of the days had come for his being taken up,” we read in Luke 9:51-52, “and he fixed his face to go into Jerusalem, he also sent messengers before his face” (my translation). Here we begin the “Lukan travelogue,” the narrative of the way of discipleship that leads from Galilee to the cross in the Holy City. This is not merely a “road” as the NRSV would have it in verse 57. This is “the way” that Jesus has firmly resolved to take.

The lectionary selection and headings in many translations tie together the declaration of purpose in Luke 9:51-52a with the Samaritan refusal in Luke 9:52b-56. However, I think it’s more helpful to see this little section beginning with Luke 9:46. More than that, the declaration of purpose is framed by two discipleship fails, first on the part of John and then on the part of James and John together.

In Luke 9:49-50, we have the Lukan version of the “Unknown Exorcist.” Jesus had commissioned the Twelve in Luke 9:1-6 to go out proclaiming the kingdom and healing. That healing certainly included the exorcism of demons, just as it did for Jesus. It seems that John thought this was a “Jesus” schtick, and they needed to protect their performance rights. “And we hindered him,” John reports to Jesus, “because he is not following us” (Luke 9:49b, my translation and emphasis).

Note what John says here. The unknown exorcist was using Jesus’ name, but he wasn’t following “us.” He wasn’t on the right team, the right side, the in-crowd, the cool kids. He was an outsider who had to be brought to heel. It was more important to be right than to extend the mission of healing in Jesus’ name.

John’s report is a direct response to Jesus’ comments on the interminable “who is the greatest” debate among the disciples. Jesus knows what the argument is — a distraction from all that icky talk about betrayal and a delicious debate about the disciple pecking order. Jesus, therefore, uses the example of welcoming a child in Jesus’ name as a measure of real discipleship. It’s another window into the Lukan “great reversal” theme.

“And as John answered,” we read in Luke 9:49, “he said…” All John got out of the welcoming children example was the phrase “in my name.” With that little prompt he was once again off to the races, seeking to establish both rank and power. Jesus, of course, is having none of it. “Don’t hinder him,” Jesus replies, “for the one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50, my translation).

This is the lead-in to our lectionary reading. While Luke 9:51 is usually regarded as the beginning of the Lukan travelogue, I don’t think we can read verses 52-56 without taking verses 46-50 into account in our interpretation. The one who is greatest is the least. The one who is not against us is for us. Being right is not all it’s cracked up to be.

What will we do to ensure that we are “right”? Tom Nichols wrote a recent op-ed online for the The Atlantic entitled “What Are Trump Supporters So Afraid Of?” Nichols worries that as additional information about events surrounding the January 6 coup attempt comes out, “there will be more irrational anger and threats from people who cannot bear the truth.” That line was immediately ratified by the testimony of Georgia public election officials who, in the wake of their defense of 2020 ballot counts in the state, have been subjected to death threats, harassment, verbal assaults, home invasions, and loss of jobs and peace of mind.

Nichols suggests that the people who engage in such behavior are “less angry than they are terrified.” They are not only terrified of losing political, economic, cultural, and legal power, Nichols continues, although all of that is the case. “I think,” Nichols argues, “the Trump superfans are terrified of being wrong. I suspect they know that for many years they’ve made a terrible mistake,” Nichols continues, “that Trump and his coterie took them to the cleaners and the cognitive dissonance is now rising to ear-splitting, chest-constricting levels. And so,” he concludes, “they will literally threaten to kill people…if that’s what it takes to silence the last feeble voice of reason inside themselves.”

The rest of the column is worth the read, but you get the gist. And perhaps you get the point that strikes me here. In Luke 9, we get an escalation of behaviors on the part of disciples who seem to be protecting their right to be “right.” We’re not going to let some freelancer horn in on our disciple gig. We’ll put a stop to that. Samaritans don’t know enough to extend some hospitality to us on the way (of discipleship, remember)? We’ve got a solution for that straight out of Elijah’s playbook in 1 Kings. Some fire from the sky should put the fear of God into anyone who might contemplate a similar sort of resistance.

