Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sermon -- 15 August 2010

PROPER 15 / 12 PENTECOST — 15 August 2010
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00 am

Isaiah 5:1-7 | Psalm 80:1-2,8-18 | Hebrews 11:29-12:2 | Luke 12:49-56

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

You may remember — or maybe you don’t, and that’s okay — I’m not trying to lay any guilt trips on you, or at least not yet! — that last Sunday the Gospel reading, from just a few verses before today’s reading, began: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’” This passage from the Gospel stuck in my mind this week, at least in part because this passage was also the appointed Gospel reading this past Wednesday when we commemorated St. Clare of Assisi. As a young woman Clare was inspired by the preaching of St. Francis to adopt a similar religious life of complete poverty and utter devotion to God and living out of God’s love, and there gathered around her a community of women, associated with the Franciscans, who became known as the Poor Clares.

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” — that’s what we heard last Sunday, and what we heard this past Wednesday. These are important words. How often do we get suckered in by the fairly common and allegedly “religious” but utterly false notion that God is “out to get us,” that God doesn’t really like us very much, that somehow we have to earn God’s approval? What is it we don’t understand about “God loves us”? Not “God loves us if…” Not “God loves us when…” Just “God loves us!” “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Okay. Got that?

So now today, just a few verses later in St. Luke’s Gospel, we get this: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

(Well, as a matter of fact, we had rather thought that you came to bring peace to the earth! We were under the distinct impression that that's exactly what you were about! “The Peace of the Lord be always with you …” “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you …”?) “Peace I leave with you, my own peace I give to you,” Jesus said, “but I do not give to you as the world gives …

This paradox of God's great love for us and the sternness of the divine word of judgment runs all the way through the Bible. We hear it in the First Reading this morning, for instance, from Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard.” The Lord plants a vineyard (God’s people Israel) with great love and care and devotion and hard work— but what happens? Instead of clusters of grapes (’onabeyim), the Lord’s vineyard produces sour, rotten fruit (be’ushyim — two completely different words in Hebrew). God expected from the beloved Israel mishpat but got mispah (a pun in Hebrew, untranslatable into English: instead of justice, bloodshed); God expected tsedhakah but got tse‘akah (instead of justice, a cry of distress).

It's easy, and it's attractive, to fasten upon one of these aspects of God's self-revelation to us, love and judgment, at the expense of the other. I prefer to hear about God's forgiving love! -- God's eager yearning to bring us together into union. Although I can see where some people might rather prefer the notion of a fearsome, wrathful God; it does provide some nice simple answers and meets some psychological needs, even if it does demand a rather cheerless outlook on life! (And especially for those folks who tend to be fearsome, wrathful people themselves!) But here, as so often, the tension, the contradiction, is only apparent. It's not that God is inconsistent, but that our perspective is so limited. God is always more than we can ever say or know about God.

And, after all, we do not love our children by letting them get away with anything they like and never calling them to account. Parents who let their children grow up undisciplined, untrained, uncorrected may seem like sweeties, but they're doing their kids no favor. They have spoiled them; they really have not cared about them, they have not cared for them.

But God cares for us. And so it sometimes appears to us that God is a little tough. God's love is no marshmallow — God's love is more than just warm fuzzies. Because God loves us, God tells us the truth - even though we don't always want to hear the truth. One truth that we must hear and understand, even though we may not always much care for it, is that between the Reign of God and the dominions of this world and its worldly values and priorities there is a great gulf. This gulf is not of God's making, but of our own - of humankind's making. We have a perverse determination to have things our own way, to cut ourselves away from the Kingdom of God, to wall ourselves off into a narrow, restricted, and largely hollow reality of our own devising. And given where we are, and what we have done to ourselves, restoration to God’s Kingdom can hardly come without pain, wrenching, strife, contention, division. Those who are faithful citizens of God's Kingdom must necessarily seem a traitor to the perversities that twist and distort this fallen world's values.

The Gospel of Christ brings division - not because it is God's purpose to be divisive (God's purpose is to bring us together), but because the world resists and rejects God's purpose. And so even families can become divided in the face of a value higher than family, in the face of a loyalty more demanding than blood. Jesus warns us: this is how it is! Be prepared for it!

In the end there must be decision and commitment: God and God's Reign - or ourselves? We must choose; to choose one is to reject the other; not to choose is to choose ourselves. To choose God is to reject the distorted values of this world - and thus to suffer the fury of a world scorned: ridicule, estrangement, hatred, persecution. Hardly what the world would call peace. But then, there's not very much evidence that the world knows very much about what real peace is, is there? “I do not give to you as the world gives . . .” Or as the hymn [#661] puts it: “The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed in the sod; yet let us pray for but one thing, the marvelous peace of God.”