Interventions: The Clock of the Kingdom (or Learning to Tell and Understand Time)

Reflections from Luke 12:54-59; 13:6-21 September 13, 2009

We have come a long way in our journey of encounters and interventions through Luke. If you have missed some of our previous discussions I invite you to check out our blog (check out the teaching page) or download the podcast from iTunes.

We’ve been reading Luke with an eye towards what we’ve called among other things “the poetry of the kingdom, the impossible, and interventions.” Where in these texts do we find Luke narrating particular encounters that leave lives changed? Or where in these texts do we see the common assumptions, the status quo, the rich and worldly powerful, challenged by none other than Jesus Christ?

One thing we have yet to turn our eyes (and hearts to) is how time itself gets disrupted and reconfigured within Jesus’ ministry.

  • We’ve scratched the surface of questions relating to time when we discussed the fact that God uses both the elderly and barren Elizabeth, and the young teenage virgin Mary for his purposes.
  • We noticed a collapse of time when Jesus announced in his inaugural address, found in Luke 4, that Jubilee was no longer bound by a seven year cycle, it was present and was to remain in the present from now on.
  • We briefly mentioned time when we looked at Jesus’ dealing with the Tax Collectors. There in Chapter 5, Jesus mentions that the new is breaking in, yet many will cling to the old.
  • And we can follow this track out in each of the places we’ve covered there is something to be said for the way in which Jesus deals with and approaches issues related to time.

We might say: If God has something to say about our theology, and how we practice that theology, then God also, even more so, has something to say about time itself.

And to say time is really important to us as human beings is a serious understatement. Time is involved in everything we do.  It’s also one of the most valuable things we each have.

One commenter on facebook wrote concerning this topic:

It is interesting (and crucial) to think about “how we use and understand time.” What else are we really given in life, but a little time, awareness and capacity for compassion?

It’s true that time is of utmost importance to us, not just as human beings but as a community bound together in Jesus Christ, and formed by these stories.

I want to suggest today that these short little stories read today can help us learn how to tell and understand time according to the clock of the kingdom. And that along with this we are called to give up our understanding and conception of time and submit it to the kingdom’s own way of telling time. This is something that I believe Quaker process and practice is meant to build into us as a community. Thus, this morning’s reflection is about the clock of the Kingdom and how Quaker practice seeks to discipline ourselves to tell and live (that) time appropriately.

time in the Bible.
So let me cover briefly some basic reflections on Time in the bible:

In the Older Testament time is as important as it is in the New Testament. The creation narrative is told to have happened over the course of six days, and on the seventh a day was set aside for rest.

  • In the garden the past, present and future were together. There was no death, and YHWH walked among the creation.
  • But with rebellion against God the symphony of the Garden was interrupted by the clanging noise of self-will. Thus a separation began, a fissure in time was created, that began to split the past, present and future. Now man and woman hoped for a future where something like the garden might be restored.
  • Noah learned about the time necessary to build a ship large enough to carry the world’s animals on it, and the skills required to live, and help others live, on that ship for forty days and nights.
  • In later times, God called upon the patience of people like Moses and Aaron to continually return to the pharaoh of Egypt calling on plagues of destruction to release the people of Israel from his oppression. This call to liberation was rooted both in the present, requiring long-suffering and humiliation among not only Aaron and Moses but also the Children of Israel, as well as a vision and a trust that YHWH would give them a new future and a land of their own upon release.
  • And we can’t forget that they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. And even though he was faithful, Moses was not permitted to enter the promised land. The future for him, was out of his reach.
  • And we know the rest of the story, how YHWH despised the idea of Israel having a king because he knew with kings come party politics, militaries, corruption, and more rebellion and yet kings were enthroned. And how after the repeated moral failings of those called to be faithful, the Children of Israel saw their own temple destroyed and were sent into exile and held in cruel captivity in Babylon.

