More Than We Bargained For

a sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15C/Lectionary 20]

Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:28–12:2

Like many American families, my family decided in the earliest days of the COVID pandemic that it was time for a pet dog. The circumstances at that time seemed as perfect as they’d ever be for bringing a little cute fuzzy furball into the house. Almost everything had shut down. School had been cancelled, so everyone would be stuck in the house for the foreseeable future. We’d have plenty of time to train the little thing and take pictures of us holding it and going on walks with it at the end of a little leash. We were not all of one mind immediately in this decision, but pretty soon the one hold-out was persuaded and Joy, an eight-week-old Whippet puppy joined our family in early May 2020. The first days were what we predicted, and her adorableness was pretty much on-point. She worked her way right into our hearts.

However, as the time wore on we discovered there was an edge to having a dog that no one was really prepared for, no matter how much everyone claimed otherwise at the start. Valuable and cherished toys got chewed up. Someone needed to get her exercise every day. Crate training took a lot longer than expected, which resulted in many sleepless nights. And now that life has more or less returned to normal, we can’t just up and leave for vacation like we used to. Someone has to arrange boarding and, of course, vet appointments for vaccine updates. We still love her and don’t regret our decision, but, in a sense some, much of the puppy new-ness has worn off and Joy is often the source of friction. This dog has been more than we originally bargained for.

We might get the impression from Jesus’ words this morning that he, too, is more than we bargained for. Speaking directly to his closest followers, he sounds like the parent who rains on the children’s puppy parade. They have invited him into their lives. His healings of the sick  and sharp responses to the overbearing Pharisees have won them over. But there’s an edge to knowing Jesus no one was really prepared for. He’s the source of some friction.

They thought they were getting soft and fuzzy Jesus, but they’ve gotten sword Jesus. They were expecting years and years of cool refreshing water Jesus, but they’ve wound up with burning fire Jesus. They were looking forward to unity Jesus—to agreeable Jesus who stays predictable and peaceable—but now they’re looking at “division” Jesus. And it’s true: Jesus chews up our little idols and asks us to take him on walks outside on a regular basis where other people will see we’re close to him.

I have a wooden cross somewhere in my office that someone once gave me that is painted with Jesus in the middle and surrounding him are all kinds of different people of the world, crowded together. The faces of the people are all happy, and when you look at it you can see they’re people of all kinds of different colors of skin. I love that cross, and I’ve seen others with it. It is a familiar, unifying image of Jesus that brings people together, a love that overcomes all kinds of personal differences that often divide us. Today, however, Jesus is the divider. He says his arrival will even set people in the same family against one another.

Believe it or not, in Jesus’ time, familial bonds were tighter and more binding than we perceive them to be today. Family determined almost everything about one’s identity and one’s place in the village or town. We often think of our personal identity as something that belongs just to us. We have been formed by this idea of personal authenticity, that our true self resides solely within us and must be expressed freely, that it can only be negatively influenced by external pressures. In Jesus’ time, and for much of world history, your immediate family or tribal associations were what really mattered. They were your authenticity. As you can imagine, it was a system that gave a great deal of stability in most cases, but could, of course, perpetuate all kinds of abuses and oppressions, especially if you weren’t male and weren’t wealthy.

Jesus says that he will even cause divisions within these seemingly unbreakable networks of kinship. He is clear-eyed about how his message will occasionally disrupt the fabric of society  and the standard ways people live for one another. Jesus’ life will enable people to see themselves as part of something larger, a kingdom where boundaries are erased even as our diversity remains. Jesus’ sacrifice will give us the eyes to see people as valuable simply because they are alive with us not because of what race they are or how rich they may be or if they’re male or female. For the vision of the cross to come true, bonds influenced racism and sexism and classism will have to be rent asunder. I know I’m guilty of not letting this Jesus speak enough—both to me and through this pulpit—and yet every week, especially in these partisan times, I feel like there is some way someone will be offended.

