“Is not my word life fire,” a sermon in three parts (108)

Part I – Luke 12:49-56

Jesus came to bring fire and division. And we thought he was all about peace.

Whatever we might have thought or hoped for, Jesus says, “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three . . . wavesfather against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

I’m not sure we needed Jesus for that bit about in-laws but maybe it fills out the picture.

Jesus is shaking fists and four-letter words. He’s come to ruffle feathers and make ears burn. And he isn’t just talking about ‘they’ or ‘them’ or the people out there who don’t yet have it together.

In Luke 12 Jesus speaks to his disciples and to religious people. That is another way of saying that he is speaking to us. Just before the verses we heard this morning (vv. 49-56) is the famous and foreboding line: “For everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” If you’re here, you’ve been given something. If you have breath, you’ve been given something.

Maybe the gift and the requirement relate to this: that God loves us and that we are liberated to love God and our neighbor.

We often think we know exactly what we have been given and we think we know what it means. We think we know what is right before the situation even arises. It is clear and obvious to us and we feel no need to give it a second thought—whatever it is, from wherever we’ve received it.

When we think we know how things should go we are the religious ones to whom Jesus speaks: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace?” No, he “came to bring fire.” He came to bring division. He came to rupture and to till and to break apart the smothering thatch.

Make no mistake, this is not about Jesus’ followers taking up arms: it is about Jesus never being what we expect, it is about us not being able to use Jesus to legitimate our entire take on things, it is about Jesus always being beyond our grasp.

The whale’s spout on the horizon.

The sand in our hands.

The jello on our fork.

Jesus does not come when called; Jesus knocks when it might not be convenient.

Sometimes we ask: What would Jesus do? It’s on bracelets sometimes. The phrase comes from a little book by Charles Sheldon, 1896, In his Steps. It’s a good question but we should be skeptical of ourselves when we know the answer too easily.

Just as helpful as the question about what Jesus would do is the question: “What would Jesus deconstruct?” That’s from the philosopher John Caputo. The answer, it seems, is us—our religious infrastructure our sense of moral certainty, whether of the leftward or rightward kind, our sense that we already have things figured it out and no longer needed to listen.

Jesus came to bring fire and division.

Part II – An Illustration

Ron stood on the sidewalk in a straw hat and Birkenstocks. Ruth, his neighbor, looks up, then puts down her rake. “I can’t believe,” says Ron, “that you’d run your sprinkler on a day like today.”

Ruth raises her eyebrows: “Why not? My grass is dry. It’s starting to get crunchy. I don’t want it to die, wouldn’t want to have to start all over with new sod.”

Ron’s sandals edge forward, “Why don’t you just put in gravel and drought-tolerant plants. David Suzuki, or maybe someone else, says lawns are one of the biggest wastes of water we have.” He pauses, gathers himself, “Forget this keeping-up-with-the-Joneses middle class crap Ruth. What’s the point of having grass anyway? Do you have a horse? Are you going to host a polo tournament?”

“Well, I happen to like grass. I think it looks nice . . .” (that’s Ruth).

“You think it looks nice because that’s what they show on TV! You must watch golf. Those greens aren’t natural. They’re there to perpetuate class distinctions. Poor people can’t have grass like that. All they get is hot pavement. It’s just rich people that get grass. Watching golf makes you want grass. Wake up Ruth! Save our planet!”

“Actually,” she replies “I don’t watch golf. My husband liked it but I don’t. After he died the magazines kept coming for two years. He liked golf so much he paid years in advice for his magazines, but that’s not why I keep my grass. I don’t have grass because I watch golf. I have it for my own reasons.”

“Like what?”

Ruth’s eyes catch fire: “You’re the last person in the world I would tell why I liked anything.”

“What, you don’t like me?” says Ron. “You wreck the environment and you don’t like your neighbors?”

Ruth steps toward the sidewalk, rake gripped firmly in her gloved hand, “Whether I like you or not is my own business. Same goes for why I take care of my grass. I do not have to answer to you. Go home and make yourself some fair-trade whatever, some mate or something, and please leave me alone.”

Ron turns around and walks the other way. He might have stomped but it’s hard to stomp in sandals. He goes inside. He tugs off his damp Che Guevara t-shirt with the bright red star and tosses it on the couch. The tag reads, “Made in Thailand.” “Screw these people,” he says and opens his laptop.