Pay attention to the words in Luke 9:54. “But when the disciples, James and John, saw [this], they said, ‘Lord, do you wish that we might call fire down from the heaven and destroy them?'” The Lukan author makes it crystal clear that disciples are offering this suggestion. It happens to be James and John in this case, but it would seem that they represent the consensus of the group. Clearly, the vocation of discipleship doesn’t automatically make anyone less of an asshole. That seems to take a bit of doing.

The Lukan author also makes it crystal clear that this suggestion by the disciples is demonic. “But turning around, he [Jesus] rebuked them” (Luke 9:55, my translation and emphasis). Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves when they threaten the disciples. Jesus rebukes the fever in Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus rebukes demons, and they leave people. Most recently, in terms of our text, that happens in Luke 9:42. Peter rebukes Jesus and gets called “Satan” (I know that’s in Mark, but it’s still the case). This is not a gentle correction of a slight faux pas.

Jesus doesn’t excuse the Samaritans for their response to him. Neither does he blast them to smithereens because they are “wrong.” Based on Jesus’ training with the Twelve, he shakes the dust off his feet and moves on to another village where the reception might be better. Nobody is going to die here today, James and John, no matter how “right” you think you are. That’s not how people who actually “are” right operate.

Tom Nichols puts it this way. “No one who truly believes they are right threatens to hurt anyone for expressing a contrary view,” he argues. “The snarling threat of violence never comes from people who calmly believe they are in the right. It is always,” he continues, “the instant resort of the bully who feels the hot flush of shame rising in the cheeks and the cold rock of fear dropping in the pit of the stomach.” If Nichols is right, then the fiery proposal is not an expression of conviction but rather the insecure response of those who still harbor doubts.

For the Twelve at this point in the Lukan account, I’m afraid that shoe fits all to well. And perhaps it fits too well for many of us.

I find it hard to see how so-called Christians could read our text and then conclude that violence in the name of being “right” is ever an option for Jesus followers. We may indeed find ourselves in a place where we are called upon to die for the sake of the mission (see Luke 9:57-62 for some insight into this notion). We who follow Jesus cannot find ourselves in places where killing in the name of Jesus is ever the “right” thing to do. More than that, doing violence to protect our “rightness” is demonic not disciplic (I know that’s not a word, but it should be).

Text Study for Luke 9:51-62 (Part One)

It’s full on yard and garden season on the Flying Pigs Farm (our name for the urban farm in our backyard). I have cucumbers headed toward the canning jars and tomatoes destined for salads, salsa, and pasta sauce. I canned the small crop of beets we raised, and we’re about ready for the second crop of radishes. Onions are cruising along (delicious), and the okra and squash have started to take off. Perhaps I can get in a few comments along the way, since the afternoons this week and next are too warm for much yard work.

“But Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts the hand upon the plow and looks toward what lies behind is suitable for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62, my translation). It’s best to start at the end of the text. If we can understand the punchline, we may be able to grasp the text and the chapter. Verse 62 isn’t merely the conclusion of the lectionary reading. It is the summation and charge of this whole chapter. Chapter nine is focused on the nature and cost of discipleship, of following the way of Jesus to the cross in Jerusalem and beyond.

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The NRSV gives us this rendering: “‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’” That’s a quite serviceable translation. However, I fear that many listeners will misunderstand the meaning of “fit” in the sentence. The Greek word is not about moral fitness, about worth or desert. This isn’t about “qualifying” for heaven. But I fear that’s precisely what many listeners have been formed to hear. So, it may be worth addressing this in a message.

The sentence is really about having what it takes to be on the front lines of the mission. Our text comes between the sending of the Twelve and the Seventy. So, Jesus is coaching up his followers for the work that is ahead of them. This sort of discipleship may be like Nebraska (at least according to the Nebraska Tourism board) — honestly, it’s not for everyone. Frankly, I think that’s a moronic approach to promoting tourism. But it’s a realistic caution when we’re talking front-line discipleship.

Honestly, perhaps it’s not for everyone. Is it for me?

If the punchline is a word of caution to the over-eager and the under-prepared, that makes the preceding verses a little easier to process. On their face, verses fifty-seven through sixty-one sound cruel. But, perhaps these verses are words of caution to people who haven’t thought through the cost of front-line following. These verses may be the way that Jesus (or at least the Lukan author) lets these eager beavers down easy. They haven’t considered what their devotion might cost them. Perhaps they are not quite up to the challenge (at least not yet).