As it happens, today the church commemorates a 20th century priest named Maximillian Kolbe. Born in Poland just before the turn of the last century, Kolbe was a deeply devout man who was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1919. He founded a friary just west of Warsaw that eventually became a home to over 700 friars and went on to open friaries in India and Japan. A friary is a place where Christian men and sometimes women would live in community and openly be involved in and serve the communities around them. In 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland, Kolbe’s friary sheltered 3000 Poles and 1500 Jews from deportation to concentration camps. In 1941 the Nazis closed down the friary and Kolbe and four of his companions were carried off to Auschwitz. While imprisoned, Kolbe continued to carry on the work of a priest, secretly hearing prisoners’ confessions, offering prayer, and even distributing Holy Communion when people would smuggle in bread and wine.

Fr Maximilian Kolbe (1896-1941)

When a prisoner from Kolbe’s same bunker escaped one day, ten men were selected at random from the remaining ones for execution. One of them was a sergeant who had a family. Father Maximillian Kolbe was not related to him in any way, but understood the bond that Jesus had made between them was real. Kolbe offered to take the sergeant’s place, and the Nazis agreed, figuring a younger man would be of more use than the older Kolbe. He was placed with the other nine in a large cell to starve to death. After two weeks Kolbe was still alive, so he was executed by lethal injection on this day in 1941.

Maximilian Kolbe’s witness is an extreme one, but it shows how stark the division is that Jesus brings. Kolbe knew the love of Jesus had divided him from the dominant Nazi cultural values. And in great courage, he would rather remain divided from it than go along with it, and in the end, he chose even to be divided from his own life than continue in a system that gloried oppression and violence. And because of that, thousands were saved from death.

We can probably safely assume we’ll never face a situation quite that intense, but the fact of the matter is that every disciple finds him or herself under the sword Jesus. Every follower of our Lord becomes aware, sometimes daily, that his way of life is not a cake walk. The truth is Jesus has never been secretive about his mission or his impact on the world. His call is no bait and switch approach that has charmed us with its first impression. The Jesus who is aware of how fiery his presence is is the same Jesus who is gentle and compassionate, calm and patient.

Even before he is born his own mother declares that Jesus’ arrival will cast down the mighty from their thrones and send the rich away empty. And as he is presented in the temple, just a few weeks old, and old man named Simeon, who had been waiting on the Savior, declares Jesus is destined for the falling and rising of many and that he would reveal the inner thoughts of many. “A sword,” Simeon says as he looks at Jesus’ mother, “will pierce your own soul too.” Even Mary will feel the suffering that Jesus will undergo in order to bring all people together in love and justice and peace.

Kosovar icon depicting Christ with a sword

Even though Jesus says here that he doesn’t come to bring peace, that is, of course, a momentary exaggeration to make a point. He is the Prince of Peace and always will be, but his peace must also divide us from all the things that hold us back from embodying the grace his reign. Our baptisms are a drowning of sin. In the waters we are baptized with, the hold that selfishness and clannishness and materialism has on us begins to lose its grip. His words each week to us are a purifying fire that removes the things that make us less than God creates us to be. And throughout our lives, God gives us a great cloud of witnesses—that is, other people on the journey of faith with us—who encourage us and urge us on.

This past week our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, held its Churchwide Assembly in Columbus, OH. This is a gathering the whole church leadership and voting members from each of the 65 Synods to make decisions about church vision and policy that will affect the whole church. Churchwide elections are also held, and this past week we elected a new vice president of the ELCA. According to our church constitution, the Vice President is the highest office that can be held by a lay person; that is, someone who is not ordained.

In the end, the vice presidency went to a man from a congregation in Atlanta named Imran Siddiqui. As you can guess from his name, Mr. Siddiqui is not a cradle Lutheran, and he mentioned that directly in his speech on Wednesday. In fact, Siddiqui was raised a Muslim, and he only became a follower of Jesus and underwent baptism about eleven years ago, as an adult. I do not know Siddiqui personally, but I can imagine that his decision to leave the faith of his family and become Christian might have caused some friction somewhere along the line, but what a gift to the church!

Whatever the case, Siddiqui gave a powerful testimony to his faith on Wednesday before the assembly, explaining how moved he has been, among many things, by the consensus-driven manner of decision making in his Synod and congregation. It is a way of being in community, he says, that requires people to really listen to one another. It stands in direct contrast to the way our ultra-divided society functions now, where everything is “us vs them” and where people who have a differing option are cast as “evil” or “immoral.”

