Monday, March 2, 2020

Sermon - September 8, 2019 - "Sign Me Up!"

Luke 14:25-33 -  INTRO

Those of you who were here a few weeks ago may remember the passage we read from Luke’s gospel where Jesus said to his followers,
“I have not come to bring peace, but rather division…
where mother will turn against daughter, and son against father.”
We talked about how the Jesus we encounter in that passage seems out of character – because his words don’t fit the image of the kind, compassionate, and peace-loving teacher that we’ve come to know.
When we encounter these difficult passages it is tempting to just skip over them and say,
 “You know Jesus seems a little stressed out this week, he must have been having a bad day, so let’s see what Jeremiah has to say and we’ll come back to Jesus next week when he’s calmed down a bit.”

Well, here we are a few weeks later, and Jesus has not calmed down.
If anything, he seems to have ramped up his stress level –
as this time as he talks to his followers about the cost of discipleship.

Here Jesus tells his disciples that they must leave all of their possessions behind and pick up the cross as he will. 
And then he again talks about families,
but this time he uses the word “hate” to describe what his disciples must do to their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, spouses and children.

In English, the word hate has a very definitive meaning.
It means to despise, or loathe, or to dislike with a passion.
But in ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic –
the meaning is not so straightforward.

In fact in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, there is no word for “like”-
You either loved someone or you hated them,
And when you said you hated someone it didn’t always mean you despised them,
it could also mean you simply loved them to a lesser degree than others.
We do the same mixed meaning gymnastics with the word “like” –
When you think about the boy or girl who sat next to you in 8th grade –
 did you like them or did you “LIKE” them?

There are numerous examples in our Bible where the word hate is used in this same ambiguous way – sometimes it means “to despise” and other times it’s used to describe a lesser degree of affection than love.

So which meaning was Jesus intending for us to hear when he used the word “hate” in reference to our families of origin?

In the context of describing the cost of discipleship is he saying we must walk away from all that we know and love –
and come to despise what we’ve left behind –
Or is he saying that we must elevate our love of God above all else -  and commit ourselves fully to walking the way that he set before for us?

These are challenging words either way. 


The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
September 8, 2019 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 14:25-33

“Sign Me Up!”

A few weeks ago I had the honor and the pleasure of presiding at two weddings on back-to-back weekends. 
Both were destination weddings, with the happy couples exchanging their vows outside with scenic mountain overlooks.
The settings were idyllic, but as with many weddings there was much for the bride and groom to be anxious about.
The brides were worried about slipping on the grass in their heals, one groom asked his best man continuously if he was sure he had the rings,
the location of one of the ceremonies had to be changed at the last minute due to a mix up at the wedding venue,
and one couple had the added stress of a weather forecast that called for thunderstorms, hail, and gusty winds to arrive just as they would be saying their I-do’s.
Thankfully the stormy weather held off until we were all safely inside at the reception.  

As I told both couples just before they spoke their words of commitment to one another, perfect wedding days are about as common as perfect relationships.
Ask any clergy person/JP and they’ll share stories of wedding day mishaps.

There was the couple who included their dog in the ceremony and when the priest asked if anyone present objected to the marriage, the dog started crying and howling.
There was the wedding reception where during the Father/Daughter dance the DJ mistakenly played Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On."

The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon shared that at his cousin’s wedding,
the bride and groom’s arrival at the reception was announced with pulsating lights and a dramatic cloud of dry ice – and with all eyes on the entranceway out of the mist walked Fallon’s mother looking for a bathroom.

Thankfully both couples I married a few weeks ago, have known each other long enough and well enough to know what they are getting themselves into.
They were not expecting perfection – on their wedding day or in their relationship.
They both seemed to understand that commitment is about accepting the challenges and the disappointments along with the blessings and the joys.

Commitment gets a bad rap in our current culture -
Partly because people are a lot more mobile and moveable nowadays…
Changing jobs, changing locations, changing spouses and relationships much more frequently than the generations that came before.

And if you talk to any group that depends on the time, talent, and treasure of volunteers to keep it functioning and thriving,
getting folks to commit is becoming more and more of a challenge.
Our schools, our charitable organizations, our churches, talk about the difficulties of planning, scheduling, and implementing programs and events because people either won’t or can’t commit ahead of time,
or don’t show up when they say they will.

But in this alleged age of lack of commitment,
we might also say we have an issue with over-commitment.  