Part III: Jeremiah 23:23-29

The book of Jeremiah is a tangled web of words, some from the prophet and some from his scribe or maybe even a later editor. Whatever their sources, the words are strong: “Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

Jeremiah heard from God. God consecrated and anointed him as a prophet before he was even born. God made use of Jeremiah. God called him to celibacy. It was to be a sign to his neighbors that having children in an idolatrous country was pointless. The children would die and no one would care. There was no point in being fruitful when the fruit would just lay on the dry ground like, the Bible says, “dung.”

Jeremiah spoke to a people who thought they had God figured out. It wasn’t as though these people had consciously done away with the voice of God. What they had done was domesticated it, reduced it to a simulacrum. JeremiahThe ‘prophets’ they listened to said everything was going to be fine. It was not going to be fine. The people’s offspring were going to starve and be eaten by wild animals. Even so, the prophets and the people—they would not attend to God.

“Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

What was going on was idolatry, injustice and falsely attributing words of comfort to God—serious stuff. Which is why Jeremiah was asked to do strange things. Not marrying might fit into that category, but more so is the time when God called Jeremiah to buy some new underwear. “Buy yourself a linen loincloth” is how the Bible puts it (13:1). Jeremiah was to wear this undergarment and then burry it in a hole. Later he was told to go back and dig it up, that is, to dig up said underwear.

Judah is like your skivvies God said. They used to cling tightly to me, now they’re ruined and worthless.

It was a joke with a razor’s edge: “Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

Part IV

As I write this sermon I notice a chocolate wrapper on my desk: “May contain tree nuts, milk and soy.”wrapper

‘May contain’—that’s a good phrase for a God who shows up in an unmarried woman’s womb. A womb in a woman in a culture that found the whole thing inconceivable. Was not this idolatry too, God in flesh. Or at least blasphemy? To the Greek mind what it was was silliness.

I must confess that for a long time I did not like the idea that God was transcendent. I did not like the idea of God’s providence or of God’s changelessness. I thought these to be only ancient Greek notions, jagged peaks of a faith reordered by Western notions—Hellenized. I wanted a God that was only near, one that changed with the times. As I’ve gotten older I’ve grown more skeptical of myself. I’ve become more aware of the ways I’m prone to manipulate God-talk to suite my assumptions and to support my religious sensibilities. That, I guess, is just to say that I know I’m prone to the temptation of Jeremiah’s countrymen—idolatry and putting words in God’s mouth.

My guess is that you are similarly tempted.

The solution to idolatry, if we can make it seem as intentional as a solution, is to acknowledge a living God, a God that’s free and a God that stands apart from us even while being very near. We need to know, as the divine word says through the prophet, that there is no place secret from God.

Saying ‘yes’ to God’s freedom and holiness keeps us from thinking we can get away with harming others—that’s true. There is no place we can cheat or manipulate or abuse God’s beloved without being seen. Acknowledging the power of a God who is loving and just puts the vice to our worst impulses.

But just as importantly, saying ‘yes’ to God’s freedom and holiness keeps us from what we feel are our best impulses, our religious impulses. Only such a God can tear through the thatch of our beliefs and help us acknowledge our own fallibility.

‘May contain’—how delightfully unsettling.

‘May contain’—that’s a good phrase for a God who brings fire when we ordered water.

In the end of our reading Jesus takes the religious people to task. By ‘religious’ let us not think too quickly of Christians, Jews or Muslims. Let’s not think too quickly of people who practice the disciplines of faith. Religious people in this sense might be secular or apathetic. They might be Christians too.

Religious people in this sense are the controlling, the arrogant, the ones who want to reduce everything to a technique. Religious people in this sense want to put themselves in the center. They want to give orders—even to God. It’s these people that Jesus takes to task. They watch the weather. They pay close attention to that, yet they don’t pay attention to the Transcendent. They don’t understand the time in which they live and the ways it makes being agents of God’s reconciling work difficult. They don’t accommodate themselves to the one who is the ground of everything.

Let me repeat that, the religious people are the ones who don’t take God into account, even if they claim faith. They don’t understand the time in which they live and the ways it makes being agents of God’s reconciling work difficult. They don’t accommodate themselves to the one who is the ground of everything.

The grace of the triune God, then, is not a false peace that lets things carry on. The grace of God is in the ‘may contain’. The grace of God is words of fire.

May we receive them, today and every day. Amen.


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