The words in these verses are not, therefore, judgments against those who are not fit. They are, rather, words of caution for those who haven’t quite thought this thing through. I will follow you anywhere, one says. That’s fine if you can stand to sleep out in the open, Jesus says. But if not, you might want to have a re-think on that one. Yes, honoring our parents is a commandment to be obeyed. But following Jesus on the front-lines might require abandoning that obligation. Are you up for that? Family connections are important, but the mission may require loosening those connections. If that’s too much, then perhaps you ought to reconsider your role in the mission.

I think there’s a good chance that Luke 9 has a chiastic structure. If that’s the case, then we can get some interpretive help by looking at the first paragraph of the chapter. Notice the instructions Jesus gives as he sends the twelve on their first independent missions. No staff, no bread, no bag, no money — don’t even take a change of clothes! Stay where you’re welcomed. Leave where you’re not. Stay focused on the mission of proclaiming the good news and curing diseases. That’s what the leading edge of the Kin(g)dom looks like to the Lukan author and community.

After the Twelve do the proof of concept work, Jesus follows up in the Lukan account with the mission of the seventy (or seventy-two) in chapter 10. The author makes an explicit connection to Jesus’ punchline in 9:62. “After these things,” the author declares. Notice the instructions to the seventy in Luke 10:2-11. Again, these are the frontline followers. They are sent like lambs among wolves. No purse, no bag, no sandals — and no frivolous conversations along the way. Bring peace. Stay in the same house. Eat what you get. Heal, proclaim, and test the welcome. This is serious business.

What does this mean for us as listeners and readers? I wonder what our text meant to the first Lukan listeners and readers. Perhaps this is a recruitment pep talk to bring new workers into the mission and to make sure they are well-prepared for the challenges ahead. That would fit with the overall missionary emphasis of Luke-Acts.

It could be, on the other hand, that by the third generation of the church, folks are getting a bit soft or a bit lackadaisical about the mission. “Of course I follow Jesus,” they might say. “It’s not really that big a deal, after all. Be civil. Be kind. Be loving. Stay out of trouble, and love your neighbor. It’s not as complicated or costly as some people want to make it out to be.” I think the Lukan author is dealing with a community that just wants to stay out of trouble after the trauma of the Jewish War and its aftermath. And I think the Lukan author is more than a little impatient with Christians who want following Jesus to be easy, cheap, and an attractive lifestyle option.

Yes, I’m being more than a bit anachronistic here. But I think that’s the way I tend to think about following Jesus these days. It’s not that hard. I may get a little pushback here and there. But really, I’m still in the mainstream of culture. It doesn’t cost me much of anything to call myself a Christian, and I’m happy with that situation. But with that perspective, I’m pretty sure that I’m not a suitable servant on the frontlines of the mission of Jesus.

I’m not sure what that means for me or for a message this Sunday (I’m doing some supply preaching). I don’t hear the good news in this conversation yet (and maybe there won’t be much…). But, at least I think I have a bit more clarity about what’s in the text. The question is, what’s in me?

What do you think?

Text Study for Luke 8:26-39 (Part One)

Who are you? It seems like a simple question.

My name is Lowell Hennigs. Yet, that doesn’t really answer the question. A name is a label. It’s not an identity. A name is handy handle to holler across a crowded room. But it doesn’t tell you who I am.

At times, people thought names meant more. A name could describe or even determine a person’s character. It could identify an ancestor’s vocation. It’s not hard to see where people got last names like Butcher, Baker, Carpenter, or Plumber. Even now, parents hope children’s names might matter. We name our children sometimes to carry our hopes and dreams for their futures.

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Yet, there’s more to me than my name. My name is an identifier, not an identity. “I am large,” Whitman wrote in Song of Myself, “I contain multitudes.” Think for a moment of your multitudes. I am a spouse, a parent, a friend (or enemy). I am a neighbor. I’m retired and still a pastor. I am white, cisgender, straight, and male. I’m a citizen. I’m a Lutheran Christian. And much more.

Some of my selves work together. Others contradict or even conflict. Some of my selves are dominant and obvious. Some are in the background or mere relics of my past. Some of my selves are more masks than identities. Someone asks me, “Who are you?” That’s hard to say. Identity is a moving target, a work in progress, a complicated dance.

