Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Formed of Fire" -- Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost


Preached by Ms. Shug Goodlow at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, August 15, 2010 

O Lord, my strength and my redeemer, I ask that you hide me so that only your Word is glorified. “ Take our minds and think through them. Take our mouths and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire!” Amen.

“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.”

These are pretty harsh words coming from The Prince of Peace aren’t they? I was at first happy to accept Mike’s invitation to preach this morning – until I realized what the Gospel reading was for today. I mean come on, what is a poor lay preacher like me supposed to do with this? This is like drawing the short straw! I’ve never even seen this gospel text on a refrigerator magnet.

My first thought was to run and my second thought was to preach on one of the other lessons. Then I thought, I’ll play it safe; I’ll talk about Luke. Finally, I realized there’s no escaping it. I’ll have to talk about this Jesus because we need to understand just who we think he is so we can come to know why today’s Gospel is so unsettling for us.

Obviously, there are differing ideas about who Jesus is. George Carlin, the late comedian and noted “religious authority” has offered the opinion that we have created God in our own image and likeness. In this morning’s Gospel, we find a rather unsettling portrayal of Jesus; Jesus as a disturber of the peace. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” OK, who are you and what have you done with my Jesus? This is not the Jesus we know. This is not the Jesus we Episcopalians want to know. We want the other Jesus. We want the Prince of Peace. We want the compassionate Jesus. We want the one we sing about in O Holy Night, the one we put out on our lawns at Christmas. You know, we want the Jesus in the velvet paintings next to the ones of Elvis and the dogs playing poker.

This is not Jesus meek and mild. He’s just doesn’t sound very nice here. If this is the good Jesus, Lord I don’t want to be around when the other one shows up! Let’s face it, this Jesus doesn’t sound too happy with us. We don’t want this Jesus!

But what does that say about us? We want it nice and easy don’t we? Everybody wants to go to Heaven but nobody wants to die. We don’t want to do the hard work. We just want to come to church, listen to the pretty music, drop a few dollars in the plate and have a cup of coffee before heading off to the Cardinals game. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s our nature to want things to be peaceful. We don’t want any drama. In the words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?”

The truth, of course, is that we are called to do more than just go through the motions if we are truly followers of Jesus. In today’s gospel lesson Jesus is telling us that following him means that we will have to make some hard choices at times. We might not always be able to do the fun thing or the easy thing. We might not always be able be with people we want to be with. We’re gonna have to do some work!

Jesus flat out warns us that there will be division if we follow him. “ From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.” Talk about your family feuds!

I’ve learned first-hand that discipleship is not for the faint of heart. Why do you think there were only twelve of them? Jesus doesn’t want part time disciples. He could have millions of those. Discipleship can bring alienation from our friends, family and co-workers. It can illicit scorn from people that don’t even know us. That is what we risk if we take up with this fellow we call Jesus.

Again, Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth. How I wish it were already kindled.” My God, the passion. This is powerful imagery for me. At first my impulse was to see fire as a thing to fear; as a destructive force. But then I came to see it differently. There are lots of images associated with fire in Scripture. Moses heard God’s voice in a burning bush. A chariot of fire carried Isaiah up to Heaven.

Some of you know that Doris and I are jewelry and glass artists. Much of what we create is formed by fire. Many of the delicate glass vessels we make are carefully shaped and placed in a kiln of 1400 degrees or more until we achieve the desired result. The hotter the fire, the more brilliant the color. On the other end of the spectrum, think about the work of the blacksmith. He creates by banging away at a piece of metal and repeatedly thrusting it into a hot fire and quenching it in water until he gets it into the shape he wants. Aren’t we like that? Some of us have been gently and carefully shaped as on the potter’s wheel. Lovingly caressed and shaped by gentle hands into a thing of beauty.

But others of us have been banged into a thing of utility by repeated striking and thrusting into the fire more times than you might imagine. If you haven’t been struck upon the anvil of life it might be hard for you to understand how some of us have been shaped in this way.

I have friend named Sandy Smith who is an inspector for the Los Angeles City Fire Department. She has fought a great many fires from inner city Los Angeles to Malibu. Some of you may be aware that most of Malibu burns just about every year; homes, businesses, vegetation. The insurance companies refuse to insure the homes anymore but they’ve got more money than God in Malibu so they keep rebuilding it. One year in particular I lamented the loss of so many homes, especially the vegetation and Sandy wanted to comfort me so she told me something very interesting.

She said that trees in the forest need to be exposed to fire to make new growth possible and that suppressing the fire would actually be detrimental because the dead trees and other debris create a tinderbox effect and destroy any new growth. The heat from the fire actually opens the cones on cone-bearing trees and releases the seeds. The seeds germinate and re-grow the forest. What a radical concept; life formed of fire!

Isn’t this what our gospel reading is about today? This fire that Jesus brings is filled with chaos and promises to bring division. But if fire can make new life possible what do we need to set fire to in our own lives in order to re-grow it?

