Last Sunday an unexpected visitor came to the church building. Twenty-four years old, he had the courage to drive to the NE suburb of Warminster all the way from Philly to walk through the doors of a strange church only seeking a conversation.
As a consequence, my meeting was interrupted. I was pulled out of conversations about worship music style, planning for the calendar year, leadership, etc. This young man simply wanted to talk. Could it wait? Why the interruption? I had things to do. But I left the meeting after someone hinted that he really needed to talk now. And so we did.
What I found out was that this conversation was as much for me as it was for him.
He is an incredibly intelligent, mature, and wise individual. Wise beyond his years, actually. He grew up in the church, was a “star” in the choir and everyone always referred to him as the “model” kid in the church—the highest moral character, the ethical wherewithal, the “godly” lifestyle.
But my new-found friend came all the way to the suburbs because there has been a storm raging inside of him for quite some time. Something is wrong. Something has been eating at him, little by little, causing a pause in his seemingly smooth ride through life.
Last Saturday, he came with his mom to the car dealership right next to the church. She bought a vehicle there some ten years ago. He just came to accompany her.
And then he saw the two signs on the front window of the church building.
One is a rainbow flag with the words: God is still speaking.
The other is purple with the words: Open and Affirming.
Simply because of these two signs—visible to him from a car dealership—this young man drove from Philly to talk with some joker like me.
The storms moving him inside were related to all the hypocrisy he has witnessed in the church. People so quick to judge others for their lack of morals or their “alternative” choices that “lead them astray from Jesus”, yet these same people who judge are the very ones who also lack morals and most certainly fail at following Jesus. So they hide behind the Bible and religious tradition, sit in a pew weekly or at a table for meetings too; they think that they are holy enough to predict the weather or even who gets into heaven.
He’s had enough. The storms inside him say that there is a “gospel” to share with the world and with those who are hurting and alone, but if THIS is the gospel—hate and judgment and fear and hypocrisy—then forget it!
Because he is talented! He’s a singer, an actor, a performer. He’s a good listener. He accepts people as they are.
What does open and affirming mean? he asked me.
I tell him: It means that we try to accept people as they are, no matter what. It means that though we fail sometimes, we really seek to be an inclusive community of faith. Anyone who wants to worship or pray or learn or serve others is welcome with no strings attached. We don’t accomplish this every day or all the time, but that is what we try to be for people. Open and affirming. God loves us as we are; we ought to love others as they are.
He listens intently. And then he says:
I think that this is the gospel—to love and accept people as they are.
Eventually, he leaves—he goes back home to Philly. I go on with my day. A day later, he writes me an email thanking me for the conversation. He offers to help with any service or project coming up.
I thank him for the conversation and then I more clearly notice the storms raging inside me; and in the world.
Today we are exploring one of Jesus’ hard sayings. Yes, it’s true—this Jesus of Nazareth of the Bible is not the friendly, Mr. Rogers character who makes us all feel better about ourselves and then tells us to go home and relax. Today we hear the peaceful guy now saying he isn’t about peace at all.
Division? Fire? Water?
Let’s find some context: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. It’s going to get worse, of course. His ideas are dangerous. The political situation is tense.
Jesus is stressed [worn out]. Luke’s storyteller makes sure we know it.
Luke also doesn’t hide the fact that this gospel book was written many, many years after Jesus traveled to Jerusalem. The “divisions” existed within the Christian community itself—long after Jesus’ death. There is also religious persecution—something that American Christians have no idea about. But certainly people of other religious backgrounds do.
Put yourself in the shoes of an American Muslim.
What does it feel like to be mistrusted, even when you’ve never done anything suspicious? What would it be like to deal with people’s daily stares at your head scarf or to hear constant complaints about the Muslim’s need for daily prayer? With all that is happening in Egypt right now, what would it be like to be grouped together with political and religious fanatics, simply because you identify as a Muslim?
This is persecution. We need to keep this in mind in order to better understand Luke’s point of view [and Jesus’].
You see, this difficult saying of Jesus is expressing a truth that being a follower of this Jesus Way actually causes conflict and is anything but comfortable.
Quite a contrast to the typical American church ideal.
Luke calls the Jesus community the kingdom of God. This kingdom, however, is not governed by powerful people but by equity. All people are cared for, forgiveness is the mark of the community, the poor are lifted up, wealth is shared, and the weak and lonely are honored.
