Sermon for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, August 18, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Jeremiah 23: 23-29+Psalm 82+Hebrews 11:29-12:2+Luke 12:49-56

I have been through many phases in my life as a Christian, from a young vacation bible school All Star, to youngest-by-about-forty-years member of the choir, to teenaged organist at all those services the regular organist didn’t want to play, to a long period of absolute agnosticism on the whole question of God and Jesus in my twenties. There was one not terribly long period of time as a young tween that came seemingly out-of-the-blue, fueled by a couple of cool older friends and at least a little bit of infatuation with a boy. This was my Jesus freak phase.

It was an era of Godspell and cool-Jesus. Had I been five or ten years older, it might have manifested itself in turn on, tune in, and drop out, or the more edgy Jesus Christ Superstar Jesus, but no, I was a twelve-year-old with a summer crush and my friends and I were going to change the world. And part of changing the world was to push against everything we had been taught about church and who Jesus was – heck, not that many people even referred to “Jesus” then. It was all about “Christ” as if that was Jesus’s last name. Episcopalians have never wanted to be too God-y about these things, you know, and I was on fire with love for Jesus.

So my friends and I spent that summer doing what everyone our age did during the summer before any of us was old enough to work: we went to the beach, spent our allowance on fries and Pepsis, got sunburned slathering our bodies with baby oil, and went around challenging people about whether or not they loved Jesus. And we were convinced that we were doing it right because, while most people tolerated us, there were plenty who laughed at us or poked fun at us, and we were confident that scripture was bring fulfilled:

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…(Luke 12:51-52)

No one agreed with us, and clearly we were on God’s side in this business, so it was us – the self-righteous few – against the world. Just like all those we read about in Hebrews – that great cloud of witnesses – who suffered for the faith. Just like Jesus and the twelve.

Of course, the real reason people laughed at us or rejected us or refused to agree with us is because we were completely insufferable. Jesus was on our side which obviously meant that he was not on yours, and if only everyone could be as enlightened as a few 12-to-14 year-olds, the world would be a better place.

Thank God that phase only lasted part of a summer.

And thank God Jesus loves even insufferable 12-year-olds.

These words of Jesus claiming that he will bring division have been used in far more damaging ways than my own bold, juvenile claims. I have lost friendships with people for whom my expansive view of God’s love for all people meant that I was not really faithful to the “plain truth” of scripture. Supporting same-sex marriage or a woman’s right to bodily autonomy is the sword that separates me from those who find such ideas sinful, wrong, or even evil.

But it isn’t just how we interpret certain parts of scripture that create the dividing line for Jesus. Remember, he’s on the road to Jerusalem. He’s heading toward his death, which will be brought on because of his challenge to empire, to the religious leadership’s complicity in trampling on the poor and the outcast, and what’s going to set his people apart is how willing they are to do the same, to follow the path he’s setting before them. 

When Luke’s gospel was written, these predictions were being fulfilled. Those who believed that this itinerant Palestinian preacher was crucified, died, and rose again were being persecuted for their beliefs. Some fell victim to empire, but for many it was a family quarrel. Jesus followers were being put out of the synagogue which was akin to shunning. Your family, your friends, your community would have nothing to do with you. You were unclean, outside of what was acceptable. To be put out of the community of faith for a Jew was to be as good as dead to everything you may have held dear.

This is what Jesus is promising to his people. That sword isn’t ours to wield as Christian zealots have wielded weapons through the centuries against infidels, using these very words of Jesus as justification. That’s not what it means at all. The baptism with which we will be baptized is brought on by how faithfully we embody Jesus in the living of our lives.

Christian Picciolini had a slightly different young teenaged obsession than I did. As a 14-year old, he was sucked into a white power skinhead group espousing neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideologies. For eight years, his identity and sense of belonging were intimately tied to his hate community and the violence which they perpetrated upon African Americans, sexual and gender minorities, and immigrants. In his book, “White American Youth,” he describes the turning point, when he happened to look into the eyes of a young black man he was beating and recognized their common humanity.

Picciolini’s exit from the hate group caused the same kind of rift with community as his entering it had caused with his family and those who raised him and loved him. The organization he and other former extremists founded, Life After Hate, has as its motto, “It all starts with compassion.”[1] Those words are like a sword separating him from his former life.

After the 2016 election, family conversations around the Thanksgiving dinner table were (and are) a running joke on late night TV, although for many, they were not so funny, as those displeased with the outcome of the election could not understand how reasonable people they knew and loved could be pleased. And yes, many families and many friendships have been ruptured in an escalating climate of rhetoric and judgment and name-calling.

Whether you are a former skinhead or a Trump supporter or a young pre-teen Jesus freak, we all bear the imprint of our tribe, our community.

So, what does it look like to follow Jesus? What does it look like to follow Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, risking community and family and friendships because we choose to follow the one who has called us?

Heal the sick. Feed the hungry. Visit the prisoner. Clothe the naked. Welcome the stranger. Care for the children.

There are no caveats to any of these. It isn’t about who deserves it or who is innocent or who has documents or who hasn’t picked themselves up by their bootstraps.

To be a follower of Jesus may cost you dearly, because the world rewards those who achieve, those who succeed, those who can afford healthcare and homes and good educations. But of what value are all of these in an age of family separation, mass incarceration, hate-inspired violence, and massive income inequality?

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And the kind of love Jesus is talking about is active, it is a verb, it does not think nice thoughts and go on its merry way. This kind of love digs deep and stands in solidarity with those same outcasts Jesus stood alongside, even to the point of death.

This isn’t exactly the kind of Jesus I had in mind as a young girl, but this is who Jesus actually is. And it’s a lot harder and a lot more challenging and infinitely more life-giving to follow this Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. The world will know you by the imprint you bear, whatever community it is you call your own, the one to which you would sacrifice your very life. For followers of Jesus, the imprint looks like love incarnate.


[1] https://www.lifeafterhate.org

ASEPSermon for the Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, August 18, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas