Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15C), August 19, 2007, delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18
I‘m going to ‘fess up right here. On a beautiful summer morning like this one, I am sometimes tempted to show up in church, slide into my seat, and more or less doze through the readings. But then – whoosh! Along comes an urgent, edgy Gospel passage like this one and suddenly I have to sit bolt upright, startled awake. Some contemporary New Testament scholars say that the pointed sayings of Jesus – the ones we want to set aside because they make us uncomfortable – are often the very ones that are most historically accurate. So when I saw today’s Gospel reading, I had to sigh, OK, Margaret, forget about just showing up and offering a few casual remarks in your homily – Jesus has something else in mind. Jesus wants to set us on fire.
That’s how he puts it, right off the bat. “I have come to start a fire, and how I wish it were kindled, how I wish it were blazing right now!” Jesus comes with fire – that traditional biblical image of judgment and purification. “I have come to change everything,” Jesus says to us this morning. “I have come” – and now I’m quoting a contemporary rendering of this passage – “I have come to turn everything right-side up.”[i] “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to earth?” (Luke 12:51, NRSV) “Do you think [that I have come] to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so.” (Luke 12:51, The Message) I have come not to bring peace, but division. “I’ve come to disrupt and confront! From now on, when you find five in a house, it will be – three against two, and two against three; father against son, and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother .” (Luke12-51-53, The Message) And so on. You know the rest.
And if we say we don’t understand, if we say that Jesus’ coming doesn’t present us with a decisive moment of choice that could be disruptive and that may separate people, even members of the same family, from one another, Jesus has some strong words of rebuke. He says to the crowd, “When you see clouds coming in from the west, you say, ‘Storm’s coming’ – and you’re right. And when the wind comes out of the south, you say, ‘This’ll be a hot one’ – and you’re right.” (Luke 12:54-55, The Message) So if you know how to tell a change in the weather, “to interpret the appearance of earth and sky” (Luke 12:56, NRSV), don’t tell me you can’t interpret the present time.
What is the present time? Well, it’s late-summer time. It’s back-to-school-shopping time. It’s time-for-a-haircut time. It’s almost fall-TV-schedule time. But above all it is God’s time. In Jesus, God has come close; God has come into the world and entered human life, and from now on we are confronted with a daily choice: will we choose the ways of God? Will we choose life rather than death? Will we “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus”? (Hebrews 12:1-2a) At first this might have seemed like another sleepy August morning, but instead we get a wake-up call, a summons to renew our commitment to Christ and to his proclamation of the kingdom of God.
But before I say another word, I must say this. When Jesus announces that in a household of five, it will be three against two and two against three, I don’t believe for a moment that he wants us to be troublemakers for trouble’s sake, or to incite division for division’s sake. Heaven knows the ordinary family has enough conflicts and misunderstandings of its own, and doesn’t need Jesus to encourage further division. Heaven knows we don’t need to interpret this passage as license to bump against each other and revel in argument and controversy just because we’re in the mood.
In fact, the whole New Testament makes clear that Jesus’ overarching quest and his deepest longing was for God’s peace, God’s shalom – that Hebrew word that means not just the absence of strife or war, but well-being, wholeness, reconciliation with one another and with God. Peace is what God desires and wills not only for the soul or for the human race, but for God’s whole creation.[ii]
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). Jesus was recognized as a peacemaker at the very beginning of his life, when Zechariah welcomed him as the one who came “to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). Near the end of his life, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus stopped those who were reaching for their swords, and when someone struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear, Jesus said, “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51), a cry for peace that echoes down through the centuries.
The early church carried forward Jesus’ message of shalom. Paul wrote in one letter, “Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:13), and in another, “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building” (Romans 14:19), and in yet another, “ agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11). Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy says, “Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies: you know that they breed quarrels” (2 Timothy 2:22b-23).
