What glorious summer weather we’ve been having the last few weeks! Corrie and I have been taking advantage of it, with gardening, long summer evenings on our screened-in porch. We’ve enjoyed the Union Terrace on a couple of Friday evenings. And I’ve written most of my sermons in my Amish rocking chair on the porch with its view of a riotous garden growing out of control. The weather and the fact that summer brings with it a somewhat slower pace, seems to lower stress levels and anxiety. But the arrival of August 15, and move-in day means that school, and the fall, and all its busy-ness are just around the corner. I hope the weather stays cool so I can continue to enjoy my evenings on the porch.
But however much we may enjoy the longer days of summer and its slower pace, however much we may enjoy vacations and hanging out with friends and family, the stresses and anxieties of our lives are rarely far from our minds. Whether we are returning to work after two weeks away, gearing up for the fall semester, or worried about jobs or families, or whatnot, the real world has a way of making us face its hard realities.
Scripture can work in the same way. We may all feel a little relaxed but our lessons this morning cut through our languor and bring us face to face with some disquieting aspects of our faith, and of our God. One of the great things about the lectionary is that it invites us to confront portions of scripture that are uncomfortable, difficult to understand, even offensive. Granted, there are whole swathes of the Hebrew Bible that never get a reading on Sunday morning over the three year lectionary cycle, and it avoids most of the book of revelation, too. Still, there is a great deal in the lectionary that is unsettling and forces us to think outside the narrow confines of our comfortable faith and lives.
Today’s readings all in some way do just that. The reading from Hebrews, for example, holds up to us as heroes of faith Rahab a prostitute, Jephtha, who sacrificed his daughter because of a careless vow, and Samson. The gospel is even more unsettling because it bears witness to a Jesus who is a far cry from the meek and mild comforter and healer and shows him at his apocalyptic extreme. Jesus says he came to bring fire to the earth and that he is ready to kindle it. He promises that he is bringing conflict that will tear apart families as well as society. In the midst of all this, he tells his listeners that he is in stress because none of this has begun to take place but that it is imminent.
Remember, Jesus is speaking these things on his journey to Jerusalem. He is making his way toward the final confrontation with Rome and with the Jewish religious authorities, and whatever he is expecting, it’s likely that he knows it will end in some sort of violent confrontation. So it’s easy to believe that he’s experiencing a certain level of anxiety about what is to come and that his words are directed at those who are accompanying him because their expectations of what might happen in Jerusalem are very likely different than his own.
That’s one of the settings for these words. There’s another one—the context in which the gospel writer was working, fifty or seventy years later. By that time, the Christian community to which he belongs has experienced conflict and division. It has suffered a tragic, catastrophic, and painful break with Judaism and it’s very likely that it has also experienced significant internal divisions. Both of these conflicts probably saw family members on opposite sides of things.
So there was plenty of stress to go around. Jesus was stressed because he sensed that he was drawing ever nearer to Jerusalem and to his certain death, and his later followers were struggling with the stress of the division that their commitment to him had brought to their lives and their other relationships.
We probably don’t often think of Jesus as being stressed. In fact, this is the only time in all of the gospels that Jesus is described with that term. But think for a moment about how stress affects us. Does it change the way we approach our loved ones, our colleagues at work, our roommates? Do we find ourselves lashing out in ways that aren’t appropriate? Does it affect our decision-making or even the way we look at the world? Does it lead us to do things we would rather we didn’t, to escape into destructive behaviors? How do we cope with stress?
How did Jesus cope with stress? Although it’s not mentioned here, throughout the gospel of Luke, again and again, Jesus retreats from the stress and press of the crowds into lonely places where he prays. He seeks out silence and conversation with God to help him regroup and re-fuel. It’s for similar reasons that I spend so much time on our porch in the summer. It’s a place of quiet and respite away from the demands of work. And I hope many of you have similar routines.
We can also take comfort in the fact that Jesus himself admitted his stress. While we like to think of Jesus as meek and mild, and as free from the sort of human weakness that we experience, he became human so that he could share our humanity in all of its limitations, including stress. And so the Jesus we follow is a Jesus who knows our struggles and pain.
But there’s more to be said. While it’s important and reassuring to connect our experience of the stresses of life with Jesus’ own struggles, it’s equally important to be clear on the differences between the stress we are experiencing and that experienced by Jesus. For he was not struggling with the sorts of things we struggle with, juggling work and family, or the press of a project deadline, or worries about jobs or illness. He was in stress because of what was looming on the horizon, that confrontation in Jerusalem with Rome. And when he told his followers that he was bringing division not peace, division within families, for example, he was making clear the very real consequences that his followers would face.
For most of us, that sort of division and stress is far from our experience. We don’t expect the decision to follow Jesus to lead to the sort of persecution described in Hebrews. The horrific events unfolding in Egypt right now remind us that there are places where commitment to Jesus Christ can mean suffering or death.
The plight of Christians there, in Syria, Nigeria, and elsewhere, is so dire that it’s hard to make sense of our own relative ease and comfort. Following Jesus in North America rarely brings division to families, let alone persecution. And when I hear American Christians cry persecution, I’m inclined to put it off as whining that they can’t get their way, or figure out how to live in a religiously-pluralistic society.
It may be that there is a truth and a challenge to us in these words about stress and division. Even in our context, Jesus’ teachings and example, if we truly followed them, would have consequences that would lead to division and conflict. His way led to conflict and to the cross. His way still leads to a reality and to a community that has different values than our consumer capitalist society and the global American empire. The way of the cross, the way of Jesus, leads us to the heart of poverty, oppression, and suffering in the world around us, leads us to the victims broken by the power of empire and the almighty dollar. It leads us to stress and division, making us turn away from the things we hold most dear, and to turn toward the one who leads us to Calvary, the cross, to redemption and to peace.