Thursday, October 22, 2015

'Both-and' or 'Either-or' (Oct 22 2015, St Paul University)

Homily.  Oct 22 2015, St. Paul U.
Readings:  Rom 6.19-23; Psalm 1; Luke 12.49-53

Both-and or either-or?

Are you a both-and or an either-or person?  I suspect that if you are in the Anglican Studies program of a liberal Catholic university like St. Paul’s, living in a pluralistic, multi-cultural country like Canada, you’re more likely to be a both-and sort of person.

In fact, when I ask whether you’re a both-and or an either-or sort of person, I’m willing to bet that for some of you, your gut response is, well, I’m a bit of both, which kind of answers the question doesn’t it?

If you are a both-and sort of person, and that’s the way I tend to think of myself, then the readings we just heard today present us with a big challenge.

In the first reading from Romans, Paul tells us that either we’re a slave to sin, in which case we’re heading towards death, or we’re a slave to righteousness, in which case we’re headed towards eternal life.

The psalmist tells us to make a choice.  Follow the way of the wicked which leads to perishing, or the way of the righteous, which leads to prosperity.

And in our Gospel Jesus says:  “Do you think I that I have come to bring peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!”

Not a lot of “both-and” in any of those three readings.  And I think it’s Jesus’ words that really stick in our craw.

I mean, I know it’s still October, but imagine using Jesus words to greet each other this Christmas:  “Unto us a son is born.  Fire on earth and division among people.  Merry Christmas.”

Is this the Jesus we all know and love?  Maybe it’s time for us to get real about Jesus and to stop constructing him in our own image.  As Canadians, we’d kind of like Jesus to be, well, nice.  A friendly sort, polite and tolerant.  The sort of person who would apologize if he bumped into you by accident.  Well, there’s not much evidence for any of that in the gospels.

I remember watching the 1977 movie Jesus of Nazareth as a teenager, with the blue-eyed Robert Powell cast in the role of Jesus.  And I remember being so impressed by the way that Jesus was always calm and serene, pausing and considering his words before he spoke.  But in today’s gospel, Jesus is anything but calm and serene.  “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”

How often do we imagine Jesus as being stressed?

We’re more likely to imagine that Jesus came to bring peace.  But maybe our world just isn’t ready for peace.  In Jesus own day, to bring peace meant the Pax Romana.  Rome by virtue of its power and military might would defeat its enemies and clamp down on rebellion and conflict within its borders, thereby bringing peace.  In our own day it looks more and more like it is the Russian army that will bring peace to Syria, by picking a side, defeating opposing forces and imposing its will on the country.

Jesus’ mission at least as it’s articulated in today’s gospel is not to bring peace.  His mission rather, is threefold:

1.   To bring fire to the earth
2.   To be baptized
3.   To bring division.

Fire, in biblical language, has three inter-related meanings.  First it is a sign of God’s presence, as in the burning bush, the cloud of fire in Exodus, and the tongues of flame at Pentecost.  But it is also a symbol of judgment and purification.  Jesus is God’s presence on earth.  Those who encounter that presence will make their own judgments about Jesus and will themselves be judged.  Those who walk with Jesus will begin a process of purification, something that Paul refers using the language of sanctification in our reading from Romans.

Jesus mission to be baptized is an allusion to the cross, to the suffering and death that await Jesus now that he has set his face towards Jerusalem, now that he has publically predicted his coming passion.  The language of fire, judgement and purification conjures up images of pain and suffering.  The irony, the surprise, the most amazing thing about Jesus mission is that he himself is the one that will bear the brunt of that pain.

And the division of which he speaks?  Jesus’ mission is to proclaim by word and deed the Kingdom of God, that the kingdom of God is near, within reach.  That kingdom is a new world order.  It is a new world order that is characterized by things like forgiveness.  Humility.  Repentance.  Compassion. Service. Sacrificial Love.  And God has promised that his new world order will one day replace the present order, the ways of the world, our normal human way of doing things, a world order characterized by things like wealth, power, status, fame, accomplishment and violence.

And so on the one hand we have the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims, and on the other we have our present world order.

Can we have both?  Or are the two so radically different that this is an either-or proposition.  Because if this is an either-or proposition, then it will result in division.
We don’t like division.  I think that’s why we do often try to turn this into a both-and sort of thing.  But can we really be both-and about the kingdom of God and our usual human ways of doing things.  If we try to make peace between the two, what happens?  We run the risk of watering down the gospel, of compromising the things of God and covering ourselves in hypocrisy.  And we know what Jesus thought of hypocrisy.

Jesus didn’t come to make things easy for us.

For me, this is a hard gospel.  I don’t like division.  I don’t like the either-or approach to things.  I’ve seen people get hurt by either-or statements, by us vs them mentalities, by the very household divisions that Jesus predicts.  I’ve seen the damage caused by division.  I don’t like it. 

So what is a both-and person supposed to do when confronted by an either-or gospel?

Here I turn both to Paul and to the psalmist for advice, because I think they are both in their own way telling us the same thing.

And that is, we begin by grounding ourselves in God.  Paul tells us that if you ground yourself in God, the advantage you get is sanctification.  The psalmist says much the same thing, right at the beginning of the psalter, using the image of the tree that sends its roots into the ground seeking the source of life.

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor lingered in the ways of sinners, nor sat in the seat of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the Lord,
And they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
Bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither;
Everything they do shall prosper.

If we are grounded in God, we will grow in the ways of God’s kingdom, ways of forgiveness and humility and sacrificial love.  That may create division.  So be it.

May you too be grounded in God, nourished by streams of living water and may you grow in God’s ways every day of your life, now and forever.


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