The Radical Nature of Our Identity | A Sermon on Luke 12:49-56
This is the text of my inaugural sermon, delivered on August 14, 2016, at St. George's Episcopal Church, Arlington. It changed a bit in the telling, but here it is for better or for worse. If you have thoughts, leave them! I'd love to hear from you.
In our gospel reading for today, Jesus’s words are sharp and his imagery shocking.
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.
The Jesus from a few verses ago who soothed us with the words, “Do not be afraid little flock,” is gone. In his place is a Jesus who sounds more like a fire and brimstone preacher than the Prince of Peace.
What do we do with this abrupt shift in tone? What has Jesus acting so “un-Jesus like”?
It is important here to remember that this is a turning point in the Gospel according to Luke. Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus’s suffering and death, his own “baptism by fire,” is fast approaching. He knows he is running short on time and people still just don’t seem to be getting the message. His language here is forceful and impassioned and that makes sense given both his mission and the short amount of time left to accomplish it.
There is no time like the present has become there is no time but the present.
And, so we have Jesus declaring that he has come to divide. And not just to divide. But, to divide families.
There’s more than one way to preach this of course, because, as you know, Jesus is a complicated fellow and nothing he says is ever simple. But, what I connected with in today’s Gospel was this idea of identity. In the first century world, family structures were the fundamental building blocks of society. Family ties were critical to a person’s identity. They predetermined vocation, allegiance, and status. Who your family was said everything about who you were and who you would be. There’s a reason then that Jesus focuses his words of division at family structures, because this imagery carries with it the complete collapse of the social status quo.
This is a smart congregation who knows something about social justice Jesus, so I’m sure you can think of many reasons why he was interested in radical social reversals. Instead, I ask that you think of those first century people left in the wake of the divisive love of Jesus. They are now left in that uncomfortable place where their very identities are in question. Regardless of the merits of the status quo Jesus challenged, imagine living through the complete collapse of a system that you have relied on to tell you who you are. Imagine no longer recognizing the landscape of your own life. Imagine the disorientation. Imagine the crisis of identity.
Or, perhaps you don’t have to imagine. Perhaps you are familiar with this place of crisis. Perhaps you, as the result of some significant shift, whether it be positive or negative, have lost your footing. Maybe it was the graduation of your youngest child, or the birth of your new baby, or a move across the country. Or maybe it was loss or trauma or grief that pulled the rug out from under you. Maybe you have visited this place of crisis. Perhaps you have even lived there for a little while. Perhaps you are there now. If so, then you know that to say it is an extremely uncomfortable place is an understatement. It is not just uncomfortable. It can be disorientating, exhausting, and terribly painful.
I know. Because, I’ve been there.
One of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, said this:
"Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces back together.”
Stepping on a landmine that is me - that’s a pretty accurate description of how I’ve felt these past few months. And, its probably a fair description of how those first century people felt in the wake of Jesus. Except their landmine, as it turns out, was the Word of the Lord.
We know that Jesus did not bring division for division’s sake. We know that there is a social justice mission at play here. But, there’s something else at play here too. Something that is at the root of that social justice mission. That thing is love. And not just any love. The love of God.
And, this love that we see in today’s Gospel is a divisive love that, by its very nature, shifts the paradigm. Because the radical nature of this love is that it speaks to our very identity.
We are, all of us, Every One, beloved. Fundamentally. No exceptions.
This is who we are. And, this radical love of God includes a call to live the life of the Kingdom of God. To not only acknowledge the beloved-ness of our neighbor, but to live it.
In this way, Jesus rooted our very identities in each other. He gave us to one another and then commanded we love one another as Jesus loves us.
Over the past few months, the landscape of my life has shifted, in some ways severely. I have found myself questioning many aspects of my identity. Who am I as I follow my call? Who am I outside of the community of St. George's? Who am I in the wake of tragedy? Who am I when, out of anger, I lack the will to look to God? Who am I?
As I have picked up the pieces and put myself back together bit by bit I discovered something. I never picked up a piece of myself that someone else didn’t hand me. I couldn’t have put myself back together without community. Without the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds me, that supports me, and that includes you.
Jesus did come to bring division. He brought division in the form of a radical love that invites us all into the Kingdom of God. Jesus gave us to each other. He made us family.
Jesus also came to bring peace. But, not peace as we define it. Not harmony, unity, or tranquility. Instead, Jesus came to bring a peace that passes all understanding. A peace that holds the eternal truth that we belong to God and to each other. That we are never alone. That we are never forgotten. A peace deeply rooted in the knowledge of our belovedness. A peace that can be accessed when we live into our place in the Kingdom of God, when we are present to one another.
Its the kind of peace we find in knowing that from a place of crisis we are never left to pick up the pieces alone.
Let us pray together the last paragraph of Hebrews that served as our second reading today.
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, looking 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.
Image: The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs (about 1423-24) Tempera on wood, 31,9 x 63,5 cm cm National Gallery, London Author: en:Fra Angelico Created: en:15th Century
Feasting on the Word: David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
And all the wonderful preachers, teachers, writers, and other peeps whose expansive and inspirational ideas about the love of God have stuck in my head over time. Props.