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Sunday, August 14, 2016 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
The Family of God
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Jesus’ naming of our human tendency toward disagreement . . . reminds us that the creating of the community of Christ relies on our commitment to listening. Jesus’ naming of our instinct toward self-preservation over mutuality and reciprocity . . . calls us toward a different vision of what the world can be—a world that is truly committed to bringing about the kingdom of God here and now.
“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild?” That is not the Jesus we see and hear in this particular text, is it? Actually, I found it quite fitting that the moment I started writing this sermon, a raging thunderstorm began to pound and flash on the other side of my office window. “I came to bring fire to the earth,” I would read. “BAM!” the thunder would bellow in response. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division,” I would read. “FLASH!” the lightning would blaze, as if to emphasize the point. And in the middle of the chaos, I realized I had a dilemma. I did not want to move any closer to the Jesus in this particular story, but I also did not want to move any closer to my window facing our courtyard. I was stuck between a stormy, explosive Jesus and a stormy, explosive atmosphere. The Friday late morning Chicago thunderstorm formed the perfect natural accompaniment for this intimidating biblical text.
In this part of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seems to be about as far from “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” as one can get. Instead of meek and mild, he is disruptive and brash. It is no wonder why this particular text has only been preached twice from this pulpit in the last fifteen years. Who wants to talk about Jesus predicting a divide in families? Who wants to hear Jesus call them a hypocrite? Who wants to hear discourse about fire ablaze on the earth and God’s judgment on the way? I don’t. There is quite enough division, hypocrisy, and fiery judgment already on the loose in our world, don’t you think?
And yet it is what we have from this portion of Luke’s Gospel today. We have a Jesus who is feeling stormy and explosive, who is not afraid to call things like he sees them. Perhaps that was because he was slowly and intentionally making his way to his death, and he knew—he had already told his disciples—that his death would not be due to natural causes. Rather, he was going to be killed because Jesus, as Messiah, as God’s Love Incarnate, was a threat to the powers that be: both national and religious; a prophet and a preacher whose words often comforted those who were afflicted while afflicting those who were comfortable.
The problem Jesus had was that the comfortable ones he often afflicted were the ones holding all the power. Here is how another preacher put it: “What is good news to some people, sounds like judgment to others . . . [because Jesus’] gospel challenges and critiques power, wealth, religious rules, and tradition” (Feasting on the Word, p. 20). As he made his way to Jerusalem, not only did Jesus know full well that some people along his way would resist his message, but he also knew they would decide to kill the messenger (Feasting on the Word, p. 21). It is no wonder why, at that point of his journey, with his face turned to Jerusalem, Jesus was feeling rather explosive.
But lest we conclude Jesus was simply lashing out because of the stress, we also must remember that what Jesus described—division within families—was already taking place, then and there, amongst his followers, amongst his own family. That division had begun years before. Jesus, as a twelve-year-old child, stayed behind in the temple at Jerusalem without his family’s permission and caused panic in his mother and father when they realized he was not with them as they made their way home. But when his mother asked him point-blank why he had treated them like that, why he had purposefully done something that made them worry themselves sick, the boy-child Jesus responded, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know it was necessary for me to be in my Father’s house?” Already, even then, we sense a kind of divide, a disruption, a reordering of family, in Jesus’ adolescent words.
Furthermore, we cannot forget that when Jesus called out to those first fishermen saying, “Follow me, and from now on you will be fishing for people,” they dropped everything in response. They left work, home, family responsibilities, partners, children, parents behind—dropped it all, dropped them all along with their nets, and followed. Their decision to become disciples certainly created division in their own households.
We could point to other examples in the Gospels when Jesus’ reign-of-God message injected stress into the family unit, not peace. “Can’t I first bury my father before I follow you?” asked one prospective disciple. “Let the dead bury the dead,” responded Jesus.
We could keep going with this list. Many other examples exist. In Jesus’ day, for those who claimed Jesus as the Messiah, division within the family was not an unusual consequence.
But even if you, as a disciple, were able to keep those family relationships intact, when you became a follower of Jesus, whether you anticipated it or not, you were immediately thrust into conflict with the status quo. Following Jesus meant you began to question the way the economic and political systems had been structured. It meant you began to wonder why some folk had so much but others had very little. It meant you started to ask about love of both neighbor and enemy, about generosity and forgiveness, about justice and mercy, about being salt and shining light.
Following Jesus meant you would start doing things that your family might not approve of—things like giving away your possessions or eating meals with people who made your mother nervous or choosing to pray for your enemies instead of returning evil for evil. Division within the family was not unusual in the days of Jesus. Being his disciple could get you in trouble, not only with those in power but even with those whom you loved.
Though it would be nice to try and keep all of that stress and division contained in the Bible, where it feels much safer and controllable, allow me to offer a more contemporary example. Will Willimon, a friend of Fourth Church, served for many years as the chaplain of Duke University. He preached. He led Bible studies. He taught classes. A friend of mine recalls regularly meeting Willimon and other students on the roof of a university building to look at the stars and talk about life. Will was an influential presence in many students’ time at Duke, but his influence and guidance did not always sit well with everyone.
