Sunday, August 18, 2013

Like Fire

Like Fire
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 18, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 12: 49-56

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

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? [1]  

The first sermon I ever gave after entering seminary was based on this very passage. It was my third sermon all time. As a senior in high school, a few weeks before graduating I gave my first sermon. It was youth Sunday, I was drafted, and I swore I would never do it again. Then right before entering seminary, as I was leaving Christchurch after teaching there six years, I was asked to preach, and so I did. Then I entered seminary, and I was under care at First Presbyterian Church, in Gloucester, and was given the chance to preach. I had no idea what to preach about, and at that point was very rules conscious, so I decided to look at the lectionary. It was six years ago this week, so this passage was it. Can you imagine? Talk about a tough draw. You've got Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, the God of love's only begotten son, coming forward and saying that he isn't bringing peace, but instead a sword, and is going to drive wedges between family members, and is going to set the world on fire, as soon as possible, and in and according to his words he wishes the fire was already started. Not an easy passage, to say the least. It was six years ago, and I wish I could say that I was closer to sure about what this text is all about now, but to be absolutely honest, I'm not. Six years, two of which were spent studying at Seminary, two serving as a ministry intern at a church in Hampton, a summer at a camp in New York, and almost two years now here, looking at the Bible constantly I'm still blown away by this passage.
Six years ago, basically I said that Jesus is dynamic. That being human and being infinite as God, there was much to him, and that even after years and years of studying the Bible we can still get surprised by an aspect of him that we never knew before. I still find that to be very true. So I challenged the congregation then to dig a little deeper in their relationship with Jesus, to not put him in a box, but instead to dig past, open to the possibilities and challenges of a real relationship. I also then challenged them to dig deeper in their relationships with each other. I knew the church, and thought that it was good advice for them. That building relationships based in real depth of knowledge about each other was always a good thing. To tell you the truth, that was a safe sermon, in a way I skirted the issue here about the Prince of Peace brandishing a sword. How does that work? How is it possible that the Prince of Peace is captaining division and apparent violence? Frankly, the nonsense poem, the Jabberwocky makes more sense, with the vorpal sword going snicker-snack against the frubious bandersnitch.
So I've been doing a fair amount of research this week, trying to look at what other people are saying. Now I found a lot of people trying to apologize this text away. Saying that Jesus really didn't mean it, really didn't mean it literally anyway, was just testing the disciples. These people tend to compare this passage to the angels calling Jesus the Prince of Peace to the shepherds at Christmas, and then that he tells Peter to put away his sword, being that those who choose to live by the sword, die by the sword, two beats out one, so this text is just an anomaly, their conclusion being that it must just be Jesus testing the disciples in some way. It's possible, perhaps. But testing them how and for what? Is that like me six years ago, saying that Jesus is trying to keep them on their toes, one step ahead, making sure they don't for once think they've got it all figured out? Again possibly. It certainly works that way, but is there more?
Another group I found this week is focusing on the idea that Jesus probably really did say this. There is a academic quest that has been popular in the last 50 some years to find the historical Jesus, trying to get passed the hype, get passed the agendas, get passed the glossing, and get at exactly who Jesus was and what he really did. Historical Jesus is often code for the human Jesus, the non Christian Jesus, the not at all God, Jesus. A book like that just came out, they do every few years, with some new view point analyzing the historical data, trying to find out what is legitimate and what isn't. They have certain criteria for judging which parts of the text of the gospels are authentic, or at least more or less authentic. Now remember I said that this text is one they typically find to be authentic. One of the tests is whether an event is attested in more than one gospel. This is, both Matthew and Luke include it, though the surrounding text in both is somewhat different. Another of their criteria is what they call the embarrassment factor. If a text seems to not fit the typical selling narrative or casts the characters in a negative light, they figure that it is likely authentic, based on the idea, that "who would make that up about themselves." It's really scientific stuff. . . really puts the right stuff into perspective, doesn't it, and again it doesn't get us any closer really to wrestling with the difficult, and/or embarrassing part of this difficult text, it just acknowledges the realness of it.
