By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
What if you woke up one day, and everything you said and did was out of character for you? You get out of bed, and the things you say, and the actions of your life were totally different from everything people would expect you to say and do.
Jim Valvano was coach of the 1983 national champion North Carolina State men’s basketball team, and I remember him telling the story of his first coaching experience. He was hired by Iona College, a small university in upstate New York. Valvano says that even the college’s name helped in recruiting. He would meet a young high school star and say “Jim Valvano, Iona College.”
Before his first season, Valvano had been invited to the training camp of the Green Bay Packers, and sat in the locker room as the great Vince Lombardi delivered a motivational speech to his players. “Men” Lombardi began, “Men, this year there will be three priorities in your life and three priorities only. God, your family, and the Green Bay Packers. That is all that will matter to you: God, your family and the Green Bay Packers.”
So moved by this speech was Jim Valvano, that he took Lombardi’s words home with him and delivered them to his own team as basketball practice began. “Men” he began, “this year you will have just three priorities: God, your family, and the Green Bay Packers!” The players, of course, were shocked and confused.
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I want to suggest to you this morning that the words of Jesus in today’s gospel lesson were just as shocking and just as confusing for the disciples of Jesus. For three years they had traveled with him, and they thought they knew what he stood for. In fact, they had heard him preach his values time and time again. That love was more important than money, and that people were more valuable than programs, and that forgiveness was more powerful than revenge. But now, in this 12th chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus seems to turn 180 degrees from his character.
“You think I have come to bring peace to the world” Jesus begins. “I have not come to bring peace, but division. Because of me, households will be divided. Son’s will argue with their fathers. Daughters will disagree with their mothers. Good friends will be at odds with one another. And all because of me.”
If that message doesn’t bother you, I must tell you that it bothers me. Because my perception of Jesus is that he has called people to come together in unity and agreement. One of his names is “The Prince of Peace.” One of the recurring themes of the first century church is “that they will know we are Christians by our love.” But now Jesus’ words seem to run contrary to all of that. Not unity, but division. Not peace, but the sword.
I believe that it is basic human nature to want to live at peace and agreement with others. In spite of the fact that the world is filled with so much discord and disagreement, I believe that the majority of us do not want to rock the boat. If you think back to the most enjoyable and fulfilling times in your family, or in your workplace, or even in this church, they will probably be times when everybody was getting along and there was no conflict or division. That’s a beautiful thing.
But the problem comes when people seek peace at the expense of principle. When our goal becomes to simply get along, when our goal is just to not make waves, that often leads to abandoning who we are and what we stand for. I think it was Bill Cosby who once said “I don’t know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to make everybody happy.”
I recall being at a camp several years ago, and seeing this very truth unfold. A teenage girl was torn between two sets of friends. Some of them were sunbathing on the dock, saying to her “stay with us.” But her other friends were in a rowboat saying “no, come with us.” There she stood, one foot on the dock, the other foot on the edge of the boat, and the boat was moving. Trying to appease everyone, trying to not decide, she ended up falling into the water; and worse, her hair got wet!
But I think this is exactly what Jesus is addressing in the gospel lesson today. He is warning us that there will be times when following him will require us to turn away from something else. There will be times in this life when we will be required to say “yes” to one thing, and therefore “no” to the other. And of course, the action we most often take is the same one that girl did on the swimming dock. We try to go in both directions. We try to say “yes” to it all, and we end up falling in between the seams, and being miserable.
Now…is the choice an easy one, the choice between following the call of Christ and following the call of the world? The choice is usually not an easy one. For one thing, the call of the world looks awfully attractive sometimes, and the call to discipleship can sometimes look rather bland. There was a bible camp song that went something like this: Yield not to temptation, although yielding is fun!” It’s true; yielding can be fun. When Eve was tempted to eat from the tree that God had forbidden, it was because that fruit looked good, and exciting, and provocative to her. Oh, the rest of the garden was nice too, but frankly, she was tired of salad. Lettuce, and celery, and asparagus. It was boring! But the apple, or the kiwi fruit, or the avocado or whatever it was, looked so inviting. So she made a choice. I might have made the same choice. And maybe you, too.
A second factor is that following Christ might require us to change directions — or break promises — or renege on commitments that we have made. You and your business partner are involved in practices that are unethical, until you decided that you cannot go along in that direction anymore. Your conscience and your faith will simply not allow you to do so. What do you do? Keep the peace and the profit? Or do you become a prophet and say “no more!”
Several years ago, I married a young couple who were very much in love. She, a strong Christian, he an unchurched young man who was perfectly willing to let his wife attend church, though he himself would not go. That arrangement worked for awhile, and then they had a child. Now, she wanted her baby baptized. Now, she wanted to teach Sunday School, and join a young moms group. The husband had enough of this religion, and he laid down the law. It was a painful time for her, as she tried to choose between her husband, to whom she had promised, and her God, to whom she had also promised. Every time she came to church after that, I was reminded of Jesus’ words: “From now on, a family will be divided two against three because of me.”
Finally, I think righteous division happens when being a disciple of Jesus calls us in a different direction from those we love and respect. When I was growing up, my father owned a construction company, and he always envisioned me joining him in the family business. When I graduated from high school, my dad asked me what I planned to do and I said I was going to go to college to become a P.E. teacher. He said to me “why don’t you come out and work at the plant?” That’s what he called his construction yard: the plant.
Four years later, when I graduated from college, my dad again asked me what I planned to do. “I am going to go to seminary and become a pastor.” And he said “Why don’t you become a P.E. teacher?” My parents didn’t understand my conversion experience, and they certainly didn’t understand ministry. And even though my dad eventually came around to a position of pride and encouragement at my career choice, for several years, it was a bone of contention between us.
So, I’m wondering about you today. Has your faith ever caused you to make a choice? Have you ever had one foot on the boat and one foot on the dock, and intentionally decided to go in a direction God was calling you instead of another road that appeared exciting or prosperous or provocative? If you have, then you understand exactly why Jesus said what he did.
Oh, and regarding the sermon title: Flashing Yellow Lights.” When I was a child, we would often vacation in northern Minnesota, and we would usually drive there after dark on Friday nights. I can’t tell you what highway we took, but I have this picture etched in my memory of signs that warned of a fork in the road ahead. There were rumble strips and road markings, and announcement signs for miles. But when we reached the fork, there was a huge, orange flashing light, which divided the highway. One way led to Grand Rapids, our destination. The other way led to Duluth. When my dad came to the flashing light, he had to decide which way to go. Every time, he had to make a decision which direction to go.
My sense is that the Christian life is like that. Every day, we are called to make choices, decisions as to which way we will go that day. Sometimes, those decisions are costly, in terms of money, or family, or friendships. If our destination is important to us, we make the correct choice. Not every time, perhaps. But often enough. May God give you wisdom and courage to make those choices in the days ahead. Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2001, Steven Molin. Used by permission.