The Essence of a Good Story

Luke 12:49-56
© Stacey Steck

There are some people whose very presence makes us irritated. The woman who is smoking in the no-smoking section of the restaurant. The guy who shouts “get in the hole” as soon as a golfer hits a tee shot — on a par five. The driver who tailgates you and then after you move over to let them pass, gets in front of you and slows down. The person who is so perfectly polite, has an answer for everything, and has a permanent smile affixed to their face. There are just some people who put us on edge and make us want to, I don’t know, tackle them and stuff a sock in their mouths. Do you know the people I mean? The Kardashians come to mind. There are many such people in the world whose very presence on earth makes us irritated. Are you one of them? I certainly hope not.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division,” Jesus says. “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three.” I have come to be irritating, annoying, grating, galling, infuriating, cloying, a pest of the highest order. I have come to make you as uncomfortable as I possibly can, to make you squirm in your skin, to make you question everything you were taught, all you believe, your very existence. And I’m going to do it all in the name of all that is holy, all that is righteous, all that is graceful. My very presence will irritate you, and I’ll be pleased when it happens, because then I will know that you have met the divine in terms you can understand, and have looked yourself in the mirror and become so disgusted with what you see that you either repent, rejoice, and join me, or tackle me and stuff a sock in my mouth. There are few such people in the world whose very presence on earth makes us irritated. Are you one of them? I certainly hope so.

Of course, Jesus’ words predicting division come as something of a shock to our ears, even if they shouldn’t, considering everything else he’s said. Perhaps we should blame it on our hymns like Fairest Lord Jesus, I’ve Got Peace Like a River, and even Jesus Loves Me for painting a portrait of a meek and mild, non-violent Jesus, who although still an offensive stumbling block, comes off rather as a victim than as a perpetrator. Yes, Jesus was persecuted, but our first reaction to that persecution is that it was undeserved, that he simply went about his business preaching the Kingdom’s values and in so doing attracted the unwanted attention of the powers-that-be. It seems strange to think of Jesus as a stealthy countercultural provocateur, as God’s subversive agent sowing seeds of strife even as he is talking about the seeds sown in different kinds of soils. Clearly, the kind of persecution and suffering Jesus endured were undeserved, in the physical sense – no one deserves to be tortured – but he is not as innocent as he seems when we envision him sitting around a campfire with his disciples sharing the keys to the kingdom. Don’t get me wrong; Jesus preached non-violence, he preached peace, he preached the radical inclusion of the dispossessed. But he didn’t preach all that in a bubble, in the safety of an adoring crowd behind safely closed doors; he preached it in places like the marketplace, the synagogue, and the Temple steps, with all ears listening, and not holding back on any topic, precisely to stir things up.

One of the things I learned from Francis Xavier Walter, my tenth grade English teacher, was that every good story – every good story mind you – comes down to a clash of some kind, a clash between man and himself, man and another man, or man and machine. Of course, there are variations of the theme -- man versus multiple personalities, man versus government bureaucracy, man versus evil mutant bent on destruction of the planet -- but in the end, it is hard to have a decent story without some kind of conflict. Perhaps there are good stories that do not feature conflict, but who remembers them? Moby Dick? Conflict. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Conflict. The Princess Bride? Conflict. The Iliad and the Odyssey? Conflict. The Gospel of Luke? Conflict. Yes, any good story you can think of has a conflict of some kind at its core, iron sharpening iron, a mountain to climb, a demon to conquer. Whether this is only true in literature, and not necessarily in real life remains to be determined, a question Jesus brings to us tonight in the form of his conversation with his disciples about the purpose of his presence with them.

