Rattle Snakes!

Proper 8C-22

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

The house I grew up in Colorado is about a mile from the foothills. Those hills were an inviting destination for me and the kids in my neighborhood. On one impromptu hike in the hills, we were joined by a little gray terrier, whose name I can’t remember, who didn’t belong to any of us, when we encountered a rattlesnake coiled up and ready to strike. Hearing the rattle everyone turned instinctively and scattered. The little dog was barking at the snake when, just as instinctively, a boy named T.J. turned and scooped up the little dog into his arms.

His split-second decision probably saved that little dog’s life. T.J. could have been bitten—on the hand, or the arm, or even on his face. I wonder, when faced with such a terrible choice which self takes over, the turn-away self, or the turn-in self?

Luke tells us Jesus decided to turn-in rather than turn away.  His ministry in Galilee was at a turning point.  Now, his face was set toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-62).  Now Jesus would walk toward the cross.  From now until November our Sunday gospels will follow Jesus on this journey in Luke nine through nineteen (Luke 9:51- 19:28). Which way will we turn—turn in or turn away; turn back or follow?

Jesus doesn’t sugar coat it.  The way of the cross requires sacrifice.  It requires persistence despite resistance, sabotage, and even hatred. There is real urgency in our readings today.  Every moment counts.  Don’t look back, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Yet when we follow Jesus God walks with us and fights beside us.

Luke tells us the moment Jesus turned to the cross he met immediate resistance.

Jesus would begin his journey to Jerusalem, via Samaria. The Samaritans, according to Josephus, often refused to give shelter to Jews. Offended, James and John, the so-called ‘Sons of Thunder,’ are suddenly quite sure of their power to call down fire from heaven like Elijah did (2 Kings 1:9-12). Yet Jesus rejects their violence-driven response. Our instinct is either to flee from the rattlesnake or to fight it. Let the snake take whatever it can take as long as it is not us.  Or, if possible, kill the snake and live to fight another day.

The trouble is—people, even those who become our enemies, are not snakes, however much we might make them out to be. Jesus knew that targeting people, scapegoating them, will only multiply our enemies, or worse, destroy ourselves. Jesus sternly rebukes that kind of hard vindictiveness. All this must be crucified. The choice is yours—do we turn in, or turn away?

For Paul, to follow Christ is to let ourselves be transformed into the new life of Christ.  This life is synonymous with freedom and true freedom is bound by love to the neighbor. To the Christians fighting among themselves in Galatia Paul wrote “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” he proclaims, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Martin Luther famously put it another way in Treatise on Christian Liberty.  He wrote, “A Christian is perfectly free, Lord of all, subject to none. [And also] A Christian is perfectly dutiful, servant of all, subject to all.”

Paul drew a contrast between freedom to do whatever one wants, listing fifteen self-directed and self-serving desires, such as envy, jealousy, and strife that cannibalize community. We are free to choose to “bite and devour one another” in a chaotic frenzy of dissension and division, distancing ourselves from life-giving relationships and peaceable association with others. In other words, we are free fight the rattlesnake by becoming a snake. We have that choice. We can either turn in or turn away.

Jesus turned toward Jerusalem. Our nation reached another turning point of its own on Friday. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.  In fact, we seem to be facing so many turning points all at once the world is spinning. I’m getting dizzy and feeling nauseous. Jesus has shown us how to hop off this deadly merry-go-round. Turn-in toward the hungry, the thirsty, the suffering, the marginalized, including even your enemies.

The choice appears to us as odd and paradoxical. “When we elect to tether our lives to the lives of others, surrendering self-absorbed desires, we discover virtues that set us on a path to a deeper freedom. Paul refers to this as “life in the Spirit,” to know our full humanity in and with God” (Diana Butler Bass, Sunday Musings, June 26, 2022)

What does it mean to live a neighbor-centered life right now?  How do we turn in rather than turn away? How do we deal with rattle snakes who poison our democracy and our church? Church historian Diana Butler Bass wrote this week, “Frankly, I feel angry right now. I want to march down the street yelling and screaming and quarreling with every single Trump voter I see. When I look at the “bad” list I’m currently guilty, guilty, guilty of enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions — not to mention that I’d like to get drunk to forget all this messed-up political garbage we’re going through. Out of fifteen “works of the flesh,” I currently score eight.”

The neighbor bound life does not require us to put on a happy face.  The way of the cross faces into violence and terror rather than run from it, or pretend like it isn’t there, or that it is not my problem.  Instead, the fruits of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” have become the arsenal with which we do battle (Galatians 5:22-23). We are called and equipped in Christ to wage peace with both toughness and tenderness.

The gifts of the Spirit of Christ root out from deep within us the “desires of the flesh,” those competitive urges that pit people against each other, fueling exploitation, and enslaving them with addictions. All this must be crucified. In its place is a new way of living our life in freedom, not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit of neighbor-love, communion, solidarity, and justice. We need this Spirit today as urgently as ever.

The great cloud of Christians of the heavenly host shout to us from the sidelines to choose life! Follow Jesus.  Walk the absurd, preposterous, and foolish way of his cross. Love your neighbors—turn in rather than turn away.  This choice leads toward truer freedom. “It doesn’t mean we’ll magically agree or that the problems that got us here will be fixed. But it does mean that we can, at the very least, create new possibilities that don’t involve hatred, violence, and civil war. Freely deciding to love our neighbors is the bond of liberty most needed right now.” (Diana Butler Bass)

Let our song be our prayer, “Spirit of love open my heart to the joy and pain of living…Replace my stony heart with a heart that is kind and tender…may I weep with those who weep; share the joy of friend and neighbor…As you love, may I love, in receiving and in giving Spirit, open my heart.” (ACS #1043)