Sunday, August 18, 2019
Lectionary 20, Year C

Prayer of the Day
O God, judge eternal, you love justice and hate oppression, and you call us to share your zeal for truth. Give us courage to take our stand with all victims of bloodshed and greed, and, following your servants and prophets, to look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Jeremiah 23:23-29 God’s word is like fire, like a hammer that breaks rocks
Psalm 82
Hebrews 11:29–12:2 The faith of the Hebrew people, a great cloud of witnesses
Luke 12:49-56 Jesus brings fire on earth and has a baptism with which to be baptized

Sermon
Title: Big Contrast, No Comparison

Compare and contrast.  Back in your test taking days, did you like those kinds of questions?  As a student of history, I dealt with them quite often.  As a teacher of history, I employed them quite often. Compare and contrast the American Revolution and the French Revolution. One’s a colonial tax revolt against the empire.  One is a lower class uprising against the wealthy and powerful; more of a civil war.  But don’t let me get carried away with historical examples, because we have plenty right here to deal with and sort out.

Personally, I am finding myself comparing and contrasting these last two weeks of mine.  Two very different experiences of the church tot be sure.  As I mentioned last Sunday, I spent the first full week of August at our triennial Church Wide Assembly discerning and debating what the role of the church is in the complexity of this time and this place.  This past week, I have been serving as chaplain and theatre teacher at one of our church camps in New Jersey.  (Just so happens it is the camp that I not only went to 51 years ago as a camper, but also that my father served as chaplain at 52 years ago.  In terms of comparing and contrasting, I am nostalgically happy to say that in many ways it is still the same experience that I remember having as a kid.)  But when I compare and contrast the experience that I had between these two weeks of this month, It would be easy to go on and on.  In one gathering you had a diversity of people coming together from different parts of the country, with very different ideas of what the church should be and what it should be doing in our current context.  While in this most recent gathering, just about everyone was from New Jersey (there was still diversity of towns and neighborhoods) and in their youthfulness, they are still learning what it means to be church.  There was a refreshing openness to hear the gospel and see in it the power to change the world as it is rather than feeling a need to edit it and be selective in the face of what we might call reality.

This year the theme was very much based in being church.  The Bible studies and the messages at worship all lived under the title:  Transformed Community:  Agent of Change.  We talked about how when we care for one another, share with one another, are aware of one another, and strive for justice for one another, all empowered by our connectedness to God through prayer, we can bring change to the world.  As I compare the two experiences, it made me wish that we had started Church Wide Assembly with some of those Bible Studies.  It probably would have helped to pump a little of that youthful idealism into the room as well.

But enough about my two weeks.  What about comparing and contrasting what we are hearing on these two Sundays here, with these readings.  Both from Luke, both from the twelfth chapter, but yet seeming to be very different in tone.  Just as refresher, last week Jesus was speaking to us as the good shepherd that he is and that we need.  We heard him speak comforting and reassuring works, saying: “Do not fear, little flock.”  And this week he sounds like the rebel rouser that he is, the one that challenges us and the way we see the world and the way we are in the world.  No words of comfort here.  Jesus downright frightens us, as he is speaking about division, even in households and in families.  He speaks of destructive fire and great change.  While a part of me wants to go back to camp.  A really big part of me is wanting to go back to last Sunday and being reassured not to be afraid.  What a contrast.

There is little contrast in the words of God spoken through Jeremiah in our first reading.  There is great division among the prophets of the day.  As the nation sinks deeper and deeper into national crisis.  God, through Jeremiah, is trying to wake the people up to the reality of the situation and to change their ways.  Yet, prophets and religious leaders who want to please the king with words of hope and comfort, false though they be, are filling the ears of all the people with empty promises and false visions.  If we do a little comparing and contrasting with the current crisis in American Christianity, we will find some startling similarities.  Not much to contrast.  The talking points of what is now being called Christian Nationalism are leading people away from the truth of Jesus’ life and ministry, setting aside his challenge to form our priorities in him and his teachings and not the values of the world.  The spokespeople are speaking words that are appeasing our leaders and encouraging the masses into false peace and empty contentment.  Perhaps there is more truth in Jesus’ words of division, than we want to admit.

Even the psalm is filled with compare and contrast this morning.  It is one of those scripture passages that seems to be suggesting a polytheistic heaven.  God is addressing the divine council.  God is described as standing in the midst of small g gods.  Now, we must always remember that in the ancient world, it was believed across the region that each nation had a god (small g) that represented them in the heavenly realm.  If one nation defeated another, it was believed that a similar defeat was taking place between the two corresponding gods in the heavens. So, here in Psalm 82, the God of Abraham and the Hebrew people is comparing God’s treatment of people to that of the other gods who judge unjustly and show favor to the wicked.  The one who is true God saves the weak and the orphan, defends the humble and the needy.  The foolishness of the small g gods will die away, and the justice of the true God will endure.  And, as we see throughout history, and, as we see in our own time, those small g gods that cannot compare with the living and almighty, the holy and gracious, the merciful and just big G god, they come in all forms, be they graven images or printed images we carry in our wallets. These small g gods can be gods of fertility and gods of fame, and gods that favor a race, clan, or nation.  As the see at the end of the psalm, our true God is the God of all nations.  And, we see the equality and the justice of the living God incarnated in Jesus – the Christ who is one with this true God.

But there is one part of last Sunday’s reading that we should bring into the discussion so that contrast between Jesus of Luke 12:32 isn’t so drastic from the Jesus of Luke 12:49.  After Jesus said: Do not fear,” he went on to say:  “It is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  And right there, if we are not bracing ourselves for some world-changing, earthly-wisdom-condemning, discomfort-causing, value-inverting challenges from Jesus, that we haven’t been listening to his previous teachings and descriptions about what that kingdom of God looks like.

And yet, even in our inability to fully understand, embrace, and participate in that most unique realm of God that comes to us through Jesus, Jesus assures us that we are part of it.  The baptism that he brings to us is in contrast to that baptism of repentance that John had been practicing in preparation for Jesus’ ministry.  While we are washed clean in baptism, this fiery sacrament that Jesus brings also fills us with the gift of the holy spirit, transforms us into children of God, members of the body of Christ, and heirs of God’s kingdom.  The stress Jesus is feeling is that this baptism comes to us through his passion, death and resurrection.  The cross proclaims the power of God’s kingdom and the empty tomb assures our place in God’s kingdom through the waters of baptism.

What a contrast there – our birth joins us to a warring, fallen humanity.  Our rebirth in baptism joins us to a loving God whose reign will know no end.  Even now we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses who live now in God’s reign.
So be assured:  In the loving reign of God, there is no need to fear.  For living the compassionate love of Jesus Christ, we are formed with countless others as his body in the world.  For changing of the world through the fiery work of the Holy Spirit, we are baptized, called and sent.  In the blessings and priceless treasures of this new life there is no comparison.

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

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