No doubt that if we were to transform our communities into this kind of “kingdom,” things would be uncomfortable and there would be division.
Our Open and Affirming sign [the rainbow one] was stolen the first time it was hung up outside on our building. Why, do you think?
Because taking a stand and saying to all who traverse Street and York Roads that gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people are full members of the kingdom of God and therefore full members of our church community—this caused division. It still does. People left this church because of that stand. There’s no denying it. It happened.
Now by no means am I saying that we are “right” or “more Christian” than other churches. That would be contrary to the message here and also not true. The point is that most forms of our religion called Christianity avoid creating the kingdom of God. Otherwise, churches would be full of homeless people, ex-cons, people on welfare, kids and adults with mental or physical challenges, divorcees, single parents, people who speak different languages, identify with a variety of cultural heritages, etc., etc. But that’s too hard. That could cause division.
And that is Jesus’ point in Luke’s story.
It is much, much easier to try to follow religious rules and to participate in habitual traditions than it is to ask this question: Who is in need?
Who is lost, hungry, and sad, discriminated against, ridiculed, lonely, or hurt? Who has storms raging inside them?
Let’s help them with no strings attached!
And if we ourselves cannot help them, let’s find someone who can!
THAT is not easy to do, is it?
But within this hard saying of Jesus, there is also wisdom and strength. For the conflict, strife, and division can lead to….greater peace. Shalom.
Not a superficial peace which is just the absence of conflict and therefore not real.
Instead, a peace born out of harsh reality that passes all understanding.
So we get two famous, important symbols: fire and water.
Notice that they are opposing symbols. The same, yet the opposite. Both fire and water purify and clean; they can destroy, but they also bring new life.
God in the Hebrew Scriptures, is a fire—a presence with people, a voice, a guide.
Fire hones, burns, refines.
Water is cleansing, healing, baptizing, renewing.
In the natural world, living things do not resist or “fight against” fire and water. They are natural parts of creation. Nature takes them on, confronts them, incorporates them—recognizing fire and water as necessary. And then, after the water and the fire, nature is renewed. Life after death! Peace after conflict! Calm after storm!
But you and I are like the Pharisees [and many others]. We think that we can predict the weather and the natural order of things. People in Jesus’ time, where they were living, knew that rainstorms could come quickly and flood the ground. Also, temperatures in desert areas could soar in a moment and scorch everything. Water and fire. They were sure that they knew about the weather outside. But what about the weather inside themselves? What about the storms in their hearts? What about the fire and water that needed to transform their ways of thinking and living?
Already, communities were splitting. They were not noticing this. Already, they were losing touch with their true essence as human beings, as God’s children. They failed to recognize it. Sound familiar?
Do you recognize the storms within yourself?
Or do you ignore them, hoping that they will go away?
I have thought a lot about this since my conversation last week with the twenty-four-year-old with storms in his head and heart. And I’ve struggled all this week with all that is going on Egypt and around the world—the raging storms outside and inside.
Then I remembered something else that this Jesus of Nazareth said:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.
Not the peace the world gives, because, quite frankly, the world gives us squat. Another war here. Or there. People die in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Syria…peace?
Kids get shot in Philadelphia; violence happens in Warminster and the suburbs, too. We often lose the essence of our humanity and so families are broken; and real friendships are so hard to find.
Yes, really, but not the peace that the world gives.
Not sitting in a nice, comfy chair and watching the world turn.
Instead, a peace that is wholeness and truthful. A peace that doesn’t ignore the storms.
A peace that is about fire and water.
A peace that confronts the storms within ourselves.
A peace that recognizes that all of us are like nature and part of it—we have hurricanes, storms, earthquakes, and tornadoes inside ourselves.
We change as the seasons do.
And if we recognize that this is just part of our natural cycle of change…
Then, we get through those times and we emerge renewed, rejuvenated, reborn with…
Added strength, perspective, knowledge, and spirit.
And then we are able to see the beauty of the weather changes. Like the Northern Lights.
And we are aware that we are not alone. We share these experiences with others.
We are connected, just as all of nature is intertwined.
Friends, peace is not nice and comfy. It can cause division—even in ourselves—as we seek justice, reach out to someone in need, and decide to leave our comfort zones.
But this peace-living is whole and real.
Recognize your storms and embrace them.
Be open to having a conversation or to making a connection to someone who also is dealing with storms. And don’t be afraid of the conflict. It will lead to true, inner peace.