Holy Crisis

Sermon for August 15, 2010 (Proper 15, Year C, RCL)
The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

It is so good to see you all and to be back in the saddle again, but next year I’m definitely going to check the lectionary before I schedule my vacation. Perhaps you’ve heard it said that a priest’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Leave it to me to come back on the Sunday when it looks like the Prince of Peace has morphed into a Rabble-Rousing Radical hell-bent on messing with our summer-time serenity!  No “opiate of the masses” here!

This morning’s Jesus is not the gentle shepherd we’ve come to know and love; not the one who’s coming was announced with the words, “Peace on earth, goodwill towards men.” Not the one who says things like, “Go in peace, your faith has made you whole,” or “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.”  No.  This Jesus is a flame-throwing firebrand, hurling frightening words about discord and division at his disciples… moving closer to the cross with every breath and admitting to feeling the stress of it… speaking disturbing but necessary truths to his inner circle…seeing what they’re made of…who’s cut out for it and who’s not. This is Jesus embodying the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

This is what you’re signing up for, he’s telling his disciples.  Can you handle it?

Jesus has already warned his followers they’ll need to put God’s agenda before their own, put God’s will before their own, put God’s interests before their own.  He’s already taught them about the self-denial and self-sacrifice required of those who follow him…about the all-embracing hospitality and radical compassion, the priorities that’ll be turned upside down and the values that’ll be turned inside out…that when they let his fiery word have its way with them, sparks are gonna fly.  That they’ll be transformed, re-created, made new in him. And now this:  the hard truth that not everybody’s going to like it, that anytime anyone changes that much, and makes a commitment that profound, it’s going to tick some people off.  It’s going to cause conflict and division.  Even—and perhaps especially– among friends and family.  Are they ready for it?  Are they ready to make following Jesus the number one commitment in their lives, above all other commitments?  And are we?

Consider these words by biblical scholar R. Allan Culpepper:

“We cannot make a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord without its affecting the way we relate to friends and to family members. Because our commitment to Christ shapes our values, priorities, goals, and behavior, it also forces us to change old patterns of life, and these changes may precipitate crises in significant relationships.”

Are you ready for that?  Because crisis, I am convinced, is exactly what Jesus intends here. Crisis, as in “forcing a decision”; crisis, as in “a choice or decision involving an impending change…a process of transformation where the old… can no longer be maintained.”

Jesus is forcing a crisis, forcing his disciples, forcing us… to make a decision.  There’s no room for comfortable pew-sitting with this Jesus, no room for careless complacency, and certainly no room for non-commitment.  This Jesus is demanding.  This Jesus is staking an absolute claim on those who want to be his disciples—no ifs, ands or buts.  In our list of priorities, he wants to be at the top.  Above power and possessions, career and country, even friends and family.

And in the first century, the threat to family relationships when choosing Jesus was especially dangerous.  There was no such thing as religious “tolerance.” Those who chose the radical way of Jesus over traditional clan loyalty were invariably ostracized by their shamed and heartbroken families, left physically and economically—not to mention emotionally–vulnerable.

“It was not that Jesus sought to subvert families as such,” writes expert Bill Loader, “it was rather that he espoused a vision of God–and God’s agenda for change–which often stood in direct conflict with other absolute claims, like wealth, possessions, land, culture, religion and family.”

That vision of God and God’s agenda for change still stands indirect conflict with other claims that press upon on. We are so accustomed to holding the concept of peace as a supreme value and an absolute claim on our moral and ethical responsibilities, that when Jesus asks, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” and then answers, “No, I tell you, but rather division,” we are shocked.  But Jesus came to bring “the word that is like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.”  He came to “bring fire to the earth” he tells us, the fiery word that is God’s truth and that reveals God’s will.

And truth, in a world of lies, trumps peace any day. Truth, in a world of lies, will set us free…but perhaps not without burning.

Theologian Teresa Berger articulates it this way:  “..if our world were nothing but a place of created goodness and…a space of flourishing for all… then Jesus’ challenge would be deeply troubling. 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, then redemption can come only when those systems are shattered and consumed by fire… Jesus comes not to disturb a nice world but to shatter the disturbing and death-dealing systems of meaning that stifle life.”

Again, a point of crisis.  A decision to be made.  Will we let Christ’s fiery word of truth burn away the dross of our lives and commit ourselves whole-heartedly to God’s life-giving agenda of justice and mercy, healing and reconciliation, love and forgiveness? Or will we settle for keeping the peace—even a death-dealing one based on denial—just to avoid the possibility of division and conflict?

Martin Luther once said, “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.” Whether as individuals or as a community, the cost of truth may, indeed, be division— from comfortable patterns and old ways of being, from entrenched structures and corrupt systems, and even, perhaps, from the security of our families and our sacred traditions.  That’s the hard truth of this morning’s gospel.

And the Good News?  Ah, the good news!  The Good News is that when we submit ourselves to the truth of Christ’s gospel, when we make following him the number one commitment in our long list of competing priorities, when we abandon ourselves to his will—we are free at last to breathe in the life-giving peace of God for which we hunger, the life-giving peace that passes all understanding, the life-giving peace that is the source of all divine power.  May it be with you now, and remain with you always.  Amen.

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