August 15, 2010

“Nobody Told Me”
Luke 12:49-56
Isaiah 5:1-7

Last Sunday, you may have noticed, I was away.  I went out to Michigan, to attend my niece’s wedding.  Fortunately, I was not the officiant so I could sit back and be critical.

The minister did a fine job.  My sister and her family attend the Presbyterian church in their town, and so my ears perked up at every similarity in their Order for Christian Marriage to our U.C.C. liturgy.  I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t that much for me to complain about.

The congregation, as usual, gave me fits.  The solemnity of this sacred event was interrupted by much picture taking, and at the end, no small amount of whistling and cat calls.  One young man, seated behind me, was particularly boisterous.  I turned around and glared at him.  My son, Paul, instructed me to ‘dial down.’  I told him that this was a worship service, not a sporting event.

At the reception, I was happy to recognize the pastor and her husband.  I immediately went over to her and told her how much I appreciated her leadership and how offended I was by the behavior of some of the congregation.  She reminded me, gently, that the problem was that some of those in attendance did not know what it means to be in a ‘worship’ environment and their behavior was perfectly normal for them.  We talked shop for a while as we had dinner together.  It was good to be sitting with at least one other person who was at least a little uncomfortable with the proceedings.  She, however, was much more gracious than I.

Those of you who follow me in cyberspace may remember that I noted at the start of the reception, “let the secular festivities begin.”   I was going to say, “let the pagan rituals begin,” but I have some friends who are pagans and even they may be offended by some of the shenanigans that go on at wedding receptions.

I had about 9 hours driving back to Pennsylvania  the next day to reflect upon my feelings about the whole event. Like most of my internal gyrations, I came to be more than a little concerned about my reaction.  Without accepting some of the behavior, I clearly saw how my scowling could be taken as a very ‘holier than thou’ attitude.

This, of course is exactly the situation that Jesus is condemning so frequently in Luke’s gospel.  His issue with the Pharisees and Sadducees is not so much their faith, but their tendency to load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and [they themselves] will not lift one finger to help them.  What Jesus is condemning is an kind of empty religion that does not practice what it preaches.

Last week you heard Jesus say, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” This week we hear, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”

It is tempting, to hear these words and to believe that my sense of indignation was not only acceptable, but prescribed; as if some adherence to the Gospel necessarily sets up a divide between those who are ‘true’ disciples and those who are not.

As we hear these words from Jesus’ lips, let us remember how some people may inevitably hear such words: as a warrant to be divisive, to start fires, to avoid the disciplines of forgiveness and reconciliation, and to assert their own righteousness or the correctness of their own views as a standard for all. The fire Jesus brings actually burns up all these things. Division happens around his kingdom precisely because we, as his followers, are committed to forgiveness and reconciliation, and the larger world is not.

This is not a prescription, it is not a command to go about making clearly defined boundaries between who is in and who is out, criticizing those whose faith practices do not square with ours.  It is, rather, a description.  It describes the fact that if we set out to be involved in the ‘ministry of reconciliation,’ of bringing together long-standing adversaries then we can expect other relationships to be strained, particularly those that are dependent upon the status quo.

Those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming kingdom for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus – though coming to establish a rule of peace – brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family.

A few years ago our denomination set off a firestorm of criticism for a television advertisement that featured two bouncers at the door of a church, turning away some people who sought entrance through the velvet ropes.  Even within our own ‘family,’ within the United Church of Christ, there were some who did not appreciate this depiction of the church.  Yet, this scene “summed up the sentiments of many young Christians…Some older viewers did not understand the poignancy of this ad; they had never stood outside a club, vying for entrance.  Perhaps they did not know how it feels to have your opinions, views, and age group overlooked again and again…”  The people who did ‘get’ the advertisement understood that there is a fundamental problem in the Christian faith with intolerance.

The firestorm of criticism was of the same nature as the firestorm that James and John wished to bring down upon the un-welcoming Samaritans.  The firestorm that Jesus predicts is not one of destruction, but one of cleansing.  It is a burning bush fire; a fire that does not destroy but transforms.  It is the refiner’s fire that purifies.

It is a fire that clarifies. What is the point of being church anyway?  Are we simply a museum, a repository of Reformed doctrine and worship?  Is this a place where through some strange osmosis people’s faith is developed and grows by simply gracing our pews on a Sunday morning?   Are we but a gathering of like minded individuals who get together and make ourselves feel better that we are not like “those people?”  Is this a place where we gather, to celebrate all the ways that God has been good to us, counting our every blessing ‘one by one?’  Are we a safe and secure ‘compound’ or are we a fragile mission outpost?

In the Hebrew’s text, after making brief references to all the ‘saint’s’ whose lives were full of conflict and division, yet rich in the Kingdom of God, the author begs the hearers to

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

This Jesus caused division because of his call for a radical inclusion, because of his rejection of the excuse, “we never did it that way before.”  He caused violence even, not that he wanted it, because he included in his circle of ‘family’ those who were usually considered ‘not one of us.’  His range of compassion and generosity made strict ‘Leviticans’ uncomfortable.  And in an urgent tone he tells everyone that it is for this reason he came.

Then he asks the same followers to read the times.  Is the time in which we live more generous, more inclusive, more compassionate than those days which have preceded it?  Do we have work to do, Christian Formation to engage in, Service to offer, a Family of Faith whose borders need widening, a bond to strengthen?  Or can we be content with the inertia gathered over 275 years of being church to move us forward as disciples?  Nobody told me to reference this text when I was considering being a minister.  Did anyone reference this text when you joined the church?

Perhaps we need to talk about what this very urgent command means to us here and now.

Or, I suppose, we can talk about the weather.