First Congregational Church
August 14, 2022
10th Sunday after Pentecost
“Judging for Ourselves”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I came across two little snippets, that when put together, make powerful sense. Many a shampoo bottle carries the claim that using it will give your hair extra body and volume. Now think about that. When rinsing out the soap, the shampoo runs down the rest of one's body, which is generally not where one likes “extra body and volume.” So I got to wondering about Dawn dishwashing soap, because the label has read “Dissolves fat that is otherwise difficult to remove.”
49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Interpreting the Times
54 He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?
57 “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right? 58 As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. 59 I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”
Thank you, Nancy. William H. Belgian Jr. wrote about a sociology professor, whom every year begins his course on "The Family" by reading to his class a letter, from a parent, written to a government official. In the letter, the parent complains that his son, once obedient and well-motivated, has become involved with some weird new religious cult. The father complains that the cult has taken over the boy's life, has forced him to forsake all of his old friends, and has turned him against his family.
After reading the letter, the professor asks the class to speculate what group the father is talking about. Almost without exception, the class immediately assumes that the subject of the letter is a child mixed up with the "Moonies," or some other controversial group.
After the class puts out all of the possible conclusions they can think of, the professor surprises them by revealing that the letter was written by a third-century father in Rome, the governor of his province, complaining about this weird religious group called "The Christians.” If all one read of the Bible was this morning’s scripture passage, that one might be tempted to say something similar about us who follow the One - with a capital O.
Author Steven Molin shares the story of a “teenage girl at summer camp who was torn between two sets of friends. Some of them were sunbathing on the dock, asking to her “stay with us.” But her other friends were in a rowboat saying “no, come with us.” There she stood, one foot on the dock, the other foot on the edge of the boat, and the boat was moving. Trying to appease everyone, neither group any better than the other, trying to not decide, she ended up falling into the water; and worse, her hair got wet!
Mr. Molin goes on. “But I think this is exactly what Jesus is addressing in the gospel lesson today. He is warning us that there will be times when following him will require us to turn away from something else. There will be times in this life when we will be required to say “yes” to one thing, and therefore “no” to the other. And of course, the action some of us most often take is the same one that the girl did on the swimming dock. Many try to go in both directions. The tendency is to say “yes” to it all, and we end up falling in between the seams, and being miserable.”
I appreciate Mr. Molin’s take on this passage because, on its own, this passage certainly rubs my fur the wrong way, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. Even more puzzling, the first 48 verses of Luke 12 deal with quieting the anxiety of his followers, and he ends with this sort of smorgasbord of dire warnings.
It might be that the writer - or writers - of Luke had various pieces leftover - after mapping out the whole of the gospel. “Let’s just stick these leftovers in at the end of chapter twelve, and maybe no one will really notice.”
Or maybe the writer of Luke was really on a role one day, writing and writing and writing, and then, as so often happens - squirrel! - and when they went back to the page, all continuity was lost. So the writer just started with what came to mind first. Probably not, but maybe….
It’s interesting that in one aspect, part of the passage almost seems more descriptive than prophetic to us modern-day folks. Sometimes, following Christ has had the sad result of dividing families. Other times, it has united them. Even the thought of such division can result in people drawing back from embracing a faith that is about love - if that is what love looks like. Except it’s maybe not so much about love - but passion - and passion carries that sense of heated emotion, which is not really what faith or following is about.
On a few occasions, a former pastor of this church, Dick Stoddard and I would preside at a wedding or funeral together. At one of the weddings we did, he said something that has stuck in my mind ever since. It went something like this, “being married to someone is not loving a person every day, but making a decision to love every day.” The vows that a couple makes are not about loving every day, but about the decision to love every day, because somedays, I hear it’s not so easy to love one’s spouse. I can say with full certainty that some days it is not so easy to love one’s family members or friends, either, without deciding to love.
In relation to this passage, an individual’s faith may cause a division in a family, but such a division means that there has been a decision to stop loving that family member or to let the issue grow bigger than love. We are to love all people, period. We don’t always have to agree with them. And yes, sometimes love between people can be very lopsided. That’s not new news.
The second part of this passage is also interesting because it isn’t necessarily worded in an easy-flow manner. The Dinah Haag summary of verses 54-56 would be something like “You may have disagreements, but you don’t have to jump on the disagreement wagon.”
And then comes the best question. “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?” It’s almost like you can hear the underlying comment, “You’ve got a brain. Use it!” Yes, God is supposed to be the judge about eternal things, and we get to be judges about things that pertain to our own selves.