Siddiqui’s statement of faith reminds us that Jesus does call us to be divisive! But not by calling each other names or assigning labels, not by attacking with our fists or with clever zingers from our lips, not by posturing ourselves above others in holiness. Jesus calls us to be divisive precisely in our loving desire to bring everyone together, to raise eyebrows by how forgiving and selfless and vulnerable Jesus helps us be.

And as his reign continues, and he works his way into more and more hearts, and as he works his way into our own again and again, we will be happy to find that, lo and behold, we have wound up with a love that is more, far more than we could ever bargain for.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Across the Parking Lot

a sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 14C/Lectionary 19]

Luke 12:32-40 and Genesis 15:1-6

It’s hard to believe, but thirty years ago this very week I got out of my parents’ Jeep Cherokee and walked across the parking lot of Sullivan Residence Hall at North Carolina State University. I was eighteen years old and about to begin my freshman year. At one point I turned around for just a brief second to wave another goodbye and saw tears streaking down my mother’s face. Behind her was my younger sister, who was probably fist-pumping the air and exclaiming, “YES!” I knew the steps I was taking that day across the parking lot were, in some sense, big ones but in the eyes of my parents they were strides of insurmountable distance. I was feeling a mixture of excitement and wonder and probably, to be honest, a fair amount of fear. I was setting out for a new place, responding to a new call.

freshman year at NC State (Sullivan Residence Hall), fall 1992

It occurs to me that this week and next several of our own Epiphany young adults will have similar experiences. Josh, Katie, Matt, Cole, Riley, Ryan—young adults who grew up among us, who learned about Jesus and his love—will all in some similar way walk across a parking lot and leave their parents waving behind them. It’s hopeful but gut-wrenching stuff—the excitement but fear of a new horizon, a new vocation.

Just this week an older member of this congregation, a widowed woman who has been a member for years and even served once as council president, sat down to share with me she is packing up her things, selling furniture, and moving from Richmond to a 55+ community halfway across the country. She leaves leave close friends, a caring landlord, and a congregation she loves in order to be closer to some family in a strange place relatively late in life.

In many ways the story of our entire faith begins with an elderly man and a woman who are called to leave something behind and move forward into the unknown. In the fifteenth chapter of Genesis we hear how Abram stands on the parking lot at the edge of some place in the middle east, wondering about this new horizon, this call of God that has beckoned him forward. God has promised Abram a new homeland, but Abram has not possessed it yet. God has promised Abram that he will be the ancestor of a great many nations, but Abraham doesn’t even have a child yet.

Before we launch into new territory there are always unanswered questions and unrealized visions, but these seem to be two really big ones. It stands to reason that Abram might be dealing with some fear. He even openly questions God, an approach we often think is off limits because who can question God, right? But there is a relationship there between God and Abram and something about God makes Abram trust him. Eventually we are told Abram believes God again and that God reckons that to Abram as righteousness. I don’t think that means God says, “Abram, I reckon you’re righteous.” It means Abram stepped forward in this thing we call faith.

I don’t know how you describe or define faith. Each person probably would come up with their own definition for it. But in the way it seems to appear over and over in Scripture faith is in the confidence that a relationship with God will continue, come what may. What Abram trusts is that the storyline will, indeed, unfold and through it God will have Abram’s best interest at heart.

It makes me think about all of the journeys we get called into, the endeavors of life that fall into our laps or that make us turn left when we expected to go right. It can be the doctor saying, “I’ve got some hard news for you,” or a boss saying, “Today’s your last day.” Not every journey we’re on is caused by God, of course, but nevertheless we find ourselves standing in a parking lot wondering if God might lead us through it all. These are journeys of faith, too, where the end is not aways visible, and it is all too easy to get frightened and dejected.

This is what Jesus’ own faith is like, actually, and it also contains moments of fear and doubt and loss of control. His whole trip to Jerusalem is one big journey of faith that will end in a whole twist of bad news and hard situations. He will offer his life on the cross in the conviction that God his Father would provide a way through it, that the story would continue. And so along the way Jesus makes sure to assure his own followers that they do not need to be afraid even in their own discipleship and in their own journeys of faith. He knows that there will be times we will feel outnumbered and outmatched, and I can imagine that they feel particularly overburdened by this journey at this point because he’s just told them not to worry about their basic needs, even food or clothing. It’s like they’re on that parking lot with safety and security behind them but only fear and danger and loss in front of them. Jesus acknowledges all of those feelings by calling them his “little flock.” He reminds them that they are his, and that times of feeling overwhelmed is part of faith.