Think about the calendar you have at home, or have in your purse or your phone.
Many of us maintain daily, weekly, and yearly schedules that are overflowing with commitments. 
I can’t tell you how many people I’ve encountered in the last week – people of all ages – who bemoaned the fact that we’ve now turned the page from August into September.
Not just because they’re going to miss the warmer and longer days of summer.
But because they’re going to miss the slower pace and fewer commitments –
the commitments that seem to rush in and fill all the empty spaces in our day planners and in our lives when summer turns to fall.

It doesn’t matter if we have kids at home or away at school,
if we’re working or retired,
if we have aging parents or aging bodies that demand our attention.
It’s likely that many of us here spend our days running from one appointment or meeting or gathering to the next –
committing our time and energy and passion to the people and places and events that are counting on us to show up and be present in some way.

And then there are the days when we have competing commitments.
The dance recital is at the same time as the swim practice.
The doctors appointment is at the same time as the ladies’ luncheon.
The family party is at the same time as the church picnic.
And we can’t be in two places at once.

So when we finally have the time to make it to the PTA meeting,
or our grandson’s soccer game, or to a church service on Sunday morning, the last thing we want or need to hear is how we’re not doing enough to show our commitment – that we should be doing MORE to prove we appreciate the value these people, places, and events add to our lives.

This is another reason why we may want to take the passage we heard today from Luke’s gospel and put in our file of Biblical texts that are okay to skip over when they show up in the Sunday lectionary. 

Not just because the language is challenging and we may struggle to understand its meaning outside of its time and context,
but because Jesus is reminding us of yet another commitment that we feel grossly unprepared to take on, or don’t even remember signing up for.

He’s the teacher telling us we’re not volunteering enough in the classroom.
The soccer coach who reminds us it’s our turn to bring the orange slices for the kids at halftime.
The church member who calls us for the umpteenth time asking if we can please please please sign up to be a Deacon, or to make coffee, or help with another project that we just don’t have time or bandwidth to take on.

But Jesus is not asking us to bring snacks, or wash communion cups, or monitor a school cafeteria.
Jesus is asking us to leave everything behind and lay down our lives so that others may know that God’s love has the power to change the world.

Jesus said,
“None of you can become my disciples unless you give up all that you have.”

We’re used to Jesus saying things like this – to the twelve men who followed him.
Fisherman and tax collectors and odd-job peasants who had only the tools of their trade and maybe an extra cloak or pair of sandals to their name.
And when it came to following itinerate preachers it was more or less expected that you would be pulling up stakes and traveling to far off places for God knows how long and leaving ties to home and family behind.

The cost of discipleship in the first century was undeniable and obvious.
If you signed up to be one of the twelve you wouldn’t be headed to your 9-5 job on Monday morning or sleeping in your own bed at night.
You also wouldn’t be bringing along your fishing nets or carpentry tools, or your spouse or your children.
All of your possessions, and your family members - all ties to your old life would be left behind.

The cost of discipleship was clear.
What was not so clear was the part about the cross.
Then, just as now, people who lifted up Jesus as the way, the truth, and the light – had no conception of what it meant to follow him to the cross.
Then, it was inconceivable, that the Messiah –
the one sent by GOD to liberate the people of Israel –
would die a criminal’s death as Jesus predicted he would.
That’s not how the story was supposed to end.

And now, it seems inconceivable, that we would risk our lives in the same way  – as we seek justice, call for peace, and open our arms wide in God’s name. That’s not how we believe our story is supposed to end, either.
First of all, we are not first-century fisherman with just a few attachments to leave behind.
We have mortgages to pay, and 401Ks to contribute to,
and a calendar on our wall that is filled with people and places and events that depend on our being there.

As much as we may sometimes fantasize about cutting all ties to our hamster wheel lives and going Into the Wild – to live off the land and go off the grid……the reality is most of us have no desire to go that far in our commitment to a cause.

We love our families, and our friends, and our homes, and the work we’ve committed ourselves to, as time-consuming and as challenging as they may all be at times.

If being a disciple in the first century was about leaving everything behind to help Jesus build this amazing and wonderful Kingdom of God…
What does it mean to be a disciple in the twenty-first century?

We have numerous examples of commitment to Christ in our recent history:

Mother Teresa, who devoted her life to helping the impoverished and marginalized in India, giving up all of life’s comforts in the process. 

