“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
Don’t you hate that? I sure do. And what I hate most about it that it rings so true. There is no plan so perfect, no system so airtight, and no arrangement so ideal that life cannot find some way to mess with it. Sometimes, I just wish the universe could just leave well enough alone for once. But, as we all know, that never happens. Eventually, something comes along to change every circumstance, for better or worse. Those of us who are invested in the way things are usually have the toughest time adjusting to the new situation (especially when we feel like we were just getting used to the old situation). Life is frustrating that way.
Of course, we don’t mind sudden and unexpected change so much when it happens to other people. In fact, we kind of relish it. I think this is because it makes us feel better about the chaos in our own lives to watch others go through it and survive. Just think: how many of your favorite books, TV shows, and movies involve plots where the hero is thrust into action against his/her will?
Lately, I’ve been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, The Hobbit, with my four year old. For those who haven’t read it, it’s the story of a hobbit, a little person, named Bilbo Baggins, who lives in a quiet little village in a land called the Shire, where life is simple and no one ever goes on adventures or does anything unexpected. Hobbits like to eat, drink, work in their gardens, and watch fireworks. Anything else is far too exciting for them. Those who seek greener pastures and broader horizons are frowned upon by the rest of hobbit society.
Then, one fine day, a wizard named Gandalf the Grey shows up on Bilbo’s doorstep with a band of rowdy dwarves. Suddenly, Bilbo finds himself unwittingly thrust into a most dreadful adventure, full of goblins, dragons, lost treasure, and one magic ring (that later proves to be most significant indeed). He never asked for it and didn’t even really want to go on the trip. He just wanted to stay home, read books, and smoke his pipe. But the remarkable thing is that Bilbo only becomes the hero he’s destined to be because of all the unexpected things that happen to him along the way. Those chaotic changes, for all their inconvenience, enable Bilbo to discover who he is and what he is capable of. As readers, we can definitely agree that The Hobbit wouldn’t be much of a story without the unexpected changes. After all, who would bother to read a book or see a movie where the hero never leaves home and never has any problems of any kind? Nobody, that’s who.
Chaos, change, and conflict drive the plots of our favorite stories. As it is in fiction, so it is in life. If our lives didn’t keep getting interrupted by unfair and unwelcome changes, they wouldn’t be very interesting. We would never learn what we are capable of. We may hate the change and curse the chaos, but we need them because they make us into the heroes we’re meant to be.
This is what evolution looks like: the unfolding emergence of life through struggle and chaos. When unexpected change comes, it is not the devil trying to steal your peace, it is God’s way calling you to new adventures of the spirit.
Jesus knew how to embrace the flow of this constantly unfolding process in life. He talks about it somewhat enigmatically in today’s gospel reading. He says in the beginning, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
If you look past the metaphors of fire and baptism, you can see Jesus talking about something that is not yet finished. He is telling his followers that he is involved in something that is not yet completed.
Going on from there, he elaborates, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” This is an unusually harsh thing for Jesus to say. We’re used to thinking of him as the ultimate champion of world peace and family values, but here he talks about conflict and the breaking up of families due to his influence. What are we supposed to make of that?
What I hear Jesus saying in this passage is that his job is not to uphold the status quo in life or society. “The way things are/have been” is of little or no interest to Jesus. His job, as he sees it, is to shake things up.
Understandably, this agenda would have been particularly frustrating to the religious leaders of his day, who saw it as their solemn and sacred duty to maintain the status quo and defend traditional family values. In the eyes of the people, they were the ones who had all the answers when it came to issues of faith and morals.
But Jesus is challenging their authority. He makes the claim that their so-called insight is really nothing more than pretense. “You hypocrites!” He says, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”
Jesus is exposing their so-called insight as deficient. They, with all of their sophisticated arguments and developed systems of ethics, really have no special knowledge about the nature of reality beyond that which is available to everyone. The word hypocrite, which Jesus uses here, is actually the Greek word for actor. These leaders have built their reputation on pretending to have knowledge and insight. They keep up appearances and see to it that the show goes on.
