Note: This is a transcript of an extemporaneous sermon
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
I confess I hardly know where to begin today. The three readings that we have this morning are the kind of texts that are very easy to take out of context and twist them to whatever end someone wants.
In the first reading, Jeremiah is calling out the false prophets. He was speaking at a time when the false prophets were telling the people of Israel and the political powers that be that they didn’t have anything to worry about from the approaching Babylonians because God was going to save them. And Jeremiah was saying, No, that’s not how it’s going to happen. You haven’t listened to God’s warnings, you’re completely unprepared, and that’s just not how it’s going to happen. He reminds them that the Word of God is like a fire or a hammer that can smash through the rock of our denial.
And then we come to the lesson from the letter to the Hebrews. It starts off with this wonderful remembrance of all these heroes of faith, people who stayed faithful. The passage starts off talking about how they were rewarded for their faith. Some of them were given kingdoms. Some of them made great accomplishments. But then it quickly turns and talks about martyrdom.
It’s so easy, sometimes, to think of ourselves as martyrs when things are not going our way. Or when we find ourselves facing forces or circumstances in the culture or in life that put undue pressure on us, especially if it happens because of our faith. We forget that that letter was written at a time when people really were being tortured for their faith. Hebrews was written probably around 63 or 64 CE, when Nero was the emperor—Nero, who would light his garden parties by putting the bodies of Christians on poles and lighting them on fire as human torches—Nero, who executed Paul by beheading and Peter by crucifying him upside down—Nero, who sent Christians to the arena to fight wild animals without any weapons.
And then come the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel: “You think I came to bring peace? No, I came to set the world on fire and I wish it was already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with and I am under such anxiety until it is complete.” He was on his way to the cross.
At the beginning of that chapter, chapter 12, Luke tells us that thousands of people were now following him. Thousands. And you know Jesus walked among that crowd and listened to every single way that people were misunderstanding him. And every single misplaced expectation. So he talks about division. And I don’t think he’s saying this with any kind of forcefulness or bravado. I think he is lamenting. I think he understands that the world is going to be pretty hostile to those who truly follow what he’s been saying about proclaiming the reign of God and working to see it established nonviolently.
And I think it breaks his heart to say those words. Father will be pitted against son and son against father. I remember the first time I talked to my dad about going to seminary when I was about 15 years old. I remember he said, “It’s a good thing to have religion, but don’t go overboard with it.”
These texts that we have this morning, as I said, can so easily be pulled out of context and used the wrong way. When I first read these texts this week, I couldn’t help but think about how a White Christian Nationalist preacher might use these texts.
You could use this text where Jesus talks about division, for instance, to make it sound like he’s endorsing that, like we’re supposed to be splitting ourselves apart from each other. You could use what Jeremiah is saying about the false prophets because it’s oh so easy to think that the people who are saying what we don’t like are the false prophets, instead of the ones who are speaking the Word of God. And as I said, with martyrdom, it’s so easy to think of yourself as the martyr. We have romanticized martyrdom in our world today. This is why terrorist groups talk about martyrdom and the possibility of martyrdom when they’re recruiting. It just sounds so glorious.
On Wednesday, Diana Butler Bass published a piece in her online group called The Cottage, where she shared that she’s extremely worried because there’s been an increasing amount of rhetoric from a certain quarter of our society about civil war, especially after Mar a Lago was searched by the FBI early this week. There were thousands of posts saying it’s time for civil war, thousands of posts with a headline that said lock and load. And the scary thing is that the people who are saying this don’t stop to think about what that really means.
It means violence. And bloodshed. It means misery and suffering. It means crashed economies. It means poverty and hunger. It means destruction. It’s not going to be like the last time. There won’t be some dividing line between North and South. No, it will be between you and your next door neighbor. It’ll be right outside your door…or maybe inside your house…if it’s a thing we allow to happen.
One of the things that we are called to as faithful people is to be faithful to Jesus and to be faithful to what the scriptures are actually saying, to keep them in context and use them in context. But also to speak to a society that is taking them out of context, to remind them of what they’re really saying when they say things like, “It’s time for a civil war.” To remind them that what they’re saying is that it’s time for bloodshed…and destruction and violence and pain and suffering beyond their imagination. If they talk about the words of Jesus saying, “But look, he’s calling for this division!” it’s our job to say, “No, he’s lamenting the ways we divide ourselves from each other because of the way we interpret our faith.”
Jesus was just so prescient when he talked about our division. So prophetic. There are 40 church bodies in North America, in the US and Canada that call themselves Lutheran. There are 45,000 church bodies in the world that call themselves Christian. And all of them have separated themselves from some other church body at some point in history.
The message of Jesus is that we are supposed to build bigger tables, not higher walls. We’re supposed to open our doors wider, not close them against people who disagree with us on minor things. The message of Jesus is that we’re supposed to embrace each other with love, not take adamantine stands against each other because of the way interpret a few words here and there.
As I said, I don’t know where to begin this morning, because if these three scriptures that we have this morning tell us anything, they tell us that we have enormous work ahead of us in a dangerous time. They tell us that this is a time to really and truly be faithful to the gospel of love, to the gospel of Jesus Christ that embraces everyone. They tell us that this is a time to speak truth for the sake of the reign of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen