Sermon: Proper 15 Year C*-August 18, 2019-The Rev. Eileen Weglarz-Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
The three pronouncements in today’s text are not easy to take. And since they deal with conflict and division, they’re not very appealing either, in the context of the Good News of the Gospel. The prediction of division among family members is particularly threatening and disheartening. Jesus claims that in one house members of the family will be divided against one another.
Yet surely there are positive conclusions that can be drawn from the passage. It is undeniable that the coming of Jesus Christ into the world—God with us—is in itself an event that brings conflict, divisiveness, and struggle. This isn’t like, for instance, the struggle of a husband and wife over finances, or the conflict of hurt feelings in a church group. Nor is it the creative conflict of opposing forces working to find a synthesis or solution in any group.
The sorts of situations predicted here are of the sharp challenge and inherent dis-ease that stem from the disclosure of the ultimate nature and purposes of God. It is the conflict that results from God in the process of reconciling the world to God’s self.
The great theologian Karl Barth explains it the best of anything I’ve read: “God with us! That is too strong a contradiction, not only over against our sins and sufferings but also against the nature of our existence even down to the very depths of its roots. God with us! That conflicts too much, not only with our unrighteousness, but more yet, with our righteousness, not only with the atrocities of history, but more yet with history’s supposed progress and achievements, not only with the misery on earth, but more yet, with the happiness and satisfaction on earth.
“God with us! That subjects our total human nature to a judgment, to a No, that will leave nothing left of us, and will bow us under a grace, a Yes, that we cannot comprehend. God with us! That is not only a better man, but a new man; not only a beautiful world, but another world; not only a higher life, but an eternal life. God with us! That is redemption, but real, all embracing, serious, and therefore, radical redemption. That is the fire of which Jesus spoke.”
We need to realize that the Christian message does stir up trouble! The cross Jesus carried was the cross of persecution, the kind of suffering that comes from the outside, due to the wickedness of others in the world. Jerusalem hardened its heart toward him, scribes and Pharisees accused him of demonic activity, his family thought him to be crazy. He was scourged, mocked and spit upon. This caused Jesus internal suffering, but its source was outside of himself.
It was suffering, in other words, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. The division within families that the Gospel reading speaks of is also part of this suffering. But the suffering Jesus sought at every turn to alleviate in others was that which tore people apart from within—whether it was physical, emotional, or spiritual. This was suffering caused by evil in the world that sought to corrupt and destroy the children of God.
Can you imagine Jesus telling the leper that he wasn’t going to heal him of his ghastly disease because it would make him more saintly if he itched and burned and stayed ostracized from the community? Or that it would be better not to feed the hungry because their suffering contributed to greater holiness? Of course not!
Healthy suffering is redemptive, sick suffering destroys. The line between them is often difficult to discern. And so we pray to be able to know the difference and to act in a way that brings Jesus’ peace to the world.
Jesus was really hard on those who didn’t know how to read and interpret the signs of the times. (Remember how he called the self-righteous Pharisees a “den of snakes?”) It’s fairly easy to see a storm cloud in the sky and assume that it’s going to rain. But in our time, as in every other era, it’s not so simple to consider the actions and movements in society that seem to be bringing us closer to God and God’s Kingdom—or not as the case may be, especially in our nation at the present time.
But, some truths remain clear in any age: we are to seek as much good for others outside of ourselves as we are able—justly, humbly, intelligently—and let the sword, or the fire, fall where it will. Sometimes we can do no more than pray, but sometimes that is everything.
Summing up with Karl Barth: “It is inherent in the nature of the Gospel to provoke division and controversy. The Christian message doe stir up trouble. It thrives on it. To defend the poor provokes the anger of the rich; to defend the outcast enrages the in-group; to support a fair wage irritates the robber-barons; to call for peace incites others to war.
“We think we are safe because we are silent. Wrong! Jesus is calling now for a division of the house. The only safe place for the Christian in this life is in the center of the storm, in the midst of the battle, for that is precisely where Jesus is.”
And I add: wherever Jesus is, that is the best place to be. That is where the Kingdom he came to bring to earth takes place. And that is where we shall find rest and peace and love, and healing. Amen.
*Sermon resource: Synthesis, Proper 15 Year C, “Postscript,” August 18, 2019