Proper 24 (October 16-22)
Texts: Luke 18:1-8;
PRAYERFUL, FAITHFUL LIVING IN THE ‘DAYS OF NOAH’
With today’s incredible technology, there’s memories of growing up that put it all in perspective, like how excited we were — my brother sister, and I — when we got our first color TV. It was around 1967, when I was about eleven. We were upstairs doing something, and my parents snuck the new TV into our family room, then called us down. There was much rejoicing! Jumping up and down with gleeful shouting — that sort of thing. And then I remember the first show we watched on that new color TV: Batman, with Adam West. In addition to be a very colorful show, ideal for watching on your first color television, I remember that there was something unique about it: each week brought two half-hour episodes on consecutive nights. So the first night each week ended with the dynamic duo in some sort of mortal danger, a cliffhanger, with wild questions about what might happen the next night, and ending with, ‘Be sure to tune in tomorrow at the same Bat-time and the same Bat-channel.’ Do you remember that? And then the next night they would have fun recapping the previous episode before launching into how the caped crusader and his sidekick would escape peril.
I thought of this when trying to think of how to start today’s sermon because this is one of those weeks where I think we need a colorful recap of the previous week’s Gospel Readings, before we pick up again with this week’s Gospel. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die on the cross, is almost over. He will enter Jerusalem in the next chapter, Luke 19. He’s been trying to help his disciples understand how to be prepared to face and endure such a prospect. Two weeks ago, he instructed them on how not to be scandalized by crazy events of violence around them, but to instead live in a spirit of forgiveness.1 Last week, he healed ten men with leprosy and only the foreigner, the Samaritan, returned to give thanks. Again, even in the face of disturbing events, followers of Jesus are to live with gratitude for the gift of life. This week is perhaps the most important of all: to live a life of unceasing prayer so as to not lose heart. We are to continue to pray as he taught them to pray back in chapter 11: “Father, your kingdom come!” No matter what happens — and some terrible, faith-shaking things are about to happen — they (and we) are to continue to pray for the coming of God’s reign into the world. They (and we) are to continue to persist like the widow in the parable to count on God’s vindication for hoping and working for God’s reign in the world.
But the Bat-problem of remembering the continuity of what happened in previous episodes is even a bit bigger with our serial readings through Luke’s Gospel. We sometimes not only need to remember what happened in previous episodes but also the parts we skipped over. Last week, the story of the one man with leprosy who returned to give thanks ended at chapter 17, verse 19. This week we pick up at the beginning of chapter 18. We skipped over 18 verses in between. They’re difficult verses which I can understand why the lectionary would want to skip them. But I think they are important as to why Jesus suddenly urges us to pray always and not lose heart.
In chapter 17, verse 20 some Pharisees come up to Jesus and ask when God’s reign is going to come. Jesus begins his answer by saying, essentially, ‘You know, people are looking here and there for God’s kingdom, but it’s actually right in your midst.’ I think Jesus is holding back from just out-and-out saying, ‘You’re looking at it. The coming of God’s reign is staring you right in the face as you look at me.’ But he doesn’t say that. Instead, he goes on to talk about the “days of Noah” before the great flood. About how most everybody just went about their normal business without a clue as to what was about to happen — except Noah and his family, of course.
Why would Jesus suddenly talk about the days of Noah? Because a great flood was brewing at the time of Jesus. Not a literal flood of water, but the scariest kind of flood of all, a flood of human violence. Jesus’ own Jewish people were cooking up an armed rebellion against their Roman overlords, at the end of which came a flood of violence that swept them away. Jerusalem was leveled to the ground with half its population dead, and the other half homeless migrants. In cooking up an armed rebellion, they dreamed of a Messiah who would lead them to the military victory which would be seen as the coming of their God’s reign. In other words, they were totally looking in the wrong places. The Messiah had already arrived; he was right there before them, in their midst. But he would bring God’s reign not by more violence but by submitting to our typical human violence on the cross to show how ultimately futile it is. The good news was that, like the persistent widow demanding vindication from the powerful but corrupt judge, Jesus would prevail over his judges and be vindicated by the true God on Easter morning.
