Jesus, Disturber of the Peace
Here’s a written version of my sermon of yesterday.
Jesus, Disturber of the Peace
Jeremiah 23: 23 – 29, Luke 12: 49 – 56
Enterprise Community Church
August 14, 2022
It’s good to back with you at Enterprise Community Congregational Church. Last summer I was invited to preach here two Sundays; this year it’s three, so I guess that’s a good sign.
Let me say a word about today’s Scripture lessons, wherein Jeremiah denounces false prophets and Jesus is the one shouting “Fire!” “I have come to bring fire. Do you think I’ve come to bring peace? No, not peace, but division!”
I did not chose today’s readings. Don’t blame me.
For almost all of my ministry I have been a lectionary preacher. What that means is I preach on the Scripture lessons that are appointed for any given Sunday. I’m sure some of your ministers have used the lectionary and others not. You don’t have to. It’s a resource.
Amony other things, it’s a way of making sure that you and your preacher read widely in the Bible and don’t just stick to your favorites passages over and over. Apparently, most of us clergy have something like 22 favorite Scripture passages. Left to our own devices we’ll keep on playing our old favorites and greatest hits. But the lectionary makes you read the whole Bible over a three year period, and makes you deal with stuff you might not have chose for yourself and might honestly prefer to avoid.
Like, well, this Sunday’s gospel reading.
Let’s hear it one more time. (Read Luke 12: 49 – 56)
I was talking about Jesus with a friend on a backpacking trip recently. When you are a minister a lot of people want to talk about religion and their experiences with the church, especially it seems their bad experiences.
This man, whom I respect and admire, had had a difficult church experience as a youth in a fundamentalist church. He’d never gone back. But he did speak positively about Jesus whom he regarded as a “great teacher.”
“The teachings of Jesus . . . I understand those . . . they make sense. He was all about compassion, about peace. We need more of that!”
As I stumbled down the trail, listening to my friend, my mind went to today’s reading: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already blazing . . . Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division.”
Hey, Jesus, wait a minute. What about that thing the angels said when you were born? “Peace and good will toward all,” remember that? What happened with that? Or the bit about “blessed are the peacemakers.” What about that?
I was a young pastor, 31, serving my second church. It was a challenging call and I pressed on some touchy points, so far as some church members were concerned. I was getting push back and criticism. When I was working so hard, trying so hard, that this didn’t feel great. It made me both mad and confused. “Hey, I’m a nice guy. What’s the problem?”
A longtime friend, also a minister, a bit older than me, came to the town on a visit. We went out for breakfast together and I lamented at considerable length the challlenges I was facing, the opposition I was encountering, at least from some. I said, “Hey, I’m a good person — honest, trustworthy, a Boy Scout — what’s with all the hassle?”
My friend looked at me and said, “If you’re not making some enemies, you’re probably not doing your job!” His words hit me like the slap of a Zen master. “Quit whining, Jesus never promised you a rose garden. That thing at the front of the church? It’s a cross. That’s the trouble with guys like you, you want the crown without the cross.”
“Wait, wait, hold on,” I stammered. “I was looking for some pastoral care.”
“That’s what this is, now get back to work.”
“Fire . . . I came to bring fire on earth and how I wish it were already kindled. Do you think that I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two, two against three, they will be divided father against son and son against father, mother against daughter, and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Why would Jesus say such things? Doesn’t he know that our nation is riven with seemingly intractable division and we’re sick and tired of it? Doesn’t he know how painful it is to have broken relationships in your family, people not speaking to one another?
Here’s an idea . . . maybe Jesus felt he needed to counter a false impression of who he was and what his ministry was all about. Maybe people had gotten the idea that he was Mr. Meek and Mild, Hit-Me-on-the Other-Cheek, love your enemies and that following him mainly meant being a really, really nice person.
Because if you are nice to everyone, they will be nice to you.
Really . . . yeah, there’ probably some truth in that.
One of the things Linda and I enjoy about Wallowa County is how nice and friendly people are. But I’ll bet that for those of you who stick around longer than the pleasant summer season, it’s a little more complicated than that.
As a young minister at that challenging church what I really sort of wanted was for everyone to sing my praises, and to like me. But my friend who challenged me, who said tersely, “If you’re not making some enemies, you’re probably not doing your job,” was, darn it, right.
Yes, that can be taken too far. I’ve known some clergy who thought that if they managed to get the whole congregation or town mad at them, they meant they were true prophets, the misunderstood but faithful and lonely disciple of Jesus. Maybe. Or maybe it just meant that they difficult people. Or people who liked a lot of drama.
So it’s not easy, always, to determine whether you are being, as Paul put it, a fool for Christ or just a damn fool.
But my hunch is that we too may need Jesus’ correction of a false impression of him and a false impression of what it means to follow him.
We imagine that he was unfailingly nice and that to be a Christian means that we too are unfailingly nice. But what if it doesn’t mean that? What if being a follower of Jesus can get you into trouble? What if it can cost you some friends or some business or status in the community? What if it gets you harassed and denounced on line, as have been women in the Southern Baptist Convention who reported clergy sexual abuse. It was turned around and blamed on them. Imagine how alone a woman in that situation must feel?”
As I was planning today’s service I was leafing through your hymnal, the Chalice Hymnal. A feature of your hymnal that I haven’t seen before in other hymnals is that every now and then, interspersed amidst the hymns, are memorable quotations and prayers. Given today’s Scripture’s selection No. 624 jumped out at me. It is titled, “We Ask Not for Easy Lives.”