Dietrich Bonheoffer, who spoke out against the Nazi regime, smuggled Jews out of Germany, and died in a concentration camp as a result. 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who practiced and preached non-violent resistance to counteract the forces of racism and hatred, and who was killed by those forces in the end.

But is leaving all that we know and love behind and picking up the cross as Jesus did the only way that we have to live into our commitment as people of God?

When we’re baptized or confirmed or become a member of a Christian community we make promises to God and to each other to commit ourselves to a life in Christ.

What that commitment looks like is up to us.
And it doesn’t have to be life-threatening or world-changing to count.
Sometimes it looks like offering someone a kind word even when we feel they’ve wronged us in some way.
Sometimes it looks like extending a hand in generosity when our instinct is to close our hand to keep what is ours to ourselves.
Sometimes it looks like listening and learning from the story of another, instead of making assumptions based on our own experience,
which may be miles away from where we need to be. 

Commitment to Christ looks like all of the above.
It looks like compassion.
It looks like grace.
It looks like love.

And if we’ve ever spoken harshly to someone and regretted it afterward.
If we’ve ever said no to a request for help when we could have said yes.
If we’ve ever dismissed someone’s pain because it’s not something we’ve experienced ourselves….
Then we know how challenging it is to commit ourselves to the way of Christ.

We don’t have to leave our homes or love our parents or children any less to take on this commitment to walk in the way of Jesus.
We can do it at the grocery store, in the PTA meeting, at the church gathering – where people seem more than willing to give us many opportunities to practice compassion, love, and grace.
And in doing so, we leave behind our old selves –
our anger, our anxiety, and our fear.

And when we do that, we just might change the world, with God’s help.
The good news is, that’s a commitment that I know we all can live into.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.


Sermon - August 25, 2019 - "Set Free on the Sabbath"

Luke 13:10-17 - Intro

At first glance, this passage from Luke appears to be a miracle story – because it begins with Jesus healing a woman who has been bent over for 18 years with a condition that was likely something similar to osteoporosis.

But as you listen, notice that Luke doesn’t dwell on the details as he usually does – more than any of the gospel writers, Luke loves a good story and he tends to include a lot more details than the others do…but not here.
Here he seems to rush past the healing of the bent-over woman…
because the healing in many ways is a set up for what comes next.

Jesus heals the woman in a synagogue on the Sabbath – the day of Lord.
And in doing so, he breaks the Fourth Commandment.  
“Thou shalt not do any work on the Sabbath, keep it holy, for it belongs to God.”

The conflict that follows between Jesus and the leaders of the synagogue is one that we see played out time and time again in the Gospel of Luke.

These leaders are the keepers of the faith, and they are rightly concerned about religious practices, and rituals, and making sure the faithful adhere to God’s law.
But for Jesus, the compassionate care of others is itself a religious virtue and practice, and it is deeply rooted in the Torah as he alludes to here.
For Jesus, the one commandment that anchors and lays the foundation for all of the others, is that we are to love God, and love our neighbor, as we love ourselves.

And what better way to honor the spirit of the Sabbath and show our love for our neighbor than to give another rest and release from their pain?


The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 25, 2019 – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
 Luke 13:10-17

“Set Free on the Sabbath”

What comes to mind when you hear the word “sabbath?”
Do you think of a day you have entirely to yourself –
to sleep in, perhaps go for a walk in the woods or on the beach,
and then curl up with a cup of tea and a good book?
Do you think of spiritual or religious practices, which involve hours of scripture reading and reflection, extensive prayer and meditation, and refraining from work or recreation of any kind?
Do you think of a time that has long since passed, when businesses and shops were closed on Saturday or Sunday and people spent the morning in church or synagogue followed up with the entire family gathering for an afternoon meal and uninterrupted time together?

When you hear the word Sabbath do find yourself longing for the good old days, or dreaming of a day filled with peace and quiet, or cringing at the thought of a long, boring day spent fulfilling religious obligations?

What we think of when we hear the word Sabbath largely depends on whether we think of Sabbath as a restriction that is placed upon us, or as a gift that has been given to us, or as a way of life that has been taken from us.

When Moses came down off the mountain carrying the Ten Commandments – the stone tablets that had been written upon by the hand of God –
The fourth commandment on the list was this:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.
On that day you shall do no work. 

While some 3600 years have gone by since Moses walked off that mountain, the laws he carried still shape and inform the ethics and morals of our world today.
Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not lie. Thou shalt not kill.
But for some reason, this commandment about keeping the Sabbath seems to have fallen by the wayside.
It’s as if we all collectively looked at the list and said, yeah this one we really don’t have to pay attention to anymore.

