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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

“No More Mr. Nice Guy”

Luke 12: 49‐56
Jennifer Browne
UUMC

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What’s going on here? Could this be Jesus talking? This can’t be right. This isn’t the Jesus I know. Where are the kind words about love and forgiveness? Where are the blessings and rewards? What happened to the easy yokes and light burdens? What happened to gentle Jesus, meek and mild? What happened to Mr. Nice Guy?

From now on five in one household will be divided: three against two and two against three, father against son, mother against daughter, mother‐in‐law against daughter‐in‐law.

These are tough, aggressive verses. They make us nervous and anxious. How did we get here?

Jesus is on the road with his disciples, on the road to Jerusalem. As they travel, he teaches: teaches about what being human should and could be; how we’re meant to live with God at the center of our lives. How living the fully human life means that we live not for ourselves alone, but for others. It has to do with holiness of life and with a passionate concern for the poor. It has to do with the way we take care of the stuff and the people God gives us.

Much of what Jesus taught had to do with change – big change, the kind of change that ruffles feathers, gets people upset, starts fires.

Peter Steinke is a Lutheran pastor and consultant to churches that are undergoing change. He’s not a scientist, but he’s immersed himself in the study of neurology so that he can get a grasp on why we human beings are so resistant to change.

He explains why big change, cultural change – what he calls “adaptive change” can be so upsetting. It turns out that our brain’s left hemispheres are in change of what is already known and our right hemispheres are in charge of what is new. Old recipes, known scripts, familiar categories – those all belong to the left hemisphere. Ambiguities, uncertainties, foreign ideas, new arrangements – those belong to the right.

In addition, our right hemispheres are also in charge of processing our negative emotions, like frustration, anxiety and anger. Our left hemispheres are active with positive emotions, like love and contentment.

No wonder we associate pleasurable feelings with what is known and familiar; no wonder we fear what is new. In fact, people with injuries in the right hemispheres of their brains really struggle with the unknown: they cling to routines; they tend to be rigid and resentful of any departure from the well‐ entrenched scripts in their lives.

Groups of people like living the left‐brained life together: the routine of a group’s life makes them comfortable; they feel good being bonded together in their familiar ways; they resist being upset or disturbed.

But look what Jesus taught: so much of what he said had to do with big change. Over and over again, Jesus appealed to the brain’s right hemisphere.

 

  In the story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10:29‐37) he asks who “the neighbor is.” But he’s not looking for a dictionary definition (a left brain definition). He goes straight to the brain’s right side: Can you imagine a Samaritan caring for a Jew?

  When he encounters the Rich Young Ruler (Lk 18:18‐25) he doesn’t praise the man for keeping all the rules (left‐brain), he shocks and upsets everyone – including us! – by challenging him to see everything and give the profits to the poor.

  In next week’s passage (Lk 13:10‐17) he challenges the law of his religious culture by working (healing) on the Sabbath. To those who are offended by this violation, he presents a different way of thinking: don’t you untie your animals and give them water on the Sabbath? Shouldn’t this woman also be freed on the Sabbath from her bondage?

 Every time Jesus started a sermon with “You have heard it said...but I say unto you... (Mt 5), he lost all his left‐brain listeners. “The meek will inherit the earth”? No left‐brainer would accept that nonsense!

 

But Jesus knew what he was doing. And he knew it would get him into trouble.

He’s on the road to Jerusalem, right? On the way to his arrest, trial and execution. On the way to fire, division, conflict. This is what it looks like and what it feels like to be faithful to his vision. The way Jesus lived forced a choice upon everyone who met him. His way is so contrary to the ways of the world that of course it will cause conflict. Sometimes faith embroils us in misunderstandings or makes us the butt of jokes. It may even lose us friends or loved ones. The conflict it causes can divide a church...or bring it to new life.

Peter Steinke tells this story about Bethel Church, where Wayne and Sandra Rogers were new co‐pastors. Their assignment was to revitalize the 80‐year old congregation that, at its peak in the 60s, had about 300 members. Now they were down to 90.

Most members of the congregation were connected to it through long‐standing family ties. The building was located in a changing neighborhood: an African‐ American community bracketed on side of the church and a multi‐racial community the other side. The members of Bethel – all white – drove 8 to 25 miles to come to church.

One spring afternoon, several youth from the African‐American community approached Wayne in the front yard of the parsonage. They asked him if the church was going to have a summer camp. Unaware of any such program, Wayne asked them if the church had ever held a summer camp before. “We dunno,” they said, “but it’s easy. All you need is permission forms!”

Wayne told Sandra about the encounter. “Let’s do it,” she said. It turned out to be a little more complicated than just permission forms. But with help from a few of the Bethel members, they put a 2‐week program together. 12 kids attended. The next summer, 60 showed up.

That was when Bethel members started to leave. The summer camp exacted wear and tear on the building. Unfamiliar faces were seen in the hallways and unusual art work was posted on bulletin boards. The camp cost money that wasn’t being reimbursed by the participants, and it took time away from Wayne and Sandra’s other duties.

