I’ll never forget what the youth minister said to me right after I bought a brand new car back in 2003. It was a time when I was not a very happy person.
My father-in-law had just died. As a senior minister, I was coming to the harsh realization that it was absolutely impossible to please everyone. The youth minister knew this.
It was during this time I traded in my pick up truck that was just a few years old. The youth minister said, “Jarrett, when most people get a little blue, they might go to the mall a buy a new outfit or get a new pair of shoes, maybe a new piece of furniture, but you go out and buy a brand new car!”
At the time I remembering justifying the purchase by saying that my truck got poor gas mileage, and it just wasn’t very practical driving back and forth to the hospital. I needed something smaller, more economic.
But the reality is that the youth minister had a pretty good point. I, like so many American consumers, thought that I could maybe buy me a little bit of happiness. I could perhaps purchase me a little bit of fulfillment.
We buy new furniture. We hang new clothes in our closet. We park a new car in the garage. And we might even buy a whole new house. But guess what? We are still unhappy. Things at home are still not right. Our spouse is still distant. The relationship with our children is still not what it should be. And our souls are still filled with discontent. On the outside our home looks beautiful and whole, but on the inside our home is broken and is in danger of falling completely a part.
So what do we do? We do what I suppose most good God-fearing Americans do. We go to church. We say: “Maybe that is what is missing in my life. Perhaps the church is the solution to building a happy home, the key to good relationships, the key to my happiness and my fulfillment.”
So we come to this place. We attend Sunday School. We come to worship. We sing and we pray and we listen, and we take communion, and we sing and we pray.
After the first week, nothing really changes in our lives. But we realize that what’s broke didn’t break overnight, so it probably wasn’t going to be fixed over night. So we do it again the next Sunday, and the next and the next. We even start having family devotions, holding hands and saying grace at our meals and praying at bed time. But, still, nothing at home changes.
We’re still struggling. We’re still lost, and the confusion is painful. We are still unhappy. Things are still not right.
Why? Why hasn’t religion worked? Why haven’t things gotten better? We got Jesus. He’s supposed to help our families. He’s supposed to be the glue that keeps us together, right? After all, you know what they say? The family that prays together stays together, right? Well, according to our scripture lesson this morning, not necessarily. In fact, according to Luke, Jesus may be more of a home-wrecker, than he is a home-maker.
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you, but rather division!” Luke even softens this a bit for us, for in Matthew Jesus sounds downright violent: “I come not to bring peace, but a sword!”
“I will divide father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
St. Francis of Assisi became a knight in the wars with Perugia and had a promising future ahead of him. His father was proud of his son, but the problem was that Francis kept going to church and praying and asking God what he wanted him to do. Over time, he became convinced that God did not want him to be a French troubadour or a dashing knight, but rather to be a follower of Christ, a genuine disciple. God wanted Francis to serve the poorest of the poor.
Francis heard the scripture say, “Sell all that you have and give it to the poor” and with a startling naïveté he said, “Okay.” And he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor.
But his father took exception, for what the boy gave away really wasn’t his but was given to him by his father, who had no urge to take the Bible literally. He threw Francis in jail, then took him to court.
It was then Francis said, “No longer is Pietro Bernardone my father, for, from now on, my father is in heaven.”
Sometimes, Jesus sets father against son and son against father.
But that is not the same Jesus that we go to church to get. Is it?
We go to get a different kind of Jesus, a Jesus of our own making.
For many of us, our faith is just one more materialistic thing we own. Many Americans have trivialized Christianity to the point that Jesus has become just another commodity that is supposed to make our lives easier, better, more productive. That’s why we go to church. We go to get this product called “Jesus” to make us feel better. He’s like a new pair of shoes, a new outfit, a new piece of furniture, or a brand new car. He is something that fulfills our desires, our wants, our needs. He is something that helps us to do the things we want to do in life.
But as nine-year old Jackson Weibling told me about his baptism that we are celebrating this day: “Having Jesus in my life means that I can no longer do the things that I want to do, but only the things that God wants me to do.”
Rev. Marianne Williamson once said, “When you ask God into your life, you think God is going to come into your psychic house, look around and see that you just need a new floor or better furniture, and that everything just needs a little cleaning—and so you go along for the first six months thinking how nice life is now that God is there. Then one day you see that there a wrecking ball outside. It turns out that God actually thinks your whole foundation is shot and you’re going to have to start all over from scratch.”
Our problem is that we have so trivialized Jesus, we think of Jesus as someone who comes knocking on our door with a bouquet of fresh flowers to brighten the whole house up when in reality, Jesus comes knocking with a flamethrower to ready to burn the whole house down.
We thought that all we needed was a little bit of family prayer time. So we prayed for two minutes a day. And it didn’t work. We were still cold. Why? Because we can’t pray for two minutes a day, patch that prayer onto an otherwise unchanged life and expect it to be different.
Jesus does not come into our lives so our behavior will just be a little different, but so that everything will be transformed. Jesus is not some sweet commodity we can pick up at church to bring home and meet our needs and fulfill our desires. Jesus comes to change our needs and transform our desires!
And we don’t get Jesus. Jesus is not something that can be got. It is Jesus who gets us.
If Jesus is something or even someone that we get, then the church really does become just another product whose members are merely consumers. Thus, like going to a store, the spa, or the local cineplex, church becomes some place we go to get something. Some go to get fed. Others go to get nurtured and pampered. Some go to get entertained.
However, if it is Jesus who gets us, if Jesus is about us giving ourselves to the God revealed in Christ, then church means a radical, self-denying, sacrificial way of living.
If Jesus is about giving one’s life away, then the church becomes something much more than a self-help center offering self-improvement workshops.
Sunday school and Wednesday Night Fellowships become less of a time to get fed, physically and spiritually, and more of a time to pray for others, celebrate the joys of life with others, and even suffer with others. It becomes a time to build a community of selfless love and forgiveness with others. Bible study becomes less of a time to acquire more biblical knowledge than others and more of a time to consider how the scriptures inform our service to others.
Sunday morning becomes less about what God has to offer us and more about what we have to offer God. When we eat the bread, we do not consume it. When we drink from the cup, we do not merely swallow it. We allow it to consume and swallow us, every part of us. And we commit ourselves to presenting our own bodies as living sacrifices, pouring our very selves out for others in the name of the God who emptied God’s self out for us.
And every day of the week, we become much more than Christians who possess exclusive tickets to heaven in hand. We become the Light, even the fire of the world.
So for all of us who have been settling for an innocuous faith: look out the window. The torch is lit. The wrecking ball is swinging. So let’s get out of the house! Let it do its work. Let it bring destruction of all that holds us back form God. Let it all burn down to the ground. Then let our lives be rebuilt on the only foundation that can give us life.