Meadowbrook Congregational Church
Rev. Art Ritter
August 18, 2019
“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?
My wife Laura has recently started a new job, working as a dietitian at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor. Part of her responsibilities include having some expertise in plant-based diets. Because of this and certainly because of some her strong personal feelings, a few months ago, Laura decided to become a vegetarian. When she first told me of her decision I was a bit frightened. Many vegetarians I know can be a bit zealous in their behavior, challenging the logic of meat eaters, preaching about the righteousness of their choices, and attempting to convert everyone to their way of life. So initially I wasn’t certain that her decision would make me feel uncomfortable or cause contention in our marriage. I was also concerned about the extra complications a vegetarian diet would bring to our weekly and nightly routine. There would now be different grocery lists and different food preparation and I don’t know much about cooking vegetables other than putting them in the microwave. And what about the times we eat out, or at family gathering, or community meals? Will she find menu options or will she make our hosts feel badly when they don’t have a vegetarian option? So, when I first heard of her decision I have to admit, I thought only of the trouble it was going to cause.
But I have listened to Laura and I have done some research and thinking myself. No, I am not ready to become a vegetarian. I still don’t find many vegetable dishes to be especially tasty or visually appealing. Yet I am willing to take the blinders off and listen and try to understand. Vegetarians have made a choice which sets them apart because of what they believe to be an important priority in their healthy living. Some have also done so for the benefit of the future of the planet, believing that the production of meat drains more of the earth’s resources. For some, such a choice may speak to their choice about supporting the care of God’s creatures. I am at least willing to admit that I need to have a greater understanding about how the choices I make about the food I consume say something about me and my view of creation.
I think that most of us have some type of blinders that keep us from having balanced opinion about certain issues. In some cases those blinders keep us from seeing the real world around us. We might think that we have our eyes wide open, that we aren’t hiding from any kernel of truth, that we have a realistic view of life. But in reality we all use some kind of tunnel vision. We interpret the world through the lens of our own experience. There are factors such as education, race, gender, and geographic location that profoundly affect the way we interpret our world. Those factors can determine what we see and what we don’t see.
Thus, when someone around us has the nerve or the courage to look honestly and openly at the way things are, when someone sincerely questions why things have to be that way, or when someone challenges us as to why we do things the way we do, there is always a bit of uneasiness that seep into us. There is potential for conflict or division. If we are one who benefit from the way things are, from the status quo, we will fight tooth and nail to oppose anyone who tries to change things. And we will keep our blinders firmly in place just to avoid having to look at things differently or having to understand an opposing point of view.
In the 12th chapter of Luke, Jesus is continuing with his ministry in Galilee on his way to Jerusalem. Crowds have gathered. Great sermons have been preached. People have been healed. Demons have been cast out. Jesus is a pretty popular guy and everyone seems enamored with him. Then we hear the words of this morning’s Scripture lesson. “I have come to bring fire to the earth, and oh how I wish it were already blazing! Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No! I have come for division.” Jesus goes on to preach about how the choice to follow him will separate followers from their loved ones. He speaks about the faithful being able to recognize the signs of God’s Kingdom and the importance of acting quickly and decisively to bring that Kingdom into being.
Meghan Feldmeyer writes that when we first read this passage we might think that Jesus was having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day. The gospel of Luke, the same gospel that describes the sleeping baby Jesus and the calm shepherds and the beautiful angels, has Jesus speaking these words of fire and brimstone. Scott Hoezee writes that “Jesus seems to lose it a bit here, going on quite the verbal tear. We practically need asbestos gloves or very thick oven mitts just to pick these verses up. This thing is white hot!”
What prompted these strong words from Jesus? Perhaps there were some in his group of followers who were urging him to avoid controversy. They wanted him to “play nice” and try to get along with the rulers of the empire, the authorities of the Temple, and the chief priests and scribes. Maybe they saw the stir that he was creating and they wanted him to put the blinders on and not make anyone angry. Please Jesus, see things our way and just get along with the rest of the world!
But Jesus did not come to prop up the old ways. Within the community of faith we often talk about Jesus as one who endorses what we think and what we believe. We act as if Jesus came to validate the best and brightest parts of us and is pleased with how we do things. Yet an honest reading of the Gospels tells us that Jesus did not come to continue the policies of the status quo. His kingdom did not fit in with the kingdoms of the world, and he knew that if he were to be faithful to God’s intention, a strong measure of disruption had to be expected. Jesus was not representing business as usual. He was representing a world that was turned upside down.
Following Jesus doesn’t mean adopting new beliefs but seeking a new way of living. To be a follower of one who ate with sinners and accepted those dishonored by society means we must take off the blinders about our own judgments and our invitations. To be a follower of one who preaches love and acceptance and forgiveness is to practice love and acceptance and forgiveness. And Jesus warned his followers as well as us that if we act like he did- the rest of the world, including those whose opinions matter most to us, might not like it.
C. S. Lewis once observed that Christians sometimes think of themselves a race horse, a horse that can be trained through prayer and study and discipline to run faster in maintaining a successful life of faith. In reality, Lewis said, Jesus doesn’t want a race horse that runs faster, but he wants to give the horse wings to fly. Jesus doesn’t want to move into your house and repaint and change the curtains. When Jesus moves in he brings a wrecking ball to tear down the walls, to gut the rooms down to the studs, and to rebuild in a different manner
I read a commentary this week that talked about the fad of a few years ago: the WW JD bracelet. What would Jesus do? While the originators of the idea probably had wonderful intentions, Jesus probably had something more serious in mind- perhaps something to place around the heart to remember to take his words and teachings more seriously. What might the world look like if we took off our blinders and followed Jesus’ words, at home, at work, at school, at church? What would happen if we were able to step away from our need for security and consumption and certainty and step toward the needs of others? What kind of conflict and stress would we find if we advocated caring for others ahead of institutional maintenance? How would the world change if we carried Jesus’ intention for us into our priorities of time, our consumer choices, our support of political candidates and issues, and the way we treat our planet and our environment?
Taking off the blinders is frightening! Bringing change to the way we view others and live life is hard. We want to baptize our actions and our world with clear, safe refreshing water. Jesus comes to us with a baptism of fire that burns up the old and starts all over. When we resist his call to change and challenge, he has to remind us that it won’t be easy. We can’t expect everyone to like us. Disagreements will arise. Those who like the way things are will have sharp things to say about us. But we can know that even in the times in which the way of God doesn’t feel easy, it is grounded in love, and offered with hope for building us up and healing the world.