NB: This is a sermon that I had written for August 18th, but the cards came up differently in the life of the parish that week and Mother Laurie took over for me with a timelier message.
Grace and peace are yours from the Triune God. Amen.
When I first got assigned today’s sermon, I took a look at the passages and had a sinking feeling about whether I were up to the challenge of preaching on family being turned against each other. I remember my own upbringing, how consistently my sisters and I seemed to be at each other’s throats about something or another, how my mom and I would have spats about the location of my personal effects, how my dad and I would get into an argument over how to tell when steak is cooked medium well (we still have that argument on a regular basis, by the way).
Sometimes these are inane squabbles, and sometimes these are serious arguments. Some of us have a lot more family tension than others; some of us are from broken homes, or abusive homes, and some of us don’t have a place to call home. All that said, we seem to do pretty well at dividing ourselves, so, thanks Jesus, but this message of being turned against one another in the very relationships that seem to give our life structure isn’t exactly news, much less good news. Really, Jesus? You bring division to families? Yikes, I don’t know if I can handle that. Rather, I don’t know if I want to handle that.
Jesus had a lot to say about families, including his own. We know from the other places in gospels that Jesus probably had just as much family dysfunction as the rest of us. His brothers thought he was crazy, and along with his mom they probably worried about his safety, not to mention the shame he was bringing upon the family. Earlier in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ mom and brothers show up to one of his sold-out teaching events and try to get him to come home, and Jesus says, “my mother and brothers are the ones who hear the word of God and do it.”
Jesus is not beholden to first century cultural norms, which would dictate, in essence, “like father like son.” Merchants’ sons don’t grow up and become priests, they become merchants. Shepherds sons don’t grow up into governors, they become shepherds. Carpenters’ sons don’t grow up into messiahs, they grow up into carpenters. And if you’re a daughter? Well, forget it. At least your brothers get to have careers. I say all this aware of the acute irony that I’m a preacher’s son, and here I am preaching.
But Jesus pushes back against this concept of family-as-identity. He trades his expected family and instead makes a family out of all those who have no family, who have no identity other than their sin: prostitutes, tax collectors, thieves, drunkards. Because for Jesus, a person’s identity isn’t determined by whose genes they have in their blood, but rather by whose breath they have in their soul.
The breath of God himself gives us life and existence. God is love, and God breathes that love into each of us. We exist because we are loved. And that is our identity: we are God’s beloved, without exception, without exclusion.
That is what we proclaim at baptism, that we are God’s beloved. We are marked as Christ’s own forever. And nothing, nothing, nothing can ever break, remove, efface, or deny that fundamental, sacramental reality–as real as the earth under our feet, as the air in our lungs, as the skin on our bones. As real as the bread which we break and the cup which we share.
That’s why we don’t say “I was baptized.” We say “I am baptized.” That is the core of our existence, indelible, unshakeable.
And because this God-love touches us and sustains us, it changes us–we are baptized by its fire, which burns away the strictures and structures of the world that say we are but slaves, that say we are strangers. When the Spirit opens our eyes to see our fundamental identity as that of beloved, we realize that the world has gotten it wrong: we are not slaves or strangers. We are sons and daughters of God.
And THAT is good news!
But for some reason, this love is divisive. Indeed, God’s love is divisive because it is a threat. God’s love is a threat to a world in thrall to death. God’s love is a threat precisely because God’s love is the final word; c’est pas tout ça! That’s it, that’s all!
And nothing–not people, or things, or hell, or death itself–can separate us from it. It is the criteria by which all human activities and relationships are shored up. It tears up vineyards that sprout injustice, it breaks down walls. It robs us of our safety and demands that we trust in God as he forgives our sins, which too are burned away.
We remember in the Eucharist: “when our love failed, your love remained steadfast.” That steadfast love is always present, always holding us, always enfolding us, always embracing us. It is arrests us, it transforms us, it burns us. We are called by him whose love drove him to the cross to destroy death for us to embrace this same love and to be set ablaze by it.
When we proclaim something so extravagant, so wasteful, so irresponsible, so dangerous, it’s little wonder that our families should show up at our door wondering whether we’ve lost our grip on reality, because it seems so at odds with the pattern of the world. But behind this outward appearance is the deeper reality of God’s unrelenting, never-failing, never-giving-up love. This extravagance breaks into our tragedies and holds us so tightly, so intensely, that nothing can separate us from it. And that love will not let us go.
Oh love, that will not let me go!
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give thee back the life I owe
that in thine ocean’s depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.
For some this love really did take them all the way to the point of giving up their lives for its sake. Jonathan Daniels. Maximilian Kolbe. And sometimes this love faces us in the wake of loss, entering into our grief and reminding us that those whom we have lost are still beloved by God. Not were beloved by God; are beloved by God. When the world seems so unsafe, so violent, so brutal, so utterly divided, we remember that the brokenness of the world is a reality that is giving way to a greater, truer, brighter reality. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
So thanks be to God for his extravagant, burning love. Thanks be to God for love that divides. Thanks be to God for the love that creates our identities, that redeems us from sin, brokenness, and death, and sustains us in eternal life.
If any of you are like me, which I suspect you are, you know that it’s very hard to stay cognizant of our belovedness. Life piles up. Dishes go undone, papers get turned in late, tires go flat, bank accounts overdraw, jobs get lost, relationships end, loved ones pass on. In those moments of blackness it’s very hard to feel beloved.
But thanks be to God that our belovedness has naught to do with feeling beloved. It is a fact. Fire is hot, the sky is blue, we are beloved. It’s non-negotiable. You are beloved. We are all beloved. And all means all, no exceptions.
Thanks be to God.