Gospel Text: Luke 12:49-56 (NRSV)
Click HERE for audio
Jesus the Cause of Division
49JESUS SAID “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 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.”
Interpreting the Time
54 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. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56 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?
Homily: Are you looking for trouble? Am I looking for trouble? In Eugene Lowry’s 1997 book on sermon writing, he reminds the preacher that we are to approach biblical verses by “Looking for trouble.” And we need not look much further than today’s passage from Luke. These are the sorts of passages that many preachers dread. So much nicer and more comfortable to talk about letting the children come to Jesus, or loving one’s enemies, or embracing Samaritans, or healing the sick and raising the dead. Those passages would be for many, so much easier to deal with. But here we are, faced with rather troubling language from Jesus. Who knows? Maybe this was meant to be. Maybe it’s good that in my second week as your priest, we already have to talk about uncomfortable things. So let’s just get this out of the way, because if we’re going to live together for the next few years, we’ll have to deal with difficult stuff together. It’s inevitable. One could argue that getting through untidy things together is a true test of the strength of a community. So, what in the world is Jesus saying?
To understand the urgency of what Jesus is saying, we have to pretend that it’s not mid-August. We have to pretend that we are much closer to Holy Week. Because, at this point in Luke’s narrative, Jesus is well on his way to Jerusalem. Two weeks ago, the Gospel of Luke stated that Jesus had “turned his face toward Jerusalem.” And we all know what happens there. The next big thing in the earthly ministry of Jesus is his painful death. To understand the urgency, and perhaps the frustration, of Jesus’ message today, maybe we should start at the end of the passage (verses 54-56).
‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, “It is going to rain”; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat”; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
If Jesus were being just a bit snarkier or more sarcastic, what do you suppose he would have said? “Wake up people. We are headed to Jerusalem. Get a clue. Do I need to tell you what the leaders in Jerusalem think about me? Have you been asleep for the last three years? Have you not noticed that the closer we get to Jerusalem, the more crosses we see with people hanging on them? Have you not figured this out? Have you not been listening to me? We are going to Jerusalem, and after we get there, nothing will ever be the same. That’s what’s really happening in the present time! And if you say you believe in me, and yet don’t believe these things, you are hypocrites.”
And what is this fire in verse 49 that Jesus wants to kindle? Is it the winnowing fire that divides sheep from goats, wheat from chaff? Is it the fire of damnation? Is it the fire that delivers and symbolizes the Holy Spirit? Is it the fire in the lamps of the wise and faithful wedding party awaiting the bridegroom? Is it the fire of the end time? Is it the fire from chapter 24 of Luke that is yet to burn in the hearts of the disciples as they meet Jesus on the road to Emmaus? Is it a fire of construction or destruction? We don’t know entirely for sure, and scripture scholars differ on the meaning and significance of the fire that Jesus is longing for. But in the total context of this gospel passage, I am reminded of what I might hear at the clinic where I work. “Doctor Smith is not getting his psych reports written on time. Someone needs to light a fire under him.” Or a sports metaphor put in more positive terms: “The US women’s gymnastics team won a gold medal. Those women were on fire.”
Today’s gospel, with its fire imagery, and then the disturbing prospect of fractured human relationships, and then Jesus’ claim that his disciples are clueless about what is to come – all of this is one huge indictment of the status quo. Unless we’re big old hypocrites, we cannot embrace Jesus, and his cross, and his resurrection, and then pretend that everything and everyone, including us, can stay the same. No matter the discomfort with the change, there must be a change. And that change is so great that it has the potential to even supersede the bonds of human affection.
I sometimes quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am a Lutheran after all. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who lived during Hitler’s Third Reich. He was imprisoned for allegedly conspiring to assassinate Hitler in order to save the Jews, and he was executed in April 1945. Some of his most profound writing occurred while imprisoned. He said (paraphrasing):
“If you go looking for God, and if that God is the God that you have created in your own image, then you will be happy with that God, because that God will be pleasing to you. But if you go looking for the true God, in whose image you are made, the God who is truly in God’s image, then that God may not be so pleasing to you, because that God, the true God will lead you to the foot of the cross.”
Now how was that belief manifested for Bonhoeffer? I don’t know how much German or Lutheran history you know, but in Germany at the time of the Third Reich, you were either Lutheran or Roman Catholic. To keep the peace with Mussolini and Hitler, Pope Pius XII signed a concordat of cooperation with Hitler. The Lutherans went a step further. They accepted Hitler as the head of the German Lutheran Church which then became known as the Reich Kirke. It was quite common to find a swastika hanging in the chancel of a Lutheran church. And where scripture conflicted with Reich teaching, the Third Reich took precedence over the Bible itself. Millions of German Lutherans embraced the Reich Kirke. And thus, my friends, the Holocaust was enabled. But there was a fire burning in the hearts and souls of a small brave band of Lutherans, led by, among others, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They were known as the confessing church or the confessing Lutherans. (Anglican Connection) They believed that no human power, especially Hitler, could ever replace the Word of God as the only truth for Christians to follow. And for that belief, many of them died.
Think of it this way. That fire that Jesus is talking about in Luke’s gospel? If that fire had been burning in the hearts and souls of all Lutherans and Catholics of Third Reich Germany, the fires in the crematoria would never have been lit. But instead, most chose the status quo (Nazism) at its worst. To put it in Bonhoeffer’s terms, they chose the comfortable God, the pleasing God. And they bypassed the cross, and they bypassed Jerusalem altogether, and their hypocrisy enabled an unimaginable genocide.
If we bring Luke chapter 12 and the lessons of history to the American Christianity of today, I have to say that we Christians have created for ourselves the worst kind of irrelevance. With some notable exceptions, the church of today has by and large ceased being countercultural. Instead, we have often without question embraced the values of our culture. In the imagery of fire, if the pilot light of the modern church hasn’t gone out entirely, it is most certainly flickering precariously.
When the fire that is Christ does not burn in us, children go to bed hungry. People live in the streets, and those suffering from addiction, and people living with mental illness are treated like criminals. When the fire that is Christ is not tended to, transgender youth are stripped of their human dignity. And non-Christians (most notably Muslims right now) are treated as less than human. When the fire that is Christ is allowed to go out, a black man can be executed for having a broken taillight, and it is accepted that men, women, and children can be sold into the most sinister forms of slavery. When the fire that is Christ grows dim, the poor are blamed for being poor by those whose wealth is dizzying.
Oh, how Jesus wants to see a fire kindled in every disciple. But if we the church don’t tend the fire, who will?
Thankfully, we are not in this alone. The creator who gave us a Godly mage, the savior whose cross is the hope of all, and the spirit living and breathing in us, these realities are signs of immeasurable grace. So even in our imperfection, we keep going…together. As we heard in Hebrews just now: “
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
With Gospel hope and the support of one another, we can tend the fire together. God is with us in this work. Thanks be to God. Amen