Jesus travels from his home country of Jewish Galilee to the Gentile territory of Gerasa. Gerasa is on the Other Side. It’s on the other side of the Sea of Galilee physically and geographically. Gerasa is also on the Other Side in religious, political, and ethnic terms. Jesus enters foreign territory. Who knows what might happen in such a strange place?

Jesus barely hits the ground, and all hell breaks loose. That’s not a profanity. It’s a literal description. A local, filled with demons, accosts Jesus. It seems that Jesus commands the unclean spirit to leave the man. The spirit, still in the man, falls at Jesus’ feet in obedience and begs for mercy. Jesus asks him, “What is your name?”

It’s not clear if Jesus is addressing the man or the spirit at this moment. But the spirit answers. “Legion,” the spirit replies, “for (Luke tells us) many demons had entered him.” Legion? That’s an odd name. What’s going on here?

At the start of the story, we might have considered the man mentally ill. We wouldn’t be far wrong. The man’s neighbors had tried to protect him and themselves by restraining the man. If they didn’t care about his welfare, they might have simply put him out of his misery. But they tried to help him.

Those efforts failed. The man was so desperate for freedom that he rejected the limitations even of clothing. He fled human company to be free or to protect others from himself, or both. He wandered in a local graveyard as one who was already dead.

I can imagine such a man on the streets of our city. Most of us no longer attribute such a condition to demonic possession. Yet, with all our scientific advances, we don’t manage some of our neighbors who battle their own Legions much better than did the first-century Gerasenes.

Jesus asked him (or them), “What is your name?” The reply is no accident. My identity comes, in part, from inside myself. But it also comes from outside of me. It comes from the people and systems and forces that connect me to the world that isn’t me. The demonic name reflects a system and forces that are literally driving the man out of his mind.

My family has formed me. My communities shape me. I don’t create the laws and rules, values and histories, of this land. I didn’t sign up in advance to be white or male or cis or straight. For that matter, I didn’t check the boxes for left-handed or partially color-blind. I didn’t whip up Christianity or democracy or capitalism in my spare time. Yet, all these externals make me, at least in part, what I am.

Nor did I create the racism in which I’ve grown and live. I didn’t manufacture the homophobia, the transphobia, or the misogyny in which I’ve grown and live. I didn’t invent the classism, the ableism, the imperialism, or all the other “isms” that shape my life and worldview. Yet, they are part of who I am. These forces seek to possess me, to use me, even to destroy me. If these forces get a deep enough hold on me, they can literally drive me out of my mind.

For the man among the tombs, the external forces wore the face of the Roman Empire. A legion may have been an army of demons. It was also six thousand well-armed and highly trained Imperial invaders. They controlled thought and extorted taxes. The man lived with a system that demanded obedience and conformity on the pain of death. This system called violence peace, extortion prosperity, and oppression freedom. Such a system would make any person more than a little crazy.

When Jesus comes, the demons must go. I hope that’s a thought you’ll take with you. The only question is where the expelled Legion will land. Jesus allows them temporary refuge in a herd of hogs. But the poor piggies cannot tolerate the invasion any better than the man in the graveyard. The demons join the pigs in a watery grave.

When Jesus comes, the demons must go.

Now we see the man, for the first time, for who he really is. We see him for himself. His neighbors find him healed and saved. He’s fully dressed and completely lucid. Most important, he’s sitting at Jesus’ feet.

Who does that posture mean in the gospels? Disciples sit at Jesus’ feet. Jesus sets the man free. In that freedom, the man becomes himself. And he becomes a Jesus-evangelist in his hometown.

What is your name?

What makes you “you”? Paul wrestles with the Galatian Christians over this question. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” Paul writes in Galatians 3:27, “have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The real key to our identity is not who we are but whose we are. The man became most fully himself when he took his place as a disciple at the feet of Jesus. What might that mean for us?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor. He participated in the German resistance plot to remove Adolf Hitler during World War II. The plot failed. The Nazis threw Bonhoeffer in prison. He was hanged there on April 9, 1945.

In prison, Bonhoeffer wrote letters reflections, and sermons. He also wrote poetry. One poem was titled, “Who Am I?” Bonhoeffer knew he was not only the bold disciple face he presented to his captors and cellmates. He knew he was also afraid, depressed, lonely, weary, empty, and ready for it all to end. Like Whitman, Bonhoeffer “contained multitudes.”

