”Reading the Signs”
August 18, 2019 – 10th Sunday after Pentecost – Year C
God comes first. Let me repeat that in case you didn’t understand. God comes first. Not after your partner. Not after your children. But first, all the time. Every-time. God comes first. Now, you have to agree that Jesus certainly knows how to get our attention. We can’t help but sit up and take notice. God comes first. This is not an appeal for individual devotion. It is about freeing ourselves from everything that gets in the way of our relationship with the Holy. Yes, even those attachments as deeply entwined and essential as family. God comes first.
Wow! This is a hard concept to hear, let alone put into practice. We have been raised to put family first. Our wedding vows acclaim that we will put our partner first. Many occupations insist that the job comes first. It is into this reality that Jesus’ words come across as incongruent to 21st century living.
Jesus dismantles the illusions of safety and security we have put in place to help us sleep at night and bring us “peace.” Jesus did come to reinforce our illusions. What we call peace may only be a momentary deal made with our psyche not to acknowledge the lesser gods we idolize. Those gods may be money, possessions, or the people we love. Jesus says, “no.” “God comes first.” It becomes increasingly clear that this is no cushy desk job Jesus has called us to. This is costly discipleship.
To peel away the blinders and recognize that our lives and relationships are richer when we put God first is to grow up spiritually. In doing so, we recognize that the promise of God in Jesus Christ is the only true assurance we have. Everything else pales by comparison.
Harriett Buell was the daughter of a wealthy American Industrialist. She had everything she wanted as a young woman. During one visit to New York City, Hattie and a fried came across a tent meeting of Christian evangelists. She and her friend entered the tent just for laughs, and for the purposes of meeting a few interesting people, but left the tent having heard a life-changing message to which she responded. The city newspapers carried the story the next day, “Harriet Buell walks the Sawdust Trail,” reporting her conversion to faith in Christ. Her father read those headlines, and was furious. This was a great embarrassment to the Buell family name. When Hattie got home, he confronted her and asked her to retract the story the next day in the newspaper. The request he made was really a threat, for if she did not withdraw her public confession of Christ as Lord within 24 hours, she would be asked to leave the family mansion, and all her inheritance with it. After Hattie had spent a night in thought and prayer, she met her dad coming down the stairs. Putting her arms around her father, she said, “Father, I love you dearly, but I love Jesus more.” “You have made your decision then, he replied, and with that, she left a home of privilege in the lap of luxury.
Later, Harriett wrote a song expressing her choice to follow Christ, even at the expense of her family, entitled “A Child of the King.” The last from over there. Though exiled from home, yet still I may sing; All glory to God, I’m a child of the King.”
As profound as the story of Harriett Buell, the Gospel text of today gets to us. It seems to be filled with images of destruction and catastrophe, of family breakups and divine judgement. Oh sure, it is a smorgasbord of images and a landscape of visual concepts including fire, baptism, a fight within the family and an observation on the perceptive skills of weather watchers. For us as 21st Century Christians, we understand the imagery of fire and baptism, but are rather startled by Christ’s comments on family dynamics.
Division and strife within families are not what most of us think of when we seek to follow the way of Christ. However, division – as much as the mighty signs and wonders of Jesus – may be evidence of the presence of the Kingdom of God.
Following Christ means living a different kind of life. Such a life is obvious in our obedience to the call of God. For some, responding to the way of faithfulness may be challenged by those people who are closest to us.
Following Jesus the Christ is a decision to be made, but not all chose to walk with him. Sometimes within our families not every member makes the decision and commitment to walk the path set by Christ. And that can lead to some quite devastating consequences.
It was almost 40 years ago that I was wrestling with God over whether I should leave a satisfying and rewarding career in the YMCA and present myself as a candidate for full time ministry with the church. The concern of leaving my job was minor compared with my fear that my marriage would not be able to withstand the pressures of seminary training and congregational ministry. And sure enough, that fear was well founded. A year after presenting myself to my home congregation and presbytery as a candidate for ministry my marriage ended.
My personal story is minor compared with many others who have chosen faithfulness to God’s reign and have been shunned by their entire family. However, the truth of the matter is that in Christ, some of our most fundamental relationships can be threatened.
As we look again at the reading from Luke, it makes clear the high cost of discipleship and the faithfulness that will be required of Jesus’ disciples. There are no soothing words here as Jesus declares; I came to set the earth on fire” (the fire of judgment and of cleansing), “I bring division, and peace,” Jesus knew that before there could be the true peace of Shalom, there would need to be much upheaval. At the time of Jesus’ birth, old Simeon foresaw the confrontations that Jesus’ life and work would bring about, and John the Baptist spoke of the baptism of fire that the Messiah would introduce. These are strong words and images. For the early church facing persecution, Jesus’ words bring the comfort of his understanding. And they are helpful for us too as we struggle to be faithful in the issues of our time.
How do we deal with the divisions that appear when peace activists from our congregation picket a company making armaments parts which many of our townspeople and congregation work for, or our environmentalists confront our logging and mining executives? We can respond to these crises out of fear, or as an opportunity for growth. What about our position on recycling, reducing and reusing, when some in our community refuse to believe that global warming is real? Sometimes, we wish our eyes hadn’t been opened.
Jesus goes on to say how observant and astute people are in discerning the weather, but how unable they are to deal with the meaning and needs of their present age, and the coming of Shalom. We know well the danger in the crisis of our time. Can we also see the opportunities? May God grant us the courage not to sell our birthright but to labour faithfully in the building of God’s new community.
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr says, “I am not surprised that most prophets are itinerants. Critics of the church think we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are economically dependent upon the people of our church. I think the real clue is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom on has learned to love.” I agree. It is hard to stand before you and preach a sermon like this one. It is not soft and full of love and kindness. There are hard things I am announcing to you. Prophets have always been strident and a little crazy. They’ve needed to be.
The prophet Deborah wouldn’t have beaten the tar out of the Canaanites by issuing directives from her living room any more than Moses would have gotten his people out of Egypt by writing letters to the Vancouver Sun. The truth I proclaim today is God comes first. Are you prepared to live your life in this way? May it be so. Amen.