Sunday, August 19, 2007

Pentecost 12 - Year C

NB: With help from Willimon’s Pulpit resource

Why do you come to church? Do you come seeking comfort and quiet consolation? Is your life on fast forward, awash in a sea of change and innovation, out of control? Are you looking to slow down, centre yourself, to touch base with something stable and dependable, if only for one hour?

After all, church is supposed to be a place were we tie things down, slow down, cool down, quiet down, and settle down. This is, of course, church.

If you came for that reason than that’s a good call. Especially since we call this room, this worship space, the “sanctuary.”

Some say one of the smartest things our church has done is install air conditioning here in the worship space to make it more sanctuarious (did I just make up a word?).

Who could disagree? With the crazy heat we’ve had for the past two months who wants to sit in a stuffy, overheated church when you could go to the air-conditioned mall?

We come to church to be soothed, comforted, solidified in our values, and strengthened in our faith. We come to celebrate as God’s people how God is building our lives and families. We come looking for peace and joy. That what church is.

And then there’s Jesus.

“I have come to cast fire on the earth,” Jesus says. “Do you think I’ve come to bring peace!? NO! I’ve come to bring division! Strife! Loathing! I’m here to divide homes, break up families! Get kids in trouble! I’m here to start a fire!”

I’ve always wondered why these passages pop up during the summer. Especially when folks are in vacation mode. Wouldn’t more comforting passages make more sense as we sit by the water sipping our umbrella drinks?

Maybe the folks who put together the lectionary – the weekly bible readings – knew that churches were only half full because everyone’s away camping for the weekend listening to Robert Schuller instead of coming to church.

Or do passages like these pop up during holiday-time BECAUSE people are in vacation-mode? A little subversive bible poke when we’re just getting comfortable. They want to shake people out of their hotdog induced stupor. All that fresh air is making them soft. They need a taste of fire.

And Jesus is ready to set fire to your tongue. Conflict. Trouble. Loathing. That is what you can expect if you want to live like a Christian.

Methodist Preacher Will Willimon says that he was a campus pastor for over 20 years. During that time he said that no parents called him to say “Help! I think my son is an alcoholic.” Or “Help! My daughter is sleeping around,” though such are huge problems.

No, he says, but he did receive maybe a dozen - often angry - phone calls, saying something like “Help! I think my daughter’s become a religious fanatic.”

“Religious fanatic” being defined as going along with the Catholics to Haiti to work in a literacy program.

Jesus said, “I have come to bring division. I have come to bring fire. Even your parents may not understand. But follow me anyways.”

Years ago when it was still East Germany, a pastor who suffered terribly under the communists was being hassled about an influx of young, angry, disaffected rebellious young people into his congregation. Some folks said that they were ready to walk out if the pastor didn’t tell those hippies to cut their hair, put on a tie, take a shower, and take a seat at the back.

“We’re a closed society,” the grizzled old pastor said, “There is nowhere for their dissent to be heard but in the church. It’s the only place to take out their anger with the government. So, they buy denim jeans, grow their hair long, and come to a place where they are free to be angry.”

He may have lost some members, but he didn’t care. Jesus loved them, not some watered down, family-friendly version of who the church thought they should be.

Jesus said, “I have come to send fire to the earth.”

In my first parish, there was a woman who was very involved in the life of the church. I figured she had been around the church forever. I couldn’t picture the church without her. The kitchen was her territory; if you didn’t know where to put the cups and saucers after coffee hour, she would tell you.

But it turns out that she stopped going to church a year after she was married. Her husband didn’t like her going to church. He drank, and he “just knew” that folks at church were talking about him.

For a while she went to church anyway, knowing that a mean, angry drunk was waiting for her when she got home.

Finally he had enough. And probably the biggest gift he ever gave her was leaving her for another woman.

Jesus said “I have not come to bring peace but division.”

So, what consequences do you bear as a Christian? What does your life proclaim?

Is the church a place where we sit up straight, hand on our laps, listen politely, and do what we’re told?

Or is the church a place where we are set on fire?

When I toured the new Christian radio station here in Lethbridge the station manager proudly promised that this station would be safe to listen to, in-offensive to anyone who might stumble upon their number on the dial.

“Is that what Christianity’s come down to?” I thought to myself. “Safe and inoffensive? Does that mean that we won’t hear readings like the one from today’s gospel? Or will they be glossed over with a Disneyfied version of our faith?”

When the church becomes a safe place, a middle-class refuge for secure stability, water douses the fire that longs to dance on our heads, and we are not the incendiary fellowship Jesus incited us to be. And we won’t make the impact that God wants to make. We won’t put a dent in the universe.

Jesus says, “Anyone out there want to start a fire? Anyone out there frustrated with the world as it is? Anyone out there want to break something up, start something new, dive head first into a new adventure? Then come, stick your hand in the fire and see what happens. Be a spark that will ignite the whole world with love and compassion, with faithfulness and trust and risk. Be a flame that will spread to the edges of the earth, setting fire to injustice and warming those who are shivering in the dark.”

How does that sound?

So I ask again, what consequences do you bear as a Christian? What does your life proclaim?

Whatever cost we pay as followers of Jesus, BBT reminds us, “There is good news here for those with the nerve to hear it. The gospel is not a flashlight but a fire. It can warm and it can burn. The gospel is not a table knife, but a sword. It can set free and it can divide. The gospel is not pabulum. It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties, but as frightening as it is, it is not finally to be feared.

“The peace of God is worth anything it takes to get there, and anyone knows that [peace is not merely the absence of conflict]. The good news is that in Christ God has given us someone worth fighting about, and someone with enough clout to end all our fighting, for his word is like fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks into pieces.”

May that fire ignite us to set the world on fire with God’s love. Amen.


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