Bonhoeffer ends his poem with these words. “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!” Bonhoeffer had no time for illusions. Real life tears away the false and fragile identities we create. What is left, for me at least, is this calm assurance. Whoever I am, O God, I am yours.

I hope you can take that Good News with you today.

So, we aren’t imprisoned by identities we create to defend ourselves and dominate others. Nor are we defined and determined by identities that others try to force upon us. We can be freed from the legions that want to destroy us. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female,” Paul writes, “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

If my primary identity gives me power, position, and privilege, that identity is bondage, not freedom. On this one hundred fifty-seventh anniversary of Juneteenth, we can celebrate with our Black sisters and brothers a triumph of human identity over the forces of power, position, and privilege. If you don’t know and celebrate the story of Juneteenth, I hope you will seek out the resources to help you know and understand.

Last Friday was the seventh anniversary of the murder of the Emanuel Nine is Charleston, South Carolina. This was an example of White Christian Nationalist identity as dominance and death. It’s clear that we White people continue to live in and benefit from a system that believes difference is for domination. That system of White supremacy is demonic and continues to make people crazy in a variety of ways. Faithful disciples reject that system and work to dismantle it.

Who are you? That’s the question of the day. How do my actions and commitments answer that question? I hope you’ll spend time thinking about your answers this week.

Text Study for Day of Pentecost 2022 (Part Two)

Karoline Lewis suggests, in Sermon Brainwave podcasts, that we preachers need to “pick our Spirit” on the Day of Pentecost. In light of the significant differences between the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John, that suggestion makes good sense. Nonetheless, it also strikes me that the accounts have something significant in common.

Both the Acts 2 account and the Johannine story have the same basic players in narratives involving the Holy Spirit. In the Book of Acts, we are reminded in clear and graphic terms that Judas, one of the Twelve, betrayed Jesus to the authorities and suffered a gruesome and guilt-wracked death. In the Johannine account, we read about the Paraclete after Judas has exited the scene to hand Jesus over.

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Peter preaches his great sermon in Acts 2. Yet, this is the same Peter who denied Jesus three times before the crucifixion. This is the same Peter who declares in the Johannine account that he will go and die with Jesus. Yet, when crunch time arrives, he declares with the same vehemence that his is not one of Jesus’ disciples. This is the same Peter who gets a great deal of bad press from Paul in Galatians. And this is the same Peter who needs rehabilitation and a new vocation in John 21.

The other disciples are also present in each of the scenes. These are the ones who questioned, doubted, and resisted Jesus’ message. They didn’t get it, even though others did. They jockeyed for position and power. They wanted to call down fire from heaven on recalcitrant Samaritans. They wanted to shoo away the needy and vulnerable from Jesus’ care and attention. They were flummoxed by the bread and terrified by the storms.

Whether we are in the Book of Acts or the Gospel of John, these are the folks who serve as the foundation of the Christian movement. They don’t seem to be the best choices for the job.

There is this old joke. Jesus has just risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. He is hanging out with some angels on the clouds. They are looking down upon the earth.

 One angel says, “Lord, that was amazing; we thought you were a “goner”. We thought it was over. But then, you rose from the dead. You trampled death under your feet. You’ve defeated Satan! What’s next?” Jesus answered, “I left a handful of people who really believe in me, and they are going to tell the world about me and make disciples.”

The angels were stunned. They simply stared at Jesus. The silence got to the point of being uncomfortable. Finally, one angel tentatively asked, “Lord, what is Plan B?”

Jesus answered, “There is No Plan B”.

If I am going to preach on the Person and Work of the Holy Spirit in some way this Sunday, then certainly I need to make some choices. But if I’m going to focus on the ones whom the Spirit fills and sends forth into the world, I don’t need to make such choices. In each account it’s the same motley crew that makes up the first generation of the Church.

That fact gives me great hope — not because of the motley crew, but because of what the Spirit can do with such a questionable lot.

