"The Calling That Divides Us"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 8/16/1998
Hebrews 12:1-5; Luke 12:49-56
Our lesson today confronts us with a challenging image. Jesus said, "I came to set the earth on fire." He asked, "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the world? No, not peace, but division." Then Jesus went on to list the many primary relationships that could be fractured by what he taught.
Did Jesus actually say these words or were they given to him by over-zealous writers? In the Gospel of Matthew we find a similar passage that uses even more vivid imagery. Jesus said, "I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."(Matt. 10:34) Surely, Jesus would not bring a weapon, particularly when at the end of his ministry, he ordered Peter to put away his sword. Was Jesus' ministry one that separated people? Can love ever divide people?
The answer is absolutely! Love does divide people. If we did not have this understanding, most of us would not be here this morning. There should be no question that love divides us. Almost every day we find examples of such division. We find people who are considerate of others and we find people who are not. We find people whose purpose is to be kind and we find people whose aim it is to be right. We find people who have learned how to forgive others and we find people who probe, scrutinize and dissect until they find skeletons in someone's closet.
If we did not believe that Jesus came to set the world on fire, what are we doing here? Paul once wrote, "Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind." (Ro.12:2). Paul's understanding of the divisive quality of Jesus' message could not resonate with any more clarity.
It appears to be our nature to conform to the standards of this world. After all it has been the world and the world's teachers who have helped define our standard of living and our goals and purposes for being alive. But Jesus pointed to another reality that has the power to transform us completely. He taught us how to overcome our attachment to the things of this world. All of us know how challenging it is to unlearn what we have been taught. Let me give you an example.
When Lois and I moved to Bowie, we purchased some living room furnishings at a local furniture store. The store was advertising a zero interest rate with no payments for a year. We had never purchased anything with such terms so we did it. Our thought was, "If the company wants to give us free furniture for a year, that is their choice! We will keep our money in the bank earning interest." It was a good deal for us. The legal sized document we signed was beyond our comprehension. Like most people we signed it without having it interpreted for us.
On the one side of this transaction the purchasing plan appeared designed to help people get furniture when they may not have enough money to buy it. We learned later that the enormous down side came when the bank holding our note began to charge 21.9 percent interest from the date the contract was signed. Every month we received a bank statement citing the accumulating interest. It was like snow coming down at 4 inches an hour. Each statement said that to get the furniture free for a year with no interest, the purchaser had to send a check for the full amount within the 12-month period. We had agreed to that, but the high interest rate made us think.
Obviously there are people who believe that this is smart business. The company's assumption is that people who could not pay for the furniture initially would not be able to do so a year later. Lois and I began to see how horrible it would be for people who fell into that category. They were legally being robbed.
No informed person would buy furniture from a company or own a credit card that charged a 21.9 percent interest rate. Yet there it was. The accumulated interest for 11 months represented 25 percent of the furniture's purchase price. To us this was robbery of people who could least pay or who have not learned how to manage their money.
The prophet Amos once wrote, "Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country. You say to yourselves, 'We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures and fix the scales to cheat our customers.'" (Amos 8:4f) Amos' compassion and caring for the poor clearly separated him from other people. He expressed these thoughts 722 years before Jesus was born. Love divides people from those who have become servants to greed.
Just as we see a number of unloving practices in the business world, we can see it in our primary relationships as Jesus suggested. Mothers, Fathers and children will debate over what kind of clothing is suitable to wear as children and teens start back to school. The question is, do we dress to cover ourselves tastefully or do we dress to make a statement? The well-financed marketing practices of various garment vendors stress "the more provocative the better."
There are struggles going between parents when it comes to television, video games and the Internet. Not long ago I watched a young child playing a video game and it showed a rifle that could be aimed and fired by the player. That rifle was used to kill people. I watched as this little boy killed a lot of people. The graphics were superb. I watched his face as his aggression mounted. Don't tell me this does not reinforce destructive behavior patterns!
Yes, I played cowboys and Indians as a little boy but we were also reading the adventures of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. We were into chemistry sets, erector sets and building models. There were no headlines suggesting that one in five teens carries a weapon. The age of 14 was not the time when girls and boys started to become sexually active. No one thought of bringing a bomb to school. Few sought the use of drugs as a vehicle to feel good. In those days people learned to "feel good" because of their accomplishments. And sometimes the most sophisticated business contracts were cemented by a handshake. If we think love does not divide people, we are sadly uninformed.
This is not to suggest that times are evil or that our society has started to unravel at the seams. What Jesus came to teach us is that there is a way to get everything we want without grabbing, manipulating and asserting our will on everyone else. Some people have forgotten that.
When we were in New Hampshire recently, someone hit our rented car scratching the front fender and breaking the driver's side mirror. There was no note with insurance information. It was a hit and run.