There was a very compelling story shared on Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast this week, “Revisionist History.” The topic of the podcast was acts of kindness by ordinary people, and the whole thing is worth a listen, but the final story that he shares is really unforgettable. Gladwell’s brother is an elementary school principal in a small town in southern Ontario. Much of the time up to 20% of this school is made up of refugee children who have been resettled to that community. While that is a sizeable number, they are still a little flock in the grand scheme of things, learning a new culture, mastering a new language.

Gladwell’s brother tells the story of day one little kindergarten Syrian girl arrives for the first time. He explains how she is inconsolable, crying and screaming in fear far beyond anything they’d ever experienced before. He and the teachers try all of their tricks to get her to settle down and, to their dismay, absolutely nothing works. Even the girl’s parents are unable to break through and calm her. Her mood of terror starts to effect the other children, too.

Gladwell finally tells the teacher to put the girl on her lap and hold her. So she does, and still nothing gets better. She is wailing and wailing, and no one can figure out what they’re doing that is triggering her. Finally, at a complete loss of what to do, Gladwell says he kneels down in front of her on this teacher’s lap and starts humming. No words. Just a tune that he describes as a “universal lullaby.” And suddenly, she stops crying. He says she looks straight into him for a few minutes as he continues to hum and then she takes his hand and gets off the teacher’s lap. She didn’t let go of him for an hour.

A principal of an elementary school on the first day of school, with a million things to do and she goes everywhere with him with a death grip on his finger. Eventually he takes her to the conference room and they draw pictures for each other, talking but not understanding one another’s language. A couple of hours later he takes her to her class and she is fine. The next morning, he explains, the real child shows up and is ready to learn. Reflecting on it, Gladwell says that that particular day when he got down to pierce that girl’s fear by humming was the pinnacle of his whole career.

In our fears about whatever lies before us, Jesus decides to stoop down to comfort us. On the cross he has his pinnacle moment, humming a universal lullaby of love and compassion and lets us cling to him wherever he goes and then leads us back to what we need to get done. “Do not be afraid, little flock,” he says, over and over again, in his word, in his holy meal, until we hear it.

And he reminds us that the kingdom is ours. The kingdom of heaven—which is the power of forgiveness over hate, and the triumph of joy over despair, the eventual victory of life over death—these things will be ours and never taken away

And Jesus doesn’t just leave us with that promise. He also gives us tasks and a mindset. For faith is not about having confidence that a particular outcome will work out in our favor, but a trust in who and whose we are, no matter what lies ahead. We are this mighty God’s little flock…and so we keep our lamps lit. We dress ourselves for action. We take care of those around us, shedding possessions and maybe even relationships that encumber us. We invest in acts of kindness and giving towards others rather than in accumulating more for ourselves. We go forth in faith because we know who and whose we are, not simply because we are in expectation of a particular desired outcome.

About a year ago one of our members, a mother of two young children, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She found herself beginning a journey of faith she had never anticipated.

There was fear, of course, but also faith. She dressed herself for action and got to writing letters to the other women in the congregation she was aware of who’d received a similar diagnosis, letters of support and encouragement. Over the course of the following year, she saw these relationships deepen. She has received regular visits and other correspondence from them. It turns out one of the women lives on her street. That woman donated her wigs to her, not in need of them anymore, herself.

This woman has now rounded the bend of her last surgery and is about to be declared “cancer-free.” She looks back across a parking lot she has now crossed and doesn’t see the fear and loss of a cancer diagnosis but rather sees scores of people supporting her, many in this very congregation. She thinks about how strong love is, and how helpful it was to stay ready, dressed for action, and generous in her spirit.

“Do not be afraid, little flock,” says our master Jesus, who stoops down to show how strong his love is. What great words for a congregation emerging from a pandemic and thinking about a new program year. What a great example for people of faith who wonder if their message and presence has any impact in society anymore. What comforting words for anyone on the edge of any parking lot, staring into any new call, summoning the courage to move forward in faith.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

And one day, at the end of all our journeying and hoping that Master will come home and do what no other Master will do, but which he shows us every week. He will sit with us at the same table and serve us, his flock and him together.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.