Agitational Jesus

Psalm 16; Luke 9:51–62, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on June 26, 2022

In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus proclaims: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” This Jesus agitates me. He’s pretty uncompromising. Hearing these words, my first response is to feel judged and harassed. Where is the room for grace? Where is the understanding of my limitations and imperfections? In full transparency, I kind of want to wave this guy on. You go ahead and do the plowing, Jesus. I’m cheering you on, you and the oxen! I’ll support your vision—from the sidelines. Jesus used the term “kingdom” ironically, of course. In place of a dominating empire, he wanted to establish a community shaped by the powers of love and mutuality, peace and justice. I’m all for it. It’s just that I’m tired. I’m busy from dawn to dusk caring for our family and keeping up with my work. I’ve reached my limit. I’ve got no more energy to give.

“Agitation” is a term used in community organizing work. Agitation generally happens in conversation, as people get in touch with how injustices in the world affect them personally. When folks see clearly the gap between things as they are and things as they could be, agitation happens. When we can articulate how a situation is harming us and those we love, and we identify specific people or institutions responsible for the harm, agitation happens. Typically, agitation stirs up anger, and anger is the fuel for action—purposeful, strategic, organized action. Agitation is what enables us to access our own power, the power we have to make change. The group “Innovative Organizing” says it this way: “Loving agitation helps people find agency. . . . Agitation is an invitation to change one’s way of thinking and being.”[1]

For me, studying the scriptures is an agitational process. It’s a conversation, with these ancient texts, with the Spirit. My first interaction with the text often begins with me feeling puzzled or even annoyed, thinking, “Sunday’s coming! I’ve got to make something of this text. But what?” Often, it’s not readily apparent what good word, what life-giving message, is here for us. This week, as I wrestled with a text I didn’t love a whole lot, I came across Peter Marty’s piece in the Christian Century, and it struck me that his analogy of trying to drive a car with our focus in the rearview mirror is a modern version of Jesus’ warning against looking back while plowing. I was struck by Marty’s observation that many of us are focused on recovering the past “instead of believing that God or anybody else might be beckoning [us] toward a new future.” 

Marty goes on to clarify that he’s not advocating for us to forget the past. He says:

We live pretend lives if we don’t let history and experience inform us. To paraphrase Søren Kierkegaard, life can only be understood backward, but it has to be lived forward. But how to treasure or accept our past without getting stuck in it—that seems to be the trick. Teaching ourselves to cull wisdom from what’s behind us without allowing that past to dictate our future is our regular assignment. Anything less may well result in a crash.[2]

Process theologians use the word “lure” to describe the activity of God. I kind of prefer “call” or “invite” to “lure.” In any case. God is the one who calls, us, and the whole universe, in each moment, to move into a new future, to journey toward new life. This summer, I’m listening in to an online class with process theologian John Cobb. In the first episode, Cobb says that before the theory of evolution was established, human beings were seen as separate from nature. Human life had purpose but nature did not. Cobb observes that 

When the evolutionary theory was established and we saw that human beings are part of nature instead of saying, “Well that might mean that there are purposes in nature too ,” we denied there are any purposes in the universe. . . . The systematic exclusion of purpose from the world is also the systematic exclusion of novelty . . . of anything happening freely. [Everything] either [happens by] chance or necessity.

More and more, Cobb argues, science is unable to explain the universe without purpose, without freedom, without an impulse toward novelty. So Cobb and other process theologians see God as the one who provides the universe with new possibilities. This newness is always created out of the context of the past. The past defines the scope of what is possible in the future. At the same time, the future is never determined. God continually offers a vision of love and justice and calls us toward it. And we are truly free to participate, or not, in these purposes of God.

In today’s passage, Jesus “sets his face” toward Jerusalem. And the author of Luke frames the next ten chapters—including Jesus’ most beloved and well-known parables, teachings, and acts of healing—as having occurred in the context of this relentless march toward Jerusalem. Luke’s use of this storytelling device many call the “journey narrative” is unique among the Gospels. In the words of biblical scholar Judith Jones, Jerusalem, under Roman occupation, symbolizes all the forces that “prevent us from living fully and freely as human beings created in God’s image.” In the way Luke tells the story of Jesus, he makes it clear that Jesus was focused on confronting and challenging the oppressive powers of violence, fear and greed that hold the world captive. Even in the face of his own certain death, Jesus was confident in God’s power to heal and liberate creation. And he called his followers to embody this same single-minded determination. When the Samaritan village refused to offer Jesus and his band hospitality, the disciples were inclined to stop and take revenge. Jesus said no. That impulse was a monumental distraction from their mission. Jesus moved with urgency and clarity. He avoided unfruitful diversions. He passed by safe foxholes and cozy nests. I think his words about observing rituals of grief and saying farewells are hyperbole. “Let the dead bury the dead” is recognition that we humans easily get stuck in transitions and mired in the past. “Let the dead bury the dead” is a way of keeping us moving on the journey toward new life. 

As I sat with today’s text, I realized I need not feel shamed or pressured by Jesus. I saw that Jesus is not giving us another job, more tasks. His goal is not to add to our overload and exhaustion, but actually to heal us and liberate us from it. He’s lovingly, and urgently, agitating us. He’s asking you, and me, what is your core purpose? How can you align your energy, and your work, with that reason for being? Are you in touch with your own agency, your power to make change? How is God calling you, in this particular moment, to move toward new life? As the image of the labyrinth suggests, this journey is not exactly linear. It is a deepening, a circling into the heart of who we are and why we’re here.

We need this agitation especially now, don’t we, as the Supreme Court sets in motion a systematic, organized purposeful campaign to deny fundamental human rights. Disrespect for the agency of pregnant people is disrespect for everyone’s agency. The campaign of fear and lies that fuels an irrational fear of diversity, fluidity and freedom is a powerful tool to maintain rigid hierarchies of power that benefit a few wealthy white people and corporations. And all of this is a monumental distraction, a diversion from our truly urgent human mission of coming together to heal and liberate our world, to address climate change, to stem violence, to create equity and shared abundance. We are facing an empire of oppression, just as Jesus faced Rome so long ago.

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Lovingly, Jesus is agitating us. As Jesus’ own life and ministry shows us, our agitation purposefully channeled, is the presence of God within us. I’ll leave you with the wise words of Valerie Kaur, who says: 

If you feel rage, if you need to cry or scream, it’s okay. In the face of oppression, cruelty, injustice, white supremacist violence, assaults on our safety—I call that divine rage. It is the rage flashing in the eyes of Jesus. It is the rage of Kali as she battles demons in order to protect us. The rage in the eyes of Guru Gobind Singh who challenged an empire. The aim of divine rage is not vengeance but to reorder the world. Our task is to make sure that the rage we’re feeling doesn’t explode. We cannot become what we are fighting against. We need to harness it, and channel it into non-violent action. Do as Audre Lorde calls us to do—dance with it. Focus it with precision and power. 


[1] 1622429887496/Thoughts+on+Agitation.pdf