Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sermon: "Comfortably Numb"

August 15, 2010

Anniversary Sunday

“Comfortably Numb”

Luke 12:49-56

When I was in the 4th grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Rogo.

She was one of the few lay teachers in our Catholic Elementary School and she stood out from the nuns in that she actually seemed to enjoy being around children all day.

Mrs. Rogo was a soft-spoken gentle woman; she was caring and compassionate and she had seemingly endless patience as she taught social studies, English, and math to our overcrowded class of 35 ten-year-olds.

The nuns made me nervous but I always felt comfortable around Mrs. Rogo.

One day we came in to class to find brand new textbooks on each of our desks. It was 1976, and in the spirit of the Metric Conversion Act, it had been decided that we were all going to learn the metric system.

But having spent most of our young lives learning about pounds, yards, and quarts - measurements we could visualize just by looking at a football field or a carton of milk – try as we may, the abstract numbers of the metric system just would not settle in our heads.

For weeks Mrs. Rogo went over the same chapters in the textbook, again and again, to no avail. Finally, one afternoon as she set us to work on yet another metric conversion problem sheet, our kind, gentle and patient teacher reached her breaking point.

As I struggled to complete my worksheet I could hear Mrs. Rogo moving up and down the rows of desks looking at the children’s work and offering her disapproving comments. Finally I felt her settle just over my left shoulder, as my pencil hovered nervously over the answer sheet.

I had no idea what I was doing, so in a panic I wrote down a number, any number. Well, it must have been the wrong number, because kind, gentle Mrs. Rogo grabbed me by the elbow, pulled me out of my desk and dragged me up to the blackboard. There, with anger shaking her voice, she explained to the class once again, the proper way to do metric conversions using me as the example of how not to do it.

I was mortified and terrified.

And although years later I came to understand that teachers are human beings and they have bad days just like the rest of us, my image of Mrs. Rogo as a kind, gentle, endlessly patient teacher had been forever tainted. And the comfort I once felt in her presence became tinged with fear.

I imagine that in light of the gospel text that we heard today, many of us may feel the same way about our teacher, Jesus.

The angry, divisive words that we hear in this text appear to be incongruent with what we know about Jesus.

We know Jesus to be a kind, loving, compassionate, peace-loving teacher who came to bring harmony and balance to the world.

So when the Jesus in this text talks about bringing fire down upon the earth, bringing not Peace but division…setting mother against daughter, and father against son…

It just doesn’t make sense to us.

And when Jesus goes on to call his followers hypocrites because they’re not understanding what he’s been trying to teach them, we feel chastised as well, it’s as if he wrenched us out our seat by the elbow and dragged us up to the blackboard in frustration, because no matter how many times he’s told us why he has come, we still don’t get it.

These words - this behavior – they don’t FIT the profile of the Jesus that we’ve come to know and love.

So what do we do with this text?

We could choose to ignore it, like many modern day Christians do.

In fact, while perusing some of my favorite preaching websites online this week, I was surprised to see quite a few pastors state that they will not be preaching on this text today. Apparently this text is too difficult for YOU the congregation to understand, or it may be too disturbing for you to hear.

Or it requires a sermon that many feel would be too heavy for a summer Sunday in August.

Apparently we check our brains at the door when the temperature rises above 80 degrees.

In reality, pastors don’t like to preach on this text because it makes pastors uncomfortable too. The ranting and raving that Jesus does in this text doesn’t fit our image of the kind, peace loving Jesus either.

So when this text comes up in the lectionary its tempting to just tell the congregation:

“You know, Jesus is having a bad day today, he’s a little stressed out. He’s ranting on about fire and division and he’s calling his followers hypocrites. Why don’t we pay a visit to Isaiah this week and see what he has to say, and then we’ll come back and check on Jesus next week. Maybe he’ll be calmed down by then.”

But skipping over this text because it makes it makes us uncomfortable, is like being absent from school on the day that the teacher teaches the class the one thing that is the key to understanding what was taught during the entire semester.

If we skip over this text, then we miss the point of the gospel.

