Sermon for Sunday, August 14th, 2016 || Proper 15, Year C || Jeremiah 23: 23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11: 29 – 12:2; Luke 12: 49-56 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Clearly, this is not the warm fuzzy Jesus we’ve all come to know and love. But the truth is, he never was; Jesus never was the one-dimensional bearer of peace, love and understanding-no-matter-what that I fear we’ve made him out to be. Jesus was a complicated guy. A man of paradox, indeed; a man of passion, to be sure.
And yes, while Jesus admits in this morning’s gospel to being under tremendous stress as he travels ever-closer to the baptism by cross that awaits him in Jerusalem, this tidbit of self-disclosure is offered not as an excuse for his poor temper but as authentic witness to his humanity–his frustration that people still don’t understand who he is, what he’s come for, or much of anything he’s tried to teach them about the Kingdom of God he so boldly proclaims. The truth is that throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus sort of careens back and forth between “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” as the old saying goes.
And as his followers, we are called to do the same. It will not win us any popularity contests. In fact, unless everyone in a family is on exactly the same page, it is likely to cause exactly the kind of conflict and division to which Jesus is referring in this morning’s gospel. Because the Kingdom of God that Jesus is proclaiming, and the changes it demands of us, are not for the feint of heart. It turns out that the Good News Jesus proclaims to the poor and the oppressed isn’t such great news after all to the relatively rich and powerful like us– unless we are ready to be changed. Unless we are ready to sacrifice and share… and to embrace values that fly in the face of conventional wisdom…values that are totally upside down from those of the rest of the world— values like self-emptying instead of self-promotion, giving away instead of acquiring more, mercy and forgiveness instead of punishment and blame; humble service instead of social status; helping others instead of advancing oneself…loving instead of hating, collaborating instead of competing, living humbly as one among equals instead of clamoring to the top to be king.
Listen to what Jesus said earlier in Luke’s gospel in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man…But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets…”
No soft and fuzzy Jesus here either—at least not for us. This is inflammatory stuff! It may be a comfort to the afflicted, but to those of us who are pretty darned comfortable it’s nothing short of threatening. And it’s meant to be. It’s meant to shock us and scandalize us, confuse us and convict us.
Renowned scholar Fred Craddock once called Jesus “the crisis of the world,” because his words are meant to spin us into spiritual crisis, to press us to rethink our lives, to force us to decide whether to listen to God’s Son, His Beloved, or to go home after church and continue with business as usual.
It’s not hard to imagine how a family might suffer division rather than peace if one or two members took Jesus’ words more to heart than the others.
For instance, imagine a family in which the wife is a highly ambitious and successful hedge fund manager who grew up financially insecure, and the husband is a “rising star” attorney. After a personal crisis that leads him to church, the husband becomes ever more committed to being a follower of Jesus. His conversion leads him to re-evaluate his priorities. Maybe money and prestige aren’t as important as he thought. Yet his wife continues to focus more on her career than on their family. It’s not hard to imagine the conflict they might experience after hearing a sermon on a gospel in which Jesus teaches us to, “Sell your possessions and give alms,” or “not to keep striving for what you’re going to eat or drink…but strive for God’s kingdom instead, and those other things will be given to you as well.”
When I went to seminary, unlike some of my colleagues– whose spouses left them, having not bargained on being married to a priest– I was very blessed to have a totally supportive husband. But my mother was not nearly as understanding. At first all she could think about was the six-figure income I was giving up, and the effect that would have on my family and our lifestyle. It was a legitimate concern, of course, but a valid reason not to respond to God’s call?
“Mother against daughter and daughter against mother…”
Imagine how a black couple whose son was killed by a cop, or parents of a police officer gunned down in the street, might hear Jesus’ command to, “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other too…”
Imagine how you would hear those words if you, or your child, or your spouse, or your friend, were the victim of violence or oppression, of bullying or meanness, or any other hateful behavior?
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
It’s not hard to imagine the conflict and division Jesus’ teaching could cause within a family in which one member embraced forgiveness while another sought revenge. It’s not hard to imagine,
“…father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.
The Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ is uncompromisingly demanding to those who have ears to hear it. It comforts the afflicted, but oh how afflicts the comfortable! It can cause conflict and division, confusion and crisis. But then it’s meant to. Because what the Good News of our Lord Jesus Christ simply will not bear is the status quo. Amen.