Thompson’s Sermon from August 15, 2010

August 16, 2010

Hardly Hallmark
Luke 12:49-56
49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: 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.”
54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

This isn’t a passage of scripture you’ll ever find on a Hallmark product – it’s hardly along the lines of a Mother’s Day wish. I generally think of Hallmark cards as very traditional expressions of affection for friends and family members. Behind a Hallmark card is the assumption that love is intact in the places it belongs. Hallmark cards give voice to those situations in which children and parents and family members of all generations and friends and spouses and boyfriends and girlfriends all love each other in the way they’re supposed to love each other, but as we see in this passage, it’s not the way things always are.

What we’ve got this morning are not sweet words spoken fondly of those traditional family values that we all supposed to dearly hold. There’s no uncritical cherishing going on in this passage. This is not to say that Jesus had no appreciation for those ties that bind families together, but in this passage we hear how Jesus highlighted the tension that was going to erupt between family members as a result of his work.

I’m reminded of that line of greeting cards that features this woman named Maxine who has little appreciation for traditional values and relationships. She’s generally portrayed as having choice words for people who expect proper behavior, and those cards seem to go over pretty well. I think Maxine gives voice to a perspective that we can all appreciate to some extent. Irreverence has it’s place, and I think Jesus was probably considered to be irreverent to a large extent, but I don’t think he shared Maxine’s brand of irreverence.

Jesus was somewhere between the sentiments you’ll find on a Hallmark cards and those expressed by Maxine. Jesus wasn’t just an advocate of maintaining traditional family order, but he wasn’t just contemptuous of tradition. Jesus was an advocate of authentic faith in God and he recognized that such faith can be the source of tremendous conflict.

There’s some heat involved in Jesus’ words, and the fire of which Jesus spoke was designed to purge not comfort. Jesus didn’t see his work as the source of unconditional unity. He clearly saw that what he was doing was going to be the source of much conflict and division among people who were supposed to be the most closely associated. Jesus had rough things to say sometimes – and it wasn’t just about family ties being broken. This passage concludes with a sweeping indictment of the crowd. He called them hypocrites and contrasted their capability of forecasting the weather with their ability to discern the truth of the moment. The fact that he called them hypocrites indicated that the problem was more of an unwillingness to see the opportunity than an inability to comprehend what was going on.

Sometimes people wonder about the value of following the Lectionary for preaching. There are many people who have no idea what the lectionary is, but basically it’s the prescribed selection of scriptures for every Sunday of the year. It’s a three year cycle of selected readings, and some people feel that it’s boring or uncreative to follow the lectionary for preaching purposes, but I’m thinking that this is not a passage of scripture we would ever read in church if it wasn’t so prescribed. I’m not sure what kind of sermon series this passage would fit into very well. These are not the kind of words most of us are anxious to hear from the one we look to for unconditional love, but it’s good for us to be reminded that loving words aren’t always nice.

I’m reminded of a day in high school when I was learning to play golf. I was on the high school golf team, which wasn’t a team that was that hard to make in Wynne Arkansas. If you had a set of golf clubs you could be on the golf team, but I really wanted to learn to play golf, and I worked pretty hard at it. The local country club professional gave us some lessons and I tried to do what he said.

I never was as good as I wanted to be, and as everyone knows who has ever played golf, it can be a really frustrating game. People express their frustrations in various ways, and I was no exception. I know it’s nearly impossible for you to visualize this, but I was known to toss a golf club every now and then. So we had a match one day at the country club, which we won, and as I was leaving the parking lot Mr. Brun the club pro came up to me. I thought he was going to congratulate us on our victory, but he didn’t. He told me he had seen me throw my club after missing a short putt and he got real clear about what he thought about that. I won’t quote him, but I can remember exactly what he told me, and that was in about 1976. I don’t really remember anything else anybody said in 1976, but I remember that.