And so by the time we get up to Jesus’ day, the Jews are being held captive by the Roman empire in their own land. And some want to make things easy and so they cooperate with the political officials, others see this as all wrong and resist the accommodations made with the pagan people.

the Kingdom of God.
For the Jews, they had since the days of king David longed for a time when another “Son of David” would take the throne and ride Israel back to bold victory before the world’s eyes.  The kingdom of God would be established through his military might and religious purity. Finally, at this “return of the king” they would be again on track and find favor with YHWH.

The kingdom of God for the Jews was an ongoing dialogue about time, about waiting and being faithful. In Jesus’ day there were many who questioned:

  1. why God had not returned yet
  2. how were they to wait (should they do it by withdrawal, political accommodation, religious purity or violent resistance?)
  3. and what was it exactly that they were hoping and waiting for? (Ryan Bolger, Jesus For and Against Modernity)

This thread of waiting and hoping for some future to arrive ran through the Jewish tradition.

But as we see in our text today, “Jesus changed the notion of what time it was in Jerusalem,” and “The kingdom did not represent the end of space-time, but would happen in the here and now” (Bolger).

the Redemption of time.
In this text today, a number of things get said about the kingdom of God and it’s relation to time, but the essential point is that the future is no longer being delayed. It has collapsed into the present. The future is no longer our objective, the present is (Simone Weil). The kingdom is now, there is no more waiting.

In it’s original context these particular stories about crisis and understanding the times were Jesus’ way of calling his people back to faithfulness to God, and to repentance before it was too late for the pending judgment. Historically, we know that there was a physical, actual judgement in AD 70, not 40 years after Jesus spoke these words. This is a call to repentance before Rome comes after the Jews. In AD 70, the Jewish temple is destroyed again, for the last time.
According to Jesus, the Jewish way of life was changing, the way of being God’s people in the world was going through a radical shift. His ministry was ushering in a new time, a new way of relating to reality.

Given this background here is one basic (theological) point about four of these passages:

In the fig tree passage: Time is related to bearing fruit. The tree is sterile, it is not producing fruit and is about to be cut down for the simple fact that now, when the Vineyard owner visits the tree there is no fruit.  And what the gardner suggests about this fruitlessness (akin to faithlessness) is that more time is needed, more cultivation, better compost, and more care. This is about clemency and disciple.

In the passage on the Bent woman, one observation I have made about time is that while some want to wait, put time, or in this case Sabbath, in the way of Justice for others, there is no time for waiting. The kingdom is here now, breaking in, and cannot wait. It doesn’t do away with Sabbath but as Walter Wink suggests, fulfills it.

“Christ did not do away with the Sabbath but gave it full significance as the eschatological day, the day that prefigures the leisures of the end of time. Clearly, it was not to be a day of servitude, but the premonitory sign of supreme liberation God is accomplishing for the whole creation. Freed on this day from all that disfigures and frustrates the divine will for the fulness of time.” (Wink)

Here Jesus enacts what Sabbath is really about, liberation and care for all of creation. There is no waiting for this, the kingdom has broken in, the kingdom is now.

Next, we find in the short parable of the mustard seed the importance of remembering that it is the kingdom of God that often works through the most unexpected of things. In this case, it is the insignificant, and small (or weak), mustard seed. Jesus was saying, God’s kingdom is here among you, it just doesn’t look like what you expected.

Finally, it seems to me that the parable of the yeast says that change comes not quickly but through a slow and tedious process. But it always comes!

So in summary we have:

  • The fig tree – Clemency and cultivation.
  • The Bent women – The nowness of the liberation of the kingdom of God that cannot and will not wait.
  • The Mustard seed – The unexpected and insignificant appearance of God’s kingdom
  • The Yeast – Change comes and it comes slowly.

Cultivation, nowness, unexpected and insignificant, slowly?

this reminds me a lot of Quaker process.

I had a conversation this week with a friend who I just recently met who is not a Quaker. We talked about Quaker process.
One question he asked me was does the process work? Do we ever get things done?

