Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15C] - August 18, 2013 (Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:29--12:2)

If you think about it, we talk a lot in the church about what a unifying figure Jesus is. We see him chiefly as someone whose love is a like wide circle, whose grace constantly extends to welcome more and more people. We admire how Jesus includes everyone, finding space in his community for the repulsive leper, the despised Samaritan, and even the uptight Pharisee—people we would probably exclude or despise, had we lived back then. Jesus even dies praying for forgiveness for the people who nail him to the cross. Jesus is all about unity, it seems, a unity grounded in the wonderful things Jesus brings to us—things like peace, and love, and joy.

In fact, during the Sundays of Advent many congregations often use an Advent wreath with four candles to symbolize some of the gifts that Jesus brings. As a child I learned that one candle, for example, was the “peace” candle, because the angels would sing at his birth of the wonderful peace on earth and goodwill toward humankind that would follow his reign on earth. The other candles were lit to represent joy, love, and hope, all fabulous and fantastic and friendly things we want from a unifying, all-embracing Jesus.

However, based on what Jesus himself says today in Luke’s gospel as he talks to his disciples about the expectations his kingdom has for the earth, we might need to re-think that Advent wreath this year. It sounds like we need to get rid of the peace candle and replace it with the division candle! “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks, clearly fired up at his disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division!” We may need to rename not just a candle, but maybe re-think the whole idea of candles, themselves, with their soft, glowing nature. Jesus says he comes to bring fire to earth! With that in mind, maybe the whole Advent wreath should just be torched as kindling on the altar!

The bottom line is that if we take Jesus at his words this morning, he doesn’t sound very unifying at all, and the fire of which he speaks isn’t very warm and fuzzy. This is not the side of Jesus we’re accustomed to, the one that normally gets lifted up. No, this is a side Jesus that lays waste to the airbrushed Jesus we often project for ourselves, the soft-edged Jesus that never really challenges us or asks any demands of us. By contrast, here we see a Jesus that might actually cause some real pain and division in our lives, a Jesus that might indeed bring about some hardship and conflict when we follow him.

In an interview this pastweek at the Edinburgh International Book festival, the retired Archbishop of the Church of England, Rowan Williams, said that American and British Christians who talk of being persecuted should “grow up” and not exaggerate what amounts to being “mildly uncomfortable.” Those words may offend us, but I think the fired up Jesus we see in this morning’s gospel would wholeheartedly agree with Archbishop Williams. Many Christians in Egypt, by contrast, can claim to know about persecution. Or Christians in Syria can, too, as well as some Muslims in Myanmar and in other places throughout the world.

Coptic orthodox Christians in Egypt protesting discriminatory policies
What followers of Jesus in places like that can tell us is that Jesus’ love places us on the edge of a kingdom that rubs rough against a broken creation. Church is not just a well-meaning social service organization that brings together people to perform service projects in the community, however effective those service projects may be. Neither is church a place where individuals “tank up” on inspiration for the week. Rather, church is a community where our relationships with other individuals take center stage, as broken and damaged as they may be. Jesus’ fellowship is a new family that can, in fact, cause us to fall out of favor occasionally with the rest of the world, even other family members, for the decisions we make and the stances we take. By the power of the cross, Jesus forms among us a new kind of family that rearranges us according to God’s love and forgiveness, not according to what gender or race or social status the world gives us.

For hundreds of years, women who entered convents, for example, to follow monastic orders and live in a religious community based on the teachings of Jesus were shunned and abandoned by their families as a result of their decision. For such a woman, following Jesus in this way brought disgrace to her family because, by taking a vow of chastity and poverty, she eliminated her family’s ability to use her through arranged marriage and child-bearing as a means of solidifying relationships with more powerful families. At a time when women were valued as little more than property or a tool for concentrating family wealth or maintaining blood lines, Jesus offered a new, life-giving alternative. But, in doing so, he set mother against daughter, and daughter against mother.

But there is danger in separating the personalities and purposes of Jesus, as if he is nice Jesus and then mean Jesus, unifying Jesus and dividing Jesus, soft-glow Advent candle Jesus and fired-up, frustrated Jesus. For the fired-up Jesus this morning is, indeed, the one over whose birth in Bethlehem the angels sang, “Peace on earth, good will toward humankind.” The difference is that we must form our notion of peace around him and his message and not some misbegotten form of peace that remains in our own hearts and makes us self-absorbed. The particular kind of peace that Jesus brings does involve division. It divides us from things that go against this kingdom—things like our sin, our attachment to racism, economic oppression, and environmental abuse, to name a few. Jesus comes to divide us from all that, to remove them from human community as well as from our own lives.

