A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., August 18, 2013
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
“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?” (NRSV).
We’ve been on the road with Jesus for weeks now, following him wherever he goes in Luke’s Gospel, listening to everything he says, and trying our best to do it. It’s been an adventure. I was thinking about that last Sunday afternoon when I was in my car, driving south on Interstate 95 to a week-long preaching conference in North Carolina. I don’t know if you remember what the weather was like on that day, but as I drove it seemed to alternate between rain and sunshine. At one point I would be putting on my sunglasses and a few minutes later I would be turning on the windshield wipers. And that’s when I began to think about the Travel Narrative in Luke’s Gospel as a road of its own, unrolling like a ribbon of highway from chapter 9, verse 51, all the way through chapter 19, verse 27; from that moment when Jesus first sets his face to go to Jerusalem to that moment when he arrives at the city gates. Along the way there’s a lot of sunshine and shadow. Last week he was saying, “Have no fear, little flock! It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom!” The sun was shining. But this week? The storm clouds are rolling in. Time to turn on the windshield wipers.
When I was at my first church, and still in my late twenties, I found out that I needed to have some minor surgery, so minor that I decided not to put it on the church’s prayer list. But the undertaker’s wife in that little town had a way of finding things out and she found out about that. “What kind of surgery?” she asked. And I told her it was nothing, really; just an outpatient procedure. “What kind of outpatient procedure?” she asked (business had been a little slow at the funeral home). And I said, “You know, one of those where you go in, and they do some surgery, and then you go home?” “Who’s your doctor?” she asked. And so on, and so forth, until she got it out of me. But when she did she seemed a little disappointed. “Oh, well,” she said. “I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Those things are hardly ever cancerous.” You know, until that moment I hadn’t even considered the possibility of cancer, but after she said it, it was all I could think about. I drove straight home, went into the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror and said, “What if you have cancer? What if it turns out you only have six months to live?” And if you had asked me about anything else in that moment, I might have turned and snapped at you. “Can’t you see I’m struggling with the idea of my own mortality?” Because when that’s the subject, everything else seems trivial.
Which makes me wonder if that’s what was going on in today’s Gospel passage. It begins with Jesus saying, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” And then he says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed. It’s right about then that you might remember we are not only on the road with Jesus, we are on the road to Jerusalem, and he has already told us what’s going to happen when he gets there. In chapter 9, verse 22, he says: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And just a few verses later, when his disciples don’t seem to be getting it, he says, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” In other words, the road Jesus was on was the road that would take him to his own execution, and with every step he got a little closer.
I’m sure that crossed his mind from time to time.
In today’s reading he seems to be almost overwhelmed by what’s about to happen to him, and I want to ask: can we let Jesus be that human? Can we let him be troubled by the fact that he’s about to die, or will we go on insisting that the Son of God should be above that, somehow? If you pay attention you can find those places in the text where Jesus struggles with the idea of his own mortality. In three of the Gospels he prays an anguished prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. In one of those Gospels he sweats “great drops of blood” as he does it. In Matthew and Mark he cries out from the cross, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” In John 12 Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.” And in today’s Gospel reading he says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” And of course he was talking about his crucifixion.
Jesus is like one of those people who’s been told that he has six months to live, except in his case it’s more like six weeks, and probably less than that. So, when someone comes up beside him and begins to tell him how great it’s going to be when he gets to Jerusalem, when he runs the Romans out of town and sits on the throne of his ancestor David, when he begins his reign as Israel’s Messiah and ushers in an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity, Jesus erupts: “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.”
And then he turns to the crowds and said, “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?” And he’s not talking about our present time; he’s talking about his—days away from his own demise. What he is trying to say, I think, is something like this: “Look friends, they’re not going to put me on a throne when I get to Jerusalem; they’re going to nail me to a cross, and if you don’t want to suffer the same fate you’d better turn around right now and go home.” He’s creating a crisis; he’s forcing a decision. He’s asking the crowds to make up their minds in that moment if they are for him or against him. And, of course, he’s asking us, too. Before we take one more step with Jesus we’d better stop and consider the cost of discipleship.
But first let’s go back to that moment when I was standing in front of my bathroom mirror, wondering what I would do if I found out I only had six months to live. For as long as I could remember I had wanted to write the great American novel, and I thought maybe that’s what I would do; maybe I would spend those six months writing it. But then I pictured myself hunkered over my old Underwood typewriter, pounding away like a madman with my hair falling down in my eyes while my family stood behind me, looking sad, and I realized how ludicrous it would be to waste the last six months of my life working on a novel that may or may not be published. I decided in that moment that if all I had was six months I was going to spend it with my family and friends. In other words, if I couldn’t do all the things that mattered to me, I was going to have to do what mattered most, and the idea of having cancer helped me understand which was which.
And this is what I mean when I say that in today’s Gospel reading Jesus is creating a crisis. Our word comes from a Greek word that means “to judge, or decide.” When you have to decide, and you have to do it quickly, it creates a crisis. It reminds me of an old Russian novel, where a young is standing on the station platform with her mother and father, her sisters and brothers, when the man she loves gets on the train and then, suddenly, turns around and holds out his hand to her. “Come with me!” he says, and she has to decide: do I jump on the train with the man I love, or do I stay here on the platform with my loving family?” It’s a crisis, because the train is picking up speed. She can’t put the decision off forever. She has to make it in the next few seconds, and she feels herself torn between what matters and what matters most. She may not even know which it is: the man on the train, or the family on the platform. But there he is, holding out his hand, and she has to choose.
The moment is as sharp as a sword.
“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks. “No, I tell you, but rather division.” And maybe this is all he means: that he has come to divide what matters from what matters most. Back when I was looking in my bathroom mirror, wondering what I would do if I only had six months to live, I decided it would be more important to spend it with family than trying to write a novel. But Jesus, as he often does, pushes things a little further. “What about me?” he asks. “If you had to choose between your family and me which would it be?” He’s asking us to decide between what matters and what matters most, and of course some people have had to make precisely that decision. You probably have stories of your own, but I heard one from my friend Don Flowers last week about a woman he met in Bali who had grown up in a Hindu home but who had, at some point, decided to follow Jesus. Her family told her, quite frankly: “If you become a Christian you will no longer be part of our family.” She struggled with that for a long time, as anyone would, but eventually she made a choice between what matters and what matters most. It’s as if she was standing there on the station platform with her family, and the train began to pull away, and Jesus held out his hand and said, “Come with me!” He created a crisis; he forced a decision; the moment was sharp as a sword. But in that moment she decided to follow him, even if it meant leaving her family behind forever.
“From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;” he says. “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.” Some of you have known that kind of division. You know what it costs you when you make decisions based on your love and loyalty for Christ. Marriages have been strained by those kinds of decisions. Families have been stretched to the breaking point because of those kinds of decisions. Sometimes they can’t bear the strain—they come apart at the seam where what matters is stitched to what matters most. Jesus says we shouldn’t be too surprised when that happens. “Don’t think I have come to bring peace upon the earth,” he says. “No, I tell you; not peace, but a sword.”
As it turns out, I didn’t have cancer back there in my late twenties. I didn’t have to choose between writing a novel and spending time with my family. But the very idea of having cancer made it clear to me that while there are many things in life that matter, some matter more than others. You may not only have six months to live, but you do have only one life to live, and you have to make a choice between what matters, and what matters most. There you are, standing on the station platform, and there’s Jesus, holding out his hand and begging you, “Come with me!” He’s creating a crisis; he is forcing a decision; the moment is as sharp as a sword. Will you reach for his hand, or will you stay where you are?
It’s entirely up to you.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.