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August 15, 2004 (Pentecost 11)—“Longing for Transformation in a Termite-Damaged World”
Pastor David Barber
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
Today is Mary, Mother of our Lord Sunday, but as you heard, our Scripture readings for today have nothing to do with Mary. When I was preparing to go on vacation, I didn't realize that there was a choice for this Sunday, and so the study materials that I packed focused on the 11th Sunday after Pentecost and not on Mary, Mother of our Lord.
I wish I had been more observant, for the readings today contain some harsh words for us to consider. The first lesson tells us that the word of God is like a fire, and like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces. That's not exactly a comforting or peaceful thought.
The second lesson is like a gruesome and terrifying horror movie. We're told to look at the martyrs of old and model our lives after theirs. Really? Who would choose such a life?
"They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in the skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, and tormented." Do I have any volunteers this morning? No, I didn't think so!
And then the Gospel reading proclaims terrible words straight from the lips of Jesus or at least these words are attributed to him: "I have come not to bring peace, but division--father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; two against three and three against two."
These not the kind of words that I would choose as my favorite Bible verse, and I'm not anxious to hear them for a number of reasons.
The primary reason is that today is the due date for another grandson to be born into our family, and our Gospel in particular, doesn't hold out much hope for happy and connected families. This is probably not the first lesson that I would turn to as I contemplate and give thanks for the imminent birth of our younger son's first child.
It is Luke who records the message of the angels on that first Christmas night; "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors." And yet, time and again the coming of Jesus has not brought peace but division.
As the angels sang about peace at his birth, there were mothers who screamed and wailed as their babies were slaughtered by Herod. When Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the temple for the first time, an old codger by the name of Simeon predicted that this child would not bring peace but the "fall and rising of many" and that a sword would pierce Mary's heart.
When Jesus preached his first sermon at Nazareth he was so controversial that they tried to execute him by hurling him over a cliff. And when Jesus called his first disciples he broke up the family and the family's fishing business in order to call them to fish for people.
I don't know what kind of expectations Mary might have had for her son, but she probably didn't envision a fire-casting and division-producing person like Jesus. And perhaps more than once she experienced a broken heart because of the hostility that erupted as a result of his ministry.
Even today it seems that the words of Jesus or at least those who interpret his words create more division than unity and peace. Many of us who are die-hard Lutherans can remember the division that resulted within a family when a Lutheran married a Roman Catholic and even contemplated changing churches.
When we were on vacation we attended Karen's 40th high school class reunion. Of course, there was some playful discussion between us about her old boyfriends from those days, and fortunately I didn't become involved in any altercations because of jealousy or defending her honor--even though I volunteered.
However, one of her boyfriends, who couldn't attend was Roman Catholic. During that time his own family put pressure on him to discontinue dating a Lutheran girl, and even some Lutherans who were busy minding other people's business were equally upset that Karen was dating a Catholic boy.
So eventually Karen had to settle for a good Lutheran boy who became a pastor no less. But what a deal she received!
Such a division seems rather tame and humorous today, and if some family chose to be divided over a Lutheran/Catholic relationship we would ask, "What's their problem?" Besides in this age of pluralism, it's entirely possible that we'll be called upon to love and respect a Muslim or a Buddhist grandchild or a daughter-in-law or a son-in-law from a religion different than our own.
In our own Christian tradition, however, we face divisions that are far more damaging to the folks involved. When we were in Minnesota I read an editorial in the Minneapolis paper written by John Hottinger--a Democrat and a member of the Minnesota Senate. Senator Hottinger is also a member of the Roman Catholic Church.
He writes: "At my mother's Catholic funeral last fall a priest denied me communion. No warning, no comments, just a refusal to give me the sacrament as I stood in line next to my mother's coffin. He needed no direction from a bishop to put himself in the place of God in making earthly judgment on me."
