These are wild and troubling times for America and the world. You don’t need to hear the symptoms again: our screens are full of text and videos amplifying the bad news. There’s nothing new under the sun. Jesus lived in difficult times, too. In addition to being occupied by the Roman army, mental and physical problems were rampant throughout Israel. Jesus has been going through the north of Israel healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead and releasing crazed people from demonic powers. The ordinary Jewish public marveled at what Jesus was teaching and doing. Many believed Jesus and followed him. They heard his message of repentance, forgiveness and love. This was new; not at all like the worship and traditions folks were used to.
Jesus’ popularity threatened the Jewish Church leaders. We pick up at Matthew 9:34. The Pharisees debunked Jesus: “It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.” But Jesus persists. He warns his disciples they will meet fierce resistance from the powers that be. They will be hated and despised by all because of this teaching. Even by their own families.
Our Gospel reading ends with this strange teaching from our Lord; “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law —a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ And then Jesus explains...”Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
I’ll tell you a story. Once upon a time I was a teenage farm boy trying to grow up to be a good Jew. Even though we were far away from a Jewish community and rarely went to synagogue, my family had kept strict kosher. My Zadie - what every grandfather is called - Zadie used to take me to a synagogue for the High Holy Days, but that was about it. The one exception to our family’s careful observance of the dietary laws was the forbidden thrill of eating Chinese Food. Once a month, on a Sunday, we would either do takeout or my father would pile us into the family car and drive to Chin’s Village in Wellesley. This was a feast featuring pork, shellfish and other unspeakable treats. The best Chinese food in the Greater Boston area was served at Chin’s Village. And this monthly trek was a family tradition.
After my Bar Mitzvah, I got very serious about all the commandments, not just the dietary ones. I avoided the forbidden feast. I became a stickler, a real pain. The rest of the family could eat forbidden trayf, but I no longer wanted any part of it. This was painful to Mom and Dad, because they had made this monthly dinner a family tradition, part of the glue holding the family together. They put up with my new zeal for a while, but of course it bugged them. One Sunday when the family was sitting down to the takeout Chinese feast, I came in from working in the barn. They stopped me and pressed me to join in. I resisted. They pressed. I resisted. They pressed. Voices were raised. Finally I thought “All right then, nuts to this.” I sat down and dug into the pork dumplings. That was a mistake. In typical teenager fashion, I decided that if Chinese pork was ok, then all the rules were meaningless. I abandoned everything religious, including God, and took a very wrong turn in my life. It was fifteen years or more before I found a way back to God via Christianity.
I tore up my family’s tradition. Even though my hope was to be a better Jew, my family took my righteous zeal as a rebuke. It wasn’t a matter of right or wrong. They took my choosing a different life path as a personal rejection. Jesus knew this would happen in the early church. Jesus directed his disciples to not go to the gentiles, but only to the Jews. He wanted to help the Jews be better Jews. And he knew the friction, the pain, this dislocation would cause. What my family saw was their son abandoning, rejecting the family’s form of worship for a more rigorous Jewishness. Think how much more family pain there was when sons abandoned traditional Judaism to follow Jesus.
But Jesus was warning about more than family woes for his followers. Jesus was also speaking of the internal struggle each of us has to go through to reject our old self and emerge reborn. He warned of the struggle each human would go through to stop being led by our drives for money, fame, power and attention and turn to God. When we turn away from those worldly drives to be driven by love of God and God’s creation - when we repent - it’s a huge internal struggle. Ultimately we will find the security and peace that we crave - the peace of resting in a loving God. But the change of direction, the turning to a new path, the transformation is a struggle. With God’s help and grace we will succeed in that repentance transformation. After all, Jacob, Abraham and Sarah’s grandson, wrestled with the angel. God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “he struggles with God.” Each Christian is also called to struggle with God. The struggle takes the form of wrestling our old self. Only then can the new self be born.
