Sunday, August 18, 2013

Bring on That Fire

This is my manuscript from the sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church when I was home.

Luke 12:49-56
"I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, 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 daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

There is fire and brimstone language in these passages. Even in my beloved Common English Bible translation! Why is this language there? The typical image we hold of Jesus is the Prince of Peace, why now is he saying that he came to bring destruction? These are the questions that I want to address this morning. There is an old joke about seminary students preaching. Maybe you’ve heard it before. It is the beginning of the school year, and to help introduce her to the congregation, the seminary intern has been invited to preach. The congregation is excited to hear her sermon, because they’ve taken on the role as a ‘teaching church’ and have a seminary intern every year. Just before the sermon, one woman leans over to her neighbor, who recently joined the church, and whispers, “Here it comes, the seminary intern is preaching. It’s time for our annual lecture on what is wrong with the church!”

This is not what I am trying to do this morning. It just was a coincidence that Luke 12:49-56 was the lectionary reading for today. J

N.T. Wright uses a story about Beethoven to help explain just what this passage is doing smack-dab in the middle of Luke. Sometimes when Beethoven was performing for audiences he liked to play a trick on them. (Especially if he thought that they weren’t completely paying attention or if they weren’t “interested enough” in music.) Just after he played the final notes of the piano movement, he would bring his entire arm down on the keyboard. The harsh sound normally shocked his audience, and he would laugh at the slightly cruel joke. Wright explains that this passage from Luke belongs because there is always pain found in beauty. What Jesus did for humanity is a beautiful thing, but it was a painful death, and watching Israel reject him must have been a painful thing for God as well.

Jesus asks the crowds, “why can’t you judge the present times as well?” In this passage, Jesus tells the crowd that change is coming (meaning his death and resurrection), but also the hostile Roman take-over that happened in 70 A.D. Luke was most likely writing around this time. He is telling the Church universal that Jesus has charged them to interpret current events and address issues that arise. Clearly Rome isn’t an issue for us today in 2013. It isn’t a new thing to suggest that the “Rome” of our time is technology, greed or power. Intolerance to change: to accept those who are considered ‘the other’ is something that many churches struggle with. In some Christian circles, divorce is not an option, so abused spouses are told to go back to their abuser by their pastor, priest or deacon. I would argue that these viewpoints are a “Rome” of our time.

But today I am not talking about sexual and domestic violence. Instead, I want to talk about denominations. Specifically Christian denominations.

There has been a magazine article circulating amongst my Facebook friends (specifically the Presbyterian ones) for a few weeks now. I didn’t read it until after I started working on this sermon. I can’t help but think that the article and our passage from Luke are connected.

The article I am talking about is from Relevant Magazine. For those of you who have never heard of Relevant Magazine, it is a Christian lifestyle magazine for that 18-35 year old audience. Their tagline is “God. Life. Progressive Culture.” I discovered them last year via their podcast. They interview musicians and authors. One of my favorite episodes was when they interviewed Rob Bell about his book, Love Wins. The article I read recently is entitled, “The End of Denominations? Why we need to stop dividing the Church”. Tyler Edwards, who wrote the op-ed piece, considers denominations confusing. Normally when you meet someone (especially if that person is a conservative, evangelical Christian) one of the first questions they will ask you is about your religious affiliation. “What is your denomination?” is a question I’ve been asked more times than I can remember. Edwards is trying to address the issue as to why there are so many different denominations. He writes,

“We divide the Church like an OCD kid with a bag of skittles. Rather than enjoying all the different flavors, we compulsively sort them. The Church was created to unite followers in Christ under His mission and banner. We are supposed to be one body with many parts, but what we have become is a stockpile of different parts. We have churches instead of the Church. We have uniformity instead of unity. Apparently, we can’t have people who believe different things about Biblical issues come to the same building to worship […] God. That would just be chaos!”

I can’t help but agree with him! It wasn’t until I started seminary that I realized just how many denominations are out there! According to the 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, there are 217 Christian denominations in America. But that excludes the nondenominational churches, of which there are 35,000 congregations! We focus more on our differences in worship style and theology than what we agree on. This is not to say that we should only have 1 worship style. I do not think that people should all worship in the same manner – I think being comfortable with the style of worship is extremely important. I tend to hold straight to the Presbyterian line and prefer stoically standing still while singing hymns accompanied by an organ in a key slightly too high rather than raising my hand during praise songs led by a praise band. There is nothing wrong with either style of worship! People simply have preferences. But I worry that sometimes those preferences get in the way of being an open and loving church, accepting of all styles of worship.