As I kept thinking this week though, I wondered why it is that we have a problem with this passage, why it is embarrassing to us, why it is troubling, why it is difficult, because it is one hundred percent true, isn't it. It is exactly what Christ brings. Look at history. Christian history- swords? check, fire? check, division? check. It's all there. Look at Christ's life according to the rest of the gospels, swords and division, yes there. . . check and check. Look at today's world, violence and division, based in Christianity or at least surrounding Christianity. In Egypt just this week, the fires of violence erupted with Christianity, with Christ's name at least being involved this time as victim. Division, the sword, fire. Families are divided over belief and non belief, or even more simply over what belief means. This little town alone has at least 5 different churches, divided on all kinds of details about what Jesus is about. Division is all around us. So it shouldn't surprise us, or shock us that Jesus would foretell it. The problem that we may have is that it seems that Jesus isn't saying that these things are bad. And we really want them to be bad, they really seem so bad, and they really make us uncomfortable. He is saying he can't wait until it all begins, when the fire of his baptism could already be kindled. We could run from this, hiding behind the historical questions, hiding in the safety of metaphor, hiding in the well he couldn't have really meant that, But let us not run from truth, so quickly.
 Is it possible that, though we dislike it, there is something very positive in this division Jesus is describing, there is something very positive in argument, there is something very positive in discord. For what is the source of the division that Christ brings to the world. It's truth, isn't it. Truth like this passage that we don't like. Truth like breaking up the status quo in the world. Truth like speaking out against hypocrisy and the act that we all play. Truth like we are loved, and created for greatness beyond our wildest imaginings, truth like on the other side of the cross there is life, truth like there shouldn't be buying and selling in the temple, truth like a crippled man has it in him to rise and take up his map and walk, truth like I know you will deny me three times, truth like I know I will be betrayed, truth like let this cup pass from me, truth like father forgive them they know not what they do.
This stuff shakes our status quo, and that makes people afraid, and when people are afraid they go crazy trying to protect themselves. Have you all seen the movie Moneyball, about Billy Beane, the General Manager for the Oakland A's? The movie depicts him seeking to change the way that people assess talent in baseball. He uses statistics that no one else is using and other analytics and puts together a winning major league baseball team for millions of dollars less than the competition, truly less than half of what the Yankees paid for the exact same number of wins. At the end of the movie, one of the richest teams in baseball, The Red Sox tries to hire him, and the owner pitches to him exactly what it is he accomplished. He says to him, "I know you're taking it on the chin out there, but the first guy through the wall he always gets bloody. Always, cause its threatening not just a way of doing business, or a game, but their livelihood, their jobs, it's threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it's the government, or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people who are holding the reigns, and have their hands on the switch, they go bat ($$$$) crazy". And that is just baseball, just a game, just a sport. Jesus is offering a completely different way of seeing the world, a different way of seeing humanity, a different way of seeing God, don't you think the swords would be flying, sure but no sword can stop fire. They can't stop the truth. It will come, it's baptism is slow but its end is sure. It ends in peace, eternal, perfect, Godly peace, the kind of peace that only lives on the other side of the cross, and through the fire, the kind of peace that we would do anything in our power to prevent because it completely changes the way we do business, the way we live, the way we are, and so we divide we fight against, but it is a process that ends in truth because truth cannot be stopped.
Jesus goes on to talk about how we can judge the weather, but can't tell the times. Perhaps even our judging of the weather ain't all that good, since it was supposed to rain all day yesterday, and there wasn't a drop, but it did finally come. I think Jesus says this about the weather right after this because as much as we are uncomfortable with division, we can't judge effectively how well it is working because we just can't.  We don't know, but faith suggests, and the rest of Jesus' life attests to the authenticity of his message, and that the cross leads to the resurrection, and through the baptism of fire we come out clean. That's the thing though it's out of our control, like fire, though we try to tend it, though we use it, though we feel like we are the ones in control of it, we just aren't, but Christ is. We are uncomfortable with alot about what we see, but faith in truth, and it's happening maybe can give us some comfort, and strength to go on despite our fears and misgivings.
When seen through these eyes it seems pretty simple doesn't it, which is why I'm not sure I got it all, and why after six years I'm just as far away as I was six  years ago. Because there is nothing further away from Jesus than a simple answer, even if it is a difficult one, but I think it helps to pose them, and it helps to think through them, and each time we do we get closer and closer, not running from the truth, not claiming to know the entire truth, but doing what we can to try and stand in its all encompassing fire, believing that Christ is there with us.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 12:49-56). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.