Gospel: Luke 12:49-56
1st Reading: Jeremiah 23:23-29
1st Reading: Jeremiah 23:23-29
2nd Reading: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
This is the first year I've looked forward to preaching on this Gospel reading. I feel pretty passionate about it and this is why. Sometimes we think we come to church because it is comfortable. In an age where we have cars that can get us easily to any one of a hundred churches, we have choice. We decide where to go to church and where to stay often based on where we fit in and where we are comfortable.
However, Jesus came to change us, not to make us feel more peaceful in the short term, and this is one of those Gospel readings that lays this out most clearly. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
I've heard pastors say that if they don't stir up controversy in their sermon, they haven't done their job. They haven't truly preached the word of God, if people aren't challenged, even to the point of being offended. This hits awfully close to home, or rather the pocket book, for me and a lot of pastors. You've called me here to be your pastor. This congregation pays my salary. So I sometimes find myself torn about how much to challenge you. It isn't entirely conscious, but I do sometimes wonder who I work for. Do I work for God, preaching God's word, pointing out the difficult truths that need to be faced? Or do I work for all of you, whose offerings go to keeping me fed and clothed and roof over my head and paying my insurance and giving me what I need to live? Most of the time I hold the two together, and like a lot of “mysteries” in the Lutheran church, it seems to be a little of both.
The Disciples, too, are wondering who they work for. They have been following Jesus around for a few years in this reading. Jesus has been dropping little hints about the difficulty ahead, that he will die and the disciples will suffer, and called to take up their crosses, too. He is trying to tell them the truth about where they are headed, and they decide maybe this isn't such a good gig after all, that they should head back to Galilee where they can be safe. They have a choice, much like I do: Follow the path of Jesus which is difficult, to say the least, or follow the path of safety and comfort.
I don't want to stir up controversy for the sake of controversy. I want to challenge people in a way that gets them talking, that makes them think. I have felt ashamed that I more readily posted a message stating “Pokemon Go, Welcome Here” on our church sign than one that says, “Black Lives Matter.” What would it take to post a sign like that? Would we have a congregational forum first? What signs merit a congregational check in and which can be posted without people threatening to leave? How many people threatening to leave would mean that we change our message? How can we take time to have the discussion when lives are being lost every day because our society sends the message that some lives don't matter very much? On the other hand, how can we rush to post a sign that may not be where our hearts really are? How can we rush a conversation, a conversion of hearts, for an issue that has been going on in our country for hundreds of years? How can we honor and celebrate what we do not know, as a congregation that includes exactly 0 black people? I wish I knew the answer. I am still struggling and I know Jesus calls me to struggle and wrestle.
My dilemma as a pastor is not so different from my dilemma as a regular person, or yours. How do we stand up for what is right, when it is unpopular or causes divisions? How do we stand up in a way that is loving rather than condemning and alienating? How do we build relationships and community in a way that can withstand controversy? And I suppose there is some temptation that we know what is right in the first place, in that we make ourselves right and others wrong.
Let's start with the question, how do we know what's right in God's eyes. I try to use the “loving” test. God is love. So I ask myself, what about this is loving and compassionate? Is this only loving toward those who can give something back to me in return? If so, that may not pass the test. Is this loving toward someone who is hard to love, who is especially vulnerable, or who I might ordinarily ignore or dismiss? If so, it might be the kind of loving action Jesus' urges us toward, called justice.
In the reading from Jeremiah, this morning, God is nearby, rather than far away. Near to those who are suffering or trapped, near to all those who hunger or who are in need. When we stand up for what is right, it isn't what benefits me, but it is what benefits those people most in need, most trapped, who are suffering with no one to care for them. That is one way to know whether we are following God, or making an idol of ourselves.
How do we build a community that can withstand controversy? Practice, practice, practice. First practice authentic relationships. Get to know each other on a deeper level. Share your thoughts and dreams with each other. Be curious about each other. Those relationships are the glue that keep us together when differences threaten to divide us. Then we practice good communication. When we don't we need to call each other on it, so we can work on it. And we practice respect for one another in the smaller disagreements so when it gets more heated, we can hold on to what is most important, our unity in Christ which transcends any other differences between us.
Fire—it sounds so cruel and painful. However, fire has long been used for cleansing. Field burning in the grass seed capitol of the world was something we endured every year in the Willamette Valley. We sanitize our dishes at this church at 150 degrees. We don't see the fire, because it is hidden in the hot water heater, but fire sanitizes, it cleanses, it kills germs and helps keep us healthy.
Division—it sounds so cruel and painful. However, the word for division here is the same word for when Moses divided the Red Sea so the Israelites could move through to freedom. The dividing of the sea made a safe path for an enslaved people to escape to freedom. That is what God wants for us. At times, we are the Israelites, standing there on the river bank. We've got the Egyptians coming toward us, powers of death and enslavement. We've got the river in front of us, swirling and chaotic. Can you imagine the courage it must have taken to step out into that river bed with the water raging on both sides. Of course you do, because you've been there, as widows and widowers, times you've lost your job, times you've spoken out on behalf of others, times you gave generously despite not being quite secure yourselves, times you took a risk to befriend someone who was friendless, you've been there, but never alone. God is in those moments guiding you and helping you toward a more excellent and lasting peace that can only come after a time of uncertainty and risk.
The Israelites had some measure of peace as slaves. They ate garlic and meat when they were slaves. They knew what was expected of them. They had a place to live. However, God meant them for something greater than that kind of false peace that comes when you lie down and let others walk all over you, or when you don't speak up when someone says something hurtful or cruel. God meant us all for freedom. But getting there isn't easy. It isn't just a matter of picking up and going somewhere else. It was a matter of a change of heart that only took place with a long journey and a lot of trust building with God and a lot of community building in that 40 year exodus.
But sometimes we are the water that is standing in the way of God's saving action for the most vulnerable. In that case, God divides us, to get us out of the way so that something wonderful can happen. In that case, it may be painful and scary, but the same outcome—we are not alone, we can learn from these experiences, our faith can grow through these experiences, we can grow closer to God, we can realize what really matters, we can grow closer in community.
Change—God wants to change us. We're very comfortable. We have what we need. We benefit from this system of oppression that we live in. However it is a false kind of peace. What keeps this tenuous, false, short-term view kind of peace, enslaves our brothers and sisters and if we are honest about it, enslaves us.
There are just some things that are not going to be tolerated in the Kingdom of God, a lot of things we like and keep us comfortable. Consumerism, that some of us have way more than we need while others go without, racism, strip-mining, deforestation, pollution, greed and waste. We call this sin, and it is part of everything we do, we live in a state of sin. If I start I can get all mired in it, I'll never be able to let it go. Getting here this morning, burning fossil fuels, using hot water to bathe, eating food with 30 ingredients, not focussed on God or with a grateful heart, not enjoying the scenery, haven't made my homebound visits, dreaming of vacation, one foot out the door. I'm the hypocrite!
Jesus, here, is focussed. He's on his way to make the ultimate sacrifice, to die because he made so many people so uncomfortable, because he condemns it when our comforts mean that someone else's life is diminished. He asks us to open our eyes and see what we're doing to ourselves, what the price is for seeking short-term peace, instead of taking the longer view and doing the hard work for something that is real and beautiful.
The fire prepares us, by cleansing us. The division prepares a way, in between, to lead all people to freedom and life. It is painful, but it is good. Make way for the Kingdom of God! Jesus is making his home among us so that we will all have lasting peace and love for all time.