For the better part of the preceding chapters, Jesus has been teaching both his disciples, and anyone who will listen, about what comes with the package of discipleship. Among the highlights are being dragged before the authorities, storing up treasures in the right place, and selling possessions and giving alms. All of these challenge the lifestyle of those who would follow, and suggest a confrontation with their own needs and desires, the demands of the world, and those with the power to make their lives difficult. In tonight’s passage, he sharpens the point directly to the disciples, making it clear that the kingdom lifestyle to which he is calling them is more profoundly conflictual than it appears, even to the point of disrupting their most cherished institutions and relationships. It is all well and good to follow a rabbi you like, but would you do so, he is asking, would you do so even if it meant a rupture in your family, the source of your life and livelihood? This is not suburbia, where kids are encouraged to fly the nest. This is the crux of their economic and social life, being cast out from which means an existence dramatically different than what they could imagine. Indeed, he introduces his challenge by referring to his own coming conflicts and suffering: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed” and makes it clear they are very likely headed for the same fate, if they are faithful. As Father Daniel Berrigan has said, “If you want to follow Jesus, you’d better look good on wood.” He’s giving them yet one more chance to back out, to avoid division, to avoid conflict, but also to avoid the kingdom.

That there will be costs and consequences to their following him is just part of the story however. What they also must know is that they too are called to bring fire and to bring division and conflict. Although Jesus’ description of his division-causing ministry does not specifically include a call to do likewise, it is clear from the context of the conversation that the division doesn’t begin and end with just Jesus. It will be their ministry as well. Their lives will be a struggle against themselves, against others, against the machine. He is calling them to write a good story with their lives, to not simply read a good story but to be a good story, one that brings God’s needed fire to the world, that causes division, that makes people uncomfortable, to be a presence that irritates people so much they just want to tackle you and stuff a sock down your throat. You see, the division that Jesus brings is not division for division’s sake, but division for decision’s sake. The division comes when some choose righteousness and others don’t, when some choose to lay aside violence and others don’t, when three members of the family decide to sell possessions and give alms, and two members of the family don’t, when two practice mercy by bandaging a wounded man even on the Sabbath and three object. Jesus’ division is your decision, and he has come precisely to bring it, and he expects us to practice it as well, even if that means running afoul of our family, our friends, our employers, or our culture.

It was certainly true in Jesus’ own life that his story was a good story for the conflict it contained. Will it be true in ours too? Every life tells a story. Will our lives simply be stories, or will they be good stories? When the story of our life is told, will its hearers shrug and say, “That’s a nice story,” or will they smile broadly and say, “Now that was a good story.” It is not to raise some saints over and above those of others to ask which stories of our contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ captivate our imagination the most, and why. But there is a reason we more readily recall the names, and celebrate the lives of, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Romero, Nicky Cruz. It’s not because they were somehow holier than the rest of us, but rather that when the time came, they did not avoid the decision Christ’s division brought them, nor the division their witness brought them when their lives demanded of others a decision for the kingdom. Have you made any drug dealers angry this week? Or child predators? Or pharmaceutical companies? Or simply rude people in your office?

Some might protest that Jesus has both created and resolved the world’s conflict in his own life and death, and therefore that we can just concentrate on the peace part. Just as Jesus suffered, they reason, so that we do not have to suffer, Jesus has done the agitating so that we do not need to agitate. Not only have our sins been vicariously atoned for through the blood of Christ, but so too by proxy, has our conflict with the world be taken care of by Jesus. In the cosmic sense that is true; Christ is the only real victor in the battle against evil and death. But let us remember that we are not called to win the conflicts we begin, but to begin the conflicts that Christ wins. You see, our witness of faith and righteousness is not to win people to our own cause, but the Kingdom’s, and it is for Christ, not us, that each person must decide. It may be difficult to imagine yourself as a stealthy countercultural provocateur, as God’s subversive agent sowing seeds of strife even as you talk about seeds sown in different kinds of soils, but that is what you are called to be. You are called to be just as irritating, annoying, grating, galling, infuriating, and cloying as Jesus, a pest of the highest order. You are called to make those who practice evil and abuse as uncomfortable as you possibly can, to make them squirm in their skin, to make them question everything they were taught, all they believe, their very existence. And you are called to do it all in the name of all that is holy, all that is righteous, all that is graceful. Your very presence will irritate those who practice evil, and you should be pleased when it happens, because then you will know that they have met the divine in terms they can understand, and have looked themselves in the mirror and become so disgusted with what they see that they either repent, rejoice, and join you, or tackle you and stuff a sock in your mouth. There are few such people in the world whose very presence on earth makes evil irritated. Are you one of them? I certainly hope so. Amen.

