Sermon for August 14, 2016

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching     Gospel Lesson Luke 12:49-56


 “Not What You Think”

Jesus wasn’t a nice guy. We like to think Jesus was a nice guy and that we’re nice guys like Jesus was a nice guy. We like to think that Jesus was a nice guy only better at being a nice guy than we are. Where did we ever get that idea?

Jesus was a nice guy sometimes. He was compassionate towards women like the thirsty woman at the well, and towards playful children: “Let the little children come to me for it is to such as these as belongs the realm of God”. He was compassionate and kind toward the outcasts: the lepers, the blind, and the hungry. He included foreigners like the gentiles, and the powerless like household slaves, and religious outsiders like the Samaritans and enemies like the soldiers, the Centurions who occupied his country from Rome. If you’re a guest in worship this morning from here in York, make no mistake, this Jesus we talk about in churches will invite you and welcome you and love you to pieces. If you’re from away or if you’ve never set foot in a church, this Jesus you’ve heard about will do whatever it takes to embrace you with love. Jesus reassures you this morning that whatever you’re going through, there is a God who loved you into being, who is with you now, and who will remain with you to the end of time.

But Jesus was anything but kind toward the religious men of his own tribe: the men of his village who led the Synagogue, or those who led the Temple in Jerusalem. His criticism was fierce for the religious leadership: the high priests and scribes, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Jesus didn’t offer them the right hand of Christian fellowship or a Hospitality moment and warm smile. Jesus kicked them in the backside. At every turn he confronted them with the modern day version of “Get over yourself.” “Who do you think you are?” Hypocrite. You call on God’s name, saying: “Lord, Lord in worship, and then you walk out the door and neglect, ignore and abuse your neighbor and my creation.”

So what are we to think about this Jesus? What are we to make of this Jesus who says things so unpleasant and alarming that we want to look away?

Recall with me a moment what Jesus said: He said:

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;they will be divided” He went on to describe that Father will be against son and son against father, and Mother will be against daughter. He then went on to describe division in every intimate family relationship.

         We can almost hear his disciples cringe: “Jesus, stop talking like that. Who can hear what are you saying?” No wonder the church people murmured against him! Now it makes sense that when he preached in the home church where he grew up, his uncles and the friends of his now deceased father tried to run him off the nearest cliff.

         This morning we’re high in the summer season. Half the congregation headed over to the White Mountains this weekend to swim, fish, hike or lay down on the couch upta camp and take a nap. Some of you have to head home soon from vacation here in York. Before everybody comes home from vacation and we have to act like we know what we’re doing here, lets’ take a few moments to look for God’s good news in Jesus’ hard teaching.

First Jesus talked about bringing fire to earth. We’re been watching the news all summer of wildfires out west, homes lost in California, pastureland burned in the Rockies. Fire can be indiscriminate, leaving a desolate scorched earth. I’d like to talk my way out of the wildness of this lesson, but frankly, the reference to kindling sounds like a fire that wipes out everything it touches. There’s urgency in this message. People running from a wildfire have no time to lose. Residents of the wilderness know that there may be no time to turn back and comb through the house looking for important documents. You have to always be ready.       

The second image is that of Jesus’ baptism, also a form of purification, but now with water and the spirit instead of fire. Jesus is drawing a line in the sand between things of God and things that cannot belong in God’s kingdom. There’s no compromise, no negotiation, no wiggle room here. That’s what makes us so uncomfortable.

         Like a bouncer at God’s door, both the waters of baptism and the fires of spirit, make clear what’s in and what’s out. Whether or not Jesus is a nice guy, one thing IS clear. Jesus’ message about the kingdom of God always astonishes us. It astonished the members of the Synagogue then, and when we actually pay attention to the stuff he said, it astonishes us still. We think we know this nice guy Jesus, this brother who walks with us and talks with us. But make no mistake, Jesus’ message is seldom what we think.

         Jesus shouts, “Wake up, people.” He gets it that it’s summer vacation and our brains have down-shifted to low gear. Nevertheless, Jesus says, “Wake up for just a minute and pay attention. There’s good news coming.”

God sent Jesus into the world to invite us to make the move of our life. He invites us to reconsider where we raise our family and where we retire. It’s going to be the most challenging move we ever make, and we’ll have to leave things we care about behind. Life in the Kingdom of God is costly and demanding.

“Come, follow me”, Jesus says, “In the Kingdom of God. You’ll have a new house and a new family and a new job. I’ll teach you to fish for people, heal the sick, and serve the hungry. As Kingdom people you will take off your bibs waiting for God to give you this or feed you that, and you will put on an apron to serve my world.

Jesus not only is NOT a nice guy, but he’s a terrible recruiter. He warns us that kingdom living is hard. The conditions of Kingdom life can tough, and that when we live as followers of the Way of Jesus people won’t always like us.

The consequences of our faithfulness will not get us invited to birthday parties. The clearer we are in our commitment to Christ, the uneasier others may be. Households may be divided against households. When your relative wants to have a drinking party out at the lake, you may not choose to go. Ugly things happen when Aunt Marjorie has a little too much. When your best friend invites you to dinner and you imagine what it will be like over dessert when her husband goes on and on about all the racial and ethnic and political groups that are to blame for the troubles of the world, you may choose to meet your friend for coffee alone, instead. Your friend may catch on to what you’re doing and distance herself from you. That’s how the household of humankind gets divided. It’s not that God is building walls. On the contrary: Jesus is simply warning the disciples that following God’s plan for the world may be costly. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will show you a more excellent way

There’s a saying among motorcyclists to keep everybody safe on the road. That saying is this. “Ride your own ride.” I actually heard one of the Olympic medalists say the same thing this week when asked by a reporter to compare his performance with that of a competitor. The swimmer said simply, “All I can do is swim my own swim.” We can’t keep people around us from holding onto grudges, or being mean spirited, or saying unkind things. We can’t make our children stop making foolish choices or our spouse behave in ways we want them too. We can’t force someone else to forgive the one who has hurt them, even though we observe with them how much its hurting them to hold on to the pain. We can’t make anybody else do anything.