Early on in my first year of seminary, I was having a conversation with one of the professors at McCormick about church being an open and accepting place. Now, there is a difference between theology and worship style, I know that. And I realize that a church’s theology is typically what makes certain people feel unwelcomed. But the fact that some people do not feel comfortable in church breaks my heart. No matter what denomination you choose to affiliate yourself with, Jesus called all of us to the same mission: which does not include ostracizing ones that we’ve pegged as ‘the other’. Her response when I told her that struck me as odd. She told me, “Sarah, everyone shouldn’t be welcome in each and every church. Sometimes you just need to leave and find a different congregation.” I was shocked! Personally, I think that anyone should be welcomed into any church, no matter what. If tomorrow I decide that I want to attend church from now on at a Pentecostal church, and they turn me away or make me feel unwelcomed because of who I am, what I believe or where I have previously worshiped, that is not ok! I understand and encourage the need and desire among Christians to worship God in different ways. We are all different people and I am not suggesting that we should change Christianity into some sort of bland, middle of the road religion. I think that our differences are what spur healthy debates and fuel change. But I do not understand how differences in belief about Jesus (was he fully man, fully divine or both), or differences in communion (what exactly happens to the elements during communion), etc gave us as Christians the right to basically segregate ourselves. Especially while worshiping the one who called us to break down those barriers.

I have another story, this one happened just a few weeks ago. As some of you may have known, I was on an archeological dig in Israel in July! It was an incredible experience, but one that I will probably not repeat. I basically dug in the ground for 8 hours a day. What I really enjoyed was getting to know my fellow dig participants during our break time each afternoon. We were mostly a group of archeology students or conservative, evangelical Christians in PhD or Masters-level programs. I was the only PCUSA participant, and probably the most liberal Christian there. (There were people more liberal than myself on the dig, but they were all atheists.) One afternoon someone asked my what my denomination is. I was not thrilled at this question, because I knew what was coming. I proceeded to tell him that I am a Presbyterian (USA of course, not PCA). He then launched into a rant about how the Presbyterian Church USA was far too liberal, they are lost, they’ve gotten away from God’s message, etc etc. I’ve heard this all before, of course. It isn’t the first time I’ve been told these things. It wasn’t until he told me that I shouldn’t be allowed to call myself a Christian that I really got offended. When did it become ok to tell someone that? When in our Christian history did this start? What I am really worried about is how the different denominations have segmented Christianity and turned brother against brother.

Jesus said that he would bring division instead of peace. Well, in my opinion, Christianity is pretty divided. In verse 49 Jesus said, “I came to cast fire upon the earth.” Which some might interpret as the fire of God or even imagery to suggest that Christians are called to battle – to fight violently against those who do not believe the same thing as us. But the story does not end there. Fire is an interesting subject. In ancient Greek and Roman traditions, fire is associated with the qualities of energy, assertiveness and passion. There is a Greek myth in which Prometheus actually takes fire from the gods to protect the helpless humans. And he was punished for this action. Often fire of the Old Testament is a symbol of destruction, particularly destruction because of God’s judgment or anger. In Luke 3:16, John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. But Luke is not the end of the story. Fire in the book of Acts is not destructive or consuming. Instead it is purifying, fire is a manifestation of God, the third part of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. It is a symbol that shows the old ways are destroyed to make way for the new, for the New Kin-dom of God. Things always seem messier after the division, before reconciliation. The division isn’t the end, just like fire is not simply a symbol of destruction. We are in the midst of it still, because, like verse 57 says, we don’t judge for ourselves what is right. How can it be the right thing when Christians cannot worship God together, in the same place?

I am afraid there will always be people who are racist, who think that women shouldn’t have the same rights as men, who believe that what side of town you are from determines what you can do with your life. I know these people exist. But I do not agree with them, and honestly I do not think that Jesus did either! Who did he invite to the table? The people on the outside of acceptable society; He came to bring change. Everyone is worthy. Everyone. And again, this is not to say that everyone should become like-minded. Differences are good. If we want to continue to adapt and adjust to the changes around us, we need to have new ideas. Think Tanks always have people of different backgrounds and professions. People who think differently, when working together, come up with wonderful things! Tyler Edwards (who wrote the Relevant Magazine article) makes this point as well. He writes,

“Jesus called different types of people to be His disciples because He intended for the Church to be diverse. God made us different. That’s the point. Without the tension of diversity we are not challenged to grow and to constantly dive into His Word. When everyone sees everything exactly the same, there is no healthy conflict. Instead of iron sharpening iron, we get complacent spiritual social clubs. God didn’t create the Church so we could all start acting like one another. It was created so we could all start acting like Jesus. “

It is too easy nowadays to ignore people of different denominations, or worse, to spew hateful things at them in person, during sermons, radio talk shows, online forums and on websites. We are meant to work together as Christians. Denominations are not working together. Theology is important, but Jesus didn’t call us to debate theology to the detriment of helping others. Jesus came to change the world, and we are called to be a part of that change. He said, “I came to cast fire upon the earth.”
So all I can say is, “Bring on that fire!”


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