Don't Rock the Boat

First Presbyterian, Lafayette Louisiana
Year C, Ordinary 21
First Reading - Isaiah 5:1-7
Second Reading - Hebrews 11:29-12:2
Gospel lesson - Luke 12:49-56

I have a little bit of a problem. Well, not a problem so much as an opportunity. That’s what we used to say at Houston’s, one of the restaurants I worked in before seminary. At least that’s what the management called problems. They called them opportunities for success. Another restaurant that I worked in, Cow Tippers, was part of a smaller restaurant group. One of the owners occasionally worked management shifts to stay in touch with the business. He would often respond to his employee’s concerns by saying, “Is this a situation?” Meaning, is this something that happens often? This question would always be followed with, “Do we need a policy?” Meaning, do you need something to help you respond to this situation? It was all very helpful and positive, but we, of course, made fun of them in both cases.

Anyway, my problem is that I kill watches. Something about my body’s natural magnetic polarity kills watch batteries on everything but heavy duty, expensive watches or cheap digital watches. Yes, I know the chronograph kind would work for me, but they can be a bit pricey. I have a nice heavy watch that will work. It was my father’s. I wear it from time to time. Unfortunately I have an old injury in my wrist, and I can’t wear it for very long. Mostly I use my cell phone as a clock, although I did receive a call one time right in the middle of my sermon, so I’m not real fond of that option during worship. Some time ago I was given a pocket watch, and I’m trying it out today.

Problems are not bad things. They can be painful things. In its origin the word problem meant “to put before.” A tree falls in the road. You can try to deny it and roll on over it, or figure out how to move it. A problem, or more emphatically a crisis, forces a decision. How we handle problems often defines us. It tests us in the way that steel is tested by fire and friction. Do you know what happens? On a molecular level, the bonds become shorter and tighter. Of course molten steel must not be left to it’s own devices or it just becomes a useless, tight knit lump. It has to be further molded and pounded to become useful.

Relationships are like that sometimes. Families are like that sometimes. Congregations are like that sometimes. In fact, when Treva and I went to premarital counseling, our counselor said, “Next time we are going to talk about how you experience and resolve conflicts in your relationship.” We stared blankly at her, then each other, then at her. “We haven’t had any real conflict so far,” I said, in my naiveté. “Yes you have,” she said, reassuringly. Sure enough, we had a few things to talk about the next session. It’ll be 10 years this September, and guess what… sometimes we still have conflict. Conflict is just part of life. What matters is how we respond to it.

One summer a while ago I led river trips on the Shenandoah for Camp Glenkirk (which is now Camp Meadowkirk) of the Nation Capitol Presbytery. That particular summer the water table was unusually low. The river snaked its way through the mountains, as rivers are wont to do. The rock formations were made of shale and flint, and they formed diagonal lines across the river, creating a maze that required close attention to navigate and sometimes forcing paddlers to pick up their canoe and portage to get through. About halfway through the summer I developed a schpeal to frame the experience theologically. “This river is your life,” I told them. “The person who is with you in your canoe is your Christian brother or sister. Just like the opportunities that come along in your life of faith, the river will offer you opportunities to become closer and stronger or to become angry and resentful. It is your choice. Let’s go!”

And so we come to church this Sunday morning, hoping, needing, wanting to be comforted. We come here for stability and assurance, and the last thing we want is for someone to rock the boat. And what do we get but this passage from Isaiah comparing God’s elect who are unfruitful to a vineyard that is out of control and must be destroyed. God says, “I expected justice from you and all I see is self interest and bloodshed. I expected righteousness and all I hear are the cries of those who are being taken advantage of.”

Then Jesus really lowers the boom on us! “You want peace? Too bad, I bring division.” Where is the Jesus that the angels sing of? Where is the Prince of Peace? And this baptism thing, I thought he was already baptized. Oh course John did say, “The one coming after me is greater. I baptize with water, but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire!” Some scholars say that this is a forecast for the tongues of fire from Pentecost. Some have said that it is a warning about an apocalyptic day of judgment.

I say that it could be either, or it could be neither, or it could be both. What is sure is that Jesus is stating an action that will happen to him. His baptism will be made complete in his death on the cross. Then he is describing the repercussions it will have for us. “Father against son and son against father. Mother against daughter and daughter against mother,” he says. Truly that is what happened in the time following the resurrection. We may wish to deny it, but it still goes on today. I believe that the greatest conflict in the church today is not about who Jesus is or was. It is not about sexuality or ordination standards. It is not about how we receive the grace of Christ. It is about the way in which we will respond to it.

So then Jesus turns to the crowd. Just a few chapters back he admonished them for wanting a sign. “All you will get is Jonah. Remember that guy? Remember how the Ninevites repented just because he called them on their bluff? What more can I offer you but the presence of God, but you still continue in your sin! Somehow, you guys can figure out when it will rain and when it will be too hot, but you have no idea what time it is!”

