Proper 15c, August 14, 2016

August 15, 2016

The Blessing of Discomfort

Luke 12:49-56


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


Bear with me on this passage of scripture. This isn’t a particularly comforting passage, but I think I can point out some things that will leave you feeling good about it.


This world is such a strange place. The range of human experience on this planet is just more than I can get my mind around. I’m dumbstruck by the extent to which some people suffer and other people prosper. It seems that there is no limit to the pleasure or the pain that this world can provide, and in some significant ways the pain and the pleasure are doled out in a seemingly random fashion.


I think our inclination is to believe that things will go well for us if we eat right, do right, exercise, and say our prayers, and there certainly is some truth to this, but this isn’t the way it always works. Good people suffer. Selfish people prosper. This seemingly random nature of the way in which our lives are torn or propelled would be incredibly distressing to me if it wasn’t for this odd twist that Jesus so clearly taught and demonstrated. What Jesus revealed and what we know to be true is that some of the most painful things in our lives are the very things that bring us richness.


I think it’s in light of this reality that our scripture lesson this morning makes the most sense.  Jesus was painfully aware of how badly things can go in this world. At this point in his ministry he was on his way to Jerusalem where he anticipated rejection, prosecution, and crucifixion. He also knew how crossed up we can become with the most important people in our lives – even when we are doing exactly what God is calling us to do.


We don’t always end up at odds with our loved ones when we seek to align our lives with the truth of God. Prosperity can be derived from faithful living, and people who engage in devilish behavior often get what they deserve in a timely fashion, but as I say – these results aren’t guaranteed. You can’t be guided through life with simple formulas. This is a complex world, and it’s not unusual for us to suffer in ways that we would never expect. The trials that we face are often more difficult to navigate than we could ever have imagined. We don’t just experience challenges from the people we expect to be opposed to us – our most challenging adversaries can be our friends and family members.


I’m not trying to stir anything up if you are getting along with everyone right now, but Jesus had a clear understanding of what goes on in this world and within our very families, and he didn’t want us to be surprised by the things that come up. He also wanted us to keep an eye on ourselves. I think he wanted us to be aware of the ways in which any of us can become aligned with the wrong things and at odds with the truth.


Jesus was facing some real stress, and he didn’t keep his thoughts to himself. He was about to undergo great suffering and death and that moved him to turn up the heat on his followers. He said he didn’t come to bring peace but to cause division. He said he came with fire and some people were going to get burned, and he wasn’t talking about the afterlife – he knew that the course he was following and advocating was going to generate some extreme interpersonal conflicts in this life. He didn’t take pleasure in the conflict, but he knew that the truth would be very painful for some people to hear.


Jesus didn’t just come to play nice – he came to reveal deception and to expose the truth, and that doesn’t go over so well with people who are in love with distorted images of God and unjust patterns of existence. When Jesus spoke these words he didn’t have much time left, and it generated a new level of clarity to his message. He knew he was about to become the target of some misguided religious zeal, and he didn’t want his followers to be surprised when they found themselves in similar situations.


Jesus clearly didn’t offer us a painless journey, but the pain we encounter in life can be very fruitful. The suffering we experience can very well be the source of our redemption.


I’ve recently become quite a fan of a writer named Richard Rohr. Father Rohr is a Franciscan monk who has written several books on the subject of spiritual development. I find his perspective to be powerfully refreshing and inspirational, and in an essay I recently read he identified the way in which there are two things available to every one of us that provide us with access to union with God. One of those things is love, and the other is suffering. There are no words that can do what love and suffering can do for us. There are no teachers who can provide us more access to truth than love and suffering. Unfortunately, not everyone has easy access to people who touch them with great love, but there’s never any shortage of suffering to go around, and as surely as we can be spiritually transformed by the power of great love – suffering can open that same door.


Of course spiritual development isn’t the only avenue that’s available to us when we suffer. You might say there are two ways to go when you encounter great suffering in life. When you face circumstances that leave you in pain and without any control you can go in one of two directions: you can move in a direction that leaves you bitter and hurtful to others, or you can allow your suffering to soften your heart and to expand your compassion. Richard Rohr doesn’t say that it’s easy for our suffering to lead us in to that place of unity with God and compassion toward other people, but he believes that suffering is truly an avenue to a form of wholeness that you can’t find in any other way.


