Sermon for 13+Pentecost C 2016
When I was growing up one of my many aunts had a collection of Precious Moments figurines. For those of you born after, say, 1985, Precious Moments, which are still being made, are porcelain figurines, or greeting cards of cartoonishly cute children usually accompanied with a positive affirmation such as, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow,” or, “Never stop believing in hope because miracles happen every day.” There is a Christian flavor to Precious Moments as well, such as the image of the cutest, biggest blue-eyed girl you ever saw holding an old rugged cross. There is an image of girl in a smocked dress with a dainty pink, frilled, heart decorated umbrella accompanied with the verse: “He who dwells in the shelter of the most high will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.” They are visual doggerel.
These figures feature prominently in my early memories of God. It must have been the quotations from the Bible attached to the cute images that made that early impression. I suppose that my young eyes saw these images and read those words and made the intuitive leap that God was a nice guy.
I know it’s silly.
I know that God is, in fact, not a nice guy, or even a guy for that matter. But these images of cutesy angels, toddler Jesus, and soft, smooth shepherds still reside in the background of my mind.
How about you? What early images of God do you have that still are in the mix? Maybe it’s an image of Jesus from a children’s Bible. Maybe it’s a stained-glass Jesus. Perhaps some of the images we have of Jesus or God aren’t even buried deep or from our childhood, maybe they are very current. When I say “Jesus,” what image comes to mind for you?
I suppose that for most of us, Jesus is a kind, peaceful person. Jesus is the kind of person that we want around when we are feeling down. Jesus for some of us might be a human rights activist who struggles alongside us for the legal equality for all. Most of all, I suppose, Jesus is the unconditioned loving presence that we all gather around, Jesus the loving unifier.
So, with these images in mind; what do we make of Jesus in our gospel reading today?
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” I have never seen this passage on a Precious Moments figurine.
What’s going on here? “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Was Jesus having a bad day? Is this some sort of holy tantrum?
Today Jesus sounds so at odds with our normal peace-loving, kind Jesus. And it’s not just Jesus, God, in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah is also out of sorts. “What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” Where’s the loving, creating God?
I think what we see today is a God, a personality, a life that is ultimately so incompatible with the world, so off-key and off-rhythm with how we do things and treat each other, that the patience is beginning to wear thin. That’s what going on with Jesus today, he is saying that what passes for peace in the world is not the kind of peace that he is bringing. The peace the world offers is status quo, it’s silence, and it’s the peace of a prison. Jesus did not come to bring that fake peace, he came to bring real Godly peace, peace which walks with justice and truth. Jesus is so desperately angry because the peace of God cannot be established while there is control and oppression which is how the world thinks of peace.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” This is fearful language and we should be afraid. We should be afraid of trying to control God, of making God in our own Precious Moments image. We attempt to control God by making him in our image, making sure that the things that concern God are exactly our concerns and nothing else. This is why theologies of unbridled prosperity are so popular in our country.
Think about Jesus for a minute. Is this Jesus satisfied with you? Is this Jesus angry about the things that you are angry about? Is this Jesus, Jesus, or is it just you being a really good ventriloquist? I’m telling you this in love because I’ve noticed something in my life, in the life of this parish, and in the larger church: why is it that our lives don’t look any different from everyone else’s? What difference does it make that we have all been here today?
There are classical ways of living out the faith of Jesus Christ. Things like committing to non-violence, voluntary poverty, celibacy; but there are other ways of showing a life of Jesus, reconciliation with enemies, striving for justice. My point is while not everyone is called to total pacifism or giving up all their possessions, isn’t it odd that none of us are? There is something amiss. We all seem to be exercising a religion that keeps us exactly where we want to be. Where is the division? Where is the fire?
Let’s go ahead and assume that we have made God in our image. Now take that image and smash it for the idol that it is. Jesus is not you. Jesus thinks our lukewarm, mealy-mouthed hints at fairness and niceness needs to be burned up. Instead, let’s follow the creative God of dynamic peace and justice. Follow this God into your life to stand for love in the darkest corners of the day-to-day. This means then bringing division, it means bringing division to the how the world has established its normal way of operating. Following God into life means breaking down, in small ways, the artificial political boundaries that cheapen life; it means suspending the us vs. them mentality that the world has carefully cultivated in you so that you can see, hear, and feel the person who is in front of you.
Jesus is not us, but we are meant to be Jesus. There is a very big difference in Jesus being us and us being Jesus. Jesus is the template, model, source, and summit of our lives; and Jesus does not conform to our desires and comforts. Instead Jesus walks ahead of us showing a way of life that is radically open to God’s call and with that openness comes a life of surprise. That’s the image of Jesus we should have, a radical trail blazer not to be admired, but followed into the forest of world, making a way, dividing the world so that love may enter in, even through our day to day decisions and lives.