It was for another time, another place, another people….
who don’t live in the modern fast-paced world that we do today –
with all its demands, and distractions, and expectations, that don’t allow for something as disruptive and as frivolous as keeping a day of Sabbath.

There are some who don’t see it this way.
For Orthodox Jews, the Fourth Commandment is not just a suggestion –
it’s a way of life, often consuming much more than the 24 hours contained within it.

On the Jewish Shabbot - from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday - work of any kind is prohibited.
And “work” includes much more than the job we do to earn a living.
Business transactions, using the telephone, driving or riding in cars, all are prohibited.
As is turning on or off anything that uses electricity, including lights, radios, computers, or air-conditioners.
Also forbidden are cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, and doing laundry.
Some of us might start observing the Sabbath just for this reason.

Now those of us who are not Orthodox Jews may think that this sounds like a pretty dreary way to spend a day –
requiring the faithful to eat cold meals, sit in the dark, and risk heatstroke on a hot day in August –
But an observant Jew would tell us that this is not the case at all. 
One needs only to prepare ahead of time.
Lights, stovetops, and air conditioners may be used as long as they’re turned on before sundown on Friday, or set with an automatic timer.
Cooking and baking for Sabbath meals is done on Friday during the day and can be kept warm on a stovetop, as long as the controls are covered and not touched. 
And you can open the refrigerator, as long as the little light bulb that turns on when you open the door has been removed the day before.

Some of the ways that observant Jews have devised to “function within” the rules of Sabbath may seem a bit questionable to those of us on the outside.

For example - certain objects cannot be moved on the Sabbath – tools, pens, or important papers – because doing so may fall under the category of work.
But while moving them with your hands is forbidden – they may be moved with other parts of the body –  with one's elbow or teeth, or in the case of paper, by blowing on it.    As awkward as that may sound.

There is also a prohibition against carrying anything from a private space, like one’s home, into a public space, like the street.
This includes carrying something in your pocket; pushing a baby carriage or shopping cart, or going outside with gum or food in your mouth.
To get around this, some Jewish neighborhoods have erected fence posts around the perimeter that they connect with wire or string on the sabbath, enclosing the public area into one big private – yet communal – domain.

Now if you think we Christians are somehow more “evolved” because we no longer adhere to these ancient practices – you should know that many Christians around the world do observe the Sabbath in this same way – albeit on Sunday, rather than Saturday.
And some states and cities still have blue laws on the books that require businesses to be closed on Sunday or prohibit the sale of alcohol or autos.
Up until 1931, it was illegal to play sports on Sunday in Pennsylvania.
Then they decided to make an exception for baseball so the Philadelphia A’s could play. Two years later Eagles came along and they decided football on Sunday was okay as well.  
It wasn’t too long ago that all Christians set Sunday aside as a day to attend church, visit with family, and read scripture well into the evening.
When people in Amherst gathered in this sanctuary on Sundays in the 17 and 1800’s, the service often lasted 3-4 hours – and that was just the morning obligation – worshipers were expected to come back in the afternoon for another 3-4 hours of Bible study and Sunday School.
So you’re all getting off easy.

The concept of “Sabbath” is not completely lost on us in the modern world.
Even the busiest among us try to grab a few hours here and there or set aside a day every now to step away from the chaos –
to go for a walk, read, meditate or pray, or just sit in a quiet space with the TV off and the phone on silent.

Going to the mall or to binge-watching Netflix doesn’t count.
Because Sabbath – as a way to honor and move closer to God – is intended to be spent with as few outside distractions as possible.
Which is the whole point of the ancient practices that Orthodox Jews observe to honor the Sabbath.
Because every time they think about turning on a light or picking up a hammer on the Sabbath, and then remember that they can’t, their focus shifts back to God – and the gift that God gave them by commanding them to rest.

Admittedly, many of us are not in the habit of making space for rest.
For even just a few hours, let alone an entire day.
And if we have a demanding job, or young children, or we’re the primary caregiver for a spouse or a parent  
the concept of Sabbath is a luxury that we can’t even fathom having time for – as much as we may need it.

So how do we rectify this?
How might we make space for the Sabbath in our lives and honor the fourth commandment?
Because it is a commandment.
One that is pretty high up in importance –
It comes right after “Thou shalt not have any other God’s before me and thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
Even stealing and murder don’t rank as high on the list.
Which may be an indication of just how significant the observation of Sabbath is –
Not for God’s sake, but for our sake.