But like in the days of Noah, the vast majority of people would miss their opportunity for rescuing. In Genesis 6, we are told that the flood came because “the world was filled with violence” (Gen 6:11). In the days of Jesus, that tragically was no less true. What had drastically changed is that Jesus came to show us the true God, the one hinted at by the rainbow at the end of the flood with the promise never to address the problem of violence like that again. No, in Jesus, we get to see how God truly addresses the problem of human violence. He sends the Messiah to submit to that violence and then vindicates him by raising him up to new life, a life of what it means to be truly human, a life that we’ve seen the past three weeks — namely, lives of not being scandalized by those who stoke our fears of violence but instead living in the spirit of forgiveness. Lives of being grateful for the miraculous gift of life even in the face of disease and ostracism. Lives of praying always and not losing heart in the midst of the continuing injustice of powerful people who don’t care about anyone but themselves.
And so, Brothers and Sisters, we are called to not be like most of the people in the days of Noah. To not remain clueless about what’s going on around us. It’s not just business as usual right now. Yes, inflation hurts, it truly does. But can we afford to go on as if nothing else is happening? Can we afford to try pretending that our normal lives are still what matters most? That the pain of inflation hindering our normal patterns of life is the chief concern? Or do we open our eyes to a substantial number of our neighbors stockpiling weapons and preparing for civil war, a potential flood of political violence that sweeps not only many of us away but also our democracy with it?
Why do I bring up such things? Because it’s the floods of our human violence and injustice that continue to be the number one threat to our lives. And until more of us finally see the answer of God’s reign through Jesus the Messiah, then we will continue to suffer the floods of our own violence . . . over and over and over again. If we open our eyes, I believe we will see another one of those floods brewing. And I believe that the election coming over the next several weeks can help to stop it. Yes, inflation hurts. But I fear that over-focusing on that is like trying to pretend that there isn’t a tide of political violence threatening to sweep us away — in which case, inflation takes its place much lower on our list of problems. Who are the candidates that truly care about us? Are there any? Who are the candidates that stand for peaceful, nonviolent solutions to our problems? Are there any? Those are the important decisions we need to make over the next several weeks.
I want to close this morning by briefly bringing us back to one of my most important messages to you as your pastor — involving why it is that the majority of our children and grandchildren are no longer here with us at church. In my very first sermon with you about a year ago now, I told the story of a thirty year-old woman named Charis, who expressed a common concern for her generation, when she told my friend, author Brian McLaren,
“I know about climate change and nuclear war and economic inequality and all that. The world is in such a mess! I don’t just want to be a good, happy, fulfilled, spiritual consumer while it all goes down the toilet. I want to be part of a group, a movement, that’s trying to . . . you know, save it. There. I said it. I want to be part of a community that isn’t obsessed with just saving their own damned souls, but that actually wants to try to save this world that we’re on the verge of destroying.” (Brian McLaren, Faith after Doubt, 134)
In short, young people like Charis don’t want to be like most the people during the days of Noah, trying to pretend that they could go on just living their lives as if things were normal. She and they want to be part of a community working to literally save the world. The traditional message which focuses on the afterlife, and doesn’t address the mess the world is in, doesn’t work for them anymore. What I’ve been proposing to you over this first year with you is that the way of messaging salvation — as mostly about going to heaven when we die so that we can simply go on with our lives business as usual — not only doesn’t work anymore for our children’s and grandchildren’s generations — young people like Charis who truly are concerned about saving this world. I’m also saying that that way of messaging salvation doesn’t really fit the Bible’s message.
Over these past weeks in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is telling us, essentially, ‘Where is God’s reign of peace coming into the world? Right in front of you! Not in some heaven light-years away. But here in this place as your crucified and risen Messiah come to feed you once again this morning with my way of true peace and love. I come to you once again with a nonviolent solution to your floods of human violence. Don’t get swept up in conspiracy theories that stoke your fears. Don’t respond to the challenges of apparent scarcity and inflation by letting go of your lives lived in gratitude for God’s good creation. But instead remain firm in the life I’ve showed you of boldly having faith in the power of love and forgiveness, even when the going gets tough. Remain firm in lives of praying constantly for the coming of God’s reign, which came into the world two thousand years ago through me and is continuing to shake things up. Don’t lose heart!’ Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, October 16, 2022
1. For readers who go strictly by the lectionary, this reference to the Proper 22C Gospel of two weeks ago is correct. But I made a mistake with this particular congregation! Because with them I had substituted the readings for Proper 26C two weeks before to better fit a four-week series on stewardship (Proper 20C, Proper 21C, Proper 26C, Proper 23C). I temporarily forgot my dual community of both leading a weekly lectionary study that strictly follows the lectionary and preaching in a congregation where I’m more free to sometimes vary from the lectionary. I had done that two weeks ago and forgot which community I was speaking to in this sermon — where here and a couple of other subsequent places I mistakenly refer back to the Proper 22C Gospel instead of the one I used in this community, Proper 26C.