By mtaylor | Monday, August 15, 2016 | 10:16 AM
August 14, 2016
Cary G. Speaker, D.Min.
In my former life as a hospital chaplain I was fascinated by research studies exploring the connection between faith and health. I remember being amazed to discover that the original study on the efficacy of intercessory prayer on surgical outcomes was published in the Southern Medical Journal. That was over thirty years ago. This week I did a Google search for “intercessory prayer and surgery” and received 91,400 results in .67 seconds. Some of the research indicates that there is no connection. Of course I like the research that indicates there is. For twenty years I had an aquarium in my office. It was a big one, 45 gallons. The reason I had an aquarium in my office is because I once read an article that described an experiment by a group of cardiologists where they checked the blood pressure of patients in the waiting room and then put aquariums in the waiting room and rechecked the blood pressures. You guessed it. The patients’ blood pressure went down in the presence of the aquariums. The Wall Street Journal has published articles stating that those who attend church regularly are healthier than those who do not attend.
I know the general health of many of you. I do not know what your blood pressure is, or your heart rate, but I have a general idea of your over-all health. I am wondering what effect this Gospel reading for today has had on your blood pressure. Jesus says, “I have come to bring fire to the earth.” Maybe you are thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute. Jesus came to bring peace on earth.” Remember? That is what the angels sang when Jesus was born. “Wait just one minute Mr. Jesus. You are supposed to be meek and mild. You are supposed to be sweet and to bring peace. What’s all this about fire and a sword and division?” Jesus says that if you follow him that homes will be wrecked, families will split apart, and children will turn against their parents. For years I have warned parents about those “What would Jesus Do?” bracelets? Parents really do not want their children following the Jesus in this story.
Maybe we are living in the end times. Divorce rates have never been higher. Family courts are swamped with problem children and problem parents. We live in sad, chaotic times. But that is not what Jesus is talking about. Jesus is talking to the disciples. He is saying that following him will cause marital stress, not because one spouse has wronged another, but because of following him.
My seminary class had about 25 students in it. By the time we graduated three of those students were divorced and one more was divorced within the first year after graduation, and several more within the first five years after graduation. The most often heard comment from the non-seminary student spouse was, “God may have called you to be a pastor, but not me.”
I once knew a man who was a first generation immigrant from China. He was a physician. He is the only person I know who was really christened, as different from being baptized. Technically to be christened is to be given a name. At his baptism this man took on the Christian name “John.”
John did not tell me this, simply because that is not the type of person he is. One of our mutual friends told me that when John was baptized/christened, he was disowned by his family still living in China. In addition to that, since John was an international student at the time, he lost his scholarship that was through the Chinese government. For my friend John, following Jesus had been costly. It had caused division. It had separated his family.
We are taught that the Christian faith is a thing of great comfort. But for many faithful, it does not begin that way. I believe that Jesus will bring peace, but not before he walks all the way to the cross, suffers and dies amid great conflict. There is something about the way of Jesus that leads to peace, but only through disruption and distress. Jesus provokes a security crisis.
I am one of those believers who put the emphasis on the peace of Jesus rather than the distress. I emphasize the grace rather than the judgment. Frankly, the Jesus of security and blessing is much easier to “sell” in this culture than the Jesus of insecurity, demand and commanding obedience. When we read this story for today we hear a Jesus who provokes insecurity. Perhaps Jesus does this in order that we might seek and find security only in him and his kingdom.
I know when you walk into this [place] sanctuary that only these thin walls separate you from your weekly experience out in the world. I know that some of you have experienced judgment and other unkind treatment from the church, or church members. You bring with you into this place a lifetime of complex and often painful memories. That may include awful and shameful things done in the name of the church.
What type of church are we? Are we exclusive or inclusive? Is our hospitality toward visitors genuine? Do we welcome the stranger, really welcome the stranger? Or do we always check out the church visitor with the same critical eye we use to size up people on the street? Every family and therefor every church has conflict. Divorce and generational conflict are a part of life. Do we do the hard work of reconciliation? If we are open to freely discuss such topics of domestic life then maybe the challenges of Jesus will be openly discussed. If we make a genuine confession of our sin, and we genuinely accept the forgiveness pronounced and share the peace of Christ with each other, then perhaps we can move through the strong challenges of Christ with the assurance that the word of forgiveness that awaits us will be equally as strong.
How is our word of welcome conveyed in word and deed? What variety of households is represented in this congregation? Single adults, families without children, divorced, widowed, persons estranged from all family members; are we all, with all of our differences welcomed and tapped for leadership according to our gifts?
We do not like the great reversals in the Gospels. We do not like it when those we deem undeserving receive the same abundant grace promised to all of us. We want the “others” to be punished for their sin, while we expect to be welcomed into the heavenly home, where none of our enemies will be. Jealousy, anger, the desire for revenge, resistance to change: these can consume us in the face of the Gospel to the point that we find ourselves antagonists against those whom Jesus welcomes.
With all of our talk of peace, have we failed to realize our complicity in bringing more swords into the world already cut to pieces? Every person in recovery knows that difficult truths are the ground upon which real hope stands. Honesty about brokenness is the necessary preface to healing. We live in a world of swords and fire – some of those weapons of destruction are in our wallets, some are our words, and some are in our hearts – and the divisions among us are real. When the violence is so familiar that it consumes us, it is God’s peace that is odd enough to save us from the violence.
What if these strong words of Jesus are aimed at those of us who do not grasp the urgency of his journey to Jerusalem? What if Jesus is out of patience with us? Jesus will do whatever it takes to get our attention. Even going all the way to the cross for us.