A Son of Thunder Reversed

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Listen to sermon here: A Son of Thunder Reversed

Readings of the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)

2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Luke 9:51-62

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on June 26, 2016.

One of my favorite poets is the seventeenth century Anglican priest George Herbert, who is arguably the most skillful religious poet of the English language. Ever since I read his poem “Easter Wings” in high school, I have been fed and inspired by his words and wisdom. Recently, I have been ruminating on a poem of his titled “Prayer,” which is replete with rich metaphors that each invite deep reflection and contemplation. I want to expand one of these rich metaphors with you this morning in light of today’s Gospel. I first want to share the poem with you, and as I do, I invite you to pay attention to the images, especially those that stimulate your own imagination and reflection:

Prayer the Church’s Banquet, Angels’ age

God’s breath in man returning to his birth,

The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,

The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;

 

Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,

Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,

The six-days world transposing in an hour,

A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;

 

Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,

Exalted manna, gladness of the best,

Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,

The Milky Way, the bird of Paradise,

 

Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,

The land of spices; something understood.[1]

Now each of these metaphors deserves a sermon of their own, but this morning I want to explore with you the idea of prayer as reversed thunder. One commentator on the poem, Dennis Lennon, explains prayer as reversed thunder when he writes that our prayer does to God in heaven “what thunder does to us on earth,”[2] rousing and demanding attention. He writes that prayer “storms into heaven as unstoppably as thunder storms into our presence on earth.”[3] And although I love this idea of our prayer being to God what thunder is to us, the Gospel this morning invites me to understand “reversed thunder” in a different way. The Gospel invites me to see prayer as a catalyst for reversing the thunder that rumbles within each of us. In other words, by praying and bringing to God the thunderous parts of ourselves, we make ourselves vulnerable to transformation. Through prayer, our sin and prejudice can transform into love and compassion. Our violence can be dismantled; our thunder can be reversed.

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In the Gospel, we hear the disciples John and James bring to Jesus their violent and thunderous urge to snuff out the Samaritans whom they despised: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Now the Samaritans were considered even more “unclean” and abhorrent than Gentiles because their ancestors had intermarried with the Assyrians and they had subsequently developed a “distorted” form of Judaism. This is why it is so scandalous when Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman (in John 4) and makes the hero of his famous parable a Good Samaritan (in Luke 10). The Samaritans were the object of prejudice, disgust and hatred, so much so that the disciples assume Jesus will encourage their destruction, especially since they do not welcome Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples’ question is likely informed by their love for the great prophet Elijah who successfully called fire down from heaven to prove to the priests of Baal that their god was impotent in comparison to the true God of Israel. Since Jesus is a prophet in the spiritual lineage of Elijah, the disciples assume he will follow suit and affirm their fiery passion. After all, Jesus does give them both a nickname that seems to appreciate their zeal. According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus gives James and John the nickname “Sons of Thunder.” Almost sounds like a motorcycle gang. The Sons of Thunder.

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Scholars speculate about the meaning of this nickname and suggest that it refers to their fierce and impulsive personalities.[4] They both shamelessly request seats of honor and glory next to Jesus (Mark 10:35-37); and they both try to obstruct the ministry of someone who is casting out demons in a manner of which they do not approve (Mark 9:38). And in both of these cases, Jesus responds to their thunderous personalities by inviting them to relax and let go of their urge to dominate and condemn. He receives their thunder, rebukes it and then works to reverse it.

In response to their desire to burn Samaritans with fire from heaven, Jesus turns and rebukes James and John, the sons of thunder. The rest of today’s Gospel passage recounts Jesus inviting others to let go of their preoccupations and to commit themselves fully to the work of transformation. He says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” The work of reversing thunder in ourselves and in the world requires full and absolute commitment.

In Galatians, Paul refers to the life that is driven by thunder as a life that is bound by the flesh, resulting in jealousy, anger, envy and strife. We are all aware of that inner thunder that rumbles within us and disconnects from God, from one another and from the earth. Likewise, Paul refers to the spiritual work of reversing thunder when he speaks of life according to the Spirit, a life of prayer that results in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; a life that can freely enjoy the flesh and the body and the earth because it is not bound by the flesh that thunders for domination. Life according to the Spirit is Herbert’s “reversed thunder” because it is a life of prayer that brings our anxiety and angst to Jesus to be transformed.

In the Christian Scriptures, we get to see the result of this transformation in one of these sons of thunder, in the disciple John. In the book of Acts, which is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, John the son of thunder makes a final appearance. When the apostles learn that the Samaritans have finally accepted the good news of Jesus Christ, they decide to send someone to guide them and pray for them and lay hands upon them. They decide to send John, the son of thunder, the same John who wanted to burn the Samaritans to a crisp. According to the book of Acts, John lays his hands on the Samaritans and, as a result, they receive the Holy Spirit (8:17). So the disciple who initially wanted to call down fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans is transformed by Jesus into an apostle who calls down the Holy Spirit to give the Samaritans new life. John’s thunder is reversed. According to Paul’s letter to Galatians, John becomes an “acknowledged pillar” of the church (2:9), a foundation upon which the church is built (as we prayed in today’s Collect) and, according to tradition, he becomes the author of the spiritual, magnificent and mind-boggling Fourth Gospel, the Gospel of John, the Gospel of the Son of Thunder Reversed.

And today, we are invited into the sacred work of having our own inner thunder reversed through our participation in communal prayer. We are invited to ask ourselves, “Who are the Samaritans in our lives? Whom do we want to condemn and punish and blame?” We can easily see this thunder all around us and within us. Christians often seek to condemn and blame Non-Christians and vice versa. Democrats often seek to condemn and blame the Republicans and vice versa. And the examples can go on and on. And this kind of thunder always results in strife. This compulsion to dominate and blame and condemn and to seek divine justification for our anger and violence needs the gentle rebuke and the healing touch of Jesus, who can transform us as long as we remain fully committed to him, through prayer.

So I invite us now to enter together into prayer, into what George Herbert calls “reversed thunder.” I invite us, either silently or aloud, to bring all of our concerns, anxieties and inner rumblings to God who, according to Psalm 77, will hear us (“I will cry aloud and he will hear me”); and not only will he hear us and receive us, he will also transform us so that we may enjoy the fruits of the Spirit; so that we may, like John the son of thunder reversed, move from condemnation to compassion; and so that we may come to experience our prayer life the way George Herbert experienced his, as “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss.” Amen.

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[1] George Herbert, George Herbert: The Country Parson, the Temple, edited by John N. Wall, Jr. (Ramsey NJ: Paulist Press, 1981) in The Classics of Western Spirituality, “Prayer (I),” 165-166.

[2] Dennis Lennon, Turning the Diamond: Exploring George Herbert’s Images of Prayer (London: SPCK, 2002), 53.

[3] Lennon, Turning the Diamond, 55.

[4] See R. Alan Culpepper, John, the Son of Zebedee: The Life of a Legend (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 28-55.

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