Proper 15C Sermon (2022)

Proper 15 (August 14-20)
Texts: Luke 12:49-56;
Heb 11:29–12:2; Jer 23:23-29

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Let’s begin with a weather report. Now, I’m not talking literally about overcast skies and a chance of rain. Jesus says that learning to read the signs of the times is like learning to read the weather. So, after this unprecedented week of news, can we learn to read the signs of our times? The divisions among us are growing deeper, aren’t they? Many followers of the former President are talking about civil war. There’s one lone guy in Cincinnati who already thought it started and attacked the FBI office there. The judge who signed the warrant to search the former President’s home was not only unable to attend Sabbath worship this weekend because of credible death threats to his life, but the synagogue where he worships had to close because of death threats to the whole congregation. Can we read the signs of the times?

More importantly, is there anything you and I can do about it? With the faith I was given growing up, the approach was more in terms of hunkering down and weathering the storm that’s about to begin. Formerly, I would see this as one of those times when you keep your head low, don’t get involved in the politics, and be thankful for God’s promise to go to heaven when you die. But I’m afraid that’s not the approach I believe in now.

Most importantly, Jesus did not take that course himself! He came proclaiming that something very different was coming into the world: the kingdom of God, he called it. And he, the Son of Man — his way of talking about himself as the next generation of how to be human — was bringing it about. The signs of the time that he read in the First Century was that his Jewish people would choose the same old path of political violence, the age-old path of human kingdoms, and try to solve the problem of the Roman Empire with an armed rebellion. At the end of the Gospel, he prophesied directly what would happen: the Romans would utterly crush them. The temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed (Luke 21:6), and mothers would be grieving the loss of their children (23:28-31). This, in fact, is what would happen within a generation of Jesus launching the kingdom of God through his death on the cross and his resurrection on Easter. It’s why in Luke’s Gospel (and only Luke’s Gospel), Jesus takes time to mourn over Jerusalem and what was about to happen. He was doing everything possible to not only warn them but also to give them another way (!), nothing less than another path to choose in being human, one centered on love and nonviolent resistance to hatred and violence. Here is what Luke tells us as Jesus was about to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday:

As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:41-44)

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, at this precarious moment for our nation, can we learn to read the signs of the times and do what we can to help avoid the terrible violence that is looming? Two thousand years after the kingdom of God was launched on Good Friday and Easter, can we know enough about it that we can give our fellow citizens the same option that Jesus came to give us? Can we learn more deeply ourselves and share with our neighbors the very real option Jesus came to bring? That we can choose to be human in ways that lead away from the precipice of terrible violence that we stand upon? I deeply believe that our message and mission is that important! That vital! It is what Jesus came to bring his own people, and they failed to listen. Two thousand years later, can that message and mission finally receive greater success and help us to navigate this time with the opportunity to choose a different path in being human than the one that relies on violence?

I’ve been sharing that, over my thirty-five years of being a pastor, I’ve been undergoing a conversion myself, from that faith which I was given as a young person, much of which is still very good and helpful, but one that I think does fall short in some crucial ways. The key to my conversion to a different understanding of the Gospel message and mission. I’ve shared what I’m about to share before, and I don’t often attach a name to it. But this morning I need to, because I need to give you an overview of what this mentor was about, in order to understand this morning’s puzzling Gospel Reading. Jesus says he didn’t come to bring peace. He came to bring division — basically, the opposite of what we’ve been talking about Sunday after Sunday. This contemporary work that has made a such a difference for me has been the anthropology of a person named René Girard. He began as an academic, but, as he spun out his anthropology, he himself was converted back to the Catholic faith of his mother. We cannot fully understand the first part of this morning’s Gospel Reading without a better understanding of our anthropology — both what it means to be human now but also the new way to be human which Jesus came to reveal to us.

God sent Jesus to ultimately save us from our violence. That’s our biggest problem. That’s the deadliest thing that we face, always, our own violence. And reading the signs of the times: there is a danger that our violence will likely grow worse before it gets better. What Girard’s anthropology helps us to understand about what Jesus understood is that there are two fundamental categories of human violence. The first category is the one that seems to arise naturally out of the way we desire, what Girard calls mimetic desire. It’s what the Bible calls coveting. The last commandment: thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife, they neighbor’s servants, your neighbor’s livestock, or anything that is your neighbor’s. It’s almost like it’s your neighbor’s fault, right? But it’s the shape of the way we desire. Because we are made to be so highly imitative of each other, much of which is good, the thing that often ends up not to be good, that causes problems, is imitating each other’s desire. Desire is so basic to being human. It’s what gets us going in the morning with something to do. When we lack desire, or desire becomes thwarted, we become depressed. It’s hard to get out of bed! So desire is a good thing, but the problem with the way we desire is that it eventually leads to envy, which leads to conflict, which leads to violence. When we catch our desires from each other, we eventually end up desiring the same objects, and so we become rivals. You can see this in children fighting over toys. In a room full of toys, how often do they end up fighting over one toy? It doesn’t go away as adults; it simply becomes more sophisticated — ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ And as adults the object of desire which eventually becomes most sought after is prestige. We want to have a higher status in our communities than our neighbor.

It’s a long story that we must learn more about. But this morning we need to emphasize two things. First, this is the main category of human violence, which Girard calls mimetic violence, the violence which arises because of our coveting — and the Ten Commandments implicitly understand as leading to other bad behaviors such as bearing false witness, stealing, adultery, and murder. The second thing we need to emphasize — and this leads us into our Gospel Reading — is that mimetic violence is most dangerous with the people closest to us in our lives — our father or mother, our siblings — because they are the ones around us who we are most likely to imitate. Keep this in mind alongside what Jesus says this morning about bringing division between father and son, mother and daughter, etc. Division among those closest to us.

