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The radical Jesus. What made him so radical? Was he a fringe thinker, a wild innovator? Or was it just that he believed with his whole heart in a half hearted world. Today we explore what radical means when we are talking about Jesus.
Reflection: “Radical Idea #1: The Radical Essentials” – Rev. Will Sparks
When I was first starting out in ministry, I was settled in Arrow Lakes Pastoral Charge, three little churches along the shores of Arrow Lakes in the west Kootenays. I honestly thought I had died and gone to heaven- so beautiful. I remember driving down the lake from Nakusp to Burton one day in the first Fall there and looking at the clear clean light dancing on the changing colours down the side of Saddle Mountain and wondering how this had happened. How could I have ended up in such an incredible place?
I went there in ’92, 27 years ago. Hard to believe. My two eldest kids turned 3 and 5 that summer. I also remember riding the ferries that crossed the lake, and a game we used to play to pass the time. These were small outdoor ferries- there was no inside. But you could get out of your car and wander around the deck. And all along the edge of the car deck there was a round metal rail, about the diameter of your fist. The game we played was balancing on the rail and seeing how far we could walk.
I remember teaching my kids the trick to it. You know this right? The tendency at first for all of us is to look at our feet. Seems obvious, because you have to make sure your feet don’t miss the rail each step you take right? Wrong. I remember saying to them, “don’t look down. Don’t look at your feet. Stand up straight and look at the end of the rail. Get your balance, feel in here, and slowly move one foot in front of the other, feeling the rail beneath your feet, but always looking to the end of the rail.” It took practice, but eventually they would get it, but they had to fight the instinct to look at their feet. As soon as they looked down, they would lose their centre of gravity, their balance, and fall off. Eventually they were able to walk the entire rail without a hand.
Focus on the end. Feel your centre of gravity, feel what is under your feet.
I wonder if that isn’t something of what Jesus was talking about when he set his face towards Jerusalem. Because honestly folks, Jesus was coming across pretty harsh in his insistence that you have to just leave everything behind if you want to follow him.
Did you hear that in the gospel reading? And did you hear how cranky he sounded? Someone says he wants to follow Jesus wherever he goes, and he replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Not sure what he is getting at there except perhaps that you need to be ready for discomfort and perhaps lightness of travel if you go the way of Jesus. Don’t expect comfort and stability on this road, but that’s pretty cryptic way of making that point.
To another Jesus issues the invitation to follow. This one, as any good child would do, says, “Lord, first let me go bury my father.” Sounds pretty reasonable, even respectable, admirable. Not to Jesus, at least not to “cranky Jesus.” “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Another prospect accepts the invitation but also has a perfectly reasonable request. “Let me first say farewell to those at home.”
This time though, Jesus says one thing that allows me to make sense of the crankiness. It is this: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” You can’t put your hand to an idea like this, to a life like this, to a gospel like this, and have “but”s. There is no “yes, but” here. When you set your face towards Jerusalem, you can’t look back. You can’t commit to love at all costs and then hedge your bets.
You see, he has set his face towards Jerusalem. He has been healing and teaching and preaching an idea and a way of radical love and liberation that has truly taken off with those who have been pushed to the fringes of society. He has been breaking bread with everybody from the Pharisees to the tax collectors, and drinking wine with everyone from the folks living rough on the other side of the tracks to the ones who invite him to their fine tables. But he has noticed that it is most commonly the social outcasts, the vulnerable, the widows, the orphans that gravitate to his idea, because they are the ones who don’t generally have a place at the table. And he has decided that he needs to go to the source of all this alienation and pain. He needs to go to Jerusalem, where political, social and religious norms are set and take his gospel way there. But he knows that it’s risky. Take the gospel of love and justice for all to the very place where love and justice is doled out unevenly based on who you know and what you’ve got? That will not be easy. So he will need to focus all his energy. For him there will be no “yes, but”. Don’t look down at the details of life right now. Keep your eyes focussed on the horizon of love and justice. Don’t look back. Don’t look to the sides, don’t look down. Grounded. Centered. Light on your feet. Make your way.
This story of Jesus, and his gospel idea- love and justice for all, and all the stories, and teachings that go with it, is the story of a radical. In his day, and I believe in ours, he is a radical. And this summer I want to focus our reflection times on a theme, Jesus, the radical. Now in all likelihood, when I say radical people pop into your mind. You may think radical religious fundamentalist of all stripes who rally people around an often hateful message, or radical activists hanging from bridges, or some kind of wild eyed radical fringe political character filled with conspiracy theories. And I do believe that some saw Jesus that way.
I do believe Jesus was a radical in his day, but I am using the word radical in a very particular way. I don’t mean the wing nut fringe kind of radical. The word radical is derived from the latin word radix or radis that literally means root. It is where we get the word for the root vegetable radish. Something that is radical in this sense is getting to the root of things.
Jesus was radical in his day not because his ideas were on the fringe, but precisely because his ideas got to the root of what it means to be faithful. He was so rooted, so grounded in his own Jewish heritage and faith, and so clear, so grounded in his practice of God’s presence, that he challenged those who had compromised their core faith in order to hold on to power- who had let other, perhaps more self-serving values and practices creep in. He called people back to the root of things. He called people to commit their all. He called people to love under all circumstances and all people, and he declared that God didn’t just want pious people. God wanted just people. God doesn’t just care about your prayer life. God cares about your political life, your economic life. He brought people back to the principles of their faith at root and stem- of loving God with your whole heart and loving your neighbor as yourself. This is core root stock of the Jewish faith, and those who had wandered off, or compromised found it kind of in their face. That’s how radical he was.
I find Jesus radical for the same reason. I find him kind of in my face too. He calls me back to what is the core root stock of my faith, and sometimes it is hard to hear. Sometimes I want to make nice with his gospel, maybe file off some of the sharp edges, dull it down a little because it asks a lot of me. But this summer, I want us to hear the radical Jesus on his own terms.
Each week this summer we are going to look at one of Jesus’ radical ideas from the middle of the gospel of Luke: ideas like what we need to be faithful, how to love well, why prayer matters and how to do it, and what to do about money, and how to let go and trust. These are core human questions at the very root of human life. Jesus the radical called us to live radical lives and if we follow Jesus the radical, we will get to the root of the love for which we were made.
This week cranky Jesus, or maybe it was focussed Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem with his eyes fixed on the horizon where he could see the kingdom of God, that glorious idea of the world, the human community, life put together the way God would put it together. We met one with rail walker like focus. Don’t look back; don’t look down; focus, and ground yourself; find your balance point. This challenging way, radical idea needs you.
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