The implication is that, if they really had insight, they would be able to see this unfolding process that Jesus was describing in images of fire and baptism. The truly wise among them would know that growth requires change and change is hard. If they knew “how to interpret the present time,” as Jesus said, they would be open to interpreting the challenges of the future as opportunities presented by God for our growth and development, our evolution, as people of faith. But, as it is, these close-minded authorities are simply standing in the way of God’s work with their beliefs, their tradition, and their family values.
This is a hard and enigmatic word that Jesus gives us today. We mainline Protestants in the 21st century are really not all that different from the Pharisees of the first century. We too are concerned about preserving what we have, especially when it comes to church, tradition, and family.
There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think it’s quite admirable to honor the best of what has been handed down to us from previous generations. However, we have to always keep before us a sense of the renewing nature of faith in each generation. The challenges that our grandparents faced are not the challenges that we face. We would do their legacy a disservice if we were simply to repeat and regurgitate what they had passed down to us.
Our task, as believers in this day and age, is to make the Christian faith our own as we reinterpret and apply its message today. Sometimes, this means doing away with old ways of thinking or doing things. We have to be open to each new challenge, not as a threat against the integrity of our faith, but as an opportunity presented by God for our growth and development.
Holding this kind of perspective, which I call ‘seeing with the eyes of faith,’ will keep our attention focused where it needs to be: on the unique possibilities presented by each new situation as it arises. As believers, we are called to face the future with the conviction that we are being loved and led into new beginnings. That’s what faith is.
Our ancestors had to do adopt this risky perspective in times past. The earliest Christians found their experience with Jesus to be at odds with traditional Judaism; John Calvin found his study of the Bible leading him to challenge established Catholic doctrine during the Protestant Reformation; other Christians at various times have been led to adopt new ways of thinking and living in relation to issues like the abolition of slavery, the theory of evolution, the ordination of women, and marriage equality for gay and lesbian people.
Change is nothing new for us Christians. It goes all the way back to the very beginning of our faith, including Jesus himself, if we take today’s passage seriously. For almost two thousand years, the Spirit of Christ has been kindling a fire in the hearts of people the world over. This spiritual fire has put them at odds with their peers and mentors, who couldn’t understand that what was happening through them was the work of the Holy Spirit. If we would honor our ancestors’ legacy, then we must open our hearts to that same inner fire of the Spirit. We have to look at the constantly changing chaos around us as God’s gift for our evolution.
This church is about to enter into yet another one of these times of change. After three wonderful years as your pastor, I will soon be moving on to a new call at another church. I recognize that it’s easy for me to stand here this morning and ask you to embrace change with openness because I know exactly where I am going next and what I will be doing when I get there, while you remain here without so much knowledge. It might even seem trite or cruel to hear these words from me, but I wouldn’t be your pastor if I didn’t challenge you to look beyond these present circumstances and see, with the eyes of faith, the hand of God leading you into new opportunities as a church.
Whatever the future looks like, it will not look like the past. I can’t even guess what new realities will emerge for you from the womb of possibility. What I do know, and what I can tell you is this: If the Holy Spirit is calling me to a new ministry, then the Holy Spirit is also calling you to a new ministry. The question for you to answer is: what might that new ministry be? I can’t answer that one for you. What I can tell you is that the God who has been “our help in ages past” will continue to be “our hope for years to come.” The same God who loved our ancestors into their new beginnings is faithful to love us into ours. That much I know. This much I trust.
My prayer for you, as I prepare to leave next week, is that you, as the Church of Christ, will embrace the challenge of the coming days in the spirit of faith, which looks for opportunities and possibilities. Silence in yourselves the voices of fear and despair. This church is neither dead nor dying. We are alive with potential and bursting at the seams with possibility. This church is a powder keg, waiting only for the fire of the Spirit to ignite us into explosive new realities.
Trust this. Be open to each new opportunity as it comes. Like Bilbo Baggins, become the heroes you’re meant to be. Honor the legacy of your ancestors by showing yourselves to be the kind of Christians who “know how to interpret the present time” through the eyes of faith.