A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 18, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer
Scripture:  Luke 12:49-56 and Isaiah 5:1-7
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

One of my favorite places on earth is high in the northern Cascade Mountains.  Holden Village was originally a copper mine and the village that sprang up around it.[1]  The mine was opened in 1938 and for 19 years copper ore was dug out from deep inside the mountain.  It was milled and separated and concentrated.  A slurry of the concentrated ore was trucked down the over ten miles of treacherous dirt road switchbacks to barges, where it was taken down Lake Chelan for further processing.  The tailings (the portion of the slurry that wasn’t useful) were pumped to several spots on the valley floor and, over the years, large piles of the tailings grew.

The mine was closed in 1957, leaving behind a deep shaft that filled with water, the tailings, and the old mill that eventually collapsed, along with the dormitories, the houses, the recreation hall, and the dining hall that made up the Village.  In 1960, the property was gifted to the Lutheran Bible Institute and, within a few years, it was transformed into a retreat center.  For over 50 years now, Holden Village has offered hospitality and spiritual growth and transformation to people who take the trip up Lake Chelan and then the ten-plus miles up the switchback filled dirt road in an old school bus to the village.  Only small groups brave the cold and deep (sometimes very deep) snow of a northern Cascades winter.  Most of the volunteers and guests come for part or all of the summer.

Except this year.

For 50 years, the water has drained from the flooded mine, carrying various metals and toxins down into Railroad Creek.  For 50 years, rain fell onto and drained through the tailings.  Snow has melted through the tailings.  And that water has carried various metals and toxins downstream to Lake Chelan.

This summer, Holden Village is filled – but not with guests.  This summer, the Village bustles with men and women executing several major construction projects.  The company that bought the company that bought the company that ran the mine has returned in partnership with the EPA, US Forest Service, and Holden Village to do long-delayed remediation.  The old mill will be demolished, a water treatment center will be built, and the leaching from the tailings and mine will be stemmed.  The Holden staff remains on site doing deferred maintenance on Village buildings and reclaiming the wood from trees felled in the construction projects.  But they’ve been impacted by these changes.

The days are still punctuated by morning and evening prayer, but few if any of the 150 to 200 construction workers participate.  Meals are still served in the dining hall, but the fare has changed dramatically from low on the food chain, simple dining to three meat-filled entrée options at dinner and a Coke machine.  None of the typical programming of study and reflection is taking place.  “It is tempting to see the remediation workers coming into the Village as temporary or invaders,” writes co-executive director Chuck Carpenter.[2]

In our gospel lesson for today, “Jesus announces that it is ‘crunch time.’  It’s time to decide, to take sides at some risk, to be with Jesus or against him.  He chides his listeners for their inability to notice that in his very person the world comes to a dangerous moment to decide for or against God’s rule.  Jesus calls his listeners beyond their casual conversation about the weather to face the grand drama of the world being played out before their eyes.”[3]

The picture Jesus paints is hardly a comforting one.  “I have come to bring fire,” Jesus said.  “How I wish it were already kindled!”  Or as the Jerusalem Bible puts it, “How I wish it were blazing already!”

“The fire he refers to here is not, strictly speaking, the Holy Spirit (although Luke certainly uses that image for the Spirit in Acts 2:3).  The context suggests that he’s referring to the fire of purification, of inspiration, and of judgment.  John the Baptist had promised that Jesus would ‘baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,’ that he would ‘gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’ (Luke 3:16-17).

“To bring the fire, though, there is a ‘baptism” Jesus must still receive (Luke 12:50).  Jesus knows that he is to be immersed (baptizein) in suffering … and that this is not mere fate or an accident, but necessary for the fulfillment of his destiny.  ‘What stress I am under,’ he says, ‘until it is completed’ – the Greek word translated ‘stress’ (or more commonly, ‘distress’) means to be totally dominated by a thought.  In other words, Jesus is telling his disciples that he will be completely focused on this until it is finally accomplished – even knowing the cup of which he is about to drink, nothing can divert him from his proper end.

“The fulfillment of his mission, however, does not lead to peace, but to division.  As one translation puts it, ‘I came to make people choose sides.’”[4]  No wonder the old union song, “Which Side Are You On,” had been drifting in and out of my consciousness all week.

We might be tempted to postpone this fire Jesus came to bring until the afterlife.  We might hope that Jesus is talking about the fires of purgatory or hell.  But that’s only a dodge.  Jesus comes to cast fire on earth.  As soon as possible.

That’s why Jesus is heading to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel.  Jesus is on his way to confront the principalities and powers.  And it’s never pretty when the powers that be are confronted.  “Jerusalem could no more face what Jesus brought than we [can].  It is far easier to destroy the messenger of our darkness than to face it in ourselves and our social system.”[5]  Jesus was dealing with a huge, collective, inert, vindictive mass of embedded selfishness that permeated society.  Much like he is today.

“Jesus comes, not as a mediator, but as a stone of stumbling, a creator of dissension.”[6]  It can happen quite simply.  Any time we objectify someone, any time we strip another human being of his or her humanity, we are buying into the status quo.  The status quo tells the Holden Village staff to see the remediation workers coming into Holden Village as temporary or invaders, to make them objects.