The point of the Gospel is that God is going to radically change our lives, and it’s going to take some upheaval to do that.

The gospel, the Good News, is that this world is not as God intended it to be.

And that with God’s help we have the power to change it.

As we heard last week, by following Jesus’ example we are doing our part to bring on the Kingdom of God. A new creation, a new earth, where God’s radically inclusive love is received and shared by all equally.

But while the goal is a peaceful, equal world, we can’t get there without experiencing an upheaval in the current status quo, we can’t get there without feeling a shift in the power structure, we can’t get there unless the marginalized are lifted up and the privileged take a step down.

And we know none of this is going to happen without conflict.

We can’t get to peace without first experiencing division.

And the gospel itself will be the dividing force.

In Jesus’ time, the nations surrounding Palestine did experience peace, but it was the peace of Rome, the Pax Romana. For centuries Rome kept the peace throughout the known world, but they did it by conquering and oppressing all who stood in their way. The nations were not fighting each other because Rome had them by all by the throat.

This was an outward peace that was held up by internal injustice and oppression; this was not the kind of peace that Jesus spoke of bringing.

This was the kind of peace that he came to overthrow.

In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And while the author of Luke chooses to use the word “division” rather than sword, the meaning of the text is the same.

Jesus has come to overthrow the peace of Rome - the peace of any empire that rules through injustice and oppression - and the Gospel will be the weapon he uses to do it.

The Gospel, the good news, this seemingly innocuous text that we read from every week that tells us how to be Good Christians, is the weapon that Jesus deems strong enough to overturn an Empire.

This book that tells us to be nice to each other, and to be caring and compassionate in all our interactions.

This book that tells us that God loves us all equally, and that we are meant to share all that we have equally.

This book that tells us that we are to love each other as we love God and ourselves.

We may find it hard to believe that this little book has that kind of power.

But then again, we’ve heard the Good News of the gospel so many times, and seen so little of it put into action, that we’ve grown numb to its power.

We’ve become comfortable with the words and the stories of the gospels, but in our comfort it is often difficult for us to draw a connection between what was happening in Jesus’ world and what is happening in our world.

For many of us, the gospel is not the Good News, it’s the Old News.

And we have trouble seeing how the Gospel of Jesus, which was considered radical in the face of first century Judaism and the Roman Empire, can still be considered radical in the face of 21st century individualism and the American Empire.

Yet I dare you to walk into any corporate headquarters or local mom and pop business and say:

“Sell all that you have, and give the money you make to the poor”

I dare you to walk onto the floor of the house or senate during a debate on immigration legislation and say:

“We are called to welcome the stranger and the alien into our home.”

I dare you to walk into any law enforcement facility, military base, or defense contractor and say:

“If someone should strike you on your right cheek, turn your other to him as well;” “Bless those that curse you, do good to those that hate you;”

and “You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

These teachings of Jesus are just as radical and have the ability to arouse just as much division in our time as they did in his time.

In first century Palestine, practicing Christians could get themselves in a lot of trouble just by professing these beliefs let alone living them out. Professing Christians were kicked out of their synagogues, had difficulty participating in any civic duty that involved serving the government, and were often disowned by their families. Father turned against son. Mother turned against daughter. Divisions could not help but occur between those who had embraced Jesus’ message and those who had not.

So Jesus was not speaking out of character when he said he had not come to bring peace but division. And he was not speaking about division just in his time but in our time as well.

We can hear the frustration in his voice when he said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” But he knew that it would take years for such a fire to take hold.

The fire that Jesus pledged to unleash on this world in the form of the gospel is not an all consuming fire but a cleansing fire, a baptismal fire.

A fire that burns off all the destructive aspects of our nature, the selfish drive that keeps us from living in true relationship with God and each other.

The gospel has a power that many of us fail to recognize.

In its words we can find the strength to overcome not just our personal struggles but our communal struggles as well. But we must use that power wisely.

Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:

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 to be feared.

