49 "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 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." 54 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. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, "There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. 56 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?
Can you think of a time when you stood up for something or someone?
How did it feel before?
How did it feel afterward?
In our Gospel lesson for today - Jesus, who we often think of as this peaceful, robe-wearing shepherd - holding a sheep with his long flowing hair perfectly placed upon his shoulders, is showing his true colors. Jesus is frustrated or angry or simply worn out.
Unfortunately, this gospel passage is often used by Christians as a fire & brimstone passage - saying one must follow Jesus or else be burned in the “fire” Jesus came to bring. The message of bringing division can often also be misconstrued to suggest one should alienate their family if they will not invite Jesus into their heart.
However, this fire that Jesus is talking about isn’t the fires of hell or damnation. They are more of a purifying fire - as is often talked about in the Old Testament. As a kid growing up in the country, I have a vivid memory in learning about this kind of purifying fire. Driving to school one morning, an entire field was black, charcoal leaves of grass. When my dad told me they burned the field on purpose, I was shocked! This kind of fire is intentionally set to help the growth of grasses by getting rid of excess, non-essentials. This kind of fire allows for new life to be born.
In talking about this fire, then, Jesus is saying that he has come to help us zero in on the message of God’s love and grace, letting go of all the other “stuff” we’ve put around this message that detracts from it. It’s not always a really easy message to hear - Jesus is getting a little frustrated. And in so doing, Jesus is really putting his foot down to say “this is what I am trying to tell you! This is how big and radical God’s love really is!”
Jesus is taking a stand.
The past week, there were at least two articles in the Portland Press Herald that were quite upsetting.
The first was about a new city project to “clean up” the West Bayside neighborhood. You may know this neighborhood as the place where Preble Street is located. In the article it read:
“Hirshon (President of the Bayside Neighborhood Association) said neighborhood residents don’t typically worry about people who are staying temporarily in the city’s homeless shelters, or who are availing themselves of temporary emergency assistance and employment-related services. Instead, he said, it’s “the regulars” and the people who are content to hang out on street corners all day drinking alcohol and causing a ruckus.”
The second was about a potential development in the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood.
“It should be a big improvement up there,” Saulnier (The Developer) said. “There are some homeless people living up there in the brush and vegetation. So we will clean that up.”
Both of these articles suggest that real human beings are “problems” in need of being “cleaned up”. Now, I can understand the desire to figure out ways to alleviate homelessness in our city. But “cleaning” people up, off the street or out of the brush a vegetation is utterly inhumane.
What might be even more upsetting to me is that the writers of these articles expect readers will empathize with them. They expect that we will also see our neighbors - our fellow children of God - as less than human.
But here’s the thing about Jesus. He couldn’t care less about the polished, pristine facades that we all work so hard to show to others. Jesus identifies himself with the outcasts and amongst those upon whom the world has turned it’s back. Jesus is hanging on the street corners with the people who are causing a ruckus. He can be found with each and every one of us in our time of deepest and darkest need. He is with us in our struggles with depression, anxiety, insecurity, addiction, over-eating or simply defeat. Whatever your struggle may be - Jesus is there with you.
This is not the message the world tells. We are told that it is up to us to be okay. We are told that all our struggles are results of our individual actions. If we could just work harder, be more kind, have success in our jobs, or “keep the peace” by not offending anyone - we could each, individually earn our salvation and worth.
But the truth is, none of us can go it on our own. Our salvation is not about us as individuals, it is about us as a collective. Throughout this 12th chapter in Luke Jesus hasn’t been telling the disciples not to worry, to share what they have, and to store up “treasures in heaven” so that they can, individually, act in the correct ways and therefore earn their good graces with God. Jesus is encouraging us to connect, to be in community with one another. Jesus is pointing us toward one another and toward our collective salvation.
And this is why Jesus is frustrated in our Gospel lesson for today. This is why Jesus is talking about fire and baptism, division, and the “signs of the times”. Jesus is teaching that true peace isn’t simply everybody “getting along” - true peace is all of us recognizing every person’s human dignity and value. That each and every person has access to the support and resources that they deserve simply because they are human - they are beloved children of God. True peace is the liberation of all of God’s children. And if the horrific events of the cross are any indication - true peace might look quite offensive to some.
Jesus teaches that realizing true peace means taking a stand - sometimes a very unpopular, or dangerous, stand.
In the verse before where our reading begins, Peter asks Jesus whether these teachings, these parables - not to worry, sell your possessions, give to the poor, be ready to see God’s Kingdom - are for just the disciples or for everyone. Jesus responds by saying “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
All of God’s children have been given the gift of everlasting life. We have been given the promise of never-ending, all encompassing love. Much has been entrusted to us. And now, Jesus also invites us into this bold proclamation of God’s love - sometimes by taking a stand.
Taking a stand can be frightening, scary, nerve-wracking (like you’ve all stated). Taking a stand is risky - it means putting yourself on the line - it means potentially alienating yourself from people you love - it might even mean creating divisions where you would rather “keep the peace”, we might say.
God’s promise to us is that she will always have our back. Whether you’ve got it all together or you’re in the midst of the deepest darkness of struggle, God is with you. Whether you excitedly and often are able to take a stand for the sake of God’s love or whether it’s a scary and incredibly uncomfortable situation - she’s standing beside you.
May we zero in on the promise of God’s radical love so that we might rest securely and act body in that promise. Amen.