Can we stand for Jesus’ kingdom and at the same time be complacent about changing this world to look more like him? Can we pray “thy kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven” and at the same time stand in the way of justice in our own communities? Can we give thanks to God for the beauty and wonder of the gift of our lives, and not be concerned, in some way, about things like abortion, or the level of the prison population in our country? If this more complete picture of Jesus that we hear from in the gospel text causes us to take stock of our lives and scrutinize some of our choices, then it is doing what he’s supposed to. Jesus means to say he is not simply a dashboard decoration or a wall-hanging or pillow embroidery. The peculiar way Jesus unites people is divisive, in and of itself. But it is what saves us all.

To those who think Jesus comes simply to help us be spiritual and enlightened, Jesus says, “No!” To those who believe Jesus comes to help us achieve inner peace, Jesus says, “Nuh-uh!” To those of us who feel that Jesus’ message is simply about making life easier, making us feel happier, this Jesus says, “Nope! Think again!”

I recently returned from spending a week in Pittsburgh as a voting member of the Churchwide Assembly of our denomination the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Our denomination, like any church communion anywhere else, is very divided over many things. We heard heated debates this week on many of the topics with which we struggle—human sexuality, gun control, community violence…how properly to follow Roberts Rules of Order. We elected a woman bishop, a fact that many Christians around the world will have a hard time knowing what to do with. We passed a thorough social statement on criminal justice and what Christians can and should say about that issue in this country. And although there were decisions made that didn’t please everyone, although there are some who no doubt still feel the division there is some solace in the fact that we actually grappled prayerfully over these issues and others like them—that our faith is not just about lighting the subdued candle of an inner peace, but wondering how to burn towards the vision of a world where all relationships will be formed by the word of God and the love of Christ’s cross.

Because there will be a day, sisters and brothers, when we will realize that we have been fully cleansed in Jesus, when we realize we have been plunged into that grace, when we realize that we have, in fact, “laid aside every weight and sin that clings so closely,” and we will be fully united, totally one. There will be a place and time where nothing divisive—not even death—will lay claim to us.  He will have divided us from it and from within us forever.  We will stand and break bread with all those who have gone before us and who have felt the fire of his love,    the tax collectors and the Pharisees of every time and every age. We will receive what Jesus has given, in full.

And for that promise, for that glorious promise, my sisters and brothers, we may follow him now.


Thanks be to God!




The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 13C] - August 4, 2013 (Luke 12:13-21)

I am not going to lie: it is awful challenging to come home from a week-long servant trip with thirteen youth and preach a sermon the next day. It is even more challenging to come home from a week-long servant trip with thirteen youth and preach a sermon on this passage from Luke about the parable of the rich fool.

It has nothing to do with the youth. Like usual, they were absolutely outstanding in terms of attitude and work ethic. And the challenge has little to do with the exhaustion I still bear in my body—we didn’t get much sleep at all, 60 some-odd people crammed like sardines into three large bunk rooms. The food was standard camp fare: somewhat filling but not terribly nutritious.

No, the reason why this sermon was even more challenging that it should have been is that after spending a week in Logan County, West Virginia, where more than a third of the population under 18 lives below the poverty line, I have started to feel like the rich fool with the bigger barns. After spending a week interacting on-site with at-risk youth whose only daily meal most likely came from the meager lunch in the program we were helping to run, I am starting to feel like someone who eats, drinks, and carries on pretty merrily on a regular basis. After all, I have a job…at the moment, at least. You contribute generously to my salary, health benefits, and a pension for retirement, and you added on a very lavish Christmas gift at the end of last year. I’m not necessarily affluent by most standards, but, then again, I am storing away something for my later years, a privilege that, I suspect, most people in this world don’t enjoy. And I don’t know the financial details of any of you—nor do I care to—but I imagine you’re in pretty much the same boat I am with regards to all this. We do store up all kinds of worldly treasures and can afford to eat and drink pretty much anything we want.

Furthermore, we care about equality in all things economic, and the initial question this person in the crowd asks Jesus about sharing the inheritance between sons seems absolutely legitimate to us. As a younger brother, the man simply thinks it’s fair that the family treasure should be divided among heirs equally instead of letting it all go to the first-born. After all, Jesus comes to re-distribute wealth, to liberate people from oppressive systems of commerce and economics, according to many believers and theologians. Doesn’t he at one point famously take a boy’s lunch of two fish and five loaves of bread and use it to feed five thousand hungry people (not counting women and children)? Why wouldn’t he care to dismantle an economic system that so obviously puts people at an unfair economic advantage just because they aren’t born first?

