Luke 12:49-56

Please pray with me for a moment. Gracious God, we know you to be the God who calls, who wills, who summons, who has concrete intentions for your creation and addresses human agents who do your will. We imagine ourselves called by you. Yet we are a strange lot: called but cowardly, obedient but self-indulgent, devoted to you, but otherwise preoccupied. In our strange mix is an answering and refusing. We give thanks for your call. We pray this day for ourselves for fresh vision, for our friends, great courage, for those in places more dangerous than ours, deep freedom. As we seek to answer your call, may we be haunted by your large purposes, we pray in the name of the utterly called Jesus. Amen.

Like many of you in your lives at work or home, my week here at the Cathedral includes many meetings about small as well as sometimes quite significant things. I’ve developed a simple practice of praying for a moment before each meeting, praying either alone or with those with whom I’m gathering. This week, as I have had today’s difficult lesson from Luke on my mind, I’ve been praying each day the prayer you just heard. It was written by the theologian Walter Brueggemann, and I’m intrigued by his odd and wonderful phrase, “may we be haunted by your large purposes.” Haunted by your large purposes.

I want to talk with you this morning about this. About letting our God who loves us so into our hearts and minds to haunt us, to move us, to demand from to us and give to us. About how God’s purposes are indeed large ones, earth shaking ones, discombobulating and upsetting ones. About how God’s purposes include a deep and abiding relationship with you and with me.

You know we gather here on this beautiful summer morning, in this incredibly inviting Cathedral with sublime flowers and gracious music, with friends and family and even the smiles and greetings of strangers, with all the hospitality and warmth that we understand is at the heart of what we are to expect from our faith. Nothing seems upsetting. And then we hear this lesson from Luke that turns it all upside down. “I came to bring fire to the earth…” “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Where we expect the Prince of Peace we find the prince of division; instead of cool breezes we find promises of fire; instead of peace at home we hear of families broken apart. What is going on here? Why has our comfort zone been so confronted? I am not sure I like this Gospel lesson so very much. Where’s the good news?

A student of the great composer Ludwig von Beethoven writes that he sometimes played a trick on his elite audiences, especially when he guessed that they were not truly paying attention, but simply following along in their comfort zones. While playing one of his slow and inviting movements on the piano, perhaps one that would be so gentle and beautiful that listeners would quite naturally feel that all was right with the world and they could relax into their pleasant thoughts and easy expectations. Then, just as he played the final pleasant notes, he would bring both of his hands crashing down on the keyboard and end his performance in a shocking and alarming noise. Some said that he might even chuckle aloud as he did this.*

This seems so rude and even cruel, but it was his own reminder to pay attention, that important things are not all sublime easy listening. Perhaps his parlor trick was to say, “Pay attention, and step outside that comfort zone. There is so much at stake in this life. It’s a hard thing, a hard lesson, delivered bluntly, yet in a way that all can hear. Some suggest that Beethoven’s whole life was a lesson that there is pain in the midst of beauty and possibility.

Well, our lesson from Luke today is such a hard thing. And as it did for its first-century listeners, it shakes us as well; it wakes us up and asks us to understand that we are called to be haunted by God’s largest purposes, that our commitment to the small and the comfortable features of our lives will be shaken to the core if we make a full commitment to be God’s people, to embrace all that God may hope for us.

Luke is writing at a time of great turmoil in the Roman Empire. A time of danger for his Jewish and Gentile audience. Pilate had already violently crushed a small revolt, and the rebellion that would eventually become war, destroying Jerusalem, was not far off. And while the context of the scriptural moment is always important to acknowledge, Luke attributes words to Jesus that we hear this morning in our time of our own troubles. And we, too, find them hard to hear. We seem to be told that the decision to follow Jesus can deeply disrupt our lives, and to illustrate Luke points to one of the most sacred of human institutions: our families. He sharply says, your first loyalty, your ultimate commitment is to be to that God who calls you for purposes larger than you imagine. Threatening all that we might cherish, we are asked to listen for and to love God first.