For What Are You Waiting?

Luke 12:32-40
© Stacey Steck

Not so many years ago, in churches like ours all over the country, the minister might well have been run out of town, severely chastised, or at least been the object of scorn, for using poor grammar from the pulpit. Especially in tall steeple churches, the eloquence of the minister’s prose was every bit as important a mark of a good preacher as was his effectiveness in communicating the Gospel. Woe betide the pastor who used the wrong conjugation of a common verb. Indeed, today’s sermon title, if it were casually constructed in today’s vernacular as “what are you waiting for?” could have landed the careless cleric in hot water.

But it is not for fear of my position that I have seen fit to avoid the grammatical error in such a statement, namely, never ending a sentence with a preposition. No, my reason for being a little more particular about my use of the English language is because I care a great deal for it. While some might find it more trouble than it is worth to pay attention to such particulars, I think it is worth the effort to commit to memory, and then to use, the rules of grammar. Call me elitist, call me pompous, but call me without ending your sentence with a preposition.

For me, language is a gift from God enabling us to express our thoughts, stir our imagination, share ideas, engage one another in story and song. It is an extraordinarily valuable and important gift, one which deserves to be treated reverentially, not casually. Artful language is not the measure of our love or our faithfulness, but it may be representative of our respect for the gifts of love and faithfulness we have been given by God. To be sure, language is not the end result of communication but rather the means, yet since the end depends so much on these means, those means become quite important. Unquestionably, the message is more important than the medium. However, it may be overstating the case only slightly to say that “What are you waiting for?” is the precipice of a slippery slope toward communication by grunt and rude gesture. As an aside, it is my belief that the church may be one of the few remaining places where children can have their vocabulary expanded and their attention span lengthened, two very valuable gifts we have to offer the world.

The attention to detail, the diligence, yea, even the urgency suggested in using proper grammar is, I believe, of the same order revealed to us in today’s passage from Luke, in which the disciples are reminded that they are to be ever watchful, both so that they will receive a reward and so they may avoid judgment. Those servants attentively awaiting the return of their master from his wedding banquet are rewarded when he finds them Johnny on the spot. In a great turn of events, they become the ones served as their master girds his loins while they are seated in places of honor. Conversely, the lazy, inattentive owner of the house will find himself quickly relieved of his possessions by a watchful and clever thief. There are dire consequences, Jesus warns, for failing to tend to one’s responsibilities, but the rewards for doing so, though unexpected, are great.

Jesus’ words on watchfulness are offered in the midst of a long set of teachings on reliance on God and the right use of one’s time, attention, and resources. “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God.” “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying…Instead, strive for God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” “For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” And today’s: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” All of these teachings are pointing the crowds and the disciples to God’s grace, compassion, love, and judgment. All of them have something to say about how we are to respond to the grace we have experienced in Jesus Christ. Will we treat casually God’s gift of Jesus Christ, or will we be ever ready, willing, and vigilant about caring for that gift, so that it might then be shared with others?

