August 15th, 2010

Today’s Gospel reading is certainly not an easy one to understand. We have become accustomed to Jesus speaking about peace and love, and today we heard words that certainly were not gentle. Let’s look at parts of it again, and this time, really listen to the words. Jesus begins by saying: I have come to bring fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. In Scripture, fire is a very powerful symbol, and may be used for good or bad purposes. Moses was awakened to his mission by a burning bush, which is now the symbol of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, and while he was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, they were led during the night by a pillar of fire. When Isaiah was called to be God’s prophet, his lips were touched by a burning coal, which represented forgiveness of sins as well as the idea that he would be inspired to speak God’s word to the people. When Elijah prayed, God sent fire to destroy the altar of Baal, thus demonstrating his power to those who worshipped there.
Of course, it is not only in Scripture that fire is so important. We use some kind of fire to heat our homes, and to cook our food. Granted, we have moved a long way from the days when a pot was hung over an open flame, but still, the concept is the same.
Many of us fear fire because of its potential for destruction, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. When I was a child, I lived in a paper town, and we knew all about forest fires. Every summer, hectares of woodland were destroyed, often due to human carelessness. Now, most people look upon forest fires as being completely negative, but you know, they aren’t. The year after a forest fire was always a prime year for blueberries, which seemed to thrive on burned-over ground. And, without the cleansing effect of fire, trees would eventually choke themselves out of existence. New trees would not be able to grow, because there would be no room for them. We were told that fire was necessary for the forest to continue growing, that without this kind of fire, the forests would be no more.
And this is the kind of fire Jesus was talking about – a cleansing fire, one that would destroy that which was choking his people. This fire may be compared to a refiner’s fire, one which burns off the impurities and leaves only the gold or silver behind. This fire is meant to enflame us, to bring us to God, in the same way as the fire led the Israelites out of Egypt. If you remember the story of the first Pentecost, it was tongues of flame which appeared over the apostles’ heads, and which gave them the courage to do what Jesus had told them to do. They were not told, and we are not told, that this would be an easy task.
We also heard Jesus say today: Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. Now, this is not something we expect to hear from Jesus, the Prince of Peace. But think about it for a minute, those of you who come to church every Sunday, those of you who are believers. You are divided, you are separated from many people, probably even from some of your family members. You are mocked by those who do not believe, and even some who do believe think that your devotion is a bit over the top. Every Sunday we have visitors in this church, people who think that it is so important that they spend time with God each week that they will even seek out a church when they are on vacation. Let me tell you, you are in the minority. If all of the tourists in Québec City wanted to attend church on Sunday morning, there would not be enough pews to accommodate them all. But you are here. And that is a division.
Within many families, there is also a division. People raise their children attending church regularly, and when the children are old enough to decide for themselves, many of them stop. Sometimes one child will continue, while his brothers and sisters won’t. And, you know, the division becomes more noticeable when someone feels called to ministry. I count myself very lucky that my own family has been supportive, but some of my colleagues in seminary did not feel the same support. Parents who bragged that their children were attending university suddenly stopped when the child decided to go to seminary. It was almost as though they were a little embarrassed to have a child who wanted to be a minister. I never quite understood that, but it happened.
Now, I have to admit that some of my friends were a bit taken aback when I started telling them. One said: I thought that you were too intelligent for all that stuff. What do you say to someone like that? Fortunately, they have stopped doubting my intelligence now that several years have passed, but I think that they still wonder sometimes about my sanity.
That being said, ministers in Canada really don’t have it so bad. I have spoken before about my trip to Cuba and some of the things I saw there. I didn’t tell you that it is only in the last few years that ministers have been able to preach openly. The Roman Catholic church was, for many years, the only church that was permitted, and that was only because the priests preached what the government told them to. Ministers of other denominations were often arrested, and kept in jail for years. Sometimes they just disappeared, which meant that they were killed. For a long time, house churches were the only places people could worship. Even now, denominations other than Roman Catholic are considered suspicious by the government, and being a member of one of these denominations – Presbyterian included – often means that you will not be considered for a higher paying job. And it is not only Cuba where Christians are persecuted; where Christians are still imprisoned; where Christians are killed. In Afghanistan just the other day, a young missionary nurse was shot by the Taliban, along with the rest of the medical team. Ten people, who were doing God’s work, in the name of Jesus, were executed, and nothing will be done about it.