What if we shifted our understanding of the purpose of Sabbath?
Because when we see it as a day of rest – a day to do no work –
something inside of us resists. 
There is always some work that awaits our attention – weeding the garden, going to the grocery store, volunteering in the community.

Call it the Protestant work ethic or good old-fashioned Yankee steadfastness  - many of us have it bred into us that to be idle when there is work to be done is not a good or Godly thing.
So there is no wonder that the concept of taking a Sabbath –
a full day off from doing any kind of work – is so foreign to us.

But if we look again at the passage from Luke, we see that Jesus didn’t encounter the woman in the synagogue and declare that she needed a day of rest.   No.   What he did was remove her burden.
He took her spirit that had been twisted and weakened and had left her bent over for 18 years, and he healed her.
He liberated her from her pain.
He removed whatever it was that was weighing her down, and allowed her to stand up straight, and see the world in front of her, rather than just the ground beneath her feet.

How might our perception of Sabbath change if we saw it not as a day of personal rest, but rather as a day to release our burdens to God?

While many of us think we’re craving rest, what we’re actually longing for is relief. Liberation.
Liberation from pain, from uncertainty, from grief, from whatever burden is twisting our spirit and weighing us down.
Think about why you came here this morning.

What brought you here – when you could have gone straight to the lake, or the beach, or the mountains?
What brought you here – on the one day you get to wake up without an alarm, eat a leisurely breakfast, and read the Sunday paper out on the patio.
What brought you here -  when you could be wandering the aisles at Home Depot picking up supplies for the weekend project you’ve been meaning to get to all summer.
What brought you here when you could have been doing X number of things, rather than getting up early, putting on presentable clothes, and sitting on a hard pew in a 245-year-old church sanctuary for an hour?

Maybe you came because you haven’t been to church all summer and you thought it was time to check back in – to catch up with people you know,
and find out what you’ve missed.
Maybe you came because you’re new – to this town, or to this church – and you were curious to see if this one would be the right fit for you –
If you’d feel welcomed, inspired, and if maybe, just maybe you could see yourself coming back again.

Maybe you came because this is where you come every Sunday.
To connect with God and others, to say a prayer, to hear music or scripture or a word that inspires you to go out and serve in the name of love, compassion, and grace.

Or maybe you came because there’s something happening in your life right now that is just too much for you to carry on your own.
And you came here seeking guidance – comfort – peace –
something or someone to lean on,
to give you the strength to move forward or to let go, as needed.

We come here for all sorts of reasons.
But few of us get up out of bed and come sit in a church sanctuary because we’re looking for rest.
We come because we’re looking for God.
The One who has the strength and the power to liberate us from whatever is weighing us down.
The One who touches our lives by working in and through the people sitting here in the pews next to us.
The One who sent us Jesus to show us how to walk upright once again and how to help others to do the same.

This is the gift of Sabbath.
This is the commandment created for us.
This the day the Lord has made.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.

Sermon - August 18, 2019 - "Divided We Stand"

Luke 12:49-56 – Intro

In Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”
And just a few chapters later, in the same gospel, Jesus said to his disciples,  “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
When we hear these two quotes side by side we may be saying to ourselves,
“Would the real Jesus please stand up.”

This morning we’re going to hear Luke’s version of the latter quote.
The one that feels out of place.
Here Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Taken as a whole, this is not an easy passage to hear or read.
In fact when I heard Emma was going to be our liturgist today I emailed her to give her a heads up that the scripture reading was a difficult one.
Even Andrea, our Office Administrator who creates our church bulletin, looked at the text I gave her to print and said,
“Whoa, what’s up with Jesus this week?”

But before we listen to Emma read the text I want to draw your attention to the quote on the front of the bulletin cover.
A verse we also find in the gospel of Luke – it’s an excerpt from the song Mary sang while she was pregnant with Jesus.

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty… according to the promise he made to our ancestors.”   (Luke 1:46-55)

As we consider these words that Mary sang about what God promised to do through her son – we might also ponder how such a drastic change in our power structures might be accomplished without a whole lot of people objecting and resisting and being less than peaceful as a result. 