Obviously he's a prochoice Catholic, and although he isn't an advocate for abortion, he fully supports a woman's right to make that decision herself without government interference. "And, for some women," he adds, "there is no realistic alternative."
These divisions which happen in the name of Jesus are inexcusable, and it's a scandal to the way Jesus lived and taught. To use the sacrament as a club--to withhold the sacrament or refuse to give pastoral care to those who disagree with the church's position on any given issue is an abuse of one's power and position. It is, I believe, an example of clergy malpractice or clergy misconduct.
Although Jesus tells us that his ways and his words will bring division, we need to be careful that these divisions don't happen as a result of our own self-righteousness and arrogance. We need to be careful that we don't fall into the trap of saying that "our way" is the "way of Jesus" and that those who disagree with us are wrong.
Today in the Christian tradition there is a tremendous gulf between Christians on issues of abortion, or sexuality, war and violence, and the way we interpret and understand Scripture. I hope it doesn't reach the level of "red" Christians and "blue" Christians--like "red" states and "blue" states--but sometimes it seems to feel this way.
To be sure when you challenge the systems of injustice and greed... when you confront the centers of power and authority that manipulate and keep folks in bondage...and when you work for the rights of all people, whoever they are, this, indeed, will create a division of the house.
Mary, mother of our Lord sings in the Magnificat: "He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." Now, that's not going to happen without a shaking of the foundations upon which our lives and our world has been constructed.
As one person said about the Quakers: "They work for peace--and if you really want to cause conflict, work for peace." Several years ago, a Roman Catholic theologian from South America spoke these now famous words: "When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist."
The ways of Jesus--his ways of compassion, mercy, and justice for all--will bring division as the reign of God erupts in our midst and takes root within us, but this text doesn't provide ammunition for target practice at "the other side" in every misunderstanding and controversy in the church.
Rather than focusing on those who disagree with us, we're invited to look inward --into the dark side of our own personalities, or into the dark side of our church and nation. We're invited to look at the way Jesus is causing division within us, and cutting away all that's false--all that we want to turn away from and not confront--and all that is unfaithful within us. This is where I find the Good News for today.
This morning Jesus speaks of bringing fire to the earth, but perhaps we could also use another image from nature. On Tuesday evening at the Worship and Music Committee meeting April Smith shared a devotion that referred to hurricanes as an instrument for new life. Of course, I don't think I would share this devotion with the good folks in Florida at this time.
Supposedly, the ocean has great dead spots. Hurricanes come along and stir the waters to the degree that tiny microscopic seeds of life at the ocean's bottom get lifted up to levels where they are warmed and exposed to light.
When this happens, the ocean bursts into life. The plants flower and bloom and sea creatures come to feed. The hurricane serves as a giant wind plow to sow seeds, and life is resurrected in a dead place within the ocean.
Most of you know that for the past several months we've been living in the midst of remodeling, and thank God, the end is drawing near and none too soon for both of us. Some of the remodeling has been cosmetic, but some has brought greater structural integrity for hurricane protection and new and safer electrical wiring.
I would like to show you a section of one of the beams that was removed. On the outside, of course, it looks perfectly fine, but on the inside, you know the story. Its been gutted by termites to the point where it has no structural integrity, and for the house to be sound and strong, it needs to be cut out or divided and replaced.
Perhaps you can see the connection that I'm trying to make. It seems like a natural illustration of what both Jeremiah and Jesus had to say. The word of God, the promise of God, and the cleansing and the renewal of God are often accompanied by great struggle and division.
It's often accompanied by a fire that confronts the dark side of our lives, our congregation, and our nation, but through this fire and division, we're made whole. And new life and transformation begins to emerge within us and through us and out into the world around us.
Last Sunday at the memorial service for Mildred Hoppmann we sang some words, which highlight this new creation that emerges as the fire and division of Jesus reconstructs our lives.
We share by water in his saving death.
The Father's splendor clothes the Son with life.
A new creation comes to life and grows
Copyright © 2004 David Barber
Comments welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org