"I came to bring fire"-Sermon for Proper 15, Luke12:49-56
Well…for my first Sunday preaching post vacation, the lectionary, which assigns our scripture readings for each Sunday, has surely set before us today what I will call a great big stink bomb…for lack of a better description. In our gospel lesson from Luke in particular, as we just heard read, Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to earth, and how I wish it were already kindled…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.”
Well, just speaking for myself, I for one thought the very reason that Jesus came to earth was to bring peace and unity among all of God’s beloved people…to show us the way and give us the courage to lay aside violence as a means for settling our differences…to bring us all…black, brown, white…rich, poor…whoever we love…whatever we believe…wherever we live…all of us into a love suffused family living together under the banner of the Prince of Peace…who is Jesus. At the very beginning of this same gospel, the Gospel of Luke, the angel proclaims to the shepherds in the field, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The angel is then joined by a multitude of the great heavenly host who sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.” And then Jesus is of course born into a human family…a family united together in bonds of affection, love and mutual care with Jesus at the very center. This Holy Family for me is the great icon for our own families…including our family of faith…for St. Julian’s…for the Christian Church universal…for the whole human family…an icon pointing us all together to the sort of love life we are created for…to live together in love and peace and unity…appreciating our difference as gifts that make us all together more whole…more rich and complex and capable. In the Old Testament the Psalmist sings in Psalm 138, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers [and sisters] dwell in unity.” And in the New Testament, Paul writes famously to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
The very reason I go on vacation each year, beyond rest and play and perspective taking, is to fall more in love with my family…to deepen our commitments to each other and nurture the love we share…to ever increase the peace and unity we share. And I always return from vacation profoundly ready to re-enter the relationships of mutual care and trust we have intentionally nurtured in this church and to continue our unified mission to bring peace and love and togetherness into the lives of all those entrusted into our care…both those who call St. Julian’s home and all those in the larger community that we get to serve…to model together for this sorely divided, racially torn, and entirely too violent world, that the recent tragedies in El Paso and Dayton so profoundly underscore for us, a better sort of way of being a human family…the way of Jesus. Jesus, who told Peter to set his sword down. Jesus, who did not participate in violence even when subjected to it…but instead turned an instrument of torture into a sign of self-giving love…into a means of bringing the whole world within God’s loving embrace, as he reached out his arms on the hard wood of the cross. Jesus, who said the world would recognize us first and foremost by the love we share with each other in our communities and in our families. Jesus, who…as far as my reading of scripture goes…never really left his own mother’s side even at the moment of his death. Jesus, whose brother James continued his work after his ascension founding and leading the church in Jerusalem. Jesus, who promised to always be with us even to the end of this age, giving us the gift of his ongoing life in the very present Holy Spirit. And, Jesus, who prays on the night before he dies that we would indeed all be one…that, in fact, his joy would be made complete…if we would be, like him and his Father, completely one.
Which is all to say, that to me, perhaps the chief hallmarks, the primary identifiers of a Christian community that is following the way of Jesus…that which we should work together to achieve more than anything else for our own blessing and for the very life and health of the world…are, as simply as I can put it, peace and unity…an end to violence and the beginning of togetherness. The very people of God, alive and active in the world today, who model for the world a means of dealing with disagreement and conflict that rejects the use of violence…and not only rejects violence but reshapes it with the power of forgiveness and of prayer, by a willingness to listen and enter hard conversations, by letting go of all sense of privilege and power and rightness, by sharing from our abundance with those who have far too little, by working together to create a life-giving economy that leads to those on both sides of any sort of transaction a mutual flourishing. And, the very people of God, alive and active in the world today, who model for the world a sort of unity that rejects any sort of division based on fear of difference…and not only rejects a fear of difference but reshapes it by courageously learning about different cultures, beliefs, political views and lifestyles, a sort of learning that seeks understanding and not domination…that seeks shared values and good things we can accomplish together, by appreciating the gifts and experiences of others that we welcome into our families and communities as just that…unique gifts and experiences that make us more colorful, more diverse, more rich and complex, more capable of doing more good for more people. As I like to say, I need you and you need me…only together do we just begin to look like the fullness of the love of God in whose image we are together created. Our meaning, our wholeness, our salvation is all wonderfully tied up in each other. Peace and unity…that’s the way of Jesus…that’s where our hearts will find their rest at the last…and this is the hope of the world…peace and unity…the very way of Jesus.
Which takes me all the way back to the beginning of my sermon. For, as you might be rightfully thinking, this may all sound good, but what about what Jesus says to us very specifically today…the whole fire and division and family members standing against each other thing…what I referred to at the beginning as the great big stink bomb. Well, as I have suggested, I believe Jesus calls us first and foremost into a peace-filled togetherness rooted in what Jesus calls, in the gospel of John, his new commandment…that we love one another just…just as he loves us…which is always and forever. Thus, Jesus’ teaching today and my conviction, which is also prayerfully rooted in my reading of scripture, may rightly be perceived as at odds with one another. But perhaps not…for I think Jesus is challenging us today to go deeper and peel back the layers of the onion a bit to look beyond who our friends and family members actually are and consider instead what is motivating our choices to be in relationships with those with whom we share a life.
You see, we so often partner with others for what we get out of them. People become a convenience and a means to an end. We choose our relationships to bolster our social position or power…to avoid having our notions of right and wrong challenged or questioned. We partner with only those who look, live, love and believe like we do because it feels safe and familiar and justifies our own choices…how we live, how we use things, how we spend our money, where we live, what we get up to in all manner of things…to further the status quo and keep the societal structures and current class systems firmly in place. We like knowing where we stand before others…those who we perceive as above us and those we are glad we are not like who stand below us. And too often people will resort to all sorts of manipulation and even violence toward others humans to keep things exactly as they are in this present time.
But Jesus will not have it. He wants to burn it all down…burn it all down beginning in our very hearts…for love’s sake alone. Jesus wants to divide the wheat from the chaff…the good from the bad…that runs right through the middle of every human heart. So that we can know the difference between the two and choose differently how and for what purpose we partner with each other in our families, among our friends, and with the communities we choose to participate in, including, our family of faith. In my mind, Jesus is saying to us today to pay attention to the web of relationships we have spun and the purposes that lie beneath them. For, if they exist to maintain and further the inequitable world in which we live…if they exist for our own advancement and security…if they exist to justify our own choices and life-style…then it might be time to reconsider who and how we relate with one another. As we have learned in modern forestry…the same fire that fells old growth trees also provides the very same heat that is required to release countless seeds from their pods or cones to provide new growth…the next generation of forest living an interdependent life. Fire can be and is often life giving.
The peace and unity that Jesus call us to can only be established and grow, in fact it is entirely dependent, on the sorts of relationships we establish with one another. The potential for peace and unity begins when an other-directed love flows from our heart toward another person that seeks our mutual flourishing…seeing the other first as partner…a divinely inspired level playing field that sees the other as an equal from which we have much to both learn from and much to share with. And, the more difference and diversity that exists in that web of relationships the healthier will be the garden of human community that we help shape.
Peace and unity are the way of Jesus…and they are built on the fertile soil of our rich relationships, one with another, rooted in interdependence and mutual flourishing. For this Jesus comes…to baptize our hearts with fire…the chance to make the whole world new…the chance to create and recreate life-giving relationships that we intentionally choose to forge one with another…peace-filled, togetherness…at the last. Amen.