Grace Presbyterian Church
August 14, 2022, Pentecost 10C
Just one week ago, we were hearing Jesus talk about how “it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” and how our true task was to be “dressed for action and keep your lamps lit,” but to wait for our Master to come to us.
That’s all fine and good and even kind of encouraging. But no, it’s not so easy as it sounds. Situated here in Gainesville, Florida, as this church is, we are inevitably drawn to hear the words of the patron saint of this town’s musical history, Tom Petty, who reminded us in the chorus of one of his popular hits that “the waiting is the hardest part“:
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you get one more yard
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
If Tom Petty doesn’t convince you, then Jesus’s words in today’s reading from Luke, just a few verses after last week’s reading, will make it terribly clear that the waiting to which we are called won’t be easy.
It isn’t necessarily all that clear just what got Jesus onto this theme; his discourse turns rather suddenly here, and even verses 41-48 don’t really give a great clue as to where this sudden outburst of frustration comes from. And that’s really the best word for what is happening here; Jesus is charged with the urgent task “to bring fire to the earth” and “a baptism with which to be baptized.”
Even for Jesus, the waiting is the hardest part.
From there comes the verse that will scandalize countless hearers this morning: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
This from the one hailed as the Prince of Peace, the one who said “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and all that. Divison!!??
The two verses that follow amplify that point by the example of the core family, held to be the irrefutable building block of Roman society and Judean society and pretty much any society you might name, then or now. In this case, the family relationships highlighted here were considered most crucial to the harmonious working of the household. The challenge of father/son relationships gone wrong might be demonstrated by the parable of the prodigal son. Mother/daughter and mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relationships pointed to the business of family and marriage, the letting go of daughters who marry into other families and welcoming of daughters-in-law who marry into the family. To cite these as locus of division wasn’t only to suggest division within the family itself; such division destabilized the very presumed basis of society.
One of the more noteworthy characteristics of Jesus as described in Luke’s gospel is that, where the end of his human ministry is concerned, Jesus knows what’s coming. From back in Luke 9, when Jesus “set his face towards Jerusalem,” he has been painstakingly clear that what is ahead is going to be ugly and divisive and confrontational and he is headed right into it anyway.
He knows that his ministry has set some folks against him, religious authorities being chief among them. He knows that Roman authorities, while they don’t care about intra-Jewish doctrinal disputes, are absolutely intent on preserving that false peace that came to be known as the “pax Romana,” and will quash anything or anyone that threatens to disrupt it. Let’s not forget that his very first preaching appearance in his hometown almost ended up with him being thrown off a cliff. He knows there is opposition, and keeps going anyway.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed that the greatest vexation to the work that he and his colleagues in the civil rights movement were doing was not the extremist. He said, quote;
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom…
Don’t overlook what Dr. King has to say about “negative peace” and “positive peace.” The former is basically nobody fighting, but justice still denied to so many people and oppression running rampant. The so-called “Pax Romana” of Jesus’s time, in which no one could challenge the Roman Empire but countless thousands lived under its heel, was a prime example of “negative peace,” which, to say the least, is not what we are called to settle for. If that’s the only kind of peace we are interested in seeking, we should probably not look to Jesus for that, and it probably should not take up space in our prayers. There’s a reason that our Affirmation of Faith, taken from the PC(USA)’s A Brief Statement of Faith, orders its words the way it does when it declares that the Holy Spirit “gives us courage … to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.”
“I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
The “baptism” here seems a direct reference to his forthcoming crucifixion; the “fire” might be a reference to the prophet Malachi’s words: “but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…” The fire that purifies, that burns away corruption and spoilage, that makes whole what is left; this seems a likely reference in this case, Jesus longing to purge away what corrupts and ruins and harms and oppresses.
Now here’s where that “waiting” part from last week comes in: the call to be “dressed for action” and “have your lamps lit” doesn’t involve sitting at home with the lights on wearing a cool tracksuit. It means doing the things Jesus taught us to do and showed us how to do. It means the stuff in that parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew 25 – feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, all that stuff. It means being the things named in the Beatitudes – even being a peacemaker, with the seeming contradiction implied with today’s verses. It means living the fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5 – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness.
The waiting we do is not a passive, unobtrusive thing. It compels us to live and act in ways that somebody out there is not going to like. I say “somebody out there,” but let’s be honest; clearly we don’t have only disagreement from outside the church to worry about. If we’re going to do the real Christlike waiting, large numbers of people who call themselves Christians are going to come after us, in word or maybe even in deed.
And if you’re thinking this can’t possibly be true, remember this: even Mr. Rogers had protesters show up at his memorial. Back in 2003, when the children’s television host (and, never forget, ordained Presbyterian minister) was buried in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Rev. Fred Phelps led a group from his Westboro Baptist “Church” near Topeka, Kansas to protest Rogers because he never did publicly condemn homosexuality. I don’t know that Fred Rogers ever said much of anything about homosexuality publicly, but he never did hate it, so Fred Phelps and his bunch hated him.
I don’t enjoy saying this, but there isn’t anything Christlike you can do that somebody won’t give you grief for doing it. We won’t have peace just because we do good things.
Five years ago I preached from a parallel passage in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, in which Jesus says he came to bring “not peace but a sword” – a different but no less disturbing image. What applied about Jesus’s message there applies to Jesus’s message here as well: if you follow me, if you truly follow me and do the will of God and live into the kingdom of Heaven, the sword (or division, in this case) will find you. It’s not about creating division; it’s about doing what Jesus calls us to do, and division happens because of that. Ultimately it’s kinda foolish not to expect that.
As for the last verses, about not being able to read the signs of the times? Clearly we see that still being the case in everything from modern political punditry to our vastly worsening weather and the lack of will to do what must be done to put the brakes on a disastrously careening climate. We don’t know how to read the signs either.
Folks, our job is to do what God calls us to do. If people attack us for it, so be it. That doesn’t mean we stop. After all, Jesus didn’t.
For a Jesus who warns us of what is coming when we do the will of God, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #365. God Reigns! Let Earth Rejoice!; #—, Do not pray for peace; #718, Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said