We live in a time of situational ethics. What attitude, what behavior, what habits do we need to change? One of my favorite images of fire in the Bible happens after the resurrection. Jesus is walking along the road to Emmaus with two of the disciples. The disciples don’t recognize him until they break bread that evening. When they realize they had been in Jesus’ presence they said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road!”

To burn with the fire of Christ! The thought of it is both wonderful and terrifying. My grandmother used to tell me that the very thing that’s a blessing can also be a curse. To have our hearts burn within us is to be assured of kinship with God. To have our hearts burn within us is to desire to seek a closer relationship with God. Do any of you remember that Chaka Khan song from the 80s called “Through the Fire?” Here’s a little of the refrain.

Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall
For a chance to be with you
I'd gladly risk it all
Through the fire
Through whatever, come what may

Powerful! Now, as we move on to verses 54-56 Jesus gives the crowd what for. “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” I think what he’s really saying is “I’ve had it with you people. You just don’t get it. I’ve told you and showed you that I am on fire for God. Silly me, I thought you would be too!

You think all you have to do is sing a few songs about peace on earth and send out a few cards at Christmas. Can’t you see that following me can separate you from the rest of the world? Can’t you see that following me can separate you from your family? No wonder Jesus is upset with us; we can’t see the forest for the trees.

Doris and I were having lunch one Sunday after church and overheard one woman telling another that she had called her pastor out on the carpet that day about his sermon. Her friend asked her what the problem was and she went on to say that she told him she was tired of hearing about those poor people and that she thought it was inappropriate for him to keep bringing them up in his sermons. Her friend looked stunned. We were so stunned we stopped eating. She then went on to say that they should just go out and get jobs then there wouldn’t be any more poor people and she wouldn’t have to hear about it. She said “That’s not why I go to church.” Lord, some of us don’t want our gospel adulterated by…uhhh…the gospel.

If we were all the same, if there were only one kind of Christian, if we had no differences, if we were never challenged, if we were never confronted with things we don’t want to see, how would we ever grow in our faith?

Why can’t we see what really matters? Are we armor bearers for Christ or not? Are we bearing witness to His presence in the world today? What are we afraid of? I mean, would we understand what Jesus wants from us better if he had a blog? We come to church every Sunday yet we have trouble seeing the signs of Jesus’ presence within and among us. We profess our Christianity but seem to be confused about so many things. We confuse pity with compassion, privilege with entitlement, biology with family, age with maturity, being straight with a reason to hate, and being white with being right and being black with having to step back.

We mistake kindness for weakness, being poor for being irrelevant, being wealthy with being superior, lack of education with lack of intelligence, and the ability to write a big check with being a good Christian.

We confuse this place we call church with being a country club for saints, the bringing of war with the making of peace, and perhaps worst of all – we confuse legalism with justice. And we won’t even talk about all the isms…sexism, adultism, ageism, racism.

Author Juan Carlos Ortiz says that most Christians fail to read what he calls the Fifth Gospel. He says, “Open your bible and look at the verses you have circled, highlighted and underlined…the verses like “For God so loved the world” and “I am with you always” and “Nothing can ever separate you from God.” It’s all right there in the four Gospels, Ortiz says.

But the verses you do not underline, the ones you do not circle or highlight or memorize; those are the Fifth Gospel. Verses like Luke 3:11, “If you want to be my disciple, whoever has two coats must give one to the person who has none and the same with food.”

Jesus ministered during a time called the Pax Romana – the Roman Peace. As long as you didn’t make waves you were pretty much left alone. Now I haven’t sat across the porch from God and spoken with him to know exactly what he meant when he talked about interpreting the present time but I think it’s safe for us to guess that he doesn’t want us to just go along with the status quo. He wants our eyes wide open. He wants us to see. Jesus wants us to stand with him. He wants us to burn with passion for him and for our faith. He wants us to upset the apple cart, especially our own. This may mean sacrifice, it may mean a change of direction, it may even mean loss of relationships.

Some sermons are meant to comfort the disturbed; this isn’t one of them. This one is meant to disturb the comfortable including myself. In fact, I must confess, I’m probably preaching more to myself than to you. I think this gospel is so hard for us to hear today because it calls us out, it makes us accountable; to have the courage of our convictions.

Do we really welcome everybody? Are we really willing to serve everybody? Do we really love everybody? Do we really stand with Christ?

My friends, I know you probably don’t think there is any good news today but here it is - God is not ever going to leave us alone. Every Sunday the Eucharistic bread is broken so that we may take it in and be made whole. And we drink Eucharistic wine that has been poured out for us so that we can be filled. So I ask you, what in our lives needs to be broken so that it can be made whole again? What changes do we need to make? I know there are some things I need to change.

At the end of the day, we can’t ignore that Fifth Gospel that Ortiz talks about. God’s work is our work. He is asking us to be committed to the mission of the church but He is not asking us to go it alone. He is asking us to do it in community; he is asking us to do it with him.

Jesus said, “I come to bring fire to the earth.” May he set our hearts on fire. Amen

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