Jesus called the 12 disciples before him. Go out, He said. Tell the world the good news, He said. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Tell them of the coming Kingdom, He said. It’s a beautiful message, a worthy mission. He could have stopped there, no?
This would square with the comfortable, kind, loving image of Jesus we cherish. The picture painted in warm hues, exuding compassion in those benevolent eyes and open arms. The image is shattered as He goes on –
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” What happened to our sweet, loving, curing, cleansing Jesus? What happened to the Lord of Love, the Prince of Peace? Apparently what happened is that He has come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. “Oh” said the disciples (Matthew didn’t record this part, of course) Oh. well. oh dear. Yes. Mmm. Can we go back to that breaking bread together part?
We find Jeremiah feeling a little disillusioned with his lot today as well. Born into prestigious circumstances in the late 600’s BCE, the son of a priest, Jeremiah found himself an unwilling prophet at God’s behest. Called to prophesy in dramatic fashion, he demurred – I am only a boy. God didn’t let him off the hook and called him to prophesy death and destruction to God’s unfaithful people. This unpopular message took its toll. The reluctant prophet was attacked by his own brothers, beaten, tortured, imprisoned by the king, threatened with death, and thrown into a cistern by Judah’s officials. One can understand why Jeremiah was not 100% enthusiastic about his calling.
Teresa of Avila lived in sixteenth century Spain. Deeply devout, she was educated by nuns and joined a Carmelite convent at age 20. Distressed by the lax moral situation found in the convents, Teresa fought for reform, urging true devotion, poverty, and chastity. Her unpopular message earned the wrath of her sisters. She was turned out from her house in the middle of a rainstorm. The donkey cart she was riding in struck a rock and she was tossed into the mud. She sat in the mud in her rain-soaked habit, turned her face to heaven and declared to God, “Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder that you don’t have many.”
Thing is, it’s not about making friends. It wasn’t for Jeremiah, it wasn’t for Teresa, it wasn’t for Jesus, it cannot be for Jesus’s modern day disciples. Jesus’s sword is a metaphorical one – he fought battles with weapons of truth, faith, justice – not steel. His description of family strife described a blunt reality, not a goal. Jesus lays it out. Follow me. Live for God. Bad things will happen. They’ll happen anyway. God loves you beyond imagining. God is with you.
Today, here, now – we are unlikely to be martyred for our faith, unlike the early days of Christianity, unlike some parts of the world still today. Yet, the fear creeps in. The world runs on it. The media feeds on it. We face very real threats. The water is rising, threatening homes and livelihoods. Pollution is growing, threatening the water we drink, the air we breath, the food we eat. Horrible wars rage for decades. People die because of their religion, their parentage, their color. Disease is. Poverty is.
We also face less tangible threats – threats our own fears make real – fear of change, of inadequacy, of ugliness, of THEM and what THEY represent. Fear is a powerful motivator, even fear (mmm, perhaps especially fear) centered on irrational self-generated threats. Novelist Steven King writes, “The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”
Have you ever stayed quiet in the face of hurtful jokes or attitudes, just to avoid conflict or loss of status? Have you ever felt the sudden urge to visit the other side of the street when you see someone dirty, or talking to themselves, or otherwise different coming towards you – just in case? Have you ever felt the need to pass on negative stories about someone, just to feel a little better about yourself?
Jesus laid out reality – to be a disciple, to bring the Kingdom of God close means facing conflict, challenging the power structure, sometimes opposing family or friends in the name of what is just and Godly.
The prophet Jeremiah, mired in the misery of a fate he cannot control finds firm ground in his commitment to God crying “Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” Jeremiah cries out his truth, serving his God, serving his people.
Jeremiah knew, Jesus knew – bad things happen. Always have. The question is how we respond. Episcopal theologian Verna Dozier said, “Don’t tell me what you believe. Tell me what difference it makes that you believe.”
The flood waters are still rising, damaging property, damaging lives. What a holy response to see true neighbors pouring in to help bag sand, build levies, comfort neighbors, and feed volunteers.
People get sick and people die – Jesus lives in those who visit, who hold their hands, who pray.
People live in poverty and isolation separated from the world by tragedy, mental illness, poor choices, or personal demons. God blesses the ones who help to keep them fed, clothed, dry, warm and even connected to the rest of the world with something as simple as a smile or a kind word.
Deliver us, O Truth, O Love, from quiet prayer
from polite and politically correct language,
from appropriate gesture and form
and whatever else we think we must put forth to invoke
or to praise You.
Let us instead pray dangerously –
wantonly, lustily, passionately.
Let us demand with every ounce of our strength,
let us storm the gates of heaven, let us shake up ourselves
and our plaster saints from the sleep of years.
Let us pray dangerously.
Let us throw ourselves from the top of the tower,
let us risk a descent to the darkest region of the abyss,
let us put our head in the lion’s mouth
and direct our feet to the entrance of the dragon’s cave.
Let us pray dangerously.
Let us not hold back a little portion,
dealing out our lives–our precious minutes and our energies–like some efficient accountant.
Let us rather pray dangerously — unsafe, profligate, wasteful!
Let us ask for nothing less than the Infinite to ravage us.
Let us ask for nothing less than annihilation in the
Fires of Love.
Let us not pray in holy half-measures nor walk
the middle path
for too long,
but pray madly, foolishly.
Let us be too ecstatic,
let us be too overwhelmed with sorrow and remorse,
let us be undone, and dismembered…and gladly.
Left to our own devices, ah what structures of deceit
we have created;
what battlements erected, what labyrinths woven,
what traps set for ourselves, and then
fallen into. Enough.
Let us pray dangerously — hot prayer, wet prayer, fierce prayer,
fiery prayer, improper prayer,
exuberant prayer, drunken and completely unrealistic prayer.
Let us say Yes, again and again and again.
and Yes some more.
Let us pray dangerously,
the most dangerous prayer is YES.
Regina Sara Ryan