Willimon once preached about an encounter he had with the father of a graduating student. The father called his office and exploded over the phone. “I hold you personally responsible for this,” he yelled at Willimon. The father was angry because his graduate-school-bound daughter had decided (in the father’s words) “to throw it all away and go and do mission work in Haiti with the Presbyterian church.” The father screamed, “Isn’t that absurd! She has a bachelor of science degree from Duke University, and she is going to dig ditches in Haiti! I hold you responsible for this!”
Willimon, not easily intimidated, asked him, “Why me?” The father replied, “You ingratiated yourself and filled her with all this religion stuff.” Dr. Willimon was quick to reply, “Sir, weren’t you the one who had her baptized?” “Well, well, well, yes,” the father stumbled. “And didn’t you take her to Sunday school when she was a little girl?” “Well, well, yes.” “And didn’t you allow your daughter to go on those youth group ski trips to Colorado when she was in high school?” “Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?” replied the father, becoming more and more aggravated. “Sir,” Willimon concluded, “you are the reason she is throwing it all away. You introduced her to Jesus. Not me!” “But,” said the father, “all we wanted was a Presbyterian.” Willimon replied, “Well, sorry sir, you messed up. You’ve gone and made a disciple.”
It is a great story, especially for us Presbyterians. But Willimon’s experience with that father does highlight a serious tension, a tension that Jesus lifted up with his storminess and brashness that day. That college graduate was throwing away what her father had hoped for her, at least at that point. She was saying no to his understanding of success and safety. She was leaving it all—leaving them all—behind in order to experience God alive in Haiti in what must have felt to her like a clear call into deeper discipleship. And that decision she made because she longed to follow Jesus caused division within that family. Her decision to fully live out her discipleship got her into trouble with those who loved her deeply. I am sure it was painful for everyone involved.
I’ve always wished I knew who she was so I could call her up and ask a question. I would want to ask her if one reason she left all that behind despite the cost was because through her time in children’s Sunday school, through the safety and fellowship of her youth group, through the Sundays spent in the formative worship in Duke Chapel and in the challenging discussions in Bible study—I would want to know if all of that holy experience had exposed her to her true, larger family. Had all of that “religion stuff,” as her father put it, more clearly revealed her global extended family, the one into which she had been baptized? Had she realized that, yes, her nuclear family was vitally important in her life and to her identity, but at the same time, her true family, the one with Jesus as the head, was an even more crucial definer of who she was and how she was called to live her life?
Was that realization, that revealing of a global, cosmic family created by God, brought together in Jesus, sustained by the Spirit—was that redefining, disruptive truth of the kingdom, the full household of God, also what Jesus was trying to illustrate with his stormy, brash words of division as he made his way to Jerusalem? Might it be that, just as he did when he was an adolescent in conversation with his parents, Jesus was once again challenging his disciples to redefine, reorder, massively enlarge who counts as our family? With his stormy imagery, did he hope to shock us into drawing the circle of those included as family even bigger than we can ever imagine?
Perhaps you have noticed that we never use a person’s last name when we celebrate the sacrament of baptism. We will use a first name, maybe even a middle name, but never a last name. It is important to know that the reason we don’t do that is not in order to make the moment of baptism feel more personal or more informal. Rather, we leave off the family surname because, at the moment of baptism, the true last name becomes “Christian.” One’s last name, the family name—the name that signals to whom you belong or, as we would say in the South, the name that tells us who your people are and where you come from—theologically, at the moment of baptism, one’s family name becomes “Christian.” That name announcement, that name change, signals that above all you belong to God in Christ. You don’t belong to your parents. You don’t belong to your children. You don’t belong to your partner or spouse. You don’t ultimately belong to your genetic family tree. Rather, that name change at baptism, that name announcement, claims you only ultimately belong to God.
Furthermore, the name announcement, that name change, also signals that all those who share that name with you are now a part of your family. Not the family into which you were born. And not the family you would necessarily even choose. No, what is announced at the moment of your baptism is that God in Christ has given you a new family, a global family, a cosmic family transcending space and time—a family that consists of all those who share the last name “Christian.”
Jesus knew—some of us know—that when that happens, that disruptive reordering of family, that radical reordering of just who gets to tell you who you are and what you can be about in this world, when it happens it might indeed cause stress and division even with those whom you deeply love. That tension was what Jesus lamented that day. That tension, a tension he himself experienced, might have been one reason he felt so explosive.
But the possibility of that tension exists for all those who try and follow Jesus. Though I wish we could, we simply cannot make that truth gentle, meek, or mild. That kind of explosive truth is why a worshiper once told the great Richard Niebhur following a sermon, “Oh, I see what it is to be Christian, and I quickly look away.” But then again, with our togetherness as a gift of the Spirit, perhaps such a moment of disruption, of radical reordering, can also set us free: set us free to follow Jesus with even more courage, because we now see that we have such a family to go with us along the way. Amen.