When I started this sermon series at the beginning of the summer, my goal was to scrape away some of the fear of the gospel that comes from our inability to see it as a coherent, relevant story. My objective was to take Jesus’ Journey to Jerusalem as presented in the Gospel of Luke and to lay it out in a continuing storyline, to help us to see that these stories are not just floating in space, they’re connected to a time, and a place, and a people. And it is through that overarching story that these individual stories are connected to us.

It was eight weeks ago that we first set foot on the road to Jerusalem.

With Jesus’ words still ringing in our ears we set off into no-man’s-land carrying only the clothing on our backs. We had no pack. No extra pair of sandals. No money purse. We were told to rely on the kindness of strangers. We were told to accept hospitality where it was offered and where it was not we were to shake the dust off our feet and move on.

On the road we encountered the Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary, and the Foolish Rich Man.

Jesus taught us the Lord’s Prayer, ran us through discipleship boot camp, and opened our eyes to the promise of the coming Kingdom of God.

When we set off on this road at the beginning of the summer it seemed as if we had all the time in the world. We had time to wander from place to place, meandering towards Jerusalem taking the most indirect route possible. Along the way, Jesus used his teachings to poke us out of our comfort zone, to get us to think bigger, to act more graciously, and to give more out of love.

Today we stepped into Jesus’ shoes and caught a glimpse of the road that lies ahead for our beloved teacher.

We heard the edge in his voice, we felt the impatience in his demeanor; we saw the fear in his eyes.

Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. Which means he knows the hour of his death, resurrection and ascension is hurtling towards him and there is nothing he can do to stop it. There is no more time to waste. He needs his disciples to understand the urgency of his message, and he needs them to understand it NOW.

He needs US to understand it now.

I’d like to imagine that the people who built this church 180-years-ago understood the sense of urgency found in the Gospel of Jesus.

Why else would they have come together to form an intentional church community, as strangers in a strange land, many of them immigrants or sons and daughters of immigrants who struck out to find a new life in the new world.

Why build a church out of hand cut boards and stones carried from far away fields if one didn’t have a sense of urgency that God wanted it to be built? Why would they travel miles across rut-strewn dirt roads in the dead of winter to worship in this space if they didn’t feel God calling them to do so?

In our church’s heyday in the mid 20th century, it may have been easier to understand why people joined this community of believers. With the Sunday School overflowing and the church expanding to accommodate the growth, mainline Christian denominations like our own experienced the biggest surge in membership since the Great Awakening. But during that time, membership and regular attendance at a place of worship was the societal norm, as was ensuring that one’s children had a religious education.

Now, some 50 years later, those who seek membership and attend church on a regular basis are the exception rather than the rule.

So I turn the question towards you.

Why do you come?

You, like the immigrant pioneers who built this church have come here of your own free will. You have bucked the trend of the secularization of society and chosen to be a part of this faith community.

What is the sense of urgency that brings you here on a Sunday morning, whether in the heat of August or the bitter cold of January?

What is it about this community, this faith tradition, this being a part of something that is bigger than yourself that drives you to participate? To want to give your time and energy and money to help sustain it?

Whatever it is that brings you here I am almost certain that somewhere at its core is the Good News of the Gospel.

The Good News that God’s love flows out of this church and into the community.

The Good News that the love of God is present in the people who come here.

The Good News that this is a place where you can bring your pain and your struggles and lay them at God’s feet and at the communities feet, and feel safe doing so.

The Good News that even if you’re not ready to commit to a church community, or organized religion or any of this Jesus stuff, God still loves you just the way you are.

But know that once we hear the Good News and welcome it into our lives, we’re going to change. It can’t be avoided.

Old ideas and understandings are torn down and new ones rise in their place.

We become bigger people, better people, and our capacity for love and compassion expands.

And before we know it we’re not the only ones changing, as our world begins to change around us.

That’s the power of the gospel.

Who knew such a little book could do so much?

In the hands of small group of disciples it created a new faith.

In the hands of small group of Danbury homesteaders it created this church.

Now it’s in our hands……what will we create in its wake?

How will we use the Good News to change the world?


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