Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Ninth Sunday after Trinity 2022
When God peers into my life, what does he see?
The Reverend Dr Tony Kyriakides
Sunday, 14th August 2022 at 11.15 AM
Who am I and, for that matter, who are you? What has shaped and continues to shape that sense of who we are: family, yes, but also politics, race, culture, religion and much more.
Salman Rushdie argues that ‘whatever our background, [we need] to constantly examine the stories inside which and with which we live. We all live in stories, so called grand narratives. Nation is a story. Family is a story. Religion is a story. Community is a story. We all live within and with these narratives’ and, Rushdie goes on to say, ‘a definition of any living vibrant society is that you constantly question those stories.’
Questioning those narratives can provoke anger, and no one knows this better than Salman Rushdie after the events of last Friday. We pray for his recovery and safety.
So, are we prepared to question our faith story? Let me explain.
A few verses before our gospel reading, Jesus is telling his followers not to worry, to consider the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, reminding them that they are precious in God’s sight: Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom (Luke 12:32).
That’s what we expect of Jesus: comfortable words.
But fast forward, just a few verses to today’s passage, and reassurance flies out of the window:
I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No! I’ve come to divide!
Whatever happened to those lilies? And what about you and I being precious in God’s sight? What’s brought about this sudden fit of temper, and from Jesus of all Gods?
A clue may be found in C S Lewis’ book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, four children discover that at the back of a wardrobe there’s a door into another world called Narnia. It’s a magical world filled with talking animals and a lion called Aslan, who rules over all of Narnia. The youngest child Lucy, striking up a conversation with a Mr. Beaver, asks about Aslan: ‘is he quite safe?’ to which Mr. Beaver replies, ‘Safe?... Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good.’
Unsafe? Whoever suggested that God is safe? God is good but he’s definitely not safe.
Today, in our gospel, there is clear evidence of God’s anger, but it is anger which must be viewed through the lens of God’s love, recognising that there is a difference between anger that is rooted in hatred and anger that is grounded in profound love.
Anger that draws its energy from hatred is destructive and lethal, but anger – God’s anger – that is motivated by love is keen to see us grow and become wise. The edifying anger of a good God may not feel comfortable or loving, but because it is grounded in love, it is offered with hope for our growing wisdom not our destruction.
In the Bible, we sometimes see anger associated with fire but a fire which is not just a sign of anger: rather a sign of transformation. Think of Moses and his encounter with God in the burning bush: an experience which leads him into confrontation with Pharaoh and eventually freedom for God’s chosen people. The fiery bush burned but didn’t destroy.
In the book of Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego find themselves facing execution at the hands of an angry king, Nebuchadnezzar, because they would not worship the king’s idol. They are thrown into a fiery furnace and yet emerge unharmed. The fiery furnace burned but didn’t destroy.
God’s anger is not about destruction but the transformation of people.
There is a folktale of a woman who visits a silversmith and asks him how he knows when the silver is refined. The silversmith replies, ‘when I can see my face in the silver’.
God is the silversmith carefully holding his gaze on each of us, until we reflect his own image back to him. What is then revealed is our true identity.
That’s all very well, but how do we make sense of what Jesus goes on to say about dividing families? Let’s be honest about this: at times his own family seems dysfunctional! In front of a crowd, he turns his back on his own family and embraces a new family of prostitutes, tax collectors and other untouchables. On top of that, he tells wannabe disciples not to bother burying their parents, an outrageous thought to the culture of his time. How could it possibly be that anyone who leaves family for his sake will be blessed by God?
Jesus certainly seems to have an unconventional perspective on family values. Can this really be good news? Are these family values for the 21st century.
Jesus is saying something radical about identity and who we understand ourselves to be.
In his day, identity was culturally set in stone. It was based on family. The son of a carpenter grew up to become... a carpenter. The son of an agricultural labourer grew up to be... an agricultural labourer. And if you were a daughter, you were family property. You married who your family told you to marry. In all of this, a person’s identity was pre-determined by whose child you were. It’s why, when people heard Jesus teaching and saw his miracles, they were shocked: Wait a moment. Isn’t this Joseph’s boy? Carpenter’s sons were not saviours. They were carpenters.
Jesus questions all this. For Jesus, our identity is not dependent on our birth family which can be beset with rivalries, abuse, neglect, or an absence of love.
Our identity is dependent on that unconditional love which comes from God alone – even when we feel unlovable. At baptism, as the children of God we are loved into the kingdom. That is our identity. I am baptized not I was baptized, and it changes us, when we are touched by God’s unquenchable love, when we are baptized by its fire.
It is an identity which demands a life-long loving response as we put our faith into action in the passionate pursuit of social justice, peace in our relationships, mirroring that peace we seek for our world, and environmental stewardship, working in partnership with people of other faiths and beliefs, for the common good of communities, families and individuals.
Yes, family, politics, race, culture, religion and so much more inform my identity but none of these is truly definitive of who I am. It is my baptism, that life-long loving response to all whom I meet and every situation that I encounter, that needs define me.
Think back to that folktale of the silversmith and ask yourself this question: when God peers into my life, what does he see?