Words and Wisdom

Luke 21:5–19, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on November 13, 2022

I want to begin today by talking with our kids for a moment. In today’s Bible story, Jesus asks his followers to “testify”—that’s a word that means to say what is true. There are times when it’s hard to tell the truth, aren’t there? My daughter Alice told me a really good story about that this week. Some kids in her class were bullying another kid. When he got upset about it, they said, “Oh, we’re only joking.” And he said back to them, “Jokes are supposed to be funny!” “Wow” I told her, “I love that response!” Because it’s not mean. It’s not adding to the bullying. But that kid protected himself with those words. He set a boundary. He said, “don’t talk to me that way.” I think this boy’s response is a great example of telling the truth in a difficult situation. The truths I can hear in what he said are: Each person should be treated with respect. No one is a joke. And it’s important to love yourself enough to stand up for yourself. So I wonder what you think about that story. Have you ever told the truth in a hard situation? Or seen someone else do it?

Kris, thank you for your honest reactions to this text. I share your dislike of fear and terror-based theology. And your skepticism about predictions of end-times. And your puzzlement about the relevance of this text to our daily lives. I really love that having taken note of all that, you take a second pass, you dig a little deeper. You hear a message about accountability for how we live our lives. It seems to me that Jesus most wants his followers to be accountable to using our God-given voices, to letting our lives shine with the light of the divine that is within us. He calls us to be alert to opportunities to “testify,” to bear witness, to be truth-tellers. Though danger, chaos, and suffering swirls all around us, he promises we are not alone, and we need not let fear rule our decisions. “I will give you words and wisdom,” he says.

As we interpret this text, it’s important to note that Jesus’ words are not really a prediction of the future, even though they are presented that way. Jesus was describing the current events of the Gospel writer, Luke’s, time. The failed Jewish revolt against the Romans happened in 70 CE—well before this Gospel was written. As Luke penned these words of Jesus’, the temple, and indeed, the whole of Jerusalem, lay in ruins, and the nation was in mourning. So many had died in this brutal struggle. The hope for Jewish independence was gone.

The leveled temple was a potent symbol of this demoralizing political situation. The first temple had been destroyed hundreds of years before, during the nation’s exile in Babylon. In the 80 years before it was once again leveled, Herod the Great restored the ruins, investing vast sums in lavish materials—white marble, fine linen tapestries, gold and silver.[1] He expanded the temple’s footprint; the outer court alone hold 400,000 people.Herod was nominally a Jew, appointed by the Romans to rule Israel, but the rabbis refused to acknowledge him as a real person of faith. He was a cruel, arrogant, and paranoid ruler, known for slaughtering all rivals, including his most of his own family members. You might recall that in seeking to eliminate Jesus (whom he heard would grow up to be the King of the Jews). Herod murdered all baby boys in his kingdom younger than two. So Herod did not invest in beautifying the temple to glorify God. He did it to satisfy his ego and consolidate his power.[2] The temple ruins symbolized the nation’s defeat and loss. And the scattered stones also marked a liberation—something more true and right was possible now that Herod’s hypocrisy no longer dominated the spiritual life of the nation. 

It seems to me that today’s text is not really about the end times at all. Luke’s Jesus is trying to help struggling people make sense of the moment they are in. For those in distress over the state of the world, this sermon is both a reassuring word of hope and a pointed challenge. Jesus urges us: rather than despair, or cower in fear, or join those bent on violence, testify. Friends, I started with an example of a young man who testified, who told an important truth. I want to suggest that instead of dwelling in our failures, we study our successes. So take a few moments to think of a time when you found your voice and you knew it was also the voice of the divine within you? When have you done the right and true thing, despite the cost? In what ways does your life shine with integrity? Lean into those moments, bask in them . . . let them feed you, motivate you, strengthen your faith.

In many ways, the times in which we live are similar to the times in which Luke wrote his Gospel. The world is still a scary place, full of natural disasters, wars, famines diseases, and oppression. Against the backdrop of really big and overwhelming problems, Jesus’ insistence that we seize opportunities to testify, to use our voices, small and feeble as they may sound to us, reminds me of adrienne marie brown and her principles of “emergent strategy.” Brown defines emergent strategy as “strategy for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions.” (p. 2, Emergent Strategies) She says: “Small is good, small is all. (The large is a reflection of the small.)”

Yesterday (along with Carolyn and Ann, also from this congregation), I attended a meeting hosted by MN 350 with Council Member Rainville, who represents the ward our church is in. Our purpose was to gain the council member’s support for the climate and equity plan for Minneapolis, which envisions a dedicated source of funding to ensure a swift and just transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. As a globe, we need to be 50% of the way to being carbon neutral by 2030, and all the way there by 2050. Don’t you think this must be the most audacious challenge we’ve ever faced as a species? The energy and the joy in the room grew as one at a time, people found their voices and told their truths, about this transition is absolutely possible. We discussed the fact that while we need big systemic change, the only way we can make it happen is through a hyper-local approach. We imagined having the capacity here to replicate a program being piloted in Boston, where folks are literally going door to door, to each homeowner, tenant, and landlord, to offer them new electric appliances and heating and cooling systems, and to ensure they have access to the financial resources needed to make it happen. And we imagined neighbors coming together to build networked geothermal systems, solar gardens and, community. 

One morning this week, I was eating oatmeal. And I said to Alice, “Eating this oatmeal, I’m remembering my great great great great grandfather, Ferdinand. He invented oatmeal—he came up with the process of rolling oats. That was a pretty good gift he gave all of us.” She thought this was a strange thing to say. How can you remember someone you never knew? It made me think about the power of our testimony into the future, about how taking the long view is motivating, and how imagining our impact on those who will come after us gives us strength to endure and persist through the challenges we face now. If we stop passing on racist ideas and practices, one day there will be no more racism. If we work urgently to bring about a swift and just climate transition, our descendants will inherit a healthy planet. If we speak the words and live the wisdom God gives us, one small interaction at a time, we will be part of something big, bold, and beautiful. If we let our lives shine, we will give gifts we cannot even imagine to those who come after us. Amen.

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-3/commentary-on-luke-215-19-5

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-3/commentary-on-luke-215-19-3