Sermon for Sunday, August 18, 2019 | Pentecost 10
I grew up on a suburban street in California that included very conservative white Baptists, easy-going black Baptists, Mormons with huge families, Italian and Mexican Catholics, polite Swedish Lutherans, lots of non-denoms and other households with no religious affiliation – and all of these with diverse political sympathies. As children, we played with each other, swam in our neighbors’ pools, and enjoyed block parties on the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and Election Day. We freely mingled with each other and many of the families on Gilbert Avenue became close friends. All of this characterized our common life in the 1960s. And all of this would have been virtually impossible in the neighborhood where Jesus grew up and in which he first ministered publicly.
For in that world then, a rigid social hierarchy and intense family loyalty precluded the easy familiarity that marked our suburban life 2000 years later. In that world then, no one would dare step outside their household and their inherited position within that household. As hard as it may be for us to imagine, such socialization outside of one’s known family would risk death. To be on one’s own meant no means of support and with that came homelessness and death. I am mindful of that scene in the film, The Godfather, in which Marlon Brando – playing the godfather – asks a business acquaintance why he would ever go to the police if he needed assistance. “The law will never help you,” he shouts. “Only the family, it is only the family you can count on!” That sentiment, voiced in a Mafia household of the 1940s, could have easily been said in first century Palestine.
Thus, when Jesus says that he has come to bring division into families, into households, dividing parents against children, and in-laws against each other, he is giving voice to nothing less than social heresy. And, in the same breath, he is inviting people to run the risk of rethinking and reconfiguring inherited relationships. He is doing nothing less than creating a new household – and what a household it is: male and female disciples mingling together in a society that demanded rigid separation of the sexes; insurgents opposed to the government and tax collectors working for established government; impoverished fisher men and women of considerable financial substance; the dull-witted who can never seem to grasp his message and those who recognize the risky nature in his way of life. I mean, can you imagine it: a Democratic Socialist eating and drinking with, sharing life with a capitalist-loving Republican?
A literal reading of this text might lead one to assume that Jesus is no friend of families – after all, he was never married and was childless as far as we know. But such a reading seems to the miss point: that he is inviting his followers, his disciples to reconsider and reevaluate the ways in which they have been trained, by family or society, concerning what is an acceptable relationship. That is, to jump to the present: are you and I capable of widening our circle of friends and acquaintances beyond the limit of education attained; beyond the limit of ethnic or racial identity; beyond the limit of financial attainment or economic class?
I am mindful of our family friend, Suncha, a native of South Korea who, in the sometimes unexpected movement of the Spirit, was drawn to the Christian faith of her boyfriend, a German American army officer stationed at Camp Humphreys in South Korea. The risk was great for Suncha because she came from a household that was resolutely Buddhist and skeptical of every other religious tradition. And then there was the fact that her parents had decided for her who would be a suitable Korean spouse. Can you sense that this is not going to end well? Thus, when she had gained sufficient courage to tell them that she had been baptized a Christian and planned to marry Edward, her American boyfriend, “mother was truly set against daughter, and daughter against mother.” When she arrived home the next day, all her belongings were packed in one suitcase placed on the street. White banners tacked to the house doors declared that the household was mourning the sudden death of their daughter (who was quite alive). A framed photograph of her face was bordered in white cloth, the color of mourning, yet the glass had been smashed. “Do you think I have come to bring peace?” asks Jesus. “No, I tell you, but rather division.”
And I am mindful of this: that we who have been washed in the River of Life we call Holy Baptism have been washed into the challenging work of reconsidering the ways in which family or society shape our sense of what is an acceptable and unacceptable relationship, especially when we consider that what is washed away in the font, but may still cling to us, is the tendency to associate only with those who look and sound and act like us and regard all others as an afterthought. I am mindful that there is one place – one blessed place – where each and every one is invited to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation and so receive that fire which can burn away the divisive and racist and elitist tendencies we have been told are perfectly acceptable in our nation.
“I came to bring fire on earth,” says Jesus, “and how I wish it were already kindled.” Yes, I say, how I wish – with fear and trembling – that such a fire were kindled in me, in all of us, in all our public servants, in every soul that longs to experience the respect rightfully given to all God’s children.
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father 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.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”