Luke 12:49ff Will and Determination Rev. Betsy Hogan
Here’s something I don’t want to do. I don’t want to preach this sermon. We gather here, on a Sunday morning, when there are loads of other places we could be, in some measure at least, always, presumably, for regrounding in Godness. For space outside of ordinary time that’s entirely about gratitude and hope and restoration and some sense that we’re not alone.
There can be communion with God’s spirit everywhere – of course there can be. In the summer especially, when we poor beleaguered Nova Scotians finally emerge from the salt fog and the damp and freezing cold like sun-worshippers, flower-worshippers, colour-worshippers, breathing in the warm air and reveling in the greenness – of course God’s presence is in all of it.
But we also seek it here. Like a respite, like a pause, like something that’ll help. Something that’ll centre us enough, ground us enough, to make everything else more possible. More manageable. More survivable.
This is, after all, where we hear the ancient words of the Psalms – God is our refuge and our strength. This is where Jesus says to us, Come all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
And this is where we’re meant to get the meaning and purpose we carry out into all of it. Whether all of it is learning how to live with great gaping holes in everything that was familiar, or it’s figuring out how not to despair, or it’s just trying to be a good person, a positive presence, someone who makes a difference. In a world that’s pretty chaotic..
That’s what this is for. It’s a space, it’s a pause outside of ordinary time, where on purpose we say thank you for all the blessings. Where on purpose we let ourselves feel loved. Where on purpose we ask for help to be better and stronger and more patient and more forgiving – because for whatever reason, for us, this makes a difference. To do these things on purpose.
To reground ourselves in a Godness that if we think of all of it, all squished up into a person, is behaves loves forgives welcomes like Jesus did. Whole-heartedly. Across every boundary and barrier and wall of exclusion people can build.
We come to be reminded that there’s comfort and there’s strength and there’s courage and we can make it, because God is good and we’re not alone. And we come to be reminded, or at least many of us do, because frankly? We NEED it. We need the assurance, in the midst of whatever chaos or stress or reality’s out there we’re dealing with, that we matter, that we’re held, that this is doable, that God is good.
And then there’s that reading and I have to preach this sermon. That doesn’t deny any of those things, that doesn’t contradict them, that’s completely predicated on them – but restful? Strengthening? Uplifting? Honestly, it could be better.
Because as I’m sure you noticed when Bob read the passage from Luke’s gospel earlier, this is not Jesus at his very best Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild.
Really, the only saving grace when I thought about preaching this sermon is that at least it wasn’t as bad as the FIRST time I had to preach on this passage, way back a thousand years ago when it came up in the lectionary schedule of readings that the mainline churches more or less agree to follow – because that happened to be on Mother’s Day.
Which was a delight, for all of us. So I know it could be worse. But there isn’t any way around it. Because what the lectionary does, and this IS its value, is that it does challenge our comfort zones with the actual fullness of the gospel record.
Not just all the nice passages of Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild, or kind Jesus and wise Jesus and welcoming Jesus, but also the episodes of frustrated Jesus and exasperated Jesus and not-entirely-polite Jesus and even angry Jesus. None of which make for a comforting and soothing sermon. Though at the same time –
I do think there’s something revelatory and ultimately good in being reminded in passages like the one Bob read for us that Jesus DID get frustrated. And he DID get angry. And sometimes, like in this particular passage, he got so seriously worked up that it was actually kind of intense… and he meant it.
Because to any Godness who really is Goodness, who really is Love, who really is about Justice and fullness of life, the world the way it is pretty much deserves frustration. Deserves exasperation and anger. And maybe even getting intense.
One of my own greatest frustrations is with the misguided notion that the Way for anyone who’s trying to follow the teachings of Jesus, the Christian Way, the Christian response to whatever’s going on -- that this can never be about identifying something as “wrong”. Because that’s being judgmental, and ‘Jesus said not to be judgmental’.
But Jesus was “judgmental” all the time. And intensely so. Because all that means is that he did proclaim and teach, he did HAVE, standards. He did clearly identifiy what lifts people up versus what crushes people, and he identified the latter as wrong. He did clearly identify what embodies welcome and inclusion and life versus what’s destructive and damaging and breaks life down, and he identified the latter as wrong.