The original lectionary assignment was not verses 49-59, but 49-56. If you don’t have your Bibles open, the lectionary didn’t include the part about judging for ourselves what is right. Without those verses, the passage is too strained; too limiting to omit - particularly when it makes so much sense along with the rest of the passage.
We all know it’s not only better, but far cheaper to avoid going before a court to resolve an issue, and it’s just as true when it comes to the resolution of hearts. And we all know that sometimes such resolutions aren’t easy or even possible. So we have courts and laws that the citizens of the land agree to live by. But would be interesting information, to find out how much money could be saved in court fees if people could judge for themselves what is right - without the heat of passion.
Even then, it’s not nearly as much about money as it is about peace of mind and serenity of the soul. I get it, that it can take a while after someone has attacked my integrity before I can calm down enough to reconcile with that adversary - in my heart. Most of the time, an adversary has done what they have done, said what they have said, and moved right along, while my brain has nailed my foot to the floor of insult and I just twirl and twirl, justification following vindication in my own self-righteousness.
Just like the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, we all have brains, despite what we may think is in our heads. And sometimes, we just need to be reminded to choose the voice of the brain over that of the heart, and sometimes vice versa. Like butterflies, we have to do our own struggling to grow - out of cocoons - or we won’t live full lives. Struggling with people we love can - if we choose - make us stronger in all our relationships - mainly if we use our brains - and reasoning - in the choosing.
Glenna Reed wrote something called “While There’s Still Time”, in which she talks about her childhood, when she knew everyone on her street, and how everyone knew each other and who needed help and who needed support. In her current situation, she’s in an apartment complex with four other units besides hers, and in one month, she saw one person.
She says, “In the parking lot people act as if they don’t know if they should speak. I do the same thing. Maybe I put my head down and make a beeline for my car, or maybe I just think about speaking. I try to say good morning or good afternoon, or just hi, but sometimes the other person makes it more difficult, sometimes it’s just my own fear.
These are some of the reasons why, Jesus asks, why is it that we don’t understand the appearance of what is right in front of us?
Wallace Kirby and C.S. Lewis came together in a comment that points out that the gospel was concerned to create "new people" not just "nice people." The human need is an inner transformation that makes us into new creatures. It is the warmth of the spirit of Christ that accomplishes this. This is not something we can do for ourselves; it is the New Testament insistence upon grace and gift, not work and merit.
I wonder if we sometimes allow that warmth of Spirit to get too hot, or we forget that we are created to be new people, and not just nice people. We need our reminders of grace and gift, light and love, to be able to do our part in God’s kingdom.
There was once an older man who had a little spotted dog. It was a mixture of spaniel, collie, terrier, and dachshund. He was a street-bred mutt, but the man loved him because he was all he had. They were constant companions, going everywhere and doing everything together. Every night the dog slept at the foot of the man's bed.
Then one day the dog disappeared. He was playing in the yard one moment, and the next he was gone. He searched everywhere for him, looked on every street, around every corner, and talked to every neighbor, but the dog was nowhere to be found. The man searched all over the town, calling out the dog's name as he went, listening in vain for the familiar bark. The next day was the same and the one after that . . . for weeks the man searched till finally his neighbors and friends convinced him that there was no use in looking anymore. Surely the dog is dead, they said: hit by a car, no doubt, and crawled off by himself to die.
Still, the man would not give up hope. Every night, before bed, he went out on the porch and called out the dog's name at the top of his voice. This went on for several months. The neighbors were certain that the man had lost his mind. And then one night, as the man was calling his name, the little spotted dog came home. The man never knew where he had been or what caused him to stay away so long, but he was very glad that he had never stopped calling his name.
God never stops calling our names, to love and care for those around us - strangers or adversaries or family friends - and calls us to use our brains - not just our hearts - to judge for ourselves what is right and important and worth chasing after. And God never stops calling us to communicate with God’s self. So shall we do.
God of Silences and Sounds, of Love and Grace, we thank you that you give us brains and hearts to be able to be responsible for our own responses to this life around us. Sometimes those responsibilities are overwhelming or painful, so we ask for extra portions of wisdom to make the best of choices in furthering your kingdom. And sometimes our choices are spot on, and your kingdom grows and for those times, we are grateful. Continue to teach us, God of Glory, to see further than usual, past our earthly limitations, to that which is of your kingdom and all its splendor. For all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.