What was our youth group doing in West Virginia, after all, with all our school supply donations and trusty hammers and circular saws, if it wasn’t some sort of economic relief for the people we were supposedly serving? What were our Vacation Bible School children doing two weeks ago when they collected close to $1000 for people living in drought-stricken areas of Africa? Yes, this parable of the rich fool could make us a little uncomfortable this morning, I suspect, because despite all those wonderful examples of our generosity, they is still a small portion of what we have stored away.

However, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool to make everyone a little uncomfortable—to make everyone pay a little closer attention—because the warning in this text is never against affluence. The lesson is never against having things, per se. It is, rather, against greed. It is a warning about where we place our security and where we look for salvation, and anyone—be they rich or be they destitute—can fall into the trap of thinking that we alone are responsible for our own success and that we can work hard enough or manipulate money well enough to be safe and secure.

That is not a danger only for the wealthy, although I do suppose we are more susceptible to it. We have the option of building bigger barns, after all, of using our wealth to get what we want from people or from the political systems that govern us. But, in reality, greed is a trap for all people. This parable is really a lesson not about how we are supposed to use our wealth, but about how our wealth can use us! The things we possess end up possessing us. We can start thinking that the ledger books we balance should end up making us feel balanced. However, let us not forget that there is only One whose love balances us, there is only One whose Spirit truly possesses us.

Scrooge McDuck
Our life is never in our own hands, which is what this rich fool believes, as he amusingly discusses only with his own soul what he should do with all his crops. Notice he’s never called the rich “evil guy.”  He’s called the fool, a term that implies no thinking, a lack of consideration. He is a fool because, in speaking only with himself, he doesn’t really think through his actions of accumulating. He just selfishly—but even more mindlessly—gathers more.

If he is a fool, then I know that this congregation is populated by many who are wise. I heard, for example, of one mother among you who held a leadership position last year at one of our local elementary schools which, we shall say, is located in a fairly affluent area of Richmond. This mother was put in charge of organizing the yearly Christmas party for the school. Rather than thoughtlessly planning yet another party for the kids where they would accumulate more candy they didn’t really need to eat and make more crafts they didn’t really need to take home to clutter up the kitchen, this mom decided the Christmas party would be replaced by a donation drive to collect basic items for people who are served by a local shelter downtown.

The project, as you can imagine, did not catch on with immediate popularity. Kids and parents included thought they were going to miss another chance to be merry. However, as the project gathered steam, as the children learned somewhat to their shock that many people are deprived of some basic hygiene items. Thanks to the faith of this parent, the children and parents alike at the school learned that merriment can be found in giving. Lots of it, in fact. Whether it was explicitly stated or not, they got a good glimpse of what it means to be rich toward God—to be involved in God’s restoration of creation through the outpouring of their blessings—and they didn’t even have to go all the way to West Virginia to do it. Yes, this congregation is filled with people who are rich toward God and wise with wealth. (And now I know someone in particular to tap for a youth service trip in the future).

In the long run, what those elementary school students learned is the lesson that the man in the crowd received who is worried about the fairness of the distribution of his family inheritance: namely, the kingdom of God is not supremely concerned with economic fairness or everyone getting and having the same amount of stuff. Rather, it is about realizing that the future lies in God, not in the insurance we think we have in money. It is about the awareness that his grace is ultimately to shape the world, not some amount of money or goods in certain peoples’ hands.

Wealth, possessions, food, shelter—the things Luther said we can call our “daily bread”—all these things are certainly given by God, but our vocation as people who have been baptized is not to count our richness in them. Our richness is in the God who gives them, because it is God who has given even his Son for us. Because of Jesus, we know we have value to God, that we are God’s prized possessions. As the psalmist says this morning, “There is no price one can give God for our life.” As his own life is poured out, the barn doors of God’s goodness are flung wide open and the sheaves of love and mercy come tumbling down upon us.

This is where our true wealth lies: in the knowledge that we are created and redeemed by a loving God who wants us to be a part of his restoration of creation. And when we are truly wealthy in this way, we are empowered to tear down some of our barns and look into the eyes of those folks we encountered in West Virginia…into the eyes of those receiving our bags of hygiene items here in Richmond…into the eyes of those we encounter anywhere…and see past their lack of worldly things, past their need of what we have in excess, and not look at them as purely an object of our charity but instead see another one of God’s prized possessions looking back at us.



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.