August 15, 2010: Divide and Burn

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Some suspect Jesus was having a bad day. Bad days are hard to hide. We don’t realize it, but others notice when we’re cranky or rude. We let something slip, like a frustrated public figure who thinks the microphone is off.

Maybe Jesus was uptight. Who wouldn’t be? He knew his death is approaching. In the story, today we step into Holy Week and out of the lazy days of late summer. And uptight with frustrations – many people tag along, curiosity seekers, at a distance. No one really wants to be a disciple. Even his chosen aren’t catching his mission. Who wouldn’t be a bit cranky? Time’s running out on Jesus. The pressure is on.

So is Jesus angry, hurt, scared – or none of the above? Jesus awaits a fire to be kindled – he himself brings it to burn the earth.  His words startle us. Has he misplaced his gentle, loving self? He says he brings a sword to divide families – not mediate and bring peace. For this, he won’t be invited as keynote speaker at any family value conferences. But we know him as a man of peace, bringing outsiders into God’s circle, reconciling us to God and each other? Not today – today he’s fire and sword.

Think urgency, not anger. A holy fire is ready to be lit. The fire is his crucifixion and resurrection, ignited because Jesus neither blesses human institutions and values, bows to earthly powers or rulers, nor fits God’s will into ours. He reverses our values to realign us with God’s values and will. “How I wish the fire was already roaring. And what stress I have until it is.” Hear these words as Jesus’ commitment and desire to bring God’s reign. His coming baptism is his suffering and death that lights a fire of divine love – spreading new life and a blazing love throughout the world – going places people believed God would never go. Jesus is anxious for that time when God’s love will spread to all people and nations, a fire that refines, burns away sin, cleanses, and ignites our hearts and lives to shine with the blazing love of God. Jesus’ urgency must become our urgency. He’s ready for God to bring it on.

Not everyone welcomes the fire Jesus brings. It will cause division. Simeon warned Mary and Joseph when they presented him at the Temple: he’s destined for the rising and falling of many. He’ll expose those who think they’re on God’s team as actually opposing God’s will. Jesus divides and separates. He parts us from loyalties we make sacred. People will kill you for that.

Some follow Jesus, others won’t. He is the sword that divides. Jesus reorients our loyalty given to the most basic unit of survival and safety, the family. No longer will loyalty and unity rest on blood, nationality, race, gender or friendship ties. Loyalty to God overrides loyalty to brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, in-laws, and any other voice claiming our loyalty. Our unity is found in Jesus’ sacrifice of life – our unity in Christ makes us one. In God alone, not family or anything else do we find life, survival and our safety.

That some believed they were being loyal to God by leading Jesus to a cross, must alert us. They were good people, thinking they were right. The church can get it wrong, too. It’s easier for us to fight over issues like sex, orientation, race, divorce, or who’s in or not, than to follow the radical demands of God’s will in a world like ours. It is hard to be loyal to a God who loves not just some, the good ones, or our kind, but alleveryone. We must, too. We cannot welcome just those like us or those we like, and not welcome everyone. We don’t forgive just those who deserve forgiveness or ask for it; we forgive all, because God has already forgiven and restored us. We work for peace, serve others – hardly values the world embraces. Honestly, the gospel, when we finally get it, is hard, risky and dangerous. It’s a fire that will burn you – a sword that divides. He’s not sweet little Jesus boy, who’s come to tell us, “I’m OK; you’re OK, too.” Following Jesus is not one choice among many. He doesn’t affirm our prejudices and hatreds. Jesus didn’t die only because he wants everyone to get along. He dies because he is a serious threat to those who hold this world’s power. They knew well he must be silenced.

And so today we celebrate the diversity at St. Paul’s Church – which is wonderful. Diversity is a gift that comes from God when we strive to be loyal to God first, and committed to embodying God’s radical hospitality and welcome to everyone. All are welcome! When a church is willing to risk taking Jesus seriously – we won’t look the same, think the same, or even sound the same – and I hear there may even be a few southern accents around here – that’s really diverse. Loyalty to God unites us, and diversity is the result of being loyal to the God Jesus reveals. Pure and simple, we open and listen to God. We love others, and treat others as we want to be treated. We go against what the world and even other Christians tell us we must believe and do. Some may come here, not sure why – but may experience God’s love in our lives, and then they’ll know. Some come to church wanting their beliefs affirmed, to be entertained or “get something out it.” I hope they’ll encounter among us a love that transforms, helps us all know God’s love of them and others, and how we are to live that in a diverse world.

Today we hear Jesus’ challenging words to get with him, and follow, even if it hurts – to lay down some long cherished loyalties. We celebrate that we are a community that tries hard to do that – not always perfect, but we are trying. And I am so glad you let me – and all those around us – be part of a wonderful journey with God, together. God is among us, between us, loving us, and we must never forget that.


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