As we all know, there is such a thing as tough love. And just because we don’t want to hear something doesn’t mean we don’t need to hear it. It’s not easy to sort these things out, and we don’t always hear what we need to hear because of the tone in which it’s delivered, but sometimes it takes a harsh tone to get out attention.

Jesus had a lot of things to say in his relatively short life, and the tone conveyed by this passage certainly wasn’t present in all the words he spoke, but I don’t think we’re just getting a glimpse of Jesus on a bad day. There’s truth to these words. There’s something important for us to hear. The harshness of these words aren’t characteristic of everything Jesus said, but the words we’ve read today don’t need to be overlooked. They point to the fact that discipleship is about something more than behaving nicely.

Jesus didn’t want blind enthusiasm. Jesus wanted people to be engaged in the work of personal and social transformation — which is tough, mysterious, and scary work. This transformation business is tough work because it involves change. It requires patterns to be broken and relationships to be redefined. It disrupts lifestyles and exposes injustice.

The transformation business is mysterious work because it’s easy to avoid and hard to define. It doesn’t pay off in cash and it can be labeled by friends and family members as foolish and disruptive. The process isn’t easily documented and it can’t be quantified with statistics.

The transformation business is scary work because you don’t know where it will take you or what it will require. You don’t know who you’ll end up working with, and who will touch your life. The transformation business is not what society promotes nor what parents dream of for their children, and this is why we are more inclined to predict the weather than we are to pursue life in the Kingdom of God.

I’m making sweeping generalizations about us. Maybe this isn’t the case for you. Maybe for you the path to true life is clear, well lit, level, and everyone you know is encouraging you to stay on it and keep moving – regardless of the cost or condition. Maybe you’ve already been through the fire, and you aren’t even tempted to pursue anything less than spiritual truth. If this is the case we’re all proud to have you in our midst, but that’s not always my priority.

And Jesus sure had a hard time finding people with passion for the transforming love of God as he made his way to Jerusalem.

What I hear Jesus saying is that this world is largely organized in such a manner that the pressure is on us to live superficial lives. We are given clearly defined roles to play, and we are rewarded for not disrupting the system. Jesus made reference to the various family relationships that he was likely to disrupt. The family system was probably the most powerful system in tact in rural Palestine. It fit into a larger religious system, but it was on the level of family relationships that order was maintained, and what Jesus taught was actually very threatening to that system. The threat came in the form of Jesus encouraging people to be spiritually authentic at the expense of being traditionally appropriate.

I’m guessing there are a number of people in the sanctuary this morning who have felt the pressure to be traditional at the expense of being honest and authentic. This passage is confirmation for me of how Christian it is for us to promote faithfulness in relationships but not insist that all relationships be traditionally shaped. Jesus resisted the pressure of society to define how all people should live and serve God, and that’s the attitude we should have as well.

You can bet that Jesus faced tremendous pressure to get a real job, and you can be sure that the families of his disciples were distressed over the choices that their loved ones had made as well. I think it’s safe to assume that Jesus (the unmarried-childless-wandering-unorthodox teacher who left behind understandable work – that Jesus) was not so highly regarded by the traditionalists at the coffee shop in Nazareth.

The pressure to play along with life as everyone knew it would have been great on Jesus – just as it is for us. To break away from the systems that rule us is to go through fire, and it’s fear of the fire that generally keeps us in our places. But Jesus makes me think that this form of fire is not so threatening. Jesus sought to kindle such fires, but he wasn’t out to hurt people. His desire was to liberate us from the demands of standard behavior and to abide in the Kingdom of God.

I know this sounds pretty high minded, but it plays out in really common ways. It affects the way we treat people who are in any way disenfranchised. It informs the way we spend our time, energy, and money. It’s a reminder to us that we are in good company when we feel criticized for deviating from standard behavior out of desire to serve our neighbors.

It’s not pleasant to experience criticism, but it can be a privilege if we are criticized for doing the right thing. We just don’t want to be in the company of those who were criticized by Jesus for being more concerned with the weather than they were for God, and by the grace of God we will avoid that tragedy. Thanks be to God for that.


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