But Jesus trips up the status quo.  Jesus says we are to separate ourselves from that point of view.  “Do you see that person as your brother, as your sister?” he asks us.

One of the ironic things about that question is that if we answer it “yes,” we can end up losing our blood brothers and sisters.  The dissension starts, Jesus seems to be saying in the family.  A family of five will be divided 3 against 2.  Parent and child will be divided against each other.  Women, you think your mothers-in-law are difficult now?  Just you wait.

But maybe that’s appropriate.  While family structures and systems have changed since Jesus’ day, they are still the breeding grounds of domination and male supremacy, gender traps and hierarchies.  No wonder Jesus says the upset will start there, or at least it should.

We hear echoes of this cry in our reading from Isaiah.  “God looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!  For justice, by hark, the outcry!”  The call is for repentance.  And remember, repentance isn’t about beating yourself up for doing bad things.  Repentance isn’t about feeling shame.  Repentance is about making a new choice, picking a new direction.  And that will often shake things up.

Maybe that’s why “we do not often dwell on this passionate and seemingly divisive side of Jesus; it is usually overlooked or downplayed since it doesn’t match the docile image often attributed to him.  But Jesus is perfectly clear in these readings and others:  The gospel is divisive, and many people have much to lose from its realization.  Insisting upon kingdom ideals such as justice for the outcast was no more popular then than it is now.  For this reason, the anger and passion evidenced by Jesus is vital to our own ability to identify, renounce, and work for justice in all that we do.”[7]

The story’s told of a sociology professor who for years began his course on “The Family” by reading to his class a letter, from a parent, written to a government official.  “In the letter the parent complains that his son, once obedient and well-motivated, has become involved with some weird new religious cult.  The father complains that the cult has taken over the boy’s life, has forced him to forsake all of his old friends, and has turned him against his family.”[8]

After reading the letter, the professor asked the class. “What do you think the father is talking about in this letter?”  Almost without exception, the classes immediately assumed that the subject of the letter is a child mixed up some cult.  Dating this story to the 70s, the “cult” was typically identified is “the Moonies.”  After the class put out all of the possible conclusions they can think of, the professor told them that the letter was written by a third century father to the Roman governor of his province, complaining about this weird religious group called “The Christians.”[9]

The gospel of Jesus Christ is divisive.  It is offensive.  It calls for a reordering of society and priorities.

Jesus complains to the crowds that they know how to forecast the weather, but they don’t know how to “interpret the present time.”  It is not straightforward what Jesus means by “interpreting the present time,” but given the context, I can reach only one conclusion:  Jesus is talking about seeing what is going on.  Jesus is talking about opening their eye – and us opening our eyes – to the realities, the anti-kin-dom of God realities of the present time.

You see the clouds rising in the west and you know it’s going to rain.  And when the south wind blows, you know it’s going to be a scorcher.  But you don’t see what is just as plainly before you.

Worldwide, about 25,000 people die every day of hunger or hunger-related causes, according to the United Nations.  That is one person every three and a half seconds.[10]

As of early yesterday evening, the official death toll in the most recent rounds of violence in Egypt is well over 600, and the violence is not stopping.[11]  And that is just one of many countries where violence continues unabated.

There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today – even though slavery is illegal everywhere.[12]

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have reached 400ppm and global average temperatures are up over 1oF.  And both continue to rise.

If we know how to interpret the present time, we will respond to these crises and others by taking action.  That action will offend and scandalize those who are committed to the status quo and domestic security in a familiar world.   Families especially will try to deter us and reclaim us.

My friends, faithfulness to Christ will involve cutting through the ties that would bind us to conventional values.[13]  But nobody every said discipleship was easy.


[1] For more information about the history of Holden Village, see http://www.holdenvillage.org/about-us/his/ and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holden_Village,_Washington.

[2] Chuck Carpenter, “Conform or Be Transformed,” Holden Village Voice (Summer 2013): 1.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “Which Side Are You On?” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/which-side-are-you (30 July 2013).

[4] Jim Rice, “Choosing Sides,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/choosing-sides (30 July 2013).

[5] Walter Wink, “Baptism by Fire,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/baptism-fire (30 July 2013).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Michaela Bruzzese, “‘Hark!  The Outcry’,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/hark-outcry (30 July 2013).

[8] William H. Beljean, Jr., “An Interesting Letter,” quoted in an email from sermons.com, dated 13 August 2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Hunger and World Poverty,” Poverty.com, http://www.poverty.com (17 August 2013).

[11] Cyril Dixon, “Egypt death toll hits 638 as Britain seeks UN meeting,” Express, http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/422405/Egypt-death-toll-hits-638-as-Britain-seeks-UN-meeting (17 August 2013).

[12] “The Statistics on Human Trafficking,” For Such As These, http://forsuchasthese.blogspot.com/2010/10/statistics-on-human-trafficking.html (17 August 2013).

[13] Martin L. Smith, “Christ the Arsonist,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/christ-arsonist (30 July 2013).