[This sermon was delivered at Community of the Savior, Rochester NY, on Sunday, August 18, based on Luke 12:49-56 and Hebrews 11:31-38.]
Everyone has an occasional bad day. I don’t mean bad hair days; I mean bad days. Days in which we are prone to say things we later regret. Days in which we are too tired, emotionally or physically or both, to be at our best. Days which catch us off-guard and often bring out our worst. Don’t raise your hand and answer out loud. Have you had a bad day recently? Let’s quietly admit that we have such days.
Was Jesus just having a bad day? He has made the turn toward Jerusalem and it doesn’t feel like those happy days in Galilee, when throngs were becoming crowds and there was an air of excitement whenever he appeared. Those days when we saw Jesus smiling and laughing. Luke 12 doesn’t feel that way. It is filled with warnings. Two phrases run through the chapter: “Do not be afraid…” and “Do not worry….” Which means Jesus knows his disciples have reason to be afraid and worried. The call is for alertness and watchfulness. Today’s passage ends with a weather warning. “When you see clouds coming in from the west, you say, ‘Storm’s coming’—and you’re right. And when the wind comes out of the south, you say, ‘This’ll be a hot one’—and you’re right. Frauds! You know how to tell a change in the weather, so don’t tell me you can’t tell a change in the season, the God-season we’re in right now.” (Luke 12:54-56 in “The Message”) Clearly Jesus didn’t live in western New York, where weather forecasting is a tad more complicated. The Sea of Galilee didn’t cause lake effect snow storms, where one neighborhood might get 12 inches of snow, while a neighborhood one mile away might get a dusting. But, alas, he isn’t talking about meteorology with Doppler radar, satellite images, and 10-day projections. He is talking about seeing realities right in front of us and working with them in faithful ways.
The reality in front of them is that Jesus’ message doesn’t always make for happy family times. The icy edge in this passage is that Jesus’ message threatens nuclear family ties. At this point, he is not the family values guy many think he is and that we want him to be. “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 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.” It sounds like he is having a bad day. Let’s give him some space. We know he is pro-family. We know he is all in for family values. Don’t we? Isn’t he?
Jesus was clear on numerous occasions that the family of faith matters more than the family of bloodlines. When the two—the family of bloodlines and the family of faith—are intertwined, that is wonderful; it has been so in my life. But it isn’t always so. When push comes to shove, Jesus elevates the faith family above the bloodlines family.
Jesus didn’t come to save the nuclear family. He came to save broken people and bring them into the new family of faith. That theme that runs throughout the New Testament. Two passages in the gospels catch it well.
- First, we look at Luke 8:19-21, where Jesus is teaching in a crowded room. “His mother and brothers showed up but couldn’t get through to him because of the crowd. He was given the message, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside wanting to see you.’ He replied, ‘My mother and brothers are the ones who hear and do God’s Word. Obedience is thicker than blood.’” (Both passages are quoted from “The Message.”)
- Second, we look at John 2:2-5, where Jesus is at a wedding party. “Jesus and his disciples were guests also. When they started running low on wine at the wedding banquet, Jesus’ mother told him, ‘They’re just about out of wine.’ Jesus said, ‘Is that any of our business, Mother—yours or mine? This isn’t my time. Don’t push me.’ She went ahead anyway, telling the servants, ‘Whatever he tells you, do it.’”
Jesus comes to make everything new, including how we understand and experience family. I am troubled by many of the ways churches use the word family. I object when churches talk about family ministry in an exclusive way. Everything the church does is family ministry. Musical ensembles, Bible studies, VBS, refugee resettlement, soup kitchens and food pantries, softball teams, mission trips close to home and far away: these are all family ministry. Single people, married people, widowed people, divorced people, remarried people, married people with children by whatever means, people with stepchildren, married people without children they bore—these are all the members of the family. Jesus comes to make everything new, including how we understand and experience family.
A relative of mine died two days ago. Barbara lived a faithful and fruitful life. She was my sister, Barbara Jean Riegles, a member of this congregation. She had been in the hospital under palliative care the last few weeks. Jean was a single woman, never married and never bearing children. But that doesn’t mean she had no family. People of this congregation—not just pastors—had been visiting her, sitting at her bed side when she could not communicate or acknowledge their presence. Jean taught music and voice at Houghton College for many years. Former students have been sending messages of love, gratitude, and support. Her faith family was there for her. Jean and I were related in the most significant way: we belonged to and served the same Lord, which made us siblings in this family, this community of the savior.
Jesus doesn’t come to keep the status quo. He never has and never will. He stirs up the pot. He rocks the boat. He messes with our rigid categories. He ever surprises us by not fitting into our neat religious boxes. He is not a toothless tiger, not a milquetoast messiah. Yet he always comes to in grace and tenderness, welcoming all sorts of people, including some we might be embarrassed to have in the family. Jesus comes to make everything new, including how we understand and experience family. He comes to seek and save the lost. To bring back to the flock the wandering sheep at end of day. To throw custom to the wind as he runs to welcome home his prodigal sons and daughters.
In her book, “Leaving Church,” Barbara Brown Taylor writes about moving from being on a pastoral staff at a large church in Atlanta, to becoming solo pastor of a smaller church in a small town in northeastern Georgia. She found that the congregation had all kinds of people in it. She writes, “In a big city they might have found homes in five markedly different congregations, but in a county with only one Episcopal Church they learned to live together—the Yellow Dog Democrats, the National Rifle Association boosters, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the League of Women Voters. I asked a newcomer what brought him to Grace-Calvary. He replied, ‘I know people who come to this church, and I finally had to see for myself how they got through a Sunday morning without assaulting each other.’” Our essential family unit is the local congregation, where we get through Sunday mornings without assaulting each other. Where our unity is not uniformity, but our common commitment to Jesus. And our common table. And our common baptismal font. And our common love for God and neighbor. We are called to be a community of the savior, finding our common unity in Christ.
We got an unusual glimpse of family in the wake of the terrible gun violence in El Paso on August 3, which killed 22 people. Antonio Basco’s wife of 22 years, Margie, was working at that Walmart and was shot to death. Because they didn’t have many relatives left and none nearby, Antonio was concerned that his wife’s life and death might not be noted. In the obituary, he included the phrase, “all are invited to her memorial service.” And, oh yes, Margie loved flowers. The flowers started pouring in, sprays by the hundreds, from all over the country and across oceans. Sensing how the El Paso community was responding, the funeral director moved the memorial service to a large church. People stood in line for several blocks to greet Antonio. Of the thousands of notes of sympathy, one simply said, “We are your family.”
This family has room for all sorts of folk. Like “Rahab the prostitute… And Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets…” And those “…who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness…. Others were tortured…. suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented….” Talk about bad days. They come even to the faithful. And the faithful keep faith. They are family. We are family. In the family, we pull together and support each other. Welcome to the family reunion, which we do every Sunday morning.