At the heart of Christian faith is a quest for peace, what one commentator calls “an insatiable appetite for God’s shalom.”[iii] But Jesus makes it clear today that dedicating ourselves to God’s peace, God’s shalom means being willing to be passionate, to be set on fire, to give ourselves utterly to the quest for the wholeness and flourishing of all beings, even if it leads to division with those near and dear.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a 16 or 17-year-old in your life and you love him dearly and you’re committed to his flourishing, to his shalom. And let’s say that he’s a good kid but he’s hanging with the wrong crowd and you know there’s some drinking going on. If you like, you can keep the peace and look the other way. You know that if you insist on keeping track of his whereabouts, or enforce a curfew, or call ahead to be sure that parents will be present in the house where his group plans to party, you’re not going to win any popularity contests with your son. He’s going to be plenty annoyed with you, and he’s going to tell you so in no uncertain terms. But the only way you can stay true to your commitment to be a good parent and to stand up for his wellbeing is to be willing to do what you need to do, to bear his wrath, and to let him be upset. A false peace is no peace at all.
Or let’s say you’ve reached a point in your life where you sense that something in your life doesn’t ring true. On the surface everything may be placid, but underneath you feel restless and edgy, or maybe you just feel numb, as if you’re only going through the motions. As you listen to your deepest truth, you realize that something deep inside you is hungering for expression, something is calling you to make a change, something is asking you to take hold of your life in a more authentic way. Doing that may create waves in the world around you. It may disrupt some long-standing relationships. But a fire has been kindled within you. You want to discover who you really are and what you really value. You want to get clear about what really matters to you, and how you want to spend what poet Mary Oliver calls “your one wild and precious life.”[iv] And you realize that you’re willing to stand up for your truth, even if that means upsetting some of those who are closest to you.
That’s what I hear in Jesus’ words today: a call to passion, a call to fire, a call to stay true to God’s longing for the flourishing of life within ourselves, within our families and communities, within the world at large, even when standing up for life means that we must go against the grain, provoke controversy, and refuse to do business as usual.
Blessed unrest – that’s a good term for it, our refusal to settle for a status quo in which the poor go hungry, landfills overflow, lakes die, entire species disappear, gas-guzzlers foul the air, and the global climate is scorched. Did you know that Arctic sea ice is expected to reach record lows in September? We may feel as if we’re living in that vineyard that Isaiah was talking about, the one that was on the verge of turning into a wasteland – un-pruned, un-weeded, choked by briers and thorns (Isaiah 5:1-7) – although this time it’s not God we can blame for its destruction, but only we ourselves.
Yet here is Jesus, living for us, dying for us, rising for us, standing with us and calling us out to a life of fire, to a life that is devoted to God’s shalom and to the healing and wellbeing of all, even when living such a life will disrupt the powers-that-be.
Blessed Unrest is the title of a new book by environmentalist Paul Hawken that traces the extraordinary upwelling right now around the world of people and groups who are devoted to the renewal of life on this planet. You won’t read about them in the newspapers. You won’t see them on TV. Most of their work is carried out under the radar of politicians or the corporate media. But, he writes, across the planet, “groups ranging from ad hoc neighborhood associations to well-funded international organizations are confronting issues like [social justice], the destruction of the environment, the abuses of free-market fundamentalism and the loss of indigenous cultures. They share no orthodoxy or unifying ideology; they follow no single charismatic leader; they remain supple enough to coalesce easily into larger networks to achieve their goals [And] they are bringing about what may one day be judged the single most profound transformation of human society.”[v]
I believe we Christians are called to be part of this sometimes disruptive transition to a more just and sustainable world, where local communities can thrive with face-to-face contact, eating locally-grown food and learning to live within the “carrying capacity” of our planet, its capacity to maintain and renew life. We do not do this work alone.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12: 1-2a)
This morning, I pray that the words we hear, the prayers we say, and the sacrament we share will strengthen our intention to become people of fire. Dear Jesus, give us courage to stand with you and to become fearless agents of God’s healing and God’s peace. Amen.
[i] Eugene H. Peterson, The Message: The New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs, Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 1993, p. 155.
[ii]Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, abridged in one volume by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1985, p. 209.
[iii] Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching through the Christian Year: Year C, Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994, p. 376.
[iv] Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” New and Selected Poems, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1992, p. 94.
[v] Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, NY, NY: Viking, 2007, from dust jacket.