He also believes that people who have great love in their hearts will experience great suffering – which is what I think Jesus is pointing to in this passage. People who have great love are people who don’t insist on their own ways and who in significant ways relinquish control of their lives. To have great love for other people is to give yourself to others, and such profound giving can be profoundly painful.


I think the inter-familial stress that Jesus spoke of creating is rooted in the way in which he was calling for people to expand their love beyond the boundaries of family life. This is not to say that Jesus didn’t think it was important to love our immediate family members, but it’s not unusual for people’s lives to be defined in very narrow ways by their families. Families can be very restrictive with their love. People rarely fit in to the mold that the family expects, and it can be very disruptive for a person to say no to the life that is expected by their family structure.


There’s a whole school of psycho-therapy built around the way we are affected by our family systems, I won’t inflict my shallow understanding of that upon you this morning, but what I know is that we are always better off seeking to hear the instruction of the Holy Spirit to instruct our lives than we are to simply assume the role that is expected of us by our families. I’m not advocating the abandonment of our families, but I do believe our highest calling is to live in response to the greatest love of all. We are called to live in unity with the family of God.


There are so many stories of the ways in which children had to leave their family in order to do the thing they were called to do. Bruce Springsteen, one of my favorite rock musicians, once said that there were two things unwelcome in his father’s house – him and his guitar. They had a very stormy relationship, and Bruce Springsteen said it was best for the both of them to stay away from each other for an extended period of time.


It can be an act of love to not do what is expected of you in order to step in to that more mysterious relationship with God. And such steps can be very painful, but I heard an interview on the radio last week with a man who spoke of the way in which we are inclined to grow when we are in places of discomfort. This man had left home at an early age and moved to a city where he had to be very resourceful to survive, and he attributed his success as a writer to that decision to step in to a place that was very challenging to him. He considered his discomfort to have been a great teacher to him. As he said, You learn to swim when you experience the discomfort of drowning.


Of course the other option is to drown. Suffering doesn’t always produce a softened heart and a more authentic life, but suffering is always available to us as a teacher. It’s not the teacher that we prefer, and we often take actions that we think will enable us to avoid the harsh lessons that we get when we aren’t able to be in total control of our lives, but none of us are able to keep that severe instructor away forever. And what Jesus wants us to understand is that we can have access to something more satisfying than comfort if we are willing to trust and embrace the love of God.


Jesus didn’t want us to confuse having a comfortable life with having abundant life, and I think he was frustrated with the people who were surrounding him because they seemed to be more concerned with their immediate circumstances than they were of their eternal lives. They were more inclined to predict the weather than they were watching for what God was doing in their midst.


Jesus was worked up because he doesn’t want us to be content with the comforts of this world and to ignore the joy of abiding in God’s kingdom. Jesus wants our attention, and I believe the more attention we give to what he taught and how he lived the more likely we will go down that road that leads to unity with God and compassion for our neighbors.


The truth is that none of us really have to go out of our way to encounter discomfort and suffering. You don’t have to leave the house in order to find it. It finds us, and it’s important for us to know how to handle it. Suffering doesn’t come to us as a cheerful companion, but it can guide us to a happy place. God is with us in our times of trial and by the grace of God we can be transformed by our difficulties and brought in to greater unity with God and our neighbors.


The journey Jesus made to Jerusalem wasn’t easy, but by doing what he did he revealed to us the true picture of God’s enduring love. The image of Jesus on the cross isn’t a pretty picture, but it’s the most powerfully transforming picture we will ever have. It’s a perfect portrayal of both love and suffering.


This is a confusing world. It’s hard to know what to think of much of what goes on in this world, but there’s one thing that doesn’t change, and that is the nearness of God to us when we encounter our times of trial. Thanks be to God for this enduring truth, and regardless of what may be swirling around us or within us there is this ongoing opportunity to find our way in to the calm of God’s eternal love. Thanks be to God.




One Response to “Proper 15c, August 14, 2016”

  1. Michael WILSON Says:

    Thanks, Thompson, for those comforting words – My wife’s back pain qualifies for continual suffering – I am sure she will want to read this blog – Mickey Wilson

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