St. Paul’s Congregational Church
Hebrews 12: 1-2, 12-17; Luke 12: 49-56
August 18, 2019
The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims – the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! For a child has been born for us. Authority rests upon his shoulders and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. There shall be endless peace – he will establish and uphold it with justice and righteousness.
The angels say, fear not, for we bring you tidings of great joy. For unto you this day is born in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord. And they tell us, glory to God in the highest and peace to all of good will.
Then today, we hear the child, now a man, telling the crowds, I came to bring fire to the earth. And then asking, do you think I came to bring peace to the earth? He answers his own question, no – I tell you, but rather division. And he goes on to describe what the division looks like – right to the very thread of the society then – division into families - a time when the people were defined by their kinship.
Not peace on earth or to the earth but division. And the image of fire – a terrible force of destruction. I don’t know about you, but today’s world feels like this – divisions in our country, unexplainable policies that ignore or even worse, hurt “the least of these”, more gun violence, fires burning everywhere, ice caps, glaciers melting – something’s going on here. What do we make of this?
The message in today’s gospel is hard, isn’t it. Luke’s bringing us to confront those stark, harsh sayings of Jesus that don’t sit so well with our contemporary images of God. But, you know, there’s a hint of this earlier in Luke –remember when he was about 12 years old – his parents went back to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. After the festival ended, his parents went on but the boy Jesus stayed – his parents were frantic as we would expect. After 3 days of looking, they found him in the temple back in Jerusalem, listening to the teachers, asking questions. And when his mother said, how could you do this to us? We’ve been looking for you with great anxiety” – his response: why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my father’s house?” And Luke tells us, they did not understand what he said to them. Maybe we don’t either. The idea that we must put God first is a tough one.
Our culture, and we are all part of that culture, seems to prize a God with an infinite capacity for empathy – a God who is “nice.” We’ve all seen bumper stickers that proclaim, Jesus loves you – and that’s true enough. But we’re also familiar with the concept of tough love that doesn’t seem “nice” at all – I think of interventions done in a family when one member is out of control with a drug habit – those meetings certainly aren’t “nice” but I’m not sure there’s much that’s more caring, more loving than this. And dealing with children, and teenagers, a tough love is essential. “Nice” just doesn’t always accomplish what’s important, what needs to be done.
So Luke challenges this thinking of “nice”– he offers a glimpse of redemption for a world that’s anything but soft, nice – a world that needs much more than a “nice” God to redeem it. True then. Certainly true now.
As Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem, he becomes a lightning rod of conflict and opposition as he lays claim to startling forms of authority and power. The closer he gets to Jerusalem the more his words are marked with a sense of urgency and anguished intensity. The road to Jerusalem, we all know, leads to a violent confrontation with death.
Then we have the image of fire – Jesus says he comes to bring fire to the earth and we see then, that Jesus’ experience of life comes to be one of consuming fire. Where else do we see fire in the Bible – and what does that come to represent? Destruction. Change. But fire is not only a destructive force but also an agent of light, of heat – a primal element that purges, smelting off impurities, cleaning, purifying.
Maybe we’d rather stay as we are, accepted, warts and all, but Jesus wants more for us and from us – Jesus would change us, and the world.
Experiencing a burning bush and a fire within does not make one “nice” – on the contrary, an encounter with a fire invariably leads to confrontation and conflict. It was fire that Moses saw in a bush and fire which led the people by night through the wilderness. After Moses meets God in the burning bush, he is led not to peace and a resolution of problems, but into conflict with the Pharaoh himself. Moses’ confrontation with the Egyptians is part of a larger vision – a vision that is necessary for the sake of liberation and flourishing, and for that journey toward the promised land.
Maybe this connection between the experience of the burning bush, the struggle for liberation, the glimpses of a promised land can help us shed some light on these stark words of Jesus. These words certainly contradict the angels’ promise of peace on earth at his birth. Jesus emphatically denies that he’s come to bring peace. Instead, he claims to be the bearer of discord and fragmentation. This is so very jarring – not peaceful at all! How can this be good news?
Maybe it depends on our definition of peace. Maybe it depends on how we see the world we live in. Maybe it depends on what is really important to us, what is really important to God – God offers us a vision of what human life can be and what it should be. Sometimes we just don’t get it, though, do we.
If our world were nothing but a place of created goodness and profound beauty, a space where all people flourish, a world of justice, a world life-giving for all in God’s creation, then Jesus’ challenge would be deeply troubling.
