We are Being Transformed: a sermon on Luke 12:49-56

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We are Being Transformed

By the Rev. Anna Doherty

About ten years ago, sociologist Christian Smith set out to study how American teenagers understood their religious lives.

The resulting study, co-authored by Smith and Melissa Denton, is called Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.

It is a very interesting book, and despite being almost a decade old now, it has some very revealing things to say about how we, as Americans, adults and teenagers alike…

…understand our religious lives.

After interviewing hundreds of teenagers, from all over the country and of differing socioeconomic statuses and race,

Smith and Denten compiled what they believe to be a de facto set of religious beliefs for young people in this country.

They call this de facto creed, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the five tenets of which are as follows:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal in life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Now, as a pastor, and as a Christian, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism makes my blood run cold.

And I know that a version of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not just what many American teenagers believe, but what a lot of Americans in general believe.

Which reflects, I think a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a person of faith.

At the risk of sounding harsh, let me just say that, as a person of faith, it is not enough to simply believe in God and that people go to heaven when they die.

And according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, the central goal in life is actually not to be happy and to feel good about ourselves.

God doesn’t exclusively want us just to be nice, good and fair.

Jesus didn’t die on the cross so that we could feel good about ourselves.

He died so that we could be redeemed and live in the world as redeemed people.

God doesn’t want nice, sweet, followers.

God calls us to be peacemakers, to seek justice for the poor and oppressed, to love others as ourselves…

All of which invites us in to a life of faith that is so much more complicated, and so much deeper and richer—than simply being nice and kind and happy.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism isn’t what the life of faith is meant to be about.

Which is, at its core, essentially what Jesus says in today’s gospel.

Jesus’ harsh words, about bringing fire and division to the earth, speak dramatically about what the life of faith really entails.

As with anything that truly transforms, that truly brings change…

The Good News of the Gospel isn’t always exclusively good news.

The Gospel invites us, sometimes forces us to change, to act differently, to live differently in the world in ways that will sometimes…

make other people, and ourselves, very far from happy and comfortable.

Luke’s Gospel was written for a community of Christians who were experiencing persecution for their beliefs.

It is difficult for us to imagine, in our country where Christian values are predominately accepted and even sometimes encouraged…

but being a Christian in the earliest Christian era was actually quite difficult.

It would be the modern day equivalent of joining some kind of obscure cult that people didn’t understand.

So when Jesus talks about parents and children being divided against one another, that actually happened to some families in the Lukan community.

Which is why Luke’s Jesus talks about such family divisions as a part of his coming.

Becoming a Christian did mean that you would be ostracized and rejected by your family and friends.

It meant that you were going to live in a dramatically different way…your entire lifestyle, your community, your clothes, what you ate and who you socialized with…

…all of it changed as a result of becoming a Christian.

Paul’s letter to the Hebrew’s today vividly and dramatically recounts some of the persecutions and hardships of God’s prophets as a result of what they believed.

It helps to emphasize the fact that, at its beginnings, living the Christian life was a a truly radical transformation,

and one that did cause division, and didn’t make everyone happy or comfortable.

And while we live in a country where, as Christians, we are not going to be overtly persecuted for our faith, the Christian commitment to transformation and living differently…

…is just as important for us in our own time and place.

In fact, it may become even more important, as we can be lulled into thinking that Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is all it takes to be a person of faith.

Someone once asked me to explain how the church was any different from any other organization that does good things…

like Rotary or the Lions Club.

If we believe in Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, then being a member of Rotary is just the same as being a member of the church.

But of course, we know that belonging to a faith community is meant to transform and shape us above and beyond simply being happy and doing good things for other people.

We are called also to live in a state of expectation and change.

We believe that we are, at our core, different people because of what we believe in Jesus Christ.

We believed that we are beloved children of God, our sins have been forgiven and redeemed, and because of this, we are called to show love and redemption in the world.

We believe that God’s kingdom is breaking in on the world and we will do everything in our power to give thanks to God and to make God’s Kingdom a fuller reality in the world.

If we pay attention to God’s kingdom breaking in on us then we not only become aware of the ways in which we are being transformed, but how we are also called to transform the world…

Which is why Jesus calls his followers to such urgent awareness of what God is doing in their midst, saying

“You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

I can’t help but be reminded, as Jesus talks about interpreting the present time, about the nature of our current political climate.

This is one of the most painfully divisive election cycles I have ever experienced.

And I know that whenever we talk about making fundamental changes in any system—regardless of which political party you belong to—conflict and division will inevitably arise.

I think our current political climate speaks volumes about the fact that we live in a time now that is unlike any other.

We are undergoing massive changes in our society, world, our values and political systems.

Conflict and division is a part of that, but it is important to pay attention to the end result.

Will we be truly transformed for the better as a result, or are we simply fighting to remain in old places and comfortable, all be it broken, ways of operating?

Which is why having an authentic and robust life of faith becomes especially important.

Because we have a stronger sense of the kind of transformation that we are truly being called to.

And because we know that living the life of faith is not meant to be easy.

And yet, at our core, we have a place of trust and an orientation in the midst of chaos.

The life of faith is hard, not just for us, but also for those who are also stuck or benefit from or wedded to the status quo.

But we have faith and trust in God’s promises to us…

not only that we are being made new, but the the whole world is being made new also.

Change is hard.

But we are being transformed.

In the way we live, in the way we act, and in the core of what we believe.

We are not Moralist Therapeutic Deists.

We are Christians, and people of deep, abiding faith.

We know that God is in the world and in us.

And that we are being changed and bringing change…

for the better.