Jeremiah 23:2329; Psalm 82; Luke 12:4956
Well, here we are on a calm late summer morning. We’ve made our way to church for a few comforting words to carry us through the coming week. We have some friends here all the way from Nebraska for Nebraska State Day, and I’m sure they have been looking forward to a pleasant, peaceful State Day at the National Cathedral.
So what do we have for you today? ‘How about this?’ Jesus says, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?’ ‘No,’ he says, ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth, division, disruption.’ Well, so much for a nice, calm morning.
And that’s not all. Jesus has come, he says, to drive families apart—father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, father-in-law against son-in-law. How’s that for family values? Isn’t church supposed to be what holds family’s together. Don’t we bring our youngsters here because it’s good for them and good for the family? Didn’t someone say somewhere that the family that prays together stays together?
What has happened to gentle, mild Jesus, the caring savior who welcomes everyone and never rejects anyone? Maybe Jesus is just having a bad day. But maybe not. Maybe he’s just getting around to saying the hard things that have to get said. He’s on his way to Jerusalem now, and the conflict is starting to build. It’s time to put all the cards on the table. And the toughest card he has to play is that following him isn’t always going to be easy.
In church these days we like to emphasize one of the great truths of our faith, that Jesus welcomes absolutely everyone to come as they are. But then we frequently leave out the other great truth that goes with it, that Jesus then is determined to change us, to deepen and convert us, to make us the full creatures of love we were made to be. And that will sometimes mean fire and division.
I gather that Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian at Duke Divinity School, begins one of his classes by reading a letter from a parent to a government official. The parent is complaining that his once well-motivated, earnest son has become involved in a strange religious group. The group has taken over his life, led him to leave behind his old friends, and made him reject his family’s values. It’s time for the government to step in, he says, and do something about this disruptive group.
“What’s going on here?” Hauerwas asks his class. And the students often guess this must be an extreme fundamentalist group of some sort, maybe the Moonies. But the professor proceeds to tell them that the letter was made up of a number of letters from third-century Roman parents complaining about this troubling group called Christians.
In fact, one of the chief charges in the early centuries against Christians was that they were anti-family—stirring children to rebel against parents and wives to be disobedient to their husbands. Rome, after all, held up the family as a sacred institution; it determined everything about someone’s life. To undermine the family was to undermine Rome. When Jesus’ family members once came chasing after him, people said to him, “Your mothers and brothers are outside waiting for you.” And looking around at his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother.”
And he went so far at one point as to say, “Anyone who loves father or mother… [or] son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”
Now we probably would all have to say that this is really not very helpful. After all, families are having a rough go of it in the prosperous Western world. The divorce rate is at 50%, the fertility rate is plummeting, and in Western Europe and increasingly in America people are choosing to have children and raise a family without ever bothering to get married. Unchecked affluence, bitter poverty, dysfunctional public schools, irresponsible parents are all undermining the family. It’s hard to find a model of a healthy family on television or at the movies, certainly any examples of decent families trying to bring children up in a more spiritual framework. In an age when our entertainment celebrates unfaithfulness, self-indulgence, and violence, families are struggling.
Nevertheless Jesus is saying that as important as family life is, there is something more important—the calling to be a disciple. And this gospel is saying that following Jesus is not always going to be peaceful and calm.
You know, baptism itself has come over the centuries to seem like a happy, quaint ritual. A beaming young couple speaks to the minister after church, with newborn baby in their arms, and say, “We’d like to get our baby done. Could we arrange a Saturday or Sunday afternoon for a nice little ceremony?” It seems so quaint and pleasant.
And we forget that for the early centuries of the church Christians viewed baptism with awe and even fear, because its whole point was to take the child out of her original family and place her in the vastly larger family of God. And it was saying to the child, This is your real family, this is where your loyalty really lies. This is a family with relatives in every city and continent, and with ancestors reaching back hundreds and thousands of years to the likes of Moses, St. Paul, St. Augustine, and Julian of Norwich. You’ll learn a new way of living here, and it will put you out of step with a lot of the life around you, and it could every cost you everything.
