My sermon this morning will be in two parts. First, some words about our reading from the gospel of Luke that I hope will help us wrestle with Jesus’ very uncomfortable words. We need to remember that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and the cross, so there is urgency and strong determination behind what he says to his disciples. He declares, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” This fire is not a literal fire, but rather a symbol for judgment. Jesus has assiduously been teaching his disciples and crowds of listeners about the kingdom of God. He has presented, in no uncertain terms, God’s ways of love and God’s judgment of human behavior in contrast with the ways of the world – selfishness, greed, and exploitation of others. We may wonder how many people who heard Jesus’ teaching took it to heart and led new lives. Perhaps we are hearing some very human frustration here, in Jesus’ desire that the fire of judgment begin without further delay.
Then he says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” This baptism is his death. Jesus knows what journey he is on and where he is going. He understands this journey to be God’s will, and he goes on without turning back. But he confides in the people closest to him, “what stress I am under until it is completed!” Jesus has made his choice to go to the cross. He is fully human. The choice is terribly stressful.
Jesus – the man we call the Prince of Peace – goes on to say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” What Jesus is saying is that at this crucial time, as he gets closer to the events that will take place in and near Jerusalem in Holy Week, people will either stand with him or against him, and in that sense he will be the cause of division, not peace, even in families and among people with very close human relationships. At another time Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). But at this time Jesus needs the full allegiance of his followers. Luke records Jesus’ words (11:23): “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Jesus has made his choice, and others will choose to support him or reject him. This is a moment of judgment.
Now Jesus turns to the crowds. How will they “interpret the present time?” In other words, who will choose Jesus’ way – God’s way – and who will not? They have heard his teaching. They have witnessed God working through Jesus as he has fed the multitudes, healed the sick, and cast out demons. In Jesus the kingdom of heaven has come near in signs that can be read as clearly as the weather: a cloud means rain and a south wind means heat. So why do people go on living as though nothing is happening, as if the future did not belong to the reign of God?
One of the more challenging aspects of living as a follower of Jesus is to apply the lessons we encounter in scripture to ourselves and our own ways of living. Jesus questions us as he questioned the crowds in today’s lesson from Luke. In our daily lives do we ignore the ways of God and the signs of God’s glorious work in the world? Do we live like people who haven’t been touched by Christ? Do we forget that we are going to God? Do we trust that the future does belong to the reign of God? Do we take seriously the importance of our choices in life, for good or evil? Jesus invites us to choose God’s way, for the sake of the world and for our salvation.
Now I would like to talk for a few minutes about change. When I say the word “change,” how do you feel? Is your first reaction along the lines of “Oh no, I don’t want change! I want life to go on just as it is. Or if it has to change, let’s go back to the ‘good old days’ of the past.” That is what many people think and feel. We resist change. After all, change is often difficult.
One of the primary themes of scripture is change. Speaking for God, the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus all call us to change, to conversion. Turn around! Turn away from the ways of the world and seek God and God’s kingdom. In the book of Ezekiel God says, “I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26a). Radical change from the inside. In the Bible we are presented with choices that call us to deep, transformative change. And the direction for this change is not backward but forward, to the coming fulfillment of God’s promises, to the creation of nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we accepted and answered God’s call to conversion not with resistance but with enthusiasm! What if we were indeed like little children who are naturally eager to change – to learn new things and do new things, to be another year older, to grow and grow? Jesus taught his disciples “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). No matter how old we are we need the enthusiasm and energy of little children to answer God’s call to conversion into the likeness of God and into the mind of Christ.
We may, with God’s help, choose to change. But to paraphrase Shakespeare, sometimes we achieve change and sometimes change is thrust upon us. I am speaking about change this morning because I have decided on a change in my life that will cause change in the life of the parish. I have decided to retire, and my last Sunday with you will be All Saints’ Sunday, November 3rd.
When an Episcopal priest decides to retire, he or she first writes to the Bishop. When Bishop Brown received my letter in early July, he graciously telephoned me to discuss my decision. He guided me to speak to the wardens, then the vestry, and finally make a public announcement in church. He also instructed me to send a letter to all parishioners, and that will go out in the mail early this week. Because Bishop Brown will be here on September 8th we decided on a timeline that would allow everyone to learn of this change before his visit. When the Bishop is here, he will speak to all of you and to the vestry about the future at St. Giles.
Canon Michael Ambler is the priest in the diocese who helps with clergy transitions. In the past nothing was done about finding a new priest before the current priest left a parish, but that has changed. The transition process at St. Giles is underway. Canon Ambler and Senior Warden John Atwood have begun communications with each other. I will be meeting next week with Canon Ambler, and he will be with us on September 22nd to preach, to meet with all of you after the service and then to meet with the vestry. As this process goes along, I am sure that you will be included and informed.
In my letter to parishioners I invite anyone who would like to speak with me privately before November 3rd to make a date with me for conversation. I want to do everything I can to make the transition smooth for you. And I want you to know that during these past ten years while I have been a priest at St. Giles I have grown in faith, as I hope you have, and I have been blessed to know and minister with many good and faithful people. I am grateful to God for all these blessings.
May the Lord lead all of us forward to new life in Christ, to the glory of God and for the good of God’s people. In Jesus’ name. Amen.