At our elder’s meeting this week we talked about the need to follow Quaker process, but also the need (and the desire) to get things done. To not get caught up in the process so much that nothing is ever accomplished.

Simone Weil wrote, “We [often] want the future to be there without ceasing to be the future.” In other words, we want to continue to enjoy the desire without having to taste the final product. We want the chase, not the commitment.

Take for instance, the story of the bent woman. What would it look like to put things off until the future as was suggested by those who witnessed the healing? She would not have been healed.

What we have is present, it is now. It is not locked away in some past. Jesus does not act in a way that jives with “how things used to be.” He is not held back by the past (the way Sabbath laws had been interpreted in his time). And in the same breathe, neither does he delay the healing for the future, as though waiting for something similar to a rapture scenario where we convince ourselves that responsibility is to be delayed (or avoided) in the name of coming judgment. This mode doesn’t renounce the future, it idolizes it.

Jesus responds by collapsing the past (it was sabbath) and the future (the kingdom coming) into the present (the bent women, there right in front of him is healed).

Quaker Process in Our Times.
This is about who we are right now. Quaker process reminds us we are here now together with our history and with our future, but only now in the present are we called to listen and respond. We cannot live in the future, and we cannot live in the past, we are here for the present.  We are called to listen to Jesus Christ himself, speak and lead us together. And is this not increasingly difficult to do? Is it not as backwards as much of what we find in the Gospels themselves? These ideas of the kingdom being here now, the unexpected appearance of it, the need for cultivation, and the slow change that occurs, all this is backwards according to modern sensibilities.

In our world where voting is an integral part of  decision-making, how do we create communities that not only value the careful (and sometimes tedious) process of discerning the “Sense of the Meeting” (similar to, though not equal with, the more popular notion of consensus), but who are disciplined enough to actually do it?  While we are Quakers and we pay lip service to the present Christ, and the importance of silence, and slowness and listening, we don’t have to follow this. We can short-cut these methods and do things the way of our world. The way of the manager in a bearucrtic environment. But the day-job manager is a modern construction, not an image of the kingdom. The kingdom is a mustard seed, it is yeast, it is a failing fig tree, and a doubled-over woman healed at an inopportune time.

So when we come together as Quakers to do business we must return to these passages, and see the intervention that takes place.

Our process requires cultivation, and clemency. It’s not perfect (no system is).
Our process is rooted in the nowness of the kingdom. Christ is here now to lead his people.
Our process is unexpected and looks rather insignificant, but has proved itself very powerful.
And our process allows for the slow movements of innovation and change, it takes time, but it always arrives, it does not rest in a future coming, but in the eternal present.

a Closing image.
Tom Smith wrote on my blog this week:

I am reminded of a talk by Tom Mullen he gave to Moorestown Friends School almost 30 years ago. One of his premises was that the digital watch/clock was a symptom of our time that needed to be carefully watched. He said that with a digital time there tended to be no past and no future. When asked what time is it, people often now say the “exact” time. Fifteen past the hour, 20 til the hour, etc. were leaving our [everyday] conversation[al] language. “Living in the moment” has not assisted this trend.

Friends process, including waiting and listening, requires attention to the past, present and future implications… Slow down and smell the roses, might be adapted to “Slow down and feel the Spirit.”

I visualized this togetherness of past, present and future on Friday when I spent sometime at LaCamas Park. It was there that I realized that we can visually see the past, present and the future at work among God’s creation. Here is a poem I wrote to close with it’s called Movements: Past, Future, Present

Here among the beams of light, the greens and brown,
things decay, die, and creep back into the ground.

The downward movement carefully works its way back into new life,
revealing the necessity of the past we often hold in strife.

There are things just now sprouting and crafting their webs,
the future is unfolding all across the earthen bed.

In the middle of this past and future the present movement is a-spin,
sometimes so slowly only a patient silence can catch the tick-tock of creation.