Pentecost 12C, 2010 8/15/2010
Do you think that I have come to bring peace upon 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.
Wait a minute. That’s not what we want to hear from, much less about, Jesus. Jesus is supposed to bring the peace that passes all understanding. Jesus is supposed to be the answer – that’s what the bumper stickers say. The family that prays together stays together. I grew up on those Norman Rockwell pictures of the nicely dressed American family going into and coming out of church with big smiles on their faces. How dare Jesus suggest that following him might cause trouble, especially right at home! What in the world is going on here? Jesus is not talking – nice.
Some time ago, as I was receiving a Confirmation class of youth into the church, I challenged them to go turn the world upside down. The whole world, including many people in the church, want you to be nice, I told them. The word nice never appears in the Bible. If you really read the Gospels, you’ll see that Jesus is not very nice. He didn’t get crucified because he was nice. The political and religious establishment executed him because he was a threat to the status quo. So, I told the youth, don’t be nice – be faithful.
The next week a woman in the congregation surprised me by coming to me and saying how much she agreed with what I had said to the confirmation class. “A few years ago, I decided to take my Bible and just read the words in red – just what Jesus said. I was shocked,” she went on, “at how tough Jesus is. He really isn’t very nice. He’s loving, but it’s a very tough love. I understood for the first time why they killed him.”
I think one of the most important books written for Christians in the last generation is Resident Aliens, by Duke University professor Stanley Hauerwas and now-bishop Will Willimon. Ever since the Roman emperor Constantine converted in 312 and made Christianity legal in Rome, there has been an alliance between western politics and Christian faith. We continue to hear this in arguments that America is, or should be, a “Christian nation.”
Now, I don’t want to debate that particular history or philosophy in this sermon, except to say that I think it’s problematic both historically and theologically. What’s of little doubt is that if ever Christians could trust this culture to faithfully convey Christian values, we can – and should – trust that no longer. In the book, Will Willimon describes the day in his youth when his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina ceased to be officially Christian: the day the movie theater began showing movies on Sunday nights. Will and some of his buddies sneaked out of Methodist Youth Fellowship to take in the movie, before coming back for Sunday night worship with his parents. The town businesses, Will wrote, were no longer going to underwrite the church’s agenda.
So, how do we respond when the surrounding culture – even in our own households – no longer supports following Jesus? The issue is much bigger than movies on Sundays, or compulsory prayer in public schools, or education about sexuality. I’ll suggest some real issues in a moment.
Resident Aliens says that Christians have tended to respond in two ways to a culture which is no longer officially Christian – i.e., a post-Constantinian world. The first response is to accommodate. We may moan and groan about businesses being open on Sundays, or R rated movies, or suggestive song lyrics, but after a while, we just live with them. More than that, many of us will go out to eat after church today, or watch a ball game on TV (that’s a business, you know), or engage in those things which our parents and grandparents thought were signs of the end of the world. Now, Sabbath laws, R rated movies, and song lyrics, it seems to me, are not the real crux of our discipleship problem: there are far deeper issues of how we treat other people and the priorities we have for our money and our time. But, for the moment, let’s just use Sabbath laws as an example for how we’ve accommodated to the culture around us.
The second response, according to Hauerwaas and Willimon, is to try to convert the culture and the nation. Have you read about the church in Florida that’s going to burn copies of the Koran – the Muslim sacred scriptures? Or Fred Phelps and his Westboro Church of God, who show up at military funerals with posters saying that that the death of American soldiers is God’s judgment on America for homosexuality? Or the dime-a-dozen politicians and pundits who tell us that they’re going to take America back to its Christian roots? These are all conversionists, who respond to the change in the culture by attempting to convert the culture to their point of view. The Tea Party and Osama bin Laden have the same strategy – they’re trying to convert the world.