The institutional Christian church around the world is in deep distress at this moment. The Russian Orthodox church is a willing tool of the Russian imperial project (and hopes that project can be a tool for the resurgence of that church). The Southern Baptist Convention is embroiled in conflict and controversy after an independent report detailing the amount and frequency of sexual abuse on the part of SBC clergy and the lengths to which the church bureaucracy has gone to cover up both the abuse and the scandal. Already that bureaucracy is trying to tell us that there’s nothing to see here, but there is.

The statistical connection between White Christian evangelicals and both White Christian Nationalism and fostering gun violence is clear and shocking. No matter what other variables might be involved, the Evangelical movement is deeply implicated in the violent, anti-democratic, racist project that animates the current ideological Right in the United States.

I wish that my own theological tradition and its institutional expressions were exempt from the disaster and decay. The president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is urging an LCMS college to take the opportunity during their presidential search to restore a theological commitment to white supremacy and political quietism. While he doesn’t use those words, that’s the impact of his instructions. There’s no concern about making the LCMS White again. The task is simply to keep the White people in charge.

The ELCA faces a developing crisis around the actions of the bishop of the Sierra Pacific synod. A report has come out in the last few days that details patterns of racism, abuse of power, and cover-up. The bishop in question has doubled down on the rightness of their actions and is supported by the majority of that synod’s governing council. In spite of the fact that the report recommended formal disciplinary action by the denominational bishop, that denominational bishop left the decision to resign in the hands of the alleged perpetrator. Now, the shit has hit the fan for the denomination. I suspect that the resignations which result will be multiple.

The ELCA’s largest seminary, Luther, has its own controversy. Students, joined by some faculty and staff, are pressing the seminary to engage in the process to become a Reconciling in Christ seminary – an institution that formally and fully welcomes, embraces, and includes members of the LGBTQIA+ community as students, faculty, staff, and candidates for rostered ministry. The seminary administration has engaged in bureaucratic sleight of hand and behind the scenes power plays to suppress this conversation and controversy. But the issue is not going to go away quietly, even though the end of an academic term may give the seminary a bit of breathing space.

I rehearse the previous paragraphs in part to get some of this garbage out of my brain for a few moments. As I reread this brief (and tendentious) account, I am tempted to despair of any hope for the institutional church. I, too, would like to know if there’s a Plan B. And I sigh with the knowledge that there is not.

Then I look in the mirror and am reminded that this is not merely about that terrible Church “out there.” I am ashamed of large parts of the institutional church at this moment. I also know that at times that church has had good reason to be ashamed of me as well. Just as I bemoan the self-serving mediocrities that we find in leadership in my own and other denominations, I remember that I have spent time as a similar self-serving mediocrity when faced with real challenges in the church and the world. The brickbats I throw at church leaders routinely bounce back and hit me as well.

I don’t remember this merely to write off the bad behavior of the institutional church under the cheap grace of “all have sinned,” etc. No, church leaders and structures are currently accelerating the already troubling decline in church structures and systems we have know for several generations. The prediction that the ELCA may disappear as a functioning entity by 2050 seems more real and likely at this moment than it did a year ago.

All that being said, I think about that first Pentecost and the characters who were filled with the Spirit. Perhaps the real miracle of Pentecost is that the Spirit can take such characters and build a church at all. If that is the real miracle of Pentecost, then that miracle is not a one-off affair. Instead, that Pentecost miracle continues to happen day in and day out, week in and week out, in our communities of faith. I know many, many competent and committed Christians who engage in works of justice, love, and mercy in the name of Jesus. But even the best of us are broken, fallible, and afraid. Yet, the Spirit continues to build and to use the Church.

The Book of Acts reminds us, of course, that some sorting is necessary for the life and health of the Church. We should never preach the joy of Pentecost without recalling the tragedy of Ananias and Sapphira, for example. I suspect that many of the leaders I mentioned above will not be part of how the Church moves forward in mission, in light of the mistakes and malfeasance of the past and present. But the Spirit will find others to take up the cause.

Here, perhaps, is the place to move to the Romans 8 passage. Whether we describe the Spirit in terms of Acts 2 or John 14, the result of that endowment is the courage to live and act as children of God, “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” God sends the Holy Spirit so that the Church may continue the work of Christ in the world and to do “greater works” still. That all happens, not because anyone is particularly competent or qualified. Rather, that all happens because the Spirit makes it so.

There is hope for us yet.


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