Monday, August 15, 2016

We have to spend more time in these difficult texts, in the places where we feel that God is stepping all over our feet, in the words which stir our hearts to action, in the verses which name the things which have to go, in order for the Kingdom of God to grow and maybe more than any of that all we need to know is that our God is bothered by these things and demands better of us and our world.

Listening When We Don’t Want to Listen
A Sermon on Isaiah 5:1-7 and Luke 12:49-56
For the Community of First Baptist Church of Austin
On the Thirteenth Sunday following Pentecost
August 14, 2016

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three….”

It’s not the words one expects to hear from the Prince of Peace. What kind of Savior wants division and not peace? What kind of image is this of fire destroying things? How do we deal with our Jesus who seems here to be advocating for further division among families? 

These are words of division and not words of unity. Words of violence and not healing. Words that invoke fear and not comfort. These are fighting words. These are difficult words. 

If Jesus had a PR team, they would be in full on panic mode at this moment. These are not the words you want out there, especially if you want to gain a following or create a movement of sorts. After all the truth is these words are only slightly better than let’s hypothetically say, having a presidential candidate openly mocking and asking a woman and her new born child to leave a speech he was giving because the baby was crying too loud or even worse threatening the other candidate…. But we would never allow that, would we?

It is hard for us to know what to do with these words and with our Jesus who says them? 

Some scholars insist that Jesus is simply having a bad day when he utters these words, others insist that this is simply the build up of stress since at this moment he is headed to Jerusalem for his own death…. Personally I think maybe Harry Fosdick gets it closest when he preached that “the world has two ways of getting rid of Jesus: either by crucifying him or by worshipping him without following him.” And maybe Jesus’ words come out of the knowing that both those would become reality… we would first crucify him and then we would worship him without following him.

Whatever the case, these are difficult words for us to hear.

So maybe instead of dealing with that text, we turn to our lectionary passage from the Old Testament. At first glance it just seems lovely, in many translations you will find this Isaiah passage labeled as a love song , which is a fair assumption since it starts off with these words: “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard…” and what follows is a beautiful description of a vineyard that is lovingly tended to and cared for… until it yields wild grapes, which is not what was planted and then this love ballad turns into a disaster song where the land is cursed for life and the singer of the song is revealed as our Creator, who vows to never again let rain fall on this land, rendering the land eternally useless.

And this is the word of the Lord. 

And right now you are probably thinking to yourself, I knew this would have been a good morning to choose brunch at Guiros over church… those migas are sounding quite good right around now because those migas did not come with a heaping side of judgment and wrath.  

Trust me, I know those feelings because those are the feelings I have had all week about these texts. These have not been easy texts to sit with all week. 

A few months ago Jude did something and I was at the end of my rope and he was at the end of his and my Dad voice came out and I let him know what he had done wrong and how upset I was and then lead him to his room for a lengthy time out which we both needed. After the time out was over I went in his room to tell him timeout was done and I loved him. Jude being quite stubborn just looked at me. I repeated that I loved him and he was free to come out of his room whenever he felt like it. A few minutes later Jude came out of this room and he came straight up to me and he said this: “Dad I don’t like it when you talk to me like that… we do better when you use your nice voice. You got it?” 

And that is how I have felt this week about this text, my prayer have largely been: “God I don’t like it when you talk to us like this… we do better when you use your nice voice.” 

And yet the Scriptures did not magically transform into a favored parable and I could not find a footnote that somehow made these passages wonderfully comforting. They stayed exactly as they were. And what I realized is the lie that I was believing: I don’t know that we do all that better when God uses God’s nice voice. 

Because I think we hear a lot of God’s nice voice in our churches today and I am not sure that is doing us any favors if we truly look at our world today….

Our world where this very week, this past Monday was Earth Overshoot Day which was previously known as Ecological Debt Day. This is the day that marks on our calendars when we as a people have already consumed an entire year’s worth of the earth’s resources, meaning that from now until the end of the calendar year- we are borrowing, or maybe better put stealing, from future generations. We have marked this day since the 1970’s when it was in late December and every year it has gotten earlier and earlier… this year August 7, the earliest yet.[1]

Our world where as of July 24, a little over two weeks ago, that 3,000 migrants have died this very year trying to cross the Mediterrean Sea. 3,000 lives lost as people tried to flee an unsafe and unstable land. [2]

Our world where in a recent survey conducted of churches, 59% of pastors in the south (both mainline and evangelical) responded that after reflection they believed that more of their congregation loved America more than they loved God.[3]

Our world where it is estimated that 228 people are killed by guns each week in America, totaling on average over the last 5 years almost 33,000 shot and killed each year.[4]

Our world where 1 in 4 of our females has experienced domestic violence and 1 out of 7 of females has experienced attempted or completed sexual assault.  Our world where violence against women is the leading cause of injury for women between the ages of fifteen and forty-nine.[5]

Our world where an extraordinary percentage of black men are legally barred from voting and are victims of legalized discrimination in employment, housing and public education all because they were targeted in the War on Drugs in ways that white men were not.[6]

Our world where today the majority of poor working class spend over half their income on housing, where at least one in four working poor are forced to dedicate over 70% of their paycheck to rent and keeping the lights on.[7]

And that is just the start… the question is: is that world the result of the vast majority of churches that focus on God’s nicer tone? Have we become deaf and blind to the world right outside us? Have we failed to notice the things God notices?