The black evangelist Tom Skinner used to say there were three ways to change the world. The first was to work within the system, climbing up to a position of power and authority, so then you could make the changes you wanted back in the beginning. That’s the accomodationist strategy. The problem is that in order to get to a position where you have the power to make significant change, you have to so compromise your values that when you get to the top, you’re no longer interested in making changes. I’ve seen that in business, in the church, and in politics. It doesn’t work.
The second method, Skinner said, is to blow the system up. That’s the conversionist strategy of the Tea Party and Al Qaida. The problem with blowing things up is that you end up in jail or dead, the system collects insurance, and rebuilds itself stronger than before.
The Jesus way of making changes, said Skinner and Hauerwas and Willimon, is to create an alternative and live it out no matter the consequences. Hauerwas and Willimon point to how observant Jews have lived for thousands of years as resident aliens (hence the title of the book) in the midst of hostile cultures. They teach their values to their children, reinforce them with each other, and simply do not participate in the values of the culture around them. My best friend when I was campus minister in Charlottesville was the campus rabbi. When we went out to eat, he didn’t eat pork or shrimp – he usually ate vegetarian. He walked to synagogue on Saturday so wouldn’t do work by driving his car. He neither bought into the hot dog eating culture around him, nor tried to blow up the barbecue restaurant. He just lived his values, regardless of the consequences.
Now, what does all this have to do with Jesus announcing household conflict when people begin to follow him? Well, friends, that’s been part of my story my whole adult life. When I surrendered my life to Christ as a senior in high school, it immediately caused trouble with my nominally Methodist parents. My father had wanted me to enter a career in his great passion, aviation. When I decided that working at the Boy Scout camp on weekends was more important that flying lessons, my father was enraged. A year later when I told my parents I felt called into ministry, it got worse. As a parent, I watched my children struggle with the disparity between the life and values we were trying to live and teach, and the lives and values of their friends. No, you can’t have expensive clothes or your own car or go on expensive vacations, because, among other things, we give a lot of money to the church and to other causes. No, you can’t go to that party Saturday night or Sunday night or whenever, because we have a church commitment. We knew we were doing something right when our seventh grade daughter refused to sell raffle tickets as a fund raiser for her school band, because, as she told her teacher, she was a Methodist, and Methodists don’t gamble. The teacher turned very red, because she was a Methodist, too.
For both Jews and Gentiles in the first century, the family household was the fundamental building block of society. Family ties were the basis of identity, vocation, allegiance, and status. Jesus knew that when members of Jewish and Gentile households decided to make him their first allegiance, follow his call, and find their identity and status in him, that would cause warfare within families. Jesus was challenging the very foundations of the world around him, a far more radical thing to do than to take on the Romans or the Temple. Jesus was calling his disciples into a new family, based not on DNA or income or education or politics or geography. He was calling them into his family, where God was their father and was to be obeyed above all other allegiances.
I want to close with a personal testimony. I committed my life to Christ as a senior in high school, and during my first year in college heard God’s call into ordained ministry. Before that first year in college was over, my parents had divorced, married other people, moved away from Baltimore, and sold the only home I had ever lived in. I went back to college for my second year literally a homeless person. I walked into the campus church that first Sunday and was greeted by a church member who opened his arms and said to me, “Welcome home.” I stood in the church vestibule and cried. And forty years later I stand here to tell you that God’s family has surrounded me for the last forty years with far more love and grace and mercy that I have ever received from my blood kin.
Now, if you come from a wonderful, loving, and Christian family, get down on your knees and thank God and thank them every day. But Jesus knew that in his day and in ours, that’s not where most people live. If you really want to change the world and change your own life and those closest to you, don’t accommodate and don’t convert. Be the change you want to see in the world. And if that doesn’t work in your household, come live it out here, in the family of God. Invite everyone you know who is hungry for a love that lasts forever and for a peace that passes understanding into this family.
Jesus knew that’s how you turn the world upside down.
 Bartlett and Taylor Brown, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, Knoxville, John Knox Press, 2010, p. 361