So here, in Canada, we don’t really have it so bad, as we are free to worship and to work in God’s name. But even here, talking about Jesus brings division. How many wars have been fought in the name of religion? And I’m not talking about Muslims and Christians here. I am talking about people who believe in the same God, who believe that Jesus Christ died to save us. And yet, they kill each other in the name of religion. We are fortunate that this seldom happens in Canada, but other things happen, which show how we value our differences. It is not that long ago that this province had denominational schools, just as we did in Newfoundland. I remember that it was just about forbidden for students in the Catholic schools to associate with students from the other schools. And most of us are familiar with the what they call the troubles in Ireland, the issues between Roman Catholics and Protestants. I don’t know how many of you have read the book TRINITY by Leon Uris. The hero of the book is a man by the name of Conner Larkan, an Irish Catholic. Conner Larkin is the biggest and the best in his school. He has the brightest brains. He is a scholar and the valedictorian of his class. He is also the greatest athlete in his class. He is a star rugby player in Ireland. He is a great artist. As Conner Larkin grew up, he became part of the Irish Liberation Movement. He became passionate about it. He became fanatical about it. The movement became his whole life, so much so that he didn’t want to fall in love and get married. To fall in love and get married would make him soft and less passionate about the mission that he was part of. He was to be fully dedicated to the Irish Liberation Movement. He was not going to fall in love with a woman and get married. And of course, he does. Not only does he fall in love, he falls in love with a Protestant woman. But he continues to be just as involved in the movement. Of course, the inevitable happens. The secret about his marriage leaked out, and it leaked out through a Protestant prayer circle. The women of that Protestant prayer circle quietly spread the news about “that woman” and her secret marriage to a Catholic man. By that evening, she had been murdered, dismembered and thrown into a garbage can. Meanwhile, Conner Larkin was captured and tossed into prison. When he found out that his true love had been assassinated and her body torn apart, he fell apart. He emotionally disintegrated in prison. Ever so slowly, ever so slowly he healed from this enormous trauma. As he healed, he came even more fanatical for the mission of the Irish Liberation Movement. He became totally committed to the Irish Liberation Movement for the rest of his life. If only fanatics like this could be as committed to living a Christ-like life as they are to destroying people who don’t believe exactly as they do! That would be an end to sectarian violence once and for all.
Talking about Jesus brings division, as we each think that we have the answer. And yet, we don’t even see Jesus in the same way. Some people see Jesus as the baby in the manger, while others see him hanging on the cross. Some people’s vision of Jesus is that of a teacher, one who instructs his followers in the right way to live. There is a story that I am sure most of you have heard about the little girl who is busily drawing a picture in her Kindergarten class. When the teacher asks her what the picture is, she replies: “I’m drawing God.” “But,” says the teacher, “no one knows what God looks like.” Without missing a beat, the little girl says, “They will when I’m finished.”
And how do you see Jesus? Do you see the Jesus who gathers the little children to him? Do you see the Good Shepherd? Or do you see the Jesus who called his listeners hypocrites? He said: “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” Harsh words, indeed, from the man who preaches love and peace. And he was not just speaking to his followers 2000 years ago. Perhaps you might think that the signs are not so easy to interpret. But that is why we have Scripture – to guide us, to help us interpret the signs. Remember, in Jesus’ time, people were more dependent on the weather than we are now, so it was crucial for them to be able to interpret signs, so that they would know if it would be necessary to harvest their crops before bad weather destroyed them. The signs that we look at today are more likely to be the Dow Jones or the TSE, but in either case, what we are looking for – what the people of Jesus’ time were looking for – is security. But the only security we need is that which we find in Jesus. The only security that really matters – and this is the point of Jesus’ words today – is that which he gives us.
In order to have this security, we need to examine our lives, to see if we are living with the Kingdom of God or against it. We call ourselves Christians, but it is not always noticeable to others that we are living a Christ-like life.
While I was working on this sermon, a friend posted an interesting status line on Facebook, which I told her I was going to use at some point. I think that it fits here. Gandhi said: I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. Sadly, those words are no less true today than they were when Gandhi first said them. As Christians, our lives should be forces for healing and reconciliation in the world. Sadly, they often are not. So we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions. If our lives are NOT a force for healing and reconciliation, what do we need to change? What do we need to learn and to do in order to follow Christ better? How can we share in the suffering of the world?
Because, in following Christ, that is what we are called to do. We are called to share in God’s mission of healing, of reconciliation, of justice.
Doing this is an act of faith, and like any other act, it will have consequences. If you give God faith, he will ask for more. If you, through faith, commit to discipleship, God will ask a greater commitment. If you, through faith, become a leader in the church, God will ask more, and ask you to take on greater responsibilities. Faith has consequences. But, if you do these things through faith, then the rewards are exponentially greater than you can imagine. If you commit to discipleship, God will shepherd you. If you become a leader, he will equip you. One of my favourite mottos is: God doesn’t call the equipped; he equips the called. And all you need to do is to have faith. Thanks be to God.

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