The Rev. Maureen R. Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 18, 2019 – Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 12:49-56

 “Divided We Stand”

When I was in the 4th grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Rogo.
She was one of the few lay teachers in our Catholic Elementary School where most of our instructors were nuns.
Mrs. Rogo was a soft-spoken gentle woman;
she was caring and compassionate and she had seemingly endless patience as she taught English, social studies, and math to our overcrowded class of 35 ten-year-olds.    The nuns, on the other hand, made me a bit nervous –
with their starched habits and their stricter “don’t mess with me” demeanor  - but I always felt comfortable around Mrs. Rogo.

One day we came in to Mrs. Rogo’s class to find brand new textbooks on each of our desks.
It was the mid-1970’s and in the spirit of the Metric Conversion Act, it had been decided that we were all going to learn the metric system.
But having spent most of our young lives learning about pounds, yards, and quarts - measurements we could visualize just by stepping on a scale or imagining a football field or looking at a carton of milk – try as we may,
the unfamiliar names and numbers of the metric system just would not settle in our heads.

For weeks Mrs. Rogo went over the same chapters in the textbook,
again and again, to no avail.
Finally, one afternoon as she set us to work on yet another metric conversion assignment, our kind, gentle and patient teacher reached her breaking point. 
As I struggled to complete my worksheet I could hear Mrs. Rogo moving up and down the rows of desks looking at the children’s work and offering her disapproving comments.
Finally I felt her settle just over my left shoulder as my pencil hovered nervously over the answer sheet.
I had no idea what I was doing, so in a panic I wrote down a number,
any number.
It was most certainly not the right number, because before I knew what was happening, kind, gentle Mrs. Rogo had grabbed me by my elbow, pulled me out of my desk and dragged me up to the blackboard.
There, with anger and frustration shaking her voice, she explained to the class once again, the proper way to do metric conversions using me as the example of how not to do it.
I was mortified and terrified.
And although years later I came to understand that teachers are human beings and they have bad days and breaking points just like we all do,
In my 10-year-old mind, my image of Mrs. Rogo as a kind, gentle, endlessly patient teacher had been forever changed.
And the comfort I once felt in her presence became tinged with shame and fear.

I imagine that in light of the gospel text that we heard today, some of us may feel the same way about our teacher, Jesus.
The angry, divisive words that we hear come out of his mouth in this passage seem incongruent with what we know about the man we call the Prince of Peace.

We know Jesus to be a kind, loving, compassionate, peace-loving teacher who came to bring harmony and balance to the world.
So when the Jesus we encounter here talks about bringing fire down upon the earth, bringing not peace but division…
setting mother against daughter, and father against son…
It just doesn’t make sense.

And when Jesus goes on to call his followers hypocrites because they continue to not understand what he’s been trying to teach them, we may feel chastised as well.
It’s as if he’s wrenched us out our seat and dragged us up to the blackboard in frustration, because no matter how many times he’s explained his reason for being here, we still don’t get it.

These words - this behavior – they don’t FIT the profile of the Jesus that we’ve come to know and love.
So what do we do with this passage?
We could choose to ignore it, like many modern day Christians do.
In fact, while perusing some of my clergy social media groups this week,
I was surprised to see how many pastors said they would not be preaching on this passage today.
They expressed concern that this text may be too difficult for the people sitting in the pews to understand.
Or that it may be too disturbing for you to hear.
Or that it requires a sermon that many felt would be too heavy or too long for a summer Sunday in August.
Apparently we check our brains at the door when the temperature rises above 80 degrees.

In reality, pastors don’t like to preach on this passage because it makes pastors uncomfortable as well.
The ranting and raging that Jesus does here doesn’t fit our image of the kind, peace loving Jesus either.
So when this passage from Luke comes up in the lectionary cycle, once every three years, it’s tempting to just tell the congregation,
“You know, Jesus is having a bad day today, he’s a little stressed out.
Why don’t we pay a visit to Isaiah this week and see what he has to say,
and then we’ll come back and check on Jesus next week.
Maybe he’ll have calmed down by then.”

But skipping over this passage because it makes us uncomfortable,
is like skipping school on the day the teacher shares the one thing that is the key to understanding what was taught during the entire year.
If we skip over this passage, then we miss the point of the Gospel.

The point of the Gospel is that God is inviting us to radically change our lives, and our world.
And while the GOOD NEWS is that these radical changes will ultimately benefit us all….the not so good news is that we human beings don’t often do well with change.

