In the Line of Fire
Text: Luke 13:31-35
I am always amazed when Christians speak of Jesus as their personal lucky leprechaun or four-leaf clover. For this group of Christians, if you follow Jesus you will earn public service awards, receive critical acclaim, get promoted, and people will break in line to give you money. Hang with Jesus and life will be smooth sailing.
Surely, this group of Christians has never read today’s text from Luke. It is a deeply troubling text with words spoken long before Jesus is arrested, tortured, and executed. The story has a weird beginning. Pharisees, typically a thorn in Jesus’ side, come to warn him that Herod intends to kill him. Jesus does not stop his ministry and head off for a hiding place. Jesus stares down the political machinations of Herod and says, “You ole fox, you know where to find me.”
That is not all Jesus says. He tells Herod: “When you send your killing team to do their deadly work, you will find me tending to the afflicted, caring for the poor and comforting the most vulnerable. Herod, I will be doing exactly what you should be doing as a political leader, rather than building another monument in your own honor! And, Herod, I will be doing this not just in the boonies, not somewhere safely out of the line of fire, but in the city, THE city. And when I enter Jerusalem, I am not going to gather an angry mob, give them weapons, and burn the city to the ground. I am going to love this city into life."
On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was preaching at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis. In his sermon, he declared: “I don’t know what will happen now . . . but it doesn’t matter to me . . . I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Not cowering before the power brokers of segregation or becoming mute when his house was bombed, King stood in that pulpit and announced, “Powers that Be, you know where to find me.” And, the very next day, a sniper for segregation found him within his line of fire and executed his deadly shot.
For nearly forty years of preaching, people have told me, “Gary, keep politics out of church. It is not our business.” To which my standard response has been and continues to be: “I wish I could, but I simply cannot if I am going to follow Jesus.”
The Jesus we meet in Luke does not shy away from political conversation, does not avoid the cunning political foxes to keep himself out of the line of fire, nor does he fire back words laced with venom and let loose religious storm troopers of violence. The Jesus we meet in Luke can always be found bringing in those who have been cast out, raising up those who have been beaten down, holding on to those living on the edge because the people in power want to keep them there.
In Luke, Jesus tells us a prodigal son welcomed home by a father who bears a remarkable resemblance to God, whose compassion is extravagant and whose love seems reckless. In Luke, Jesus tells of a good Samaritan to folk who thought that the only "good" Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. Luke remembers a “good” thief, who is invited into Paradise while dying on a cross next to Jesus. In Luke, the first sermon of Jesus is taken straight from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
“Keep politics out of church, Gary.” Well, tell that to Jesus. He engages in one political act after another, acts of social reversal of ethnic reversal of economic reversal. The Jesus we meet in Luke’s Gospel does not fear political and religious conflict; he heads with divine determination right into the Jerusalem line of fire, and he takes his followers with him. Jesus heads into Jerusalem to imagine a different kind of city than one that kills all its prophets. Jesus heads right into the line of fire, not waiting for a sword to don his shoulders to be knighted “Sir Jesus,” but to have a sword pierce his side for daring to challenge the political powers that be. The only way to keep politics out of the church is to keep Jesus out of the church.
Maybe the tag line for Cove in our 250th year of ministry should be: “Cove Presbyterian Church. You Know Where to Find Us.” That tag line would say far more than a rural address off Highway 29 south of Charlottesville, Virginia. That tag line would say that you can find us in the line of fire safeguarding the young chicks that the foxes readily consume. Did you know that the Cove Child Development Center had its origins in providing a nurturing place for the children of migrant families in this area when the political leaders of the time had no time for and no resources for migrants?
You can find us working for and demanding decent and affordable housing for all. Did you know that on the second Saturday of each month, a group of Cove handy folks follow Jesus to where a Habitat home is being built? In a political season when neither Democrats nor Republicans nor Independents spend much effort advocating for affordable housing for the poor, Cove members join an ecumenical crew who not only paint and frame but speak out on behalf of the invisible and too often forgotten poor.
You can find us standing with our Jewish kin when gun violence goes mad in Pittsburgh and with our Muslim kin when gun violence goes mad in New Zealand and with our Christian kin when gun violence goes mad in Charleston. Soon after this text in Luke, Jesus will enter Jerusalem not to torch it, but to claim it as his own. Over against the cunning fox, Herod, who silenced all public dissent, Jesus offers a different political vision. In Jesus’ just vision of a loving God, the most vulnerable are no longer preyed upon by the most powerful, truth telling is celebrated, and confronting political abuse does not lead to public execution.
This thorny text from Luke ends with Jesus saying, “And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord’." In just a few weeks, you and I will wave palm branches and sing, “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” On that day, we will not only look back and remember Jesus’ grand entry into Jerusalem, we will look forward to the day when all the cannons and semi-automatic weapons are silenced, all nuclear testing is ended, and every cunning political and religious fox loses their power, the day about which John sees in his Revelation, when “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away" (Rev. 21:3, NIV).
In the meantime, if someone should ask you how to find Cove, give them more than our GPS. Tell them that: “You know just where to find us. You can find Cove standing in the line of fire, armed with the life transforming power of the Crucified One who loves the world, and who loves each of us, into life.