Pentecost 12 August 15, 2010

Jeremiah 23:23-29                                                             

Luke 12:49-56                                                                     

Our friend Bishop Walmsley is off at Grace Church, East Concord this morning, filling in for Fr. Wells who’s on vacation. I overheard the Bishop last Sunday at coffee hour grumbling (nicely, of course) about having to preach on the gospel we’ve been given this morning. “It’s that passage about Jesus dividing families,” he said. “Who wants to talk about that?” And I feel the same way. A beautiful summer day; who wants to hear about divisions in families or bringing fire to the earth? But here we are: the Lord is speaking to us and we must listen. This is holy ground.

One reason this gospel reading is so hard for us is that it’s so far from anything we’ve experienced. Yes, church brings division in many of our families – only one parent comes on Sundays and there’s tension over whether to go off on an activity that the other parent wants; families have to choose whether to participate in something like a picnic or a sporting or dance event or go to church; sometimes couples argue about how much to pledge. I don’t mean to minimize the difficulty of working out these divisions. But they’re not really what Jesus is talking about. They don’t involve “bringing fire to the earth.”

In all the years I’ve worked with couples preparing them for marriage or trying to help them with marital conflicts, I’ve never once dealt with a situation in which religious differences were the issue. Money, yes. Sex, yes. Drinking, drugs, abuse, yes. Adultery, yes. But never religion. Couples getting married often have differences over religion – one believes, one doesn’t; one is Christian, one Jewish – but they always say, “we’ll work it out; it isn’t really an issue.” And usually, to be honest, it gets “worked out” by neither spouse going to church, no religious formation for the children. Conflict is avoided by avoiding religion altogether.

And that’s pretty much the case for our society generally. It seems to be important still for our presidential candidates to be believers – both President Bush and President Obama were shaped by strong conversion experiences – but we don’t want them to let their faith intrude into their politics. The promise by President Kennedy that he wouldn’t take orders from the Pope is still often cited when we talk about religion in the public square. Religion should be a purely private matter – so private that it shouldn’t even cause conflicts in a family, let alone a nation or a world.

So this gospel (and the passage from Jeremiah that goes with it) is alien stuff for us. Here are two prophets, Jeremiah and Jesus, announcing that they’ve come to bring division, come to bring fire. They have a message which, taken seriously, is bound to divide, and they’re going to deliver this message even if it kills them – which, we know, it will.

Let’s be clear: Jeremiah and Jesus aren’t talking about a message that divides in the sense of whether a family goes to church this week goes camping. Not divides in the sense of dad votes Republican and mom Democratic, do we pledge $10 a week or $100. Both these prophets are talking about a message of ultimate judgment, a message from God about eternal salvation or eternal damnation.

Jeremiah and Jesus don’t just deliver this message in the abstract, like the rant of some television evangelist. The message is delivered in the context of judgment on the state of the world. “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” asks Jesus. The Greek word translated “present time” is kairos, from which we get our English word “crisis.” [Note: It turns out this isn’t the correct etymology, but the point still holds for the meaning of kairos.] Kairos means the critical moment, the moment of decision, of judgment.

So if we want to be serious about the message of Jeremiah and Jesus, we have to begin by “interpreting” the kairos in which we live. We don’t like to do that. Look at our Government, which is so paralyzed that we can’t address any of our crisis problems – recession, unemployment, budget deficits, terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, tax reform, out of control health care costs, climate change, immigration, the very structure of our Constitution (and that’s just for starters). Look at our Churches, which also bicker away over marginal stuff like sexuality, celibacy and liturgy, and fail (at least at an institutional level) to offer prophetic witness in the lives of their leaders. Look at ourselves, our families and workplaces and schools: how often do we raise the real issues, the kairos questions, in ways that would require us to act, to change our lives?

For that’s the real question, isn’t it? The call to judgment that these prophets give – a call from God – is a call that requires us to change. We can read the Bible front to back as a story of those who respond to God by changing and those who don’t. Those who do often suffer and lose in worldly terms, but they inherit eternal life. For the change to which Jeremiah and Jesus call us is a change that brings us a peace and hope and strength of a kind the world cannot give. It’s the peace we see in the lives of the saints and martyrs, who display great courage, great sacrifice, great compassion, because like Jeremiah and Jesus, they share the life of God.

Let us listen, my friends. Let us take to heart. Let us pray, confessing the sin of our timidity, our reluctance, our blindness. And then let us respond to God’s call.

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