Wednesday night, the lady directly in front of me in the Giant Food's express line grew increasingly anxious as the cashier rang up her groceries. She noticed that I had four articles. Her total came to over $78 for about 30 items. She knew she had set aside the rules.
Where do people believe they are going with their choices? How much farther ahead are they? And what will happen when increasing numbers of people set aside the rules that have made our communities, our society and our families work?
When Jesus entered our world, he taught with images of division. We remember the dividing of the sheep from the goats. We remember the images of people being shut out from the parties and feasts. We remember the images of people who were cast out. They were crying and gnashing their teeth. What are these images teaching us?
The answer is very simple. All during our lives each one of us knows that we choose the kind of life we want to live. It is a complete waste of energy to blame anyone or anything else for choices we have made. No one forces us into being unfaithful to our mates. No one twists our arm so that we take money that does not belong to us. No one whispers in our ear that we should pretend we are a Nascar driver when we travel the beltway. No one pushes us into the behavioral spider web of others when they demonstrate their lack of effective communication skills. Yet how easily we can become defensive when others do not conform to our wishes.
We believe our choices are natural responses until we meet and listen to Jesus Christ. He taught that we do not need to define ourselves this way. He taught us how to escape becoming attached to what cannot and will not enhance who we are. The world does not need more people who have learned to define themselves with all kinds of temporary props.
Jesus brought a sword that sharply divides people. Two sisters can grow in the same family yet reflect spiritual diversity. Yet when love is the only path that leads to life, there can be no diversity. That is the issue. Nothing else works. Love is the central message of the Gospel. This is why only some will enjoy the party, the abundance, the peacefulness, the joy and pleasures of life while other people can not because they have not yet learned how. They are still looking for something that will complete them. They will never find it! There is nothing out there that will meet that need.
There is nothing in this world that can make a fish more than it is, a rose more than it is, or people more than they are. And so many of us simply do not understand that. When we learn to be what God created us to be we automatically bloom just like every other life form on this planet. We don't have to do all the thrashing around or engage in thinking that we are somehow inadequate. How arrogant! This is like saying, "Thank you God for the hundred acres of shoreline on which to build my house but it is not enough!"
The other day I met a woman who was telling me about her life. She said, "You would not have wanted to know me when I was younger. I was the most rebellious teenager that you could imagine. I showed no respect to anyone or anything. I did everything you can name and other things you cannot imagine. I was completely out of control and no one could do anything for me. I didn't want anyone's love, pity or help." Then she said, "It was not until I realized what I was doing to myself that I woke up to all the other possibilities. Life had been passing me by and I never realized it."
I told her that perhaps she might not be what she is today without having gone through all that she experienced. Every alley had been blind. Everything she tried could not deliver what she wanted. She was perfect even with all that struggling behavior. All that God had given her at birth had not yet started to show. Today it shows and she is well on her way.
Yes, love separates people. But love also teaches with compassion, tenderness and kindness as it gives testimony to the kind of life that produces peace and allows us to be the light that is set on a hill so that others can see. This is what love does to us. We are set apart because this is whom we have been called to be.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Merciful God, we thank you for the generosity of your spirit. You have surrounded us with treasures that can be enjoyed by everyone. Yet you have left enjoyment as one of our many choices. It is we who must pick up the Scriptures for guidance. It is we who must observe the delicate beauty and balance within nature. It is we who must desire peace, kindness, and generosity when the "treasures" of this world appear more inviting. You designed us for growth, but you have left the pace of that growth a decision we must make. We thank you that the garden of our choices also has the tree of inspiration standing in the midst of it. When Jesus invited us to become more than we ever thought we could be, he did so knowing we would never walk alone. With grateful hearts we come today celebrating our relationship with you. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
We thank you, God, that you have created each of us with the capacity for experiencing inspiration, for experiencing being loved and for experiencing your presence. It is because of the way you have made us that brings us here this morning filled with expectancy that you will speak to us in some personal way.
We truly hunger for your word. We live in a world filled with so much diversity of opinion, of values, and of lifestyles. And when the lives of others are not working for them, so often their frustration finds expression in ways that make the lives of many of us more difficult to manage.
May we never lose sight of the world into which Jesus was born. He walked among people whose lives were fed by greed, by power and politics, and by selfish impulses every bit as much as many people today. He did not shake his head in disgust nor judge his generation as evil. Rather he rolled up his sleeves and saw the potential for a large harvest of people whose minds would change once they were properly taught. Then he invited his followers to enter their individual worlds to help people change their minds about what it is they value.
Thank you, God, for the opportunity we have to serve such a vital role in creation. When we find ourselves feeling superior to others because of what we know, remind us of Jesus's words, "I have come among you as one who serves." May that be our creed as well, as we now pray together the words Jesus taught us to say. . .