Writer John Westerhoff tells of attending a baptism in a Central American village where the child was brought into the church in a small wooden coffin as the congregation sang a sad funeral dirge. They knew they were bringing their child in for a kind of death. They were giving their child up to be first and foremost God’s child, not their own, to belong first to God’s family. There was no cheer at the beginning, even some tears, until the infant was raised out of the waters of death and the priest announced that now this child had been born into a whole new family and whole new life. “I have a baptism with which to be baptized,” Jesus says, and he knows that it will lead him to the cross.
Following Jesus will sometimes mean divisions. I remember writer Frederick Buechner describing how he traveled to New York to see his very proper, largely unreligious grandmother, to tell her that he had decided to become a minister. After some awkward explanation from he, she replied, “So was it your idea to become a minister, or have you been poorly advised?” She never did really accept that strange calling.
I have known students in my college ministry days who received comments like that when they went home to tell their parents that they wouldn’t be going off to business school or law school. Instead, they thought they might go work for the Jesuit Service Corps working with some of the poorest children in America on Indian reservations, or sign up to teach in an inner city school for a few years and then see what’s next. Sometimes their parents were supportive, but sometimes they were furious. A chaplain friend of mine was accused more than once of turning college students into “religious fanatics” when they signed up to work with a church a developing country. It felt to the parents like division, fire.
There are Christians sitting in prisons in China, and human rights advocates in jails across the globe, who have chosen to be there because of their faith. Chances are their families and their communities don’t understand. They know what fire and division feels like.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like the notion that faith can bring division. I would prefer a tame Jesus who wants just to give me peace of mind. But Jesus is after bigger game than that. He wants all of us.
C.S. Lewis once told a parable: Imagine yourself living in a house. God is coming to rebuild that house. For awhile it all makes sense what God is doing—getting the drains right, stopping the leaks in the roof, all the things you knew needed doing. But before long God starts knocking the house around in a way that hurts terribly, and you don’t understand it. What’s going on here? The answer is that God is building a different house from the one you had in mind—putting on a new wing here, an extra floor there, adding towers and courtyards. “You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage,” Lewis writes, “but [God] is building a palace… and intends to live in it himself.”
Our houses need cleaning, but even more, they need rearranging. Every family I know is struggling with the stress of too many demands and expectations, too little time, too little rootedness in faith or friendship, or the family of God. And so they at best say grace over meals and hope that can give them the strength they need. Could we begin to ask how God might want to rearrange the ways we do our family life—how we spend our time and money? Are we parents handing on to our children a living faith that can sustain their lives?
Within the palace of our own souls, could we begin to ask, Are we doing with our few years on this earth what God wants us to do? Are we being generous with our talents and energies? Are we making the time to listen to what God is saying to us, and are we serious about aligning ourselves more and more with Christ’s way? We say that being a Christian is at the center of our lives, but somehow we never quite get around to the praying, the reading scripture, the spending time with him.
And what if God has big plans for our world that will call for hard decisions and costly actions, and even divisions? Last week’s Newsweek had a cover story discussing how at long last virtually everyone is acknowledging that global warming is real, that human beings are a significant cause, and that something must be done. And nearly all the efforts to sow doubt about global warming have been exhausted. We see the problem.
But then nearly every commentator says that there is no political will in this country to do anything significant and costly to slow the process of our polluting the only earth our children and their children will ever have and destroying the homes and livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people.
We can think good thoughts. But when the action turns costly, we turn the other way. Hard truth can feel like fire, costly, demanding, divisive fire.
You see, Jesus believed we’re all up against it. There are things at work against us, both inside us and outside. And getting free of them will feel like fire and division. He wants to create a palace inside every one of us, with a strong foundation that can’t be shaken. But that is going to take knocking out some walls and changing the floor plan.
He wants all of us. And that will take fire, division, as well as growth and discovery. And it will mean we need to lean on this new family called church. He’s asking everything, but then he has everything to give.