That’s pretty radical. The Lord God understands our unwillingness, our inability as human beings, to change ourselves. God understands our pride, our not-so-secret love affair with ourselves. We learn to subtly manage anything that threatens to really change us. We just want a better, safer, more comfortable version of what we already are. Paul goes to the heart of the matter in Romans. “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
In our Genesis story, human pride and motivations have to be struggled with all around. Sarah didn’t believe God’s promise that she could bear a child in her 70’s. She had Abraham use her servant girl, Hagar, as a surrogate. Hagar’s pride at carrying Abraham’s heir led her to lord it over Sarah. Years later Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Adolescent Ishmael mocked Isaac. Sarah, fed up, demands Abraham throw Hagar and Ishmael out of the camp into the wilderness. Now that meant certain death. Talk about family feuds! Abraham loved Ishmael but did as Sarah demanded. Then hearing the cries of Ishmael dying of thirst in the desert, God caused a well to appear. Hagar and Ishmael were reborn by water.
The water giving Ishmael and Hagar new life prefigures the saving water of baptism and our rebirth into new life in Christ. Jesus' main teaching is one of the hardest lessons for any human to deal with: We must be born again of water and the spirit. But, as Paul says, we want the new person to come down on us like a new suit of clothes. We want to put on our new selves as clothing over the old familiar self. Dying? Let’s put that off. We have enough trouble managing life as it is on a daily basis. We don’t have time or inclination to die, right now, thank you.
We are not required to physically die in our fleshly bodies for the death of our old self to occur. That’s for the Resurrection. The new birth requires a change of heart. A change of direction. And we humans do not want to change. That’s why we have to “die” first.
Rules and legislation don’t change the human heart. They just try to control social and public behavior. Our hearts, our instincts are like a powerful animal, and it doesn’t want to die. We like to think our rational mind is steering the animal. Our rational minds are not in the driver’s seat. The modern psychological view is that our inner selves, our instinctive response mechanisms are more like an elephant. Our reasoning brain is like a rider on the elephant. The rider doesn’t control the elephant; its gonna head where it wants. So if we can’t control it, our brain rationalizes the direction by thinking up good reasons for it. Our reasoning brain provides rationales for why we feel and act the way we do. We serve our elephant food it likes.
Restructuring the human heart is the only way to tame the elephant. And there is only one power that can restructure the human heart. The psalmist spells it out: Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.
Yes, it takes a miracle to change the human heart, to replace the elephant with an SUV with power steering. Only God can do this, and he sent a terrific helper. Jesus told us we would receive the Paraclete as a companion and teacher. The Holy Spirit has taken up residence in every baptized heart. But for us to learn from the Spirit, we have to turn to the Spirit and listen. We do this daily by trusting that this miracle is real, by listening, believing.
God does work miracles. We are very good at explaining away miracles, and it is to our detriment to do so. Our elephant of an unconverted heart is afraid of the unexpected and unknowable. Our rational brain tries to help out the elephant by quickly explaining away the miraculous with certainty. Yet the elephant still experiences dread.
Some people cover their lack of faith in God with faith in science, as if the wiring diagram explains the power plant, or neuroanatomy explains life. It’s good to understand as best we can the mechanics of how God sets the cosmos to run on automatic. That’s the best science can do. But from time to time the Creator switches events off auto and flips to manual. That’s when we better hold on to our hats. Funny coincidences happen. For example, Mrs. Chin of Chin’s Village in Wellesley used to bring bags of food over to her daughter and her roommate at neighboring Wellesley College. Pam Chin’s roommate and beneficiary of Chin’s Village cooking was my wife Katie, who is also my sermon editor.
People may laugh at you, ridicule you for your faith in God and in his Christ. Colleagues may think you’re a little extreme, odd, maybe a bit nutty for really believing all that. Younger family members might think of you as the dotty aunt or “good old sweet, senile Grampa.” Your own parents, or children might argue with you or storm out, or throw you out of the house. Dying to self and rebirth is not a neat process. You’ve all seen these painful things happen, just as Jesus warned: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”
Take heart in the struggle. Angels are cheering you on.