         Fortunately, that’s not our job. I think Jesus is saying, “Walk your own walk, ride your own ride, and swim your own swim.” As a follower of the way of Jesus play above the line, above the pool of man’s inhumanity to man, above humankind’s cruelty to people who think, act or look different than we do. Jesus said I’m going to send fire to burn away all that is not of God. Hold your head up and keep walking. I’m going to baptize the world with holy water and wash away all that cannot enter God’s new order. Whatever happens, follow me.

         Jesus may not have been a nice guy but Jesus clearly was a smart guy. He spoke in parables and illustrated through story. When we follow the Way of Jesus our own household may be divided among us, but it may also be divided within us. Jesus wants to help us be the best human beings created in God’s own image that we can be, for our sake, God’s sake, and the sake of the world.

         I think watching the Olympics this week gives us some insight into how this happens. Imagine that Jesus is an Olympics level coach, demanding but fair. What it takes to win gold on the international field is nothing compared with what it takes to receive gold on the eternal field.

         Imagine for example, a certain swimming coach named Bob Bowman. His protégée Michael Phelps has won 23 Olympic gold medals, 28 medals in all. But it was not always so.

It was mid-May 2014, and Michael Phelps was out of retirement. It was big news. He was making his return to competition at a meet in Charlotte, N.C., and his first event back was the 200-meter freestyle. He was awful. Phelps finished ninth in the preliminaries, not even qualifying for the championship final. Suddenly this comeback thing seemed like a very bad idea. “I thought, ‘What the heck am I doing swimming again? I’m so slow. This is terrible. I just had to trust Bob. I’ve trusted him since I was 11 years old. I had to keep trusting him. I knew he wouldn’t let me down.”

“The partnership between Bowman and Phelps has been unbreakable ever since – though Phelps has tried several times to sever those bonds. The result is one of the great coach-athlete relationships in the history of American sport. Their relationship began before Phelps had even reached puberty, and it began at a time when the swimmer’s relationship with his father, Fred, was waning. Debbie Phelps did a remarkable job raising Michael, and he was close with his sisters (particularly Hillary). But much of the male guidance in his life came from the demanding swim coach with the South Carolina accent who kept pushing him in the pool.

“In August 1997, Bob Bowman had seen enough to know. He called Debbie and Fred Phelps in, along with Michael, to the NBAC office for a meeting. The message was simple but powerful: your son has a chance to make the Olympic team in 2000, and absolutely will make it with a chance to earn medals in 2004. According to Bowman’s book, “The Golden Rules,” Debbie Phelps looked at him and said, “You’re crazy, Bowman.”

“But Bowman told Phelps’ parents that a plan had to be put in place right then, when Michael was 11. He needed to stop playing baseball and lacrosse, and transfer “to a school where his teachers would support his swimming efforts.” And he needed to attend every practice, both in the mornings and afternoons.

“It was a lot to ask, but Phelps trusted in Bob. In 2000, the trust was rewarded and the vision fulfilled – he was the youngest American Olympian at age 15. By 2004, Phelps was winning six medals, fully launching himself to the top of the sport. By 2008 Phelps had surpassed Mark Spitz with the eight-gold masterpiece. Phelps was only 23. Then came the Dark Years when Michael stopped trusting his coach. He didn’t show up for practice, he came late and hung over, he still won sometimes, out of sheer talent, but he also started to lose.

“For Bowman, who is a meticulous planner and a resolute believer that great swimming achievements are built years in advance by consistent training, this was a nightmare. Six weeks before Olympic Trials, Bowman essentially put Phelps in training jail and wouldn’t let him out. Phelps made the team in four individual events – a testament to ridiculous talent and toughness, not to conditioning. Adding three relays, he swam seven events in London. The results were great for a mortal – four gold medals, two silver. But Phelps missed the podium in an event he had dominated, the 400 IM, and was beaten at the touch in his signature event, the 200 butterfly. Bowman talks a lot about deposits in the bank in practice, and withdrawals on race day. Phelps was overdrawn.

“He was doing the bare minimum,” Bowman said.

When Michael Phelps decided to come back in 2014, he complicated the comeback with his second DUI late in 2014, resulting in a rehab stay that helped change his life. Bowman visited him there. Though Phelps forgot who he was, Bowman never forgot him.

The cost of discipleship is high for Kingdom champions. God didn’t send us Jesus to make us feel more comfortable in our own skin. God sent Jesus to create Kingdom people. God sent Jesus to turn the corrupt, selfish, greedy, judging, blaming, shaming world on its head. There’s no room for that in the Kingdom of God. There’s no place for self-centered behavior or me-first thinking, or for feeling that we’re better than anybody else created in the image of God.

Jesus may not have been a nice guy, but he loved fiercely. He never shamed or blamed people into Kingdom life. He knew we have to want it more than anything if we’re going to stay the course. Like any dedicated and demanding coach, Jesus said, “I can make you a champion. You have what it takes. You’re going to have to work harder than you can imagine with singularity of focus and commitment. But most of all, you have to trust me with your life.”

(Michael Phelps story written by Pat Forde, Yahoo Sports, August, 2016)