The point strikes literally close to home. Like you I cherish my family. I love my partner. I call my mother every week, and I aspire to be a fine brother and uncle, and struggle to meet all my family duties and to live a life worthy of all that I have been given. Isn’t that what we all do? Try very hard to live the lives worthy of all that God has given us. Lives worthy of those who love us, lives we can cherish and value, and maybe even be proud of.

So what’s all this about our God being a God of division and fire? A God who would destroy that which we cherish. Well, I think what we are to take away from this disturbing lesson is really a lesson about relationship. Make your commitment to God your first commitment. Watch for God’s presence in your midst. Stay alert for the large purposes of God in the midst of the often demanding claims on your energies, your time, and your passions. And your values.

You see, there is so very much at stake: nothing less than your very relationship with God. A relationship that cannot thrive as a secondary understanding.

Luke is indeed writing at a time of war and danger, political confusion, economic challenge, and the questioning of fundamental values and the prospects for the future. Times not unlike our times. Times that invite us—and all of God’s people—to make a new calculation, see a new understanding, a new hope that stands mere human aspirations on their head and demands that we pay attention and be haunted by God’s larger purposes. If this lesson is about anything it is about the importance of our relationship with God in times of deep trouble. Times like our times.

As we know from all our relationships, if they are petty and secondary, if they are an afterthought, they ask very little of us and they bare little fruit. So it is with our relationship with God. The lesson today is like a slamming of the keyboard to say pay attention. In our startled and discombobulated state, we will hear God’s calling. And we will know that that relationship cannot thrive unless it is at the heart of who we are. This is not something we can authentically appreciate while sitting in the audience of the concert hall, safe in our comfort zones. No, this asks that we step onto the stage of life in Christ itself. This asks that we step into the story. I think it is less about the things we must do and more about how we understand our place in the story. Jesus is grabbling us by the shoulders and shaking us, saying, “Come be part of this remarkable relationship.”

We live in a culture that is very so adept at shallow, even fickle commitments. We see this in our political life, surely, but also in our personal lives and our life of faith. Like the shrewd investor or gambler at the race track, we hedge our bets, playing one stock or one horse against another to mitigate the risk. We are skilled at holding back, rarely risking all that we have. Well, if Luke were a poker player, he would have Jesus saying, “folks, you are invited to be all in.” You are invited to put all your hearts and minds and muscle into the knowledge and love of God. Listen for and act upon his largest purposes. For this is a God who seeks to divide you from all that will keep you from him and to burn up all that is distraction. This is a God who seeks and even demands your complete love.

As a priest, I assist couples who are preparing for marriage. I met some time ago with a man and a woman getting ready for this big step. I was surprised when they told me about the prenuptial agreement they were crafting just in case the marriage didn’t work out. Well, I had to tell them that sacred commitments are not relationships where hedging of our bets is possible. Authentic relationships ask so much more of us; they ask for our hearts.

Today’s lesson may put this into the sharpest language. But remember these hard words are not the end of the story. The other party in the relationship is giving his all as well, and all that God asks is that we be haunted by God’s largest purposes.

For today’s lesson goes hand in hand with an understanding that we are unabashedly loved by our God. An understanding that all of God’s hopes for us can be known if we but listen and step into the story. We see that Jesus, though facing his own death, is not concerned about his own life and struggle. He is talking to and about us who would make new life through him and with him. Through his own life, suffering, death, and resurrection he is inviting us to write with him a new story of God’s hopes for God’s people.

Oh, we are to love our families and build our communities. We are to make the commitments to each other and all of God’s people that show we do indeed strive to live lives worthy of all that we have been given. We are to call our mothers and love our children. The lesson is not to give up on this life. The invitation of these hard words today tells us that there is a lot at stake in living faithfully the lives we have, unburdened by the all that baggage we might just as well throw into the fire, unconfused by the temptation to hedge our bets, and walking together in the clarity and light of God’s love. This is the story, the story of large purposes we are part of, the stage we may step onto. The faith we walk in. And we do it together. You and me. And that is good news indeed.

*Thanks to Tom Wright for this wonderful analogy.

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