Sermon by Helena Martin, Seminarian (Berkeley Divinity School at Yale), on Sunday, August 18, 2019.
Year C, Proper 15 (Luke 12:49–56)
In this morning’s reading from Luke, Jesus says,
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No… but rather division!
The Gospel today has Jesus threatening us, calling us hypocrites, and foretelling quite a bit of doom. Basically, I picked a great Sunday to preach here.
Before the part of chapter 12 we read this morning, Jesus is already in the middle of a big rant. In the span of a few dozen verses, he: preaches that speaking against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable, warns us not to store up wealth on earth, teaches over and over about what makes a good slave, and explains how an unfaithful slave should receive a beating. Generally, I prefer Jesus the Comforter. Maybe you do, too.
But actually, chapter 12 gives us him, too. In the same diatribe, we find many of Jesus’ loveliest phrases (most of which we usually hear out of context of this rant). For example, he reassures us of God’s deep love for each of us. He says:
even the hairs of your head are all counted.
That’s how well God knows every person whom God created. After a particularly harsh teaching in the rant, Jesus adds:
[Don’t] be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
And, of course, we have:
where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Out of context, these lines are comforting. But Jesus doesn’t mean to only console us here. If we’d been in the crowd that day, we would’ve heard the reprimands along with the consolations. I wonder how it would have felt to hear such extreme statements one after the other. “You hypocrites!” “God loves you so much.” But Jesus teaches to change lives; he’s not saying these words so the crowd can smile and say, “What a nice sermon,” on their way to brunch later. The fire and brimstone come along with the words of comfort; Jesus mixes them all together. “I’m asking you to be so full of faith,” he seems to say, “that your own mother might object to your conversion, that the people in your life might think you’re crazy.” Jesus wants us to trust him so much that we’re willing to let go of the worldly things we believe are so important. So much that we’ll make sacrifices, willingly and spontaneously, to follow him.
In Jesus’ speech, I hear a call to embody both love and anger at the same time. I might call that holy anger. What would holy anger look like today? Cynthia Bourgeault, a contemplative and a friend of Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, talks about toxic anger, in contrast to this idea of holy anger especially in the context of faith. She calls toxic anger a “cancer in Christian spirituality.” But then, here Jesus is, speaking what appear to be pretty angry words when he calls us hypocrites!
The anger that Bourgeault calls “toxic” is the kind that causes panic. It’s anger that starts and ends in fear. From her contemplative practice, she’s gained a perspective that grounds her in God’s love first. So she doesn’t have to be afraid. She doesn’t have to succumb to the seduction of toxic anger’s immediate rewards: the belief that I’m right and you’re wrong.
We can only hold anger and love at the same time when we’re grounded in a reality that transcends fear. Anger that comes from fear will always be poisonous. Jesus models holy anger for us because he isn’t speaking from a place of fear. He speaks out of faith. And those comforting phrases – it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom – those remind us of the content of his faith. He speaks from the reality of God’s unconditional love. That’s a place where fear can’t exist.
Jesus’ firey language reminds me of another prophet’s words. Nearly parallel to Jesus’ diatribe in Luke 12 is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s a short work from 1963 with one of his most famous quotes which, like Jesus’ words in Luke 12, usually gets taken out of context. Dr. King wrote:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Jesus certainly believed that justice is God’s business. When he says:
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!
he’s not talking about a fire of destruction. He’s talking about a cleansing fire, a fire of justice, like the tongues of flames that appeared over the apostles’ heads in Pentecost. Proof of the Holy Spirit, God with us. Dr. King continues:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Anything affecting one of us affects us all. Because we are all God’s children, we’re responsible to and for one another.
Dr. King wrote this letter (as the title might have given away) from a jail in Birmingham. It’s not addressed to the public, not to a newspaper, not to other civil rights activists. The letter is addressed to his fellow clergymen. So this letter is a call to Christians. And it’s not a call for attention; it’s a call to action. Like Jesus, Dr. King didn’t see a difference between loving God and fighting for justice. He wrote the letter not as a political figure, not as someone being monitored by the FBI, but as a follower of Jesus.
In the letter, Dr. King calls Jesus “an extremist for love, truth and goodness.” He points out that Jesus, in this extremism, is able to “[rise] above his environment.” If there’s anything we need, it’s to rise above our environment of toxic anger: both in Christianity, as Bourgeault observes, and in our public life. So Dr. King’s prescription is for us to become extremists. Certainly not for his political agenda, not even for Christianity. But for love, truth, and goodness.
As Jesus shows us, being an extremist for love is not all about turning the other cheek. It’s not about passive acceptance of the way things are. We need the right kind of anger and the right kind of love. We can’t get those right kinds unless we hold both at the same time.
In this morning’s passage, Jesus says that following him involves risk. He promises that his presence will bring division. He says to the crowd:
From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.
In the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King calls out to us to take a risk. I see him speaking in holy anger. The people he expected to be allies, especially the white ministers, never showed up in the way he hoped. Instead, he writes, they
remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.
(A little awkward to read that out loud inside an actual church.) That type of silence is not an option in the face of injustice. Dr. King and Jesus both point to the unjust realities of the world and they contrast that with God’s love and justice.
It’s helpful to read today’s Gospel in the context of what Jesus knows is coming. He even says:
I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress [I’m] under until [it’s] completed!
He knows that soon enough, the world is going to reject him. Episcopal priest Kelly Brown Douglas came to Berkeley Divinity School at Yale last year. And she said that the crucifixion was the world’s way of saying “no” to God. We couldn’t understand. Why would almighty, omniscient God take on a human body? What a ridiculous thing to claim. Jesus’ preaching and teaching came from “above” his own environment, from a different level of consciousness. We couldn’t accept it.
Rev. Douglas continued, though: the crucifixion was our way of saying “no” to God, but the resurrection was God’s way of saying “no” to the crucifixion. In other words, we said, “No thanks, God, we don’t believe that you love us this much.” And God said, “But I do.” Jesus came back from the dead to show us that this world – that death and politics and fear – is not all there is. There’s a power much stronger than all the things we believe to be immutable and important. God’s love has the final say.
I can’t dictate what it means for you, individually, to become an extremist for love, like Jesus. And I certainly can’t claim that I’m doing it perfectly well. But Jesus reminds us this morning that, whatever that does look like for you, it definitely doesn’t mean going about your business, believing it’s enough to simply do no harm in the world. Because being on the side of love comes at a cost, and we need faith to be able to endure that cost. We need faith that the Holy Spirit will give us words when we ask for them. We need faith that the forces of this world are not the most powerful thing in this world. And we need faith that even though speaking from a place of holy anger may cause division, it’s also our only choice when we follow Jesus.
May God grant us that faith and help us to uphold each other in it. Amen.