But we first need to understand the second category of violence before we can fully understand what Jesus says in this morning’s Gospel. The second category of violence is the violence we use to contain the first category of violence. It is the sanctioned violence we use to contain our mimetic violence. It is the violence we consider good because it helps stop the bad, most-unwanted violence. In archaic societies this sanctioned violence was considered sacred. It was centered as ritual blood sacrifice in their religious worship of the gods. Have you wondered how they came about? So widespread among our ancestors? The community together would kill some person or animal on an altar, a smaller dose of violence commanded by the gods in order to ward off greater outbreaks of mimetic violence. And emanating from those sacred blood rituals where all kinds of prohibitions — a list of don’ts also given by the gods. ‘Don’t do this and don’t do that or the gods’ wrath will be unleashed, and it will be time again to kill someone on an altar.’ This sanctioned, sacred violence eventually developed into societies based more on the prohibitions — in other words, societies based on laws. And the laws are enforced with armed police, militia, and armies. The armed forces, whose violence is sanctioned as needed to keep us safe. This is our own type of society, right? Originally, societies based on law also perceived it as sacred, passed down to us by the gods. God, king, country, and family.

This sacred violence to contain our mimetic violence is crucial to our families because mimetic violence is most devastating in families. Mimetic violence is a divider of families, father from son, mother from daughter, etc. The sacred violence of the rule of law is what contains the mimetic violence so that we can keep better peace in our families. It gives us the Us-vs-Them thinking which helps to unite Us. It gives us scapegoats on which to expel the violence which otherwise might divide us from our closest family members. We expel the violence which might divide our families onto someone else, our ‘real’ enemies, so that our families can stay united.

But there’s one big problem with this sacred violence. It is still violence. And so its ultimate trajectory is an endless cycle of wars between Us and Them which builds until we are all annihilated. This came close to happening last century with two world wars, a Holocaust, and then the advent of Weapons of Mass Destruction. So we need to read the signs of the times. The true God of love (not wrath) sent Jesus at a time when this build up was just beginning to happen with the largest empire of the time, the Roman Empire. Since God is nonviolent, God couldn’t send Jesus with an army of angels to simply put us in our place. No, Jesus was sent to willingly submit to our rule of law to begin to expose it as ultimately a dead-end. We would need a new way of being human to avoid eventually annihilating ourselves.

So God sent Jesus to save us from our violence — both kinds. Jesus began to expose our sacred, sanctioned violence as a dead-end, while also giving us the new way to be human that begins to disentangle us for mimetic violence.

It’s the interplay between the two kinds of violence that explains this morning’s Gospel. Did Jesus come to ultimately give us the way to peace? Yes, of course! But first he had to begin to take away the containment field of sacred violence which keeps the lid on our mimetic violence. Again, reading the signs of our times, we are becoming more aware that Jesus is right to do this not only because the sacred violence is still violence, but also because it depends on unjust structures and laws. We’ve increasingly noticed and rightly challenged that the rule of law operates by ‘keeping people in their places,’ so to speak, not really based on any merit but simply on who they are. The sacred violence of law has kept women in their places, and people of color in their places.

But here’s the challenge indicated by our puzzling Gospel Reading: as the effectiveness of sacred violence whittles away, what happens? The mimetic violence begins to grow worse. Without the Us-vs-Them of sacred violence, our sense of Us begins to erode. Father is divided from son, mother from daughter, etc. In commenting on this very passage from the Gospels, René Girard himself puts it simply like this:

The Apocalypse is not some invention. If we are without sacrifices, either we’re going to love each other or we’re going to die. We have no more protection against our own violence. Therefore, we are confronted with a choice: either we’re going to follow the rules of the Kingdom of God, or the situation is going to get infinitely worse.1

Brothers and Sisters, read the signs of the times. Haven’t these storms been growing for two thousand years now?

But here’s the really Good News. Jesus also came to give us that new way of being human which can begin to undo mimetic violence, which is at the heart of it all. When it is only us desiring in the most natural ways to desire, we end up in the negative feedback loop of mimetic desire descending into envy, conflict, and violence. And we thus create our gods in our image as envious, wrathful, and violent. But Jesus comes as the true God’s loving desire in the flesh of a human being. We can begin to truly repent. We can begin to finally claim Genesis 1 when it tells us that we are made in God’s image — not the other way around, us making our gods in our image. When in Jesus we discover that God is Love, period, then we can begin to imitate that love of God in Jesus.

We don’t even have to say, ‘This is Christian.’ Reading the signs of the time over this last century: as we were about to annihilate ourselves in war, God — in God’s own ironic way — sent a Hindu man, Mahatma Gandhi, who took Jesus’s way of nonviolence seriously and showed us another way to stand against sacred violence based on love. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., have taken this up and continued to show us this other way. It’s so important, as we read the signs of the times that we believe in the coming of God’s kingdom as the real solution to our violence. We can begin to be human in a new way which doesn’t require sacred violence to contain our mimetic violence. Living into God’s kingdom all the laws are reduced to one: love one another as Jesus loves us.

So let’s read the signs of the times. And let us dedicate ourselves now more than ever to the new way of being human which can truly and ultimately bring us peace. Heaven knows this broken world desperately needs it. This world needs you and I to live into the Spirit of being human. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, August 14, 2022

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1. This quote comes from interviews with René Girard edited into a Canadian Broadcasting radio show by David Cayley, originally airing in March 2001. This particular quote comes near the beginning of Part V. There is now (since 2019) a transcript of these shows available in book form, again edited by David Cayley: The Ideas of René Girard: An Anthropology of Religion and Violence (with the quote here appearing on p. 85). This book also provides an excellent introduction to Girard’s work.

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