The message of Jesus is about time. He is drawing a line in the sand and commanding a decision. In the words of the blues singer, Louis Jordon, he is saying, “Is you is my baby, or is you ain’t?” But in terms of the presence of God for all humanity for all space and time, this line in the sand is not a finish line (as so many of us want it to be). It is a starting line of a race that begins with our own baptism and continues on throughout our lives. It is a race that has been run, as the letter to the Hebrews reminds us, by many others before us. It is a race that will be run by many others after us.

And so we run with perseverance, knowing that we are never alone. We run with perseverance, remembering that unchecked self-interest slows us down and confuses us from being able to see the goal. We run the race knowing that those who have gone before us are a part of our salvation, just as we are a part of theirs.

That’s something to think about. In vs.39-40 the author, writing in the tradition of Paul, says, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

It makes me wonder. If they are a part of my salvation, and my salvation perfects or completes theirs in some way, who will be a part of mine? Who will offer the completeness of salvation for me that I am offering to them? We cannot see into the future, but unless there is some kind of magnetic field altering our watches, we can see what time it is.

For most of the history of Western Christianity, being a Christian has meant that you ascribe to a certain set of doctrines about who God is, who we are, and the relationship we share. That is not a bad thing. The trouble is that you just can’t define God and the experience of being in a relationship with God by a set of normative social contracts. You can’t legislate morality. You cannot know and have a relationship as creation with creator just because someone else has described it for you.

It’s like a ball game. Baseball has rules. It’s a simple game. But baseball wouldn’t be the game that I know it without the one time when my dad sat with me, pulled me in tight, and explained the ideals, the principles, and the opportunities that were taken advantage of, squandered, or not even considered. Baseball isn’t a sport to me, I’m not really that big of a fan. Baseball is a moment of deep relationship in the midst of great need. It is a stadium environment encompassing the pageantry of human existence. My understanding of baseball cannot even be put into words in a way that can be fully understood, even by those who have shared a similar experience.

That’s why doctrine is no longer answering the questions of those outside of these walls. I’m not saying that we need to throw it out. I’m saying we need to understand it as a home base to return to at the right time.

The concept of divine mystery just is not very interesting to a lot of people anymore. Maybe it is because we live with too much access to too much information. Maybe it is because of the vacuum of relationships being created by divided families who work more and have less quality of life. I don’t think that the problem is that people need a more specific answer than the church has been offering. I think they need less.

People do not believe in a one size fits all God anymore, and that is probably a good thing. What people are after is an understanding of how God might dwell in the midst of all things. That is not new. In the Reformed Heritage we call this the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And in the church today, particularly in the PC(USA), we don’t talk much about the Holy Spirit except on Pentecost. We don’t want to rock the boat.

In his book, Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark Yakonelli tells the story of a woman who raised her son in the church and taught him clearly about justice and righteousness. He was in college when the war broke out in Afghanistan. He decided to join a group of Christians who were going to stand in solidarity with Afghan Christians during the Shock and Awe bombing campaign. When she challenged him he said, “Didn’t you and the church teach me that Jesus was always befriending people who were weak and suffering?” Through tears she told her friend, “If I had known it would come to this I would have taught him to be a Chip-n-Dales dancer!”

Through our baptism we are united in the death of Christ so that we might share in the resurrection with Christ. This congregation is in a state of mourning right now, and for good reason. We have experienced many deaths, and much loss. Even so our text asks us today, have we died to ourselves? Oh, I hope so.

Are we, like Jesus, awaiting the kindling of the fire coming to cleanse, empower, and redeem us? Do we see the Education building as a failure to produce, or do we see it as a vital center of mission and proclamation? Do we see the needy in our midst as a problem to deal with or an opportunity to be the church? I can tell you where the Session stands on this, but you can see it in the policy we’ve put together to guide our active response to others.

I believe a great fire is being kindled here! And we are all, in our limited spheres of influence, the very saints of God that will help this world to see what time it is! It is so simple. Write a note to someone who has not come to church in a while, or better yet visit them. Fill an emergency bag for a neighbor in need. Bring in some peanut butter for U.C.O. Pray about God’s activity in your life, in someone else’s, and in the life of this congregation, and don’t keep it a secret that you did it! Share your ideas with each other for creative solutions to the problems you see, whether it is taking care of the building or reaching out to someone else who needs to know of God’s presence. You, yes you, are God’s beloved child; chosen, redeemed, and filled with the presence of God to share. None of this is because of our worthiness. It is only because of God’s willingness. For Christ’s baptism was not just completed in spite of the cross. It was completed because of it. May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And may our proclamation be joined so that the sound becomes a deafening ring to silence the hatred of this world, to the glory of God, now and always. Amen.

References and Inspirational Reading

Bandstra, Andrew. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Second Readings, Acts And the Epistles; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pages 510-514).

Butrick, George Arthur, Ed. The Interpreter's Bible: Luke, John; Abingdon-
Cokesbury Press, 1957.

Limburg, James. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Old Testament and Acts: The First Readings; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pages 298-301).

Write, Stephen I. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts : The Third Readings, The Gospels; Roger E. Van Harn, ed.; Eerdmans, 2001 (pages 386-390).

Yaconelli, Mark. Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus;
Youth Specialties, 2006 (page 43).
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