However, if, on the other hand, our world is deeply marred and scarred, death-dealing for many life forms, with systems of meaning that are exploitative and non sustainable and I believe this to be true - then redemption can come only when those systems are shattered and consumed by fire. Life can’t emerge, re-emerge without confrontation. Here’s the conflict Jesus envisions – he comes not to disturb a nice world, but to shatter the disturbing and death dealing systems of the world that stifle life.
Not our usual Sunday morning fare, is it: not a gentle Jesus, meek and mild, no easy yokes or light burdens, no kind words about love and forgiveness. This is the other side of the gospel – the other side of the faith: the side that we don’t embrace quite so willingly. The side that makes us uncomfortable. The side we don’t want to talk about or hear about. But here it is and it is very much a part of the whole Christian message.
And, we need to hear it. We can’t ignore or overlook the reality that God offers us a vision of what human life can be and what it should be. We know what it is = it has to do with shaping ourselves as people by living faithfully with God at the absolute center of our lives. With God at the absolute center – not family, friends, work, anything else – but God. There is such an urgency, such an intensity here – God is very clear about what is required of us.
The message has to do with telling the truth and with living not for ourselves alone but for other. It has to do with holiness of life and with a passionate concern for the poor. It has to do with the way we take care of the stuff and the people God gives us. It has to do with living in the imitation of Christ: Jesus living his life again in us and through us with God at the center– God is very serious about this vision of life. And God expects us to strive to conform our lives to it. And it’s not easy for sure.
Jesus here is talking about the fire of transformation and faithfulness. The fire that comes, not to destroy, but to refine and purify. A fire that creates crisis – but a fire that shatters the death dealing and disturbing ways that life can operate.
Lisa Fithian is a grassroots activist in the global peace-oriented movement for social justice – she seems to understand Jesus’ call to embody crisis. She has been arrested more than 30 times for intentionally creating crisis – situations that force the powers that be – corporations, the media, security forces, consumers – to cease doing business as usual, to examine the inequities they may be perpetuating, and change policies. In an interview she explained, “when people ask me, why do you do it, I tell them I create crisis because crisis is that edge where change is possible.”
Crisis is that edge where change is possible. Think about that. Maybe this is what Jesus means when he spoke of bringing fire to the earth: bringing crisis to that edge? Maybe he’s saying, “I come to bring crisis because business as usual means injustice and death.”
Each and every one of us has been in situations where we’ve been uncomfortable with things as they are. We see injustice. We see prejudice. We find ourselves in a position with an opportunity to speak out, to take action – to respond to a crisis in front of us – how often do we really act? How often do we respond to that edge where change is possible? How often does our need to be “nice” overcome our stirring to be as Christ to each other? Too often, I fear.
We prefer to not make waves, to keep our lives intact. But Jesus is a fire and when fire is set to something, it is changed into something different from what it was before. And it seems to me that we trivialize Christianity by keeping our lives intact – and all of us want equilibrium in our lives. We work so hard to maintain a balance – change is so threatening isn’t it – for individuals and for institutions like churches. Change causes pain, confusion, chaos – crisis. But if we believe that crisis is the edge where change is possible, and if we believe that Jesus comes not so our behavior will be a little different but so that everything will be transformed – well, there’s the challenge for each of us, isn’t it.
Jesus came to bring division, to create crisis, to bring fire. Jesus wants to get inside each of us to cut away that which will be our undoing. Jesus wants to create a space in us so that he can come into our very souls and pervade our very beings so much that it is as though we’re set on fire.
Harsh words. Hard words. Against our grain of maintaining equilibrium. Against our grain of not making waves. Against our tendency to be “nice.” But nice isn’t always the right thing, is it. Crisis creates change; more than that, crisis can create transformation.
As harsh and uncomfortable are these words of Jesus, though, we have to remember that they are not his only words. In fact, this passage is in the same chapter of Luke as the gentle words, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” The passage ends, “instead strive for God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
It seems to me that we can’t focus only on the gentle words of Christ any more than we can only focus on the hard words. Because all of Jesus’ words are meant to bring us closer to God – we have Jesus as the example of how to do that. There’s never a question about God’s love for us – even when the words are harsh, God still loves us. Jesus loves us. Just as parents sometimes use powerful words to their children, so Jesus uses powerful words speaking to us. Jesus is anything but subtle here about the seriousness of his mission. What will it take for us to hear? What will it take for us to believe? What will it take for us to be transformed? What will it take to bring peace on earth? Not peace as absence of war or stress although that certainly sounds appealing. But God’s peace is more than that isn’t it. It’s wholeness. It’s being in God’s compelling and consuming presence. It’s a peace that passes all understanding. May we come to know that peace – both as individual disciples and together as we continue the rebuilding of our church. Amen.