Proper 15C Sermon (2007)

Proper 15 (August 14-20)
Texts: Luke 12:49-56;
Heb. 11:29-12:2; Jer. 23:23-29


The great composer Ludwig van Beethoven used sometimes to play a trick on polite salon audiences, especially when he guessed that they weren’t really interested in serious music. He would perform a piece on the piano, one of his own slow movements perhaps, which would be so gentle and beautiful that everyone would be lulled into thinking the world was a soft, cosy place. Then, just as the final notes were dying away, Beethoven would bring his whole forearm down with a crash across the keyboard, and laugh at the shock he gave to the assembled company.

A bit cruel and impolite, perhaps. And of course in many of his own compositions Beethoven found less antisocial ways of telling his hearers that the world was full of pain as well as of beauty. But the shock of that crash of notes interrupting the haunting melody is a good image for what Jesus had to say at the end of Luke 12.

The crisis is coming, says Jesus. It poses a challenge to absolute loyalty. But now even what we might have thought the gospel was all about is being stood on its head. Prince of Peace, eh? Jesus seems to be saying. No: Prince of Division, more likely! Once this message gets into households there’ll be no peace: families will split up over it, just as the prophets had foretold.

Now, the differing levels of loyalty to Jesus’ message is one way to understand the division is talking about this morning. It no doubt had some basis in truth. Families in the First Century were splitting up over whether or not to become loyal to Jesus’ message.

But I think there is also a deeper, more ominous sense in which who Jesus is and what he does becomes divisive. To begin to glimpse this, let me go to John’s Gospel, in the Farewell Address that Jesus gives to his disciples at the Last Supper. Jesus says to them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). What this says, essentially, is that there are two basic ways to peace: the world’s way and Jesus’ way. We are obviously invited to prefer Jesus’ way over the one we choose now. Living in the world, we ordinarily live by the world’s way of peace. But what if the world’s way to peace was increasingly taken away from us, and we still refused to accept Jesus’ invitation to his way of peace? Let me repeat that: what if the world’s way to peace was increasingly taken away from us, and we still refused to accept Jesus’ invitation to his way of peace? The result would be greater division among us, right? If our standard way of peace was taken away us, and we didn’t accept a new way to peace, then the result would be less peace and greater division.

In John’s Gospel, the very first thing proclaimed by someone about Jesus is this: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) What if our greatest sin which Jesus begins to take away from us on the cross is, in fact, the world’s way of peace?

Let me offer you an example that is very much within our experience of the past fifty years. It has finally been in the past fifty years that we have decided that sexism is a sin. Believing that men are superior to women such that men always get to make the decisions is just plain wrong. But now, and I have to be very careful here, can you also see how that male dominated structure to things might have been the world’s way of peace — sinful though it is? When there isn’t a clear line of authority for making decisions, what tends to happen in human community? If each person thinks that his or her desires and opinions should be part of the decision-making, isn’t there a sense in which keeping the peace is more difficult? Think of a family. In the old way of keeping the peace — shall we call it the world’s way? — if there was a conflict of desires in making decisions, the wife always had to defer to the husband. In short, the peace was kept by men oppressing and dominating women. That’s how it was for thousands of years.

Today, we see that that is sinful. And so we have opted for a more egalitarian way of making decisions. But there are also ways in which that way of peace is more difficult, too, isn’t there? Is that why the divorce rate has also gone way up over the past fifty years? When husbands and wives can’t agree on the most important decisions in their lives, sometimes they now agree to disagree and split up. There’s lots of other reasons for divorce, of course, infidelity being the biggest one. There’s also many other forces impacting today’s marriages which we would never have the time to detail.

But can you see how the old way of men dominating women used to keep the peace in terms of keeping a family together at all costs? We’ve rightly decided that men dominating women has its own cost which is far too costly. The cost of men dominating women looks like the cross of Jesus, and so that sin has finally been taking away from us.

But is Jesus warning us here in this morning’s Gospel about the possible effect of world’s way of peace being taken away from us? It could result in a time of more division — father against son, mother against daughter, husband against wife. Is this part of what has happened over the last fifty years? Let me be crystal clear, lest someone goes home saying, ‘Pastor Paul says we should go back to the man being the head of the household so there won’t be so much divorce.’ Absolutely not! What I am saying is that with one of the world’s ways of keeping the peace now taken away from us as sin — namely, the domination of men over women — then it becomes all that more important for us to accept Jesus‘ way of peace. Once more: it becomes all that more important for us to accept Jesus‘ way of peace.

It’s even more important when one considers all the other ways to peace which the world offers, ways of peace through satisfying our typical human desires. In our First Lesson this morning, Jeremiah is talking about such things as dreams, meaning, I think, reckless lies and false hopes. These bad dreams of ours can become deeply entrenched beliefs that only a curmudgeon would question, but which, unhappily, also happen to be false. Like junk food, they taste great, but in the end they will kill you.

Here’s about a dozen contemporary “false hopes, bad dreams, and reckless lies” that I love to love. They’re just mine, and I confess that it’s only a partial list. You might try to identify today’s false prophecies that hold a special attraction for you. See if any of these sound familiar:

  • I deserve perfect health and the medicine to get me there, especially given how I try to take care of my body.
  • I’m entitled to all the passionate sex that the tabloids describe and the movies depict.
  • There’s a solution to every problem if I pray hard enough.
  • I’d be happier in a bigger house in a better location . . . or in a smaller house with less upkeep.
  • I wouldn’t be such a mess if not for my family of origin.
  • I’d find more fulfillment in a different job.
  • My kids deserve straight teeth, the best universities, challenging jobs, financial success, model marriages. And they should make me proud.
  • I will give a little more when I get a little more. Just a little more, enough to be secure.
  • I work hard enough to deserve being entertained every moment that I’m not working.
  • Fill in the blank on sports, leisure, vacations, wealth creation, the boss, your spouse, politics, in-laws, etc.

Here’s the key: The world fills us with all kinds of desires to be satisfied which only make matters worse when it comes to living peacefully with one another. It only makes the conflicts of our desires that much more complicated when we are trying to make decisions together without one of us automatically being deferred to just because we are male, or white, or heterosexual.

So what is Jesus’ way of peace that can begin to get us out of all this mess? Learn to desire what God desires. Learn to love taking care of one another and this earth. Which, by the way, means that sometimes we need to let others care for us, or care for ourselves, for no one person gets to lay claim to being the chief caretaker, either. In learning to care for others, including ourselves, we learn the wisdom behind Jesus’ words, such as ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first’ — ‘those clinging to their lives lose them, and those losing their lives for others find them. When we are truly caring for others and letting others care for us, the fights over deciding whose desires shall be satisfied first go away.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us come to our Lord’s table once again this morning and have our desires satisfied. In a world in which the old ways of peace — like sexism and racism — are being taken away from us as the sins they are, it becomes so much more urgent to put Jesus and his way of peace at the center of our lives. Let us be fed with the food of Jesus‘ way of peace. Let us be fed by the one who let his body be broken and his blood to be poured out for us. Let us pray that, so richly fed, we might leave here this morning better prepared to be instruments of God’s peace. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, August 19, 2007

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