Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sermon: "Who's the Troublemaker?", Jeremiah 23:23-29/Luke 12:49-56 (August 18, 2019)


It seems that Jesus is, and always has been, a troublemaker.

Not necessarily by choice; trouble just seems to always find him. Even when he was an infant, others could sense it. When he was still a baby, a man named Simeon told Jesus’ mother, “This child is destined to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”[1] And our Gospel reading today seems to confirm this prediction: Jesus himself says, “Do you think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I’ve come instead to bring division!”[2] He’s self-identifying as a rabble-rouser! Let’s go out and make people mad in the name of Christ—it’s what Jesus would want, right? I know some really great ways to get under people’s skin.

But wait a minute. I…don’t think this is what Jesus meant. I mean, he does say he came to cast fire upon the earth, but he doesn’t sound super excited about it; in fact, he says the whole thing is stressing him out! This doesn’t sound like someone who considers division a goal worth pursuing. It sounds more like someone who would just as soon AVOID division if he could. Maybe we should take a moment to reexamine our interpretation of this passage.

I think what Jesus is actually saying here is that division isn’t something that we should actively seek…but at the same time, it’s something that we should expect. It’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of fidelity to the Gospel. Christ’s message shouldn’t be controversial in and of itself—he calls for things like loving one another, trusting God, pursuing justice, showing mercy, and seeking the kingdom of heaven. We should all be able to agree that these are worthwhile pursuits, shouldn’t we? But because choosing this way of life would force us to give something up (be it our ego, our resources, our personal security, or the status quo), many will resist or flat-out reject this choice. And in turn, they’ll be vilified by those on the other side of the choice. That’s a recipe for conflict.

Consider how this played out during Jesus’ earthly life. Jesus shared the same message with everyone and held everyone to the exact same standards. But the Pharisees and Sadducees bristled at Jesus’ words and determined to get rid of him, while his followers almost immediately began to draw boundaries around their movement, declaring some righteous and others irredeemable sinners. There wasn’t anything innately factious about Jesus’ message. Any conflict that arose in his wake came out of human discomfort, not the Gospel message itself.

In other words, JESUS isn’t the troublemaker, after all…WE’RE the ones causing division in our responses to his message. The message isn’t always an easy one to hear or respond to, but it’s certainly not one that sets father against son, mother against daughter, by design. That’s not on Jesus—that’s all on us.

It’s almost like Jesus is a meteorologist sharing the news of an incoming storm: “There’s a hurricane on the way! Tell everyone you know, so that we can all help each other prepare!” Nothing controversial about that, right? And yet there are some who’ll say, “That’s ridiculous; I’m not changing my weekend plans, and anyone who does is an idiot!” And there are others who’ll respond, “No, YOU’RE the idiot! I’m stocking up on canned goods and getting my bunker ready, and you’re NOT invited!” The message isn’t the problem; in fact, the message is INTENDED to be helpful! But those hearing it distort it and turn it into an excuse to quarrel. So one group is standing in the rain, stubbornly insisting that the weather definitely won’t get any worse, another is sulking in their hurricane shelter, more concerned about keeping the neighbors out than staying safe from the storm, and meteorologist Jesus is tearing his hair out, yelling, “STOP DISTRACTING YOURSELVES WITH YOUR BICKERING AND WORK TOGETHER TO SURVIVE THE EVER-LOVING HURRICANE!!!” The troublemaker isn’t the one bearing the message—the troublemakers are the ones distorting it for their own purposes.

But as bad as that is, our troublemaking doesn’t just lie in our propensity for conflict. We also become troublemakers when we try to avoid division at all costs. That’s not the answer, either, and yet we still try all the time. Jeremiah railed against this very same inclination in his prophesies, thousands of years before Jesus’ birth. In those days, people often understood dreams to be messages from God, so when a prophet preached about a dream they’d had, people listened. But rather than interpreting their dreams in a way that accurately conveyed the challenges of God’s Word and encouraged the hard work required to live it out together, false prophets instead shared messages that appeased their audiences, ones that were “easier to swallow”. They tried to tame or even manipulate God’s Word so as to avoid the very division that Jesus lamented centuries later.

But while God’s Word certainly shouldn’t be controversial, it definitely ISN’T comfortable or easy, no matter how much we might want it to be. No, Jeremiah reminds us, God’s Word is like fire, like a hammer that shatters rock. God’s Word asks hard things of us; it asks us to change and be vulnerable and try new things. It doesn’t break us apart from one another; it asks each of us to allow OURSELVES to be broken down in order to transform. God’s message isn’t intended to lead to irreconcilable division OR effortless unity. We’re living into God’s Word most authentically when we accept its challenge while simultaneously trying to help one another through it.

But still, we insist on using it as an excuse to fabricate wars amongst ourselves. Division has long been a hallmark of God’s people. The Jewish people were divided against the pagans; the Christians were divided against the Jewish authorities; the Eastern Church was divided against the Western Church; the Protestants were divided against the Roman Catholics; and today, it feels like everyone is divided against everyone. None of these conflicts mean that God’s message is divisive by nature, but all of them show how our reactions to it can be toxic. There are deep, long-lasting wounds in the body of Christ and in all of creation because of our choices to reject God’s Word or to reject those who have. It turns out that we’re the troublemakers, after all.

But…we don’t have to be. When we’re at our best, we work hard to heal these wounds, to repair the fractures that we’ve created in Christ’s body. At our best, our goal isn’t to convince the “other side” that they’re wrong, but to live out God’s vision of peace and unity, where “None shall hurt or destroy on [God’s] holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”[3] This doesn’t mean that we avoid division; Jesus is clear that that’s just not possible (thanks, human nature!). Besides, conciliatory peace for its own sake has far too high a cost: it costs us the very Gospel itself. We need to seek a cooperative peace, one that happens through hard work, sacrifice, adversity, and perseverance. We need to be prepared to work diligently to mend the divisions that we cause. We need to put the Gospel’s message of love and peace above all else—our ego, our resources, our personal security, and DEFINITELY the status quo.

Division may be inevitable, but there is good news. Division is never permanent, because it’s contrary to God’s will. God is constantly pushing us—sometimes gently; other times, not so much—to overcome our hangups and get our act together. God’s Word is coming to the earth like a hurricane, ready to turn everything upside down; shouldn’t we be working together as we prepare to greet it? It’s up to us to figure out how to avoid letting our divisions define us or fracture us, instead letting them teach us and lay us bare, so that we can examine our true motivations and see how they stack up against the Gospel. Only then can we work through our division together and come out the other side stronger and holier and more united than before.

Don’t accept the division around us as a given. Accept it as a challenge: since it’s our choices that pull us apart, how can we make choices that bring us back together again? The Gospel provides a firm common ground for us, so let’s start there. Together, let’s stand on the pillars of justice, and truth, and love: things that we all want, need, and deserve. Together, let’s seek things that are Godly and good. Together, let’s live in this imperfect and broken world, knowing that division won’t get the last word—not if we have anything to say about it. If we’re going to be troublemakers, we might as well make trouble for the right reasons. Together, let’s make trouble for the forces that divide us, the fears that blind us, the things that separate us from God. Together, let’s be troublemakers like Jesus. Amen.


[1] Luke 2:34b-35a, NRSV.
[2] Luke 12:51, CEB (contractions added).
[3] Isaiah 11:9.

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