As I said, Jesus offers this lesson from two perspectives, one that watchfulness and diligence leads to blessing and the other that the lack of attentiveness leads to judgment and bad consequences. You don’t have too drive far each morning to see inattention in action, with drivers holding their phones up so their faces, texting while driving. Have you seen that bumper sticker? “Honk if you love Jesus. Text if you want to meet him?” I don’t do that very much, but I have been known to be inattentive while driving. I was reminded of my years commuting back and forth between Atlanta and Gainesville, Georgia, a trip of some 65 miles, to visit a young lady I was dating. My own car out of commission one weekend, I begged my roommate’s car and made the trip, coming home quite late. I was tired as you might imagine and felt very much like sleeping. Being young and stupid, I convinced myself that if I just rested my eyes for a few moments, I’d wake up refreshed. Well, it worked a few times until I woke up with my head banging against the window, sparks flying everywhere. I had hit a guardrail on the exit ramp not a mile from my apartment. As grace would have it, I hit that guardrail just past the point at which hitting its end would have made for a nasty head-on collision, and I lived to tell about it. It was the most expensive nap I ever took, at least on a per-second basis, as my friend’s Camaro needed a lot of work at the body shop to return to its former glory. Needless to say I learned a lesson about diligence and watchfulness, and the slippery slope of inattentiveness. The distance between closing your eyes for a moment and for all eternity is about six inches, six godly inches.

A casual approach to our own physical health and well being such as led to my own brush with death or disability is but one aspect of what Jesus is trying to impress upon his followers. The slippery slope of closing our eyes even briefly when they are supposed to remain open has a spiritual dimension as well. Not long before we find Jesus telling these parables in Luke, he has taken Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him where they experienced a truly amazing thing. According to Luke, “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men – Moses and Elijah – who stood with him.” Because they had been able to stay awake, to resist the temptation to fudge on their spiritual grammar, so to speak, these three were party to the transfiguration of Jesus Christ, when the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white, one of the most amazing events recorded in all of Scripture. Their watchfulness is specifically recorded and specially rewarded with a blessing all of us should covet.

The blessing of knowing God in Jesus Christ is easily missed by those who are not dressed for action with their lamps lit, who are not mindful of the divine presence, who do not wait attentively with breath baited for the visitation of the Lord. An image I like to use is that of spiritual antennae. If we do not have our spiritual antennae tuned into God, God’s word will only be so much static and the blessing contained therein goes unheard. If we do not have our spiritual antennae tuned into God, we will not see the divine in the everyday, the spiritual in the mundane, the hope amidst the chaos. All the blessing of God’s generosity and compassion and justice will pass us by if we are not actively waiting for it, the way those watchful servants waited for their master to arrive.

But actively waiting is not the same as looking expectantly into the water waiting for the next fish to jump into your boat. If you want to catch a fish you have to row out from shore, bait your hook, drop it in the water, check every now and then to see it the bait is still there, and reel it in when you feel something tugging on the end of your line. You could wait your whole life for that one magical fish to hop into the boat but you would have missed the feel of slimy worms on your fingers, the challenge of reeling in the big one, the companionship of friends and family in the boat, not to mention the tasty fish in your frying pan, all the things people appreciate the most about fishing. That is actively waiting.

What I want you to consider is that where your spiritual life is concerned, it is just as important to be diligent and attentive in that as it is with grammar, or driving, or fishing. When you start cutting corners in your spiritual life, like in any of those other activities, you not only miss out on the blessings which come from it, but you also run the risk of the dire consequences of flirting too closely with sin and idolatry. The difference between your spiritual life and the other activities in your life is that while the things you enjoy may seem like abundant life, they won’t be there when you need them, when you have no other place to turn. They have no capacity to satisfy the hunger that only God can satisfy, even though most of the world tries to fill itself up on empty spiritual calories. Personally, I can delight in a well-worded, grammatically correct sentence, and God may even use it to show me something about grace, but it’s not grace itself, and in and of itself, it doesn’t have the power of life behind it.

“Do not be afraid, little flock,” says Jesus in the beginning of our lesson today, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The gift of the kingdom does not come without a price, for its giving compels us to be different and that takes effort, that costs us, perhaps in money but in so many other ways too, not least of which are our commitment and compassion. I have no doubt that when Jesus made this last statement about where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, he was referring to money, but I also have no doubt that your treasure is your heart – your heart, your mind, your will, your diligence, your watchfulness, and your attentiveness. Where and how you place these things says everything about how much you value the priceless treasure of God’s presence in your life and all the blessing that presence brings. Well, what are you waiting for? Amen.