Sunday 14th August 2016, Trinity 12, morning
by Revd Chris Palmer
Fire, stress, division, and hypocrisy. These are not what we’d like to hear about on a Summer morning. But if we engage with what Jesus is saying he’s teaching us three qualities. And to help us remember and reflect, I’ve got them on paper – and I wonder if you can think, like a thesaurus, of other words for these three things.
First Brave. What other words could we use? Courageous. Valiant.
With all this talk of division and stress, Jesus is telling us that working for the kingdom of God doesn’t produce the quiet and peaceful life that we would choose.
In one sense this should be obvious. We claim allegiance to a Lord who was victim to the rulers of his time, and who provoked enough opposition that people thought it worth the bother of crucifying him.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. Because Jesus so often confronts the wealthy and powerful in defence of the poor and voiceless.
- He spoke for the children who wanted to come to him, against the adults that would turn them away.
- He spoke for the widow who put in her last penny, and against the rich who gave what they could easily afford.
- He spoke for woman caught in adultery, and against the self-righteous who were trying to condemn her.
- He spoke for the people for whom the daily grind was a burden, and against the Pharisees and scribes who added to the burden with their legal demands.
To defend the weak is to provoke hostility from those who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. Jesus himself talks of being ‘under stress’. The prayer of the true disciple is to be brave, for courage and growth through conflict – not merely for a quiet life. It is through difficulty that we mature, and it is in times of hardship that we learn a deeper reliance on God’s grace.
Then second, we are called to be honest. What are other words for honest? Trustful. Trustworthy. Straightforward.
By honest, I mean with ourselves. We need a deep and soul-searching honesty about our motives in conflict. Because it’s easy to campaign not for God’s kingdom, but in a self-justifying way for our own kingdom. I think this is the point at the end of the reading when Jesus talks about their hypocrisy: they fail to interpret their situation honestly.
Jesus talks about conflicts within families; ‘father against son… daughter against mother’ and so on. I have to say I’ve been stunned over 18 years of ordained life about the number of family conflicts that become an issue when arranging a funeral, sometimes because of grievances about wills and the like. Elsewhere the Gospels have a story about a man who wants Jesus’ support against his brother, who’s walked off with all the inheritance. Jesus replies, ‘Who made me judge over you’, and then warns him against greed. It’s easy to imagine that we have righteousness on our side, when actually we’re being like that man, or like the older brother of the prodigal son protesting to his father how unfair life is. The kingdom of God is about bread for the hungry and forgiveness for the sinner, it’s not about inheritance for the already comfortable or deference towards the self-righteous.
Finally we must be ready. What are other words for ready? Prepared, Set to go. I also want to suggest, accepting – you’ll see why in a moment.
We must be ready to lose in earthly terms. On the cross, in the worldly sense, Jesus lost. And if that’s good enough for our master, who are we to imagine the same is not good enough for us? He talks about it in the reading: ‘I have a baptism with which to be baptised…’ Baptism literally means to be submerged; they used the Greek word to talk about ships that sank. To struggle for God’s kingdom, might well mean to be sunk, to be overwhelmed. This possibility is so remote to us that it’s big news when terrorist attacks or institutional violence threaten us in our own country. But these are a daily possibility for many people, and were the order of the day in Jesus’ society. Jesus was victim to a commonly meted out punishment.
O, I know that crucifixion isn’t the end of the story – resurrection is. But resurrection isn’t an eleventh hour rescue; it is a new order when the old order has collapsed, a new creation when the old is swept away. This is God’s work; ours is to be ready to lose.
So three things: brave in the face of conflict, honest about what is driving us, and ready for what will be. Jesus invites us to embrace these things with him today.
After I’d finished this sermon, and was sitting down last night, I realised that these things are nicely summarised in the well-known serenity prayer,
‘God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.’
‘Serenity to accept’ is being ready for whatever comes
‘Courage to change’ is being brave for the conflicts of God’s kingdom
And ‘Wisdom to know’ is honest with ourselves about our motives.
I commend this prayer to you as a way of to reflect on our response to Jesus today.