Financial support for the church decreased; the budget had to be cut. Wayne and Sandra moved into an apartment, making it possible to rent out the parsonage for income. This change was not well‐received either. It was starting to look like the congregation really was going to collapse. The denominational authorities started to wonder whether they’d been right to recommend Wayne and Sandra for this assignment.

Things started to turn around financially when the estate of long‐time member was donated to the church. Most of the Bethel members who left did not return, but the congregation is growing now with new families from the surrounding neighborhoods and with others who share a vision of a different kind of church community.

We are called to live out Jesus’ vision of God’s kingdom, and sometimes that is very hard. There are a lot of options out there, there are a lot of hard decisions. If we choose to hold to the values and the vision of our faith, then we will know very well what Jesus meant when he talked about division, and conflict, and fire.

Writer Tom Mullen says that when he became a Quaker he learned that if you really want to cause conflict, work for peace the way the Quakers do – with determination.

I’m not a big fan of country music, but Garth Brooks’ song “Standing Outside the Fire” speaks exactly to Jesus’ point: living for others, with passionate concern, requires stepping into the fire and risking getting burned. Living without risk isn’t really living, it’s just surviving. It’s standing outside the fire.

Standing Outside the Fire (text & tune: Jenny Yates & Garth Brooks)

We call them cool
Those hearts that have no scars to show The ones that never do let go
And risk the tables being turned

We call them fools
Who have to dance within the flame Who chance the sorrow and the shame That always comes with getting burned

But you got to be tough when consumed by desire 'Cause it's not enough just to stand outside the fire

We call them strong
Those who can face this world alone Who seem to get by on their own Those who will never take the fall

We call them weak
Who are unable to resist

The slightest chance love might exist And for that forsake it all

They're so hell bent on giving, walking a wire convinced it's not living if you stand outside the fire.

refrain:
Standing outside the fire
Standing outside the fire
Life is not tried it is merely survived If you're standing outside the fire

Christ does not offer us a safety zone against misunderstanding or conflict. We are not hedged against accident or disease. We are not buttressed against poverty or disgrace. Things will inevitably get messy. To live Christ’s vision is to face division and pain and conflict. It is one of the best parts of being a pastor to see people stand in the fire with strength and grace:

 

  A woman who faces breast cancer with faith and hope, and even humor.

  Parents who find the strength to love their child who isn’t able to love them

in return.

  A older man who refuses to be part of his children’s squabbles about

money and inheritance.

  The retired‐before‐he‐was‐ready professional who faces this unexpected

transition in his life with imagination, creativity and the willingness to try

new things.

  A couple that publicly claims, accepts and celebrates the child born to their

unwed daughter.

  The widow who walks into church, with tears running down her cheeks, the

Sunday after her husband’s funeral.

  The junior high student who stands up for the school outcast despite the

disdain of his friends.

 

“I came to cast fire upon the earth,” Jesus says. Fire is scary, dangerous, sometimes out of control. But it is not permanent. In fact, fire can set the occasion for something new. Rev. Samuel Candler tells the following story:

About 12 years ago, a forest I knew burned in a raging fire. I was five hours away by car, and there was probably nothing I could do about it. Nevertheless, something in me felt an anxious urge to add my panic to the situation. So, my cousin and I jumped into a fast car, and we rushed down to South Georgia at 1:00 in the morning. By 5:00 in the morning, after our initial rush of adrenaline had worn off, we were upside down in a ditch outside Baxley, Georgia. We never made it to the fire. We limped sheepishly back to Atlanta.

Two months later, after the fire was out, I did manage to visit the site. I was amazed. Gorgeous green shoots were sprouting out of the black ashes even then. Animals were already grazing through the blackened trees and bushes.

Fire is not permanent. It’s not permanent in the lives of our forests, and it’s not permanent in our lives, either. Out of the fire of pain and suffering, of conflict and the most ugly of circumstances, God can forge new patterns of beauty.

Division and fire are for a season, not for an eternity. The fire of Jesus’ baptism – which turned out to be his crucifixion ‐‐ led to his resurrection and new life.

It is a double truth: Jesus doesn’t bring the peace and quiet that we would expect, but in the ultimate and deepest sense he is ‘our peace.’ Jesus goes his way to the baptism of death in order that others following him may be granted something of his burning heart.

That is what’s behind all these tough words from this not‐so Mr. Nice Guy Jesus. It is the call to living a new life. It is the call to be transformed by holy fire, that we might show the world what it looks like to follow Jesus’ vision. It is the call to live as we were created to live, wholly and completely. It is the call to share, not good advice, but good news and new lives, with a world that is dying for the lack of exactly that. It is a challenge and it is hard. But it is the way of life and the way of hope.

May God bless you with restless discomfort, holy anger,

tears of transformation and

the flame of passionate faith.
So that you may know heaven’s own peace,

Amen.

References

Peter L. Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What. Alban Institute, 2006.

Brian P. Stoffregen. Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks Christian Resources. Luke 12.49‐56 Proper 15 ‐ Year C. http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke12x49.htm