Jesus wasn’t afraid to teach that God has standards, he didn’t caution against holding up those standards, holding people to account for their words and actions. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is so often taken to mean that as Christians we don’t get to hold people to account, but it ISN’T a teaching against there being an actual moral compass that clearly identifies what’s right and what’s wrong. It’s a teaching against hypocrisy. It’s a teaching against imagining that that actual moral compass doesn’t apply just as much to us as it does to everybody else.
Because it does. Jesus had standards for the Way he proclaimed, the Way of God’s vision for the human family. What he embodied and taught is that “right” binds up the broken-hearted, feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless, breaks the bonds of oppression, and casts the powerful down from their thrones.
That’s how we can tell it’s “right”. There are standards. He clearly articulated them and he also manifested them. We can in fact evaluate, assess, hold accountable, judge people’s words and actions against those standards – as long as we’re overwhelmed not only by the awareness that it’s the standard we’re also held to –
But at the same time, as long as we’re overwhelmed by knowing that even though we’re never actually going to achieve that standard, the trying does matter.
Because it’s our contribution to making a difference, a good difference, a healing difference. The trying matters. Being accountable for the trying, holding others to accountable for the trying matters. There IS a standard to which God holds the human family, to which we get to hold others and ourselves.
But it’s not – crucially – it’s not because we’re going to get in trouble otherwise. It’s because it makes the world better. Which is what God wants for us.
It draws the world incrementally closer to being a place where the broken-hearted are comforted and the hungry fed and the homeless sheltered and oppressed freed and the oppressors taken down. That’s why God holds us to this standard, why we get to hold others and ourselves to it. Because even our trying makes the world better than it currently is.
It sounds like something we should want. To be honest, it sounds like something pretty near everybody should want, except possibly the oppressors – but here we are two thousand years after he first started urging it, and… not so much.
But that’s because he was right. In this intense and actually kind of alarming not-so-gentle-Jesus rant, that he unleashes on his disciples and the crowds and us in the passage Bob read for us, he’s right. Following his way, really wading hip-deep into the muck to be part of remaking the world into a place where everyone has enough and everyone’s well-being matters and no one has to put their life on the line to get treated like a human being – it is not a recipe for a pleasant and peaceful life.
And that’s not fun. It’s not heartwarmng. Meeting immediate needs – reaching out to be caring to those around us, the human connection that arises when we act with caritas, with charity, with caring, these are heartwarming. And they’re so important. When we’re part of making sure someone has a hot meal, or a place to sleep. When we visit the sick or get school supplies for a kid who otherwise wouldn’t have any, or provide refuge to someone escaping war, these things are heartwarming. They’re meaningful. They make the world better and they’re important.
But as the Brazilian Archbishop Camara famously said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”
And he was right. It’s exactly what Jesus, with all his intensity and also his exasperation because he KNOWS about our instinct for avoidance, is getting at in this passage. That what his way demands – invites us into -- isn’t just caritas, isn’t just the kindness and caring of meeting immediate needs.
It’s also remaking the world into a place where everyone has enough and everyone’s well-being matters and especially the most vulnerable are lifted up. It’s not just loving kindness, it’s seeking justice. Demanding, working for, building and insisting on all the change that’s necessary to justice.
And that is not fun. It is not a recipe for a pleasant and peaceful life. Because seeking justice threatens every institution, every system, and every relationship that depends on IN-justice. It puts everything at risk, throws the entire status quo into crisis.
And that’s what we’re invited into, in following Jesus’ way. All that conflict, all the outrage, all the anger even from those closest to us, when we say ENOUGH with pensions enriched by egregious overseas mining practices, or ENOUGH with oil and gas and coal, or ENOUGH with exploiting migrant workers to keep our food prices low, or ENOUGH with subsidizing corporations when there are reserves that haven’t had drinkable in decades.
Because there isn’t one of those positions that isn’t problematic. That doesn’t invite argument and even compelling argument. Every one of those positions, in demanding change, creates a crisis. Seeking justice is not a recipe for a peaceful life – it turns everything over, shakes whole systems, it makes people angry, it can even divide families.
But that, says Jesus, when all we want is some space to find our footing, to be strengthened by God’s spirit, to be assured that we’re not alone and we’re held and we matter – that, says Jesus, is what I’m calling you to. Urgently. To the uncomfortable, annoying, provocative, costly, choices and actions that are deliberately about overturning what harms in favour of what nurtures justice.
Why do you not judge for yourselves what’s right, he asks us. But we do… We just need help actually doing it. Thanks be to God who is our strength. Amen.