It reminds me of an old bumper sticker I had on my jeep a few years back: If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.

Last summer, the Sunday after the shooting in the Charleston church to be exact, I used the time of the pastoral prayer to read out the names of the nine victims and we had a lengthy moment of silence and prayer for the victims and families. In trying to come to terms with that horrible event, it gave a bit of space for us to grieve together as a church community and offer up whatever prayer we had.

The next day in the office I got a call from a church member, now this was one of those members who was not my biggest fan, I was well aware of this so the small talk was short and then she informed me exactly why she was calling. In her words, “Griff I did not come to church yesterday to hear about those people or that shooting… and I don’t think anyone else did either. You need to learn what its appropriate to bring into our worship.” 

I sat stunned for a moment, fully realizing the power of her phrase: “those people and that incident.” I informed her that I would certainly not be issuing any sort of apology for my words or for that time of prayer, in fact the only apology I had for her was an apology that somehow the church had taught her that it was a place to escape the realities of the world in order to simply enforce her own narrow minded thinking.

It was not my best pastoral moment. However sometimes being prophetic trumps being pastoral. 

I heard a few weeks later she joined another church, a church I knew well…. A church full of happy thinking, the “happily ever after” stories of the Bible, a place where they focused exclusively on God’s nicer tone… a church that only tells half the story. 

Because the truth is this: if we don’t deal with these difficult text and if we don’t sit under the prophets and some of the more challenging words of Jesus, we are really cheapening God and so much of God’s kingdom. In the words of Wendell Berry, “It seems plain that the voice of our despair defines our hope…. We cannot know of hope without knowing of despair, just as we know joy precisely to the extent we know sorrow.”

We have to spend more time in these difficult texts, in the places where we feel that God is stepping all over our feet, in the words which stir our hearts to action, in the verses which name the things which have to go in order for the Kingdom of God to grow and maybe more than any of that all we need to know is that our God is bothered by these things and demands better of us and our world.

We need to read the words of Isaiah to know that God is upset when there is bloodshed where there should be justice and when there is crying where they should be righteousness. We need to know that according to Luke, Jesus is angry when we don’t truly look at the world and see the world for what it is: worth getting upset over, worth giving your very life for…. 

Because this is the whole picture of our faith: we have a God who gets worked up over pain and injustice and suffering in our world, a God who is angered by these things, a God who responds by becoming flesh and blood in order to become incarnate in the midst of the brokenness. A God whose response to pain and injustice is to be born in the middle of it in order to save it. A God whose is willing to say the difficult words we must hear. 

Early on in my ministry one of my biggest fears was hospital visits, I just could not figure out what to do and what to say in the midst of these moments and then I got a call that one of my friends parents was in the hospital and she requested I come and visit her. When I got there we did the small talk thing that usually counts for a pastoral visit and then I said, “well how are you feeling with your illness?” And she looked at me and said, “Griff I have cancer. Name it for me. Ask me how I am doing having cancer, everyone is so scared to say the word and to name. Name it for me.”

That is what we need to do… to look out at the brokenness of this world and to name it… and then to follow the bold narrative that God has laid out for each of us…. Name the brokenness, feel the pain of the brokenness, feel the injustice of the brokenness, let it move you and then to step right into that brokenness in order to live out the incarnational ministry of Jesus Christ.

To allow the prophets to lead us straight to the Gospel ministry.

And that means we have to listen to the Scriptures we would rather not hear and we have to see the realities of this world we would rather not see in order that we can go to the places God is calling us to go. Back to the vineyards to start planting again, back to the divided family in order to find unity, back to the broken places to start building things anew. 

After all that seems exactly what God is calling us to do and that seems to be exactly where we will find God.

[1] Huffington Post, “We’ve Already Used Up Earth’s Resources for 2016- and It’s August”
[2] Time Magazine, week of August 1
[3] Christian Century, week of August 3
[4] The, Everyday Gun Violence
[5] The Cross and Gendercide, Elizabeth Gerhardt
[6] The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
[7] Evicted, Matthew Desmond


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