Harrowing Of Hell
August 19, 2019

It’s Hard to Follow Jesus

The Rev. Dr. Peter Strimer

To listen to the sermon click here.

Luke 12:49-56

Jesus said, “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; they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,

mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Well, so much for the Gentle Jesus. “You hypocrites, I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Not peace but a sword. That is Jesus message today. For some of us this Gospel lesson is reminiscent of toxic preaching, something many of us came to the Episcopal Church to get away from. It doesn’t quite fit with the sign outside the door that says the Episcopal Church welcomes you.

“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” Harsh.

Why is Jesus so stressed? I actually admit I was happy to read that Jesus can get as stressed as I get when trying to make sense of the present time. If I preached today from my own stress about our present times, those would be harsh words too, but not Jesus’s words.

Just the same, even coming from Jesus this teaching hits hard. We aren’t any longer getting Jesus’s gentle lessons on pastoral hillsides up in the Galilee. Instead in Ch. 9 of Luke Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem and things have gotten very real very fast. And they will stay that way in our lessons from now all the way through Thanksgiving.

We hear Jesus’s teaching in today’s Gospel in the midst of a marathon teaching session, the longest one held in the entire gospel of Luke stretching over 3 chapters.

On one hand he is facing down Pharisees. In the next sentence he turns to his disciples and tries to wake them up to what is really going on. He comforts them with words like, “‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Then he bludgeons them with today’s Gospel. In between his fight with the Pharisees and his teachings for his disciples, he addresses the crowds that have now grown enormous. It says at the beginning of our chapter, “Meanwhile, when the crowd gathered in thousands, so that they trampled on one another, he began to speak.” Three audiences, three different ways to teach them how to read the signs of the times.

The Jesus Movement by this time in Luke has gotten way out of hand. Huge crowds, confused disciples, duplicitous scribes and Pharisees, all hanging on Jesus words for salvation or to catch him in a trap. And absolutely no one knows exactly what he is talking about.

From our lesson we can tell his disciples think his message is all about peace, love and understanding. Otherwise, why would Jesus have to say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

It has come time in the Gospel for a little admonishment before we, too, can make the big turn to go with Jesus to Jerusalem. Tough lessons for faithful followers.

It is time to whittle the crowd down to the faithful followers who can make it all the way to the cross.

These teachings are tough because the road is tough. You have to learn how to read the signs of the times; it is a required skill.  Not to get into heaven or be saved – that’s open to all — but to be a follower of Jesus you need to learn these critical skills.

Right after Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, we met three would-be followers who were not up to the task. “Luke Ch. 9, verses 57 through 62. “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Harsh Jesus once again.

There is an important point to be made here. No blaming or shaming from Jesus if you are not up to the task. You are still beloved of God, redeemed by Christ and have your place in the Kingdom. But to be a follower of Jesus. Well as it says in the verse right before the lesson we heard: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

To be a follower of Jesus you better know how to read the signs of the times. “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

So listen up; Jesus will teach you.

When I started working on this sermon I was drawn to the theme of Jesus as a teacher. I suppose that part of the attraction of that topic is that my role here with you at Epiphany has been primarily one of a teacher. Doyt has graciously brought me on board and invited me to create a 15-part series on Anglican Orthodoxy over the course of a year and a half. We conclude(d) the 10th session today. Stay tuned for the last set of sessions this fall at 10 am during Everybody Hour in the Great Hall.

This sermon gave me the opportunity to delve into all the ways in which Jesus, the greatest of all rabbis, practiced his craft. He clearly uses a multitude of ways to help his followers learn how to read the signs of the times. He uses one approach on a pastoral hillside up near his hometown in Galilee, and an entirely different approach where we find him today on the road to Jerusalem and then yet an entirely different way when his classroom is inside the halls of the temple within days of his death.

What I learned in studying Jesus as a teacher is that it is so important to see the context of the classroom. We shouldn’t confuse the different approaches to teaching that Jesus uses. A beatitude is not a commandment. A parable is not an exhortation. Here’s a good example of the mis-use of Jesus’s words. We hear this story in John’s Gospel when Jesus is anointed by Mary in Bethany. It reads, “But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ When Jesus says the poor you will have with you always, that is not at all a teaching about poverty. Instead, Jesus was making the point of paying attention to him right now when he is right before our eyes. The story is not about the poor but about Jesus. Context matters.

So Jesus uses all kinds of methods and approaches and techniques to teach, each appropriate to its own context.

One of those is to hit us right between the eyes like he did in today’s lesson.

In thinking about Jesus preaching and teaching I got ready for this sermon by going back to revisit two of the greatest preaching professors I had the privilege of hearing lecture while in seminary at Yale in the late 70s. Hearing the two Freds, Fred Craddock and Frederick Buechner, as guest lecturers changed my approach to preaching over 40 years ago.

It was Craddock who rammed home that form and context are everything. He said in his lecture “Preaching that treats beatitudes as exhortations or paradoxes as syllogisms violates not only the form but content of the Gospel. Let doxologies be shared doxologically, narratives narratively, polemics polemically, poems poetically, and parables parabolically. In other words, biblical preaching ought to be biblical.”

And Buechner taught me that a particular teaching is meant for a very particular audience at a particular time. He painted a picture for us:

“It’s Sunday morning and in the front pews a young mom slips her 6-year-old a Lifesaver and a Magic Marker. A college sophomore home for vacation, who is there because he was dragged there, slumps forward with his chin in his hand. The vice-president of a bank who twice that week has seriously contemplated suicide places his hymnal in the rack. A pregnant girl feels life stir inside her. A high school math teacher, trying to prepare for the start of the school year, creases his order of service down the center with his thumbnail and tucks it under his knee ….

The preacher pulls the little cord that turns on the lectern light and deals out his note cards like a riverboat gambler.”

Buechner described a setting I have seen time and time again in all the Episcopal Churches I have been part of.  A particular congregation on a specific Sunday morning. So what should the preacher do next?

Buechner goes on. “Let them tell them the truth … let them use words, but in addition to using them to explain, expound, exhort, let them use them to evoke, to set us dreaming as well as thinking, to use words at their most prophetic and truthful. The prophets used them to stir in us memories and longings and intuitions that we starve for without knowing that we starve. Let them use words which do not only try to give answers to the questions that we ask or ought to ask but which help us to hear the questions that we do not have words for asking.”

Who was the greatest teacher in your lifetime? Take a minute and picture someone who was an immensely influential teacher for you.

What means did they use?

Good stories? Clear instructions? Nothing but the examples of their life?

Who are the important teachers here at Epiphany?

A fair amount of the Christian teaching we receive at Epiphany comes right from where I stand. Preaching is teaching, and you have some fantastic teachers here in the person of Doyt and Ruth Ann. It is a privilege to join them. The primary teaching ministry of any pastor is their sermon.

To finish today, I want us to be sure for us to remember the main point of our Gospel today is actually not about teaching but about learning.

Jesus in our gospel makes clear if you want to be a true follower you have to be a dedicated learner. We all are called to learn how to read the signs of the times. A hard lesson is to consider how we learn what we learn.

For some of us it is through exhortation, for some through analogy, for others through logic; some simply through being told a beautiful story. None of these methods and messages are to their own ends; all of Christ’s teachings offered to his beloved community were offered so we can learn to read the signs of our times, and then respond to them faithfully. You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky. It’s time to learn how to interpret the present time.