The one thing that Jesus liked to talk about more than anything else was the coming of the Kingdom of God.
A new creation, a new earth, that God is calling us to help build –
a new inclusive existence where the fruits of God’s unconditional love will be received and shared equally by all.
This is the world that Jesus’ mother Mary sang about in her Magnificat.

But while the goal Jesus has set before us is to help build this peaceful,
inclusive world,
we can’t get there without experiencing an upheaval in our current world,
we can’t get there without causing a shift in the structures of power,
we can’t get there unless the marginalized are lifted up and the privileged take a step down…
And we know none of this is going to happen without conflict.
Because there aren’t many who will let go of power and privilege willingly.

Jesus tells us we can’t get to peace without first experiencing division.
Division that will rise up between those pushing for change and those resisting it.
We’ll experience division within nations, within communities, within churches, within families.
And the gospel itself will be the dividing force.

In Jesus’ time, the nations stretching from Spain to Judea did experience peace, but it was the peace of the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana.
For centuries Rome kept the peace throughout this region of the world,
but they did it by conquering and oppressing all who stood in their way.
The nations were not fighting each other because Rome had them all within its firm grasp.
This was an outward peace that was held up by internal injustice and oppression; this was not the kind of peace that Jesus spoke of bringing.
This was the kind of peace that he came to overthrow.

The Gospel, the good news, the message contained in this seemingly innocuous book that we read from every week to learn how to be good Christians, is the force that Jesus deems strong enough to overturn an Empire.
This book that tells us to be kind to each other,
and to be caring and compassionate in all our interactions.
This book that tells us that God loves us all equally,
and that we are meant to share all that God gives us.
This book that tells us that we are to love one another as we love God and ourselves.
We may find it hard to believe that this little book has the kind of power needed to overthrow empires.

But perhaps we’ve heard the Good News of the Gospel so many times, and seen so little of it truly put into action,
that we become understandably dismissive of its power.
We’ve become comfortable with the words and the stories of Jesus, but in our desire to maintain that comfort we often push aside the parts that make us uncomfortable, or confuse us, or push us to challenge the parts of ourselves that we’d rather leave untouched.

We also may struggle to draw a connection between what was happening in Jesus’ world and what is happening in our world.
For many, the gospel is not the Good News, it’s the Old News.
And we have trouble seeing how the Gospel of Jesus, which was considered radical and dangerous in the face of first century Judaism and the Roman Empire, can still be considered radical and dangerous in the face of 21st century individualism and the Empires we’ve built today.

As a very frustrated Jesus pointed out to his disciples –
You know when the clouds rise overhead that it’s going to rain,
and when the south wind blows it will bring scorching heat,
you  know how to predict the weather by what you see around you,
but you don’t know how to interpret this present time by trusting your experience of what has come before.

Our present time is rife with division.
Some would say this is true of all human time.
But when we see the signs of what has come before happening again,
we seem to think that this time is different –
This time the ways we find to dehumanize, exclude, and punish one another are justified and civilized -  so we tell ourselves.

Two thousand years after Jesus came to tell us this is NOT how God intends for us to live, we still don’t get it.
So it’s necessary for us to read passages like this one from Luke’s gospel to remind ourselves that the Good News of Jesus is not all about being kind to neighbors and being a good person or bringing comfort to ourselves.
It’s also about bringing about a peace that can only happen by turning all that we know upside down.

As much as we love the compassionate and peaceful teacher we have in Jesus, sometimes we need to encounter the frustrated and angry teacher -
Who will pull us up out of our seat and drag us up to the blackboard –
To move us out of our complacency and compel us to listen…
and learn…
and change.

The reality is, we’re not going to change ourselves or the world in the drastic way that God invites us to, not without God stepping in and making it happen.
It’s beyond our human sized limitations to do such a thing, and we have too much of a vested interest in keeping things that benefit us personally, just the way they are.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t look at that far off mark and do what we can to inch towards it.
To not sit back and stay silent in the face of injustice and oppression because we fear conflict and division - but instead move towards it.
To call it out and put our hearts and our bodies and our voices on the line for those who can’t.
Knowing that this is what the gospel calls us to do.

I know this is not easy to hear.
And this sermon may be too long or too heavy for a summer Sunday in August, especially if you’re already feeling weighed down by whatever is on your heart.

But whatever it is that is weighing you down, the Good News is that God is inviting us all to imagine a world in which we can just let it go.

And we are invited to help build that world one act of courageous love at a time.
Keeping our beloved teacher, Jesus, alive in us.

Thanks be to God, and Amen.