Sunday August 18, 2019 — Proper 15
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Today’s Gospel is difficult. Jesus’ words about fire and division, and the fracturing of family relationships—these are hard sayings.
But as with all of scripture, we are most faithful to it when we actively engage with God about it–when we wrestle and ponder and meditate on it. And although today’s Gospel may be difficult, I believe it’s a hope-filled call for us to deepen our commitment to Jesus Christ in the divisive times in which we are living.
To help us understand today’s Gospel we need some more context. Jesus says he has come to bring fire on the earth. And it’s difficult for many to hear about fire in scripture and not have their minds turn to Christian medieval art and think of gruesome depictions of hell. But I do want to say that fire in Luke’s Gospel is associated with the Holy Spirit. Luke also wrote the book of Acts and there’s a theme in both his Gospel and the book of Acts, about the fire of the Holy Spirit. And on a side note, that’s one of the reasons why our liturgical colors on Pentecost and at ordinations is red, it’s meant to depict the fire of the Holy Spirit.
One aspect of the fiery Holy Spirit is judgment. I don’t want to downplay that all. And I think the judgment of the Holy Spirit is much more sobering than medieval paintings of hell. Because the judgment of God is not some type of torture tactic, the judgment of God is when we stand in the truth of who we are before God. It’s relational. It’s accountability for all that we are and what we have done, standing in the truth of that before God, without any shifting of blame or excusing our behavior. It’s to be totally known and naked before God. And that can be excruciating.
Jesus says that he has come to bring the fire of this judgment into the world. That you and I would stand in the truth of who we are before God, and to seek God’s will for things to be made right. That we would repent, or turn, from unreality and sin, so that we might turn to the healing work of God in our lives and in the world.
So that may help us understand the fire Jesus brings, but what about division? Here Jesus says that he hasn’t come to bring peace, but division. But isn’t Jesus known as the prince of peace? At the beginning of his Gospel, Luke writes that the multitudes of angels announced Jesus’ birth with “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
In fact, Jesus does offer us peace. That’s how he greeted his disciples. It’s how he greets you and me. And it’s his peace that we will offer to each other later in this service. But it’s a hard-earned peace. It doesn’t appear in our world in a vacuum. It comes to us in Christ through much division. In the beginning of his Gospel, Luke tells us about how Simeon meets Jesus. He is a holy man waiting for God’s chosen leader to arrive in Israel. He sings the song that means so much to us: “Lord you now have set your servant free.” And after he finishes, this is what he tells Jesus’ teenaged mother, Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The thoughts of many were revealed, some for Jesus, many against him, and the end of that division, piercing Mary’s heart like a sword, as she saw her son hanging on the cross.
Jesus is the prince of Peace, but his good news of God’s love creates division. It may catch us off guard to say that, but the more Jesus talks about God’s love for everyone, the more division it causes in communities and even families. You can see this happen over and over in the Gospels. There’s the status quo, the way things are. People have ordered their world into manageable ways. They know who is worthy of God’s love and who isn’t. And over and over Jesus confronts their view of the world and how they have limited God’s love. And this makes people so angry they want to kill him. And they do.
So Jesus comes to bring the purifying fire of the Spirit that we might stand in the truth of who we are in relation to God and to others. And his message of God’s inclusive love for all people causes division and violent opposition. So what does this mean for us today? Jesus rebukes the crowd because they can’t interpret the present time they are living in. They can’t read the signs of the times and respond appropriately in a way that joins with God’s work.
And the question for us today is “Do we know how to interpret the present divisive times we are living in?” The context of our present-day divisions is different than those of Jesus in the Gospel, but I believe our response should be the same as what he models for us. And I submit to you this morning this interpretation of our present times of division and violence: Each of us is being called to deepen our commitment to Christ and his way of love.
I feel a responsibility to share this with you as one of your priests. The past several years have been troubling for me as the son of an immigrant mother. The speech that has continued to escalate and dehumanize immigrants has been disturbing. Immigrants are being told to go back to where they come from, even if they are US Citizens. This type of public discourse has touched painful memories of similar things that have been said to me and things that have been said to my mother, who is also a naturalized citizen. And a couple of weeks ago a white nationalist, anti-immigrant terrorist, drove ten hours from his Dallas suburb to a Wal-mart in El Paso, Texas. I don’t really want to talk about what he did there, but I bring it up because I was born in El Paso. Had I grown up there past the age of four, I would have attended a public school where I would have learned Spanish and English together.
It’s not my job as your priest to tell you who to vote for or what to think politically. I thank God that’s not my job. Because faithful Christians who seek to follow Christ can differ in what they think in terms of policy. There are faithful Christians who are Republican, Democrat, and Independent. It’s not my job to tell you how to vote, but it is my job to point us to Jesus.
Today I believe we need Jesus’s difficult words about fire and judgement in the midst of our present day divisions. I recall the words from I Peter: “For the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God.” And I believe what’s most helpful right now, isn’t for us to focus on what’s happening out there, but for us to take a hard look at ourselves. I have to tell you that I have been appalled by the speech that has characterized public discourse lately. And no matter what your political leanings are, I implore you to examine your own speech and actions in this time of division, especially in light of each of the promises you and I have made to God in our baptism. Each of us in baptism has made Jesus Christ and his way of love in the community of the church the primary identity of our lives. I remind us all of the promises we have made: to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. To strive for justice and peace among all people, and to respect the dignity of every human being.
Now some might think this leads to passivity or inaction. And some feel that in these politically volatile times, we need to amp up our language and make it as cruel and biting as possible. But it’s not true. You and I can strongly disagree with others while still showing them respect. We can state our positions and disagreements without having to attack the dignity of another. And not only can we, we are commanded to. James tells us that a major part of our identity as those who follow Christ is the words we use. Listen to what James says about our mouths and the words we use: “With [the mouth] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”
And this brings up another thing for us to consider. What do we fill our hearts and souls with? It has to be said that at one point in time, what was referred to as the news, were reports on the facts of an event, with maybe even some analysis to contextualize those events. Now much of what is passed off as news through social media, talk radio, and cable television programming, are personalities on the left and right who denigrate others who were made in the image of God. Even panels on news networks are typically just yelling matches between people on opposite ends of a spectrum. They use hurtful and damaging language, and its toxic, not only for the people to whom it’s directed, but also to you and me who take this type of thing in.
Whether it’s talk radio, television, social media, or the internet, we cannot hope to live into our baptism, while saturating our hearts with toxic speech that dehumanizes the people in whom Christ lives, whose dignity we have vowed to respect.
We live in divided times. That’s true. And more than any divisions that there may be in our nation or even between us, they are nothing compared to what unites us. Each of us has been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and we have committed to following his way of love. And my hope and my exhortation to all of us this morning, is that our primary definition of ourselves would be our baptism rather than what political party we belong to, or which political party we are against.
Are we interpreting this present time correctly? We may be troubled or anxious. We may be angry and frustrated. But are we listening to what God is calling us to in this moment?
I came across this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. and I think it sums up what each of us is being called to right now:
“When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.”
Martin Luther King Jr’s words are powerful, because they call us to follow Christ. There may be evil, violence, and ugly words of hatred, but instead of being resigned to the ugliness of division, you and I are invited to walk deeper into the glories of love.
Do not despair or lose hope because of the darkness of our divisions, or the depth of the violence and hatred we see. And do not mirror evil, violence, or ugly words of hatred. Instead, look to Christ, the one in whom we have trusted and committed to follow, and let us deepen our commitment to him and the glories of his love.