We human beings are stubborn. We may understand, or at least we may have heard, that we are God's people and that our promise of salvation, of redemption, was purchased at great price. A price that was so great, God's sacrifice of his only Son, it is hard for us to grasp what it might mean to us and for us as we take, each of us, our journey through life.
It is on days like today, when the Lectionary readings tell us some rather stern truths about ourselves and about what travel conditions may be like along the way, that we are reminded that our salvation and redemption are not a free ride, an open-ended ticket for a delightful excursion. We are expected to contribute, to sacrifice along the way, to be challenged and tested.
The church through the centuries has known its children. We need to be reminded, all of us, about what is expected of us, what baggage we need to take and what we must leave behind. Yes, Christianity has a message of great beauty and hope. But it is also safe to say it is not a "feel good" religion by any stretch of the imagination.
The choice of Jeremiah for our Old Testament lesson should have been "fair warning." Here was a prophet who had no fear of telling God's people what they had better do if they knew what was good for them. And he certainly had no fear of those "false prophets" who would water down, undermine, or even falsify God's message. Jeremiah tells about a Lord who knows all and sees all in the lives of his people and means to be obeyed. "Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?"
Psalm 82 also ends with a warning and a reminder: "Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!" And our New Testament reading from Hebrews contains the lines that have been quoted to generations of children about to be disciplined by their parents: "...for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts." How often has this been prelude to a spanking or explanation for it afterwards?
But it is today's Gospel, from Luke, that really has the plainest, the strongest talk about what is expected of us. Who has not shivered a little on reading, "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!" And we move on to read a catalog of how the new faith will alienate every member of a family, one from another. In one sense, the Christian journey would be taken by each soul, alone, answerable only to God. And then, perhaps most chilling of all, we are told a story about justice and the need to judge for ourselves what is right, lest we go to court and lose and are thrown into prison. And the officer of the court, on casting you into prison, may say, "I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny." It reminds us, in a way, of all the bad jokes about "not getting out of this world alive."
Should we assume from all of this that we are in the hands of a merciless God? No, that is not the Christian message. But it does mean that we are caught up in a faith that is very much aware of how we human beings tick; that our nature could easily allow us to believe that we have a free pass to salvation if we are not reminded rather forcefully of the immense price paid for that salvation and of the obligations placed on us by our identity as Christian believers.
Are we to believe we are expected routinely to renounce our nearest and dearest in order to be Christians? No, but the extreme analogy presented in the Gospel is probably meant to explain to us in human terms at least a fraction of what God's sacrifice for us entailed. And that if it need, be we must be prepared, as believers, to make our own deep deep and significant sacrifice as well.
In many of the Lectionary readings for this season of Pentecost there is, in fact, a sense of the young Christian church preparing its people for what may lie ahead and trying to instill in the people a sense of responsibility for their journey. There is a sense of adventure, too. There will be many risks and painful decisions along the way -- but they will all be worth it! Pentecost was a time when the new church was moving out into the challenge and peril of the known and unknown world.
The French bishop, writer, and theologian Francois Fenelon (1651-1715) wrote a prayer -- called in English "All in All" -- that says for us on this day and in this season what we might like to say:
Lord, I don't know what I ought to ask of you.
You alone know what I need.
You love me better than I know how to love myself.
O Father, give to me, your child, that which I
don't know how to ask...
I would have no other wish than to do your will.
Teach me to pray.
Pray yourself in me.