Let’s turn to it and pray it together:
“O God, come to us,we pray thee,
with the resource of thy power,
that we may be strong within.
We ask not for easy lives,
but for adequacy.
We ask not to be freed from storms,
but to build our houses on rock that will not fall.
We pray not for a smooth sea, but for a stout ship,
a good compass, and a strong heart;
in the name of him who faced enmity and death
thy Son Jesus Christ our Savior.”
Have I, have you, been asking for the wrong thing from God? Have we been asking for easy lives? Less stress. Fewer hassles?
This spring Russia invaded its neighboring nation, Ukraine. The official position of the Russian Orthodox Church has been to be all-in on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
But shortly after the invasion, with all its carnage and horror, began a Russian Orthodox Priest, Fr. Ioann (John) Burdin rector of Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Church in the Russian village of Nikolskoye (nickels koi yah), spoke out against the war. “I don’t consider it possible,” said Fr. Burdin “to remain silent. If I remain silent, I am not a priest.”
Fr. Burdin was immediately summoned by the police who fined him and warned that he a risked a 15 year prison term for calling this invasion of a sovereign nation what it is, namely, a war, a war of aggression. Burdin has been called, “a traitor to the Motherland.” He has received threats against his life.
Still he spoke, “The duty of all Christians is not to support this … aggressive war. We don’t have to repeat mistakes of those Christians who supported the German government when they invaded Poland many years ago.”
I don’t know what has happened to Fr. Burdin or others like him — more than 280 Russian Orthodox clergy have publically protested the war, defying their Moscow partriarch — but whatever else it meant, Burdin’s actions meant his life would not be an easy one.
“We ask not for easy lives.”
But we do, don’t we, often ask for easy lives, for lives without stress, without fresh challenge? Or we make choices that avoid possible trouble or discomfort.
Moreover, and more insidious, is the way we sometimes equate success, or the outward appearance of it, with goodness and with God’s blessing. And correspondingly, judge those who struggle, writing them off as “losers.” But God, we are told, looks not upon “outward appearances, but on the heart.” Struggling, encountering resistance, even hostility, can be a sign of faithfulness. Being a follower of Jesus can get you in trouble, which many prefer to avoid.
“At the head of every dysfunctional organization,” writes Rabbi Edwin Friedman, an expert on leadership, “is a peace-monger.” That is to say, when a church, hospital, school, business or government office is a mess and ineffective, it is likely that at the helm will be someone who will do darn near anything to avoid conflict, to give the impression that everything is just fine, to avoid any of the hard issues that might upset people.
I think Friedman is right. While relentless, chronic and unresolved conflict can drain the energy and joy out of church’s life, so too can avoiding conflict at all cost.
At a church where I once spoke in Missouri I heard this story. The congregation was debating whether to welcome African-Americans. Carl, a longtime member was very adamant. “If you allow black people in this church, I’m out of here,” said Carl. “Oh no,” murmured people in the congregation, “we can’t lose Carl.” Gladys who had been a member of the congregation just as long as Carl got to her feet. “Carl,” she said, “you say that will leave the church rather than see black people in this congregation?” “You’re darn right,” said Carl. “Well then,” said Gladys, “don’t let the door hit you in the butt on your way out.” With that Gladys sat down.
Jesus spoke of fire. I’ve been awfully glad that so far this summer we haven’t had terrible wildfires here or been plagued by smoke. But you and I both know that part of the reason that have been plagued by these terrible fires in the west in recent years is that for fifty years we were way too successful in supressing all fires and so allowed the conditions to become ripe for catastrophic fires. We are learning what the Nez Perce have long known, that fire can cleanse, that it can prepare the way for new and healthier growth.
Jesus did not come to bring everlasting fire and damnation, he came to bring healing and new life. But sometimes getting to healing and new life means going through some conflict, and if you are a leader, taking some heat, being on the metaphorical fire line. Jesus came to bring the fire that refines, that leads not to the false peace of conflict avoidance but to the true peace and healing. Jesus came to expose the lies that we substitute for true peace. He came to challenge us when we think that the purpose of church is to provide comfort and satisfaction to its members.
In the movie about the first women’s professional baseball teams, “A League of Their Own,”* Tom Hanks plays a gruff manager of the team, one who strggles with alcohol issues. Geena Davis plays the part of the team’s star pitcher.
But she gets tired, tired of the catcalls, of all the men telling her playing baseball is for men, not for women. She gets tired of the long bus-rides and crappy motels. So one day she tells the manager, the Tom Hanks character, that she’s done. She’s had enough. She’s going home. She says, “It’s just got too hard.”
To which the crusty manager replies, “It’s the hard that makes it good.” It’s the hard that makes it good.
We’re living in hard, challenging times. Yes, we are. But maybe just because of that they are also in a way good times, times when we are called not to hunker down but to rise, to rise to the occasion.
So we do not this morning pray for easy lives. We pray for a life that burns with the fire of Christ’s refining, purifying love and truth. We pray not for the peace this world gives, the peace of plenty and no hassles. We pray for a different peace, the peace that only Christ can give and which he imparts to you now. Amen.
(*As it happens, a new series, inspired by the 1992 movie, “A League of Their Own,” is now going deeper into the history of women’s professional baseball. For More, see PBS Newshour for Sunday, August 14, 2022.)