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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Life's metaphors are God's instructions

“ . . . .why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

Luke 12:49-56
XII Pentecost
August 19, 2007
Proper 15
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor

Listening to this gospel, if I didn’t know better, I’d say that Jesus has just returned from a summer family reunion, and it didn’t go so well.

“From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three they will be divided.” Then, not to belabor the point, “father against son and son against father . . .” and so on, yeah, verily even unto the in-laws, they will be divided.

Must have been quite a family feud, I imagine.

I jest. Of course, I jest. I usually do when I’m uncomfortable – especially when I’m trying to explain the hard sayings of Jesus. This is the 'fire and brimstone' Jesus. The 'no frills' Jesus.

Or, as the kids might say, 'Jesus Unplugged.'

I’d love to tell you that these really aren’t the words of Jesus. That there is yet another way to translate these words. That, there is an historical context which would soften the meaning of these words – make them nicer, easier to digest. The truth of it is that these are difficult words from the lips of Jesus, words that fall hard on the ears of those of us who would like to languish a bit longer, if you please, in these lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer (Well, okay, I would.).

Actually, this passage from Luke’s gospel comes, as it does, in the midst of the end of chapter 11 through chapter 13, filled with enough dire warnings and predictions about the coming of the end of the world to earn this section the unofficial NY Times headline: “Jesus Is Peeved” with the subtitle being, “Gets really crabby when crowds press upon him and Pharisees question him.”

I have a renewed appreciation for that situation, this being my first Sunday back after my vacation. I can attest to the fact that it is good to get away from the madding crowd to the peace and quiet of time away. Even those who, like Jesus, are called to the work God gives them to do, and have clarity and focus about it and, indeed, love the work they do, can become overwhelmed and . . .well. . .crabby. You can ask anyone about my disposition before I left for vacation. If they described me as “crabby,” they were being kind. Very kind, indeed.

Actually, I’ve stated the point of this gospel passage a bit backward. I got to the last part first, which is that doing the hard work of vocation can make you crabby. In fact, it DOES make you crabby. But, the point is that vocational work, no matter what it is, is hard work.

Vocational work – be it in the venerable fields of medicine, law, political or social science, finance or religion; or in technical or skilled labor (whether the collar you wear is blue or white), or in the noble work of family life (being a parent or child or a sibling) – the work you are called to do, the work you love to do, if it’s worth doing at all, requires sacrifice. And, that sacrifice is usually worth it – except, when it can sometimes begin to feel as if others do not value the work you do, much less the sacrifices you have made – indeed, continue to make – in order to do the work you are called to do.

Jesus is reminding us that the work of discipleship is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, the work of discerning vocation is some of the hardest work I know in life. In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Quaker teacher and author Parker Palmer talks about the spiritual path taken by his soul when, in a vocational crisis in his mid-thirties, he ran across those words, from an old Quaker saying, which were to become the title of his book. He writes,

“Let your life speak. I found those words encouraging, and I though I understood what they meant: ‘Let the highest truths and values guide you. Live up to those demanding standards in everything you do.’ Because I had heroes at the time who seemed to be doing exactly that, this exhortation had incarnate meaning for me – it meant living a life like that of Martin Luther King Jr. or Rosa Parks or Mahatma Gandhi or Dorothy Day, a life of high purpose.”

Palmer’s words resonated deeply with my own experience. I, like Palmer and many, many others, I suspect, who lived through the 60’s and 70’s, awoke one day to discover that I was living a life that was, indeed, noble, but it was not my own.

There were times when the results of living these high standards were, as Palmer describes, “rarely admirable, often laughable, and sometimes grotesque.” The problem, of course, was that I was spending my life trying to imitate my heroes instead of listening to my heart.

Palmer says this: “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”

At first blush, that may sound so logical – such a no-brainer – as to be easy. I can assure you that it is decidedly not. When you fashion your life around the values of others, and then, one day, begin to listen to your own life and follow that call, your own vocation, your own values from within, well . . .. . If you listen closely, you can hear the words of Jesus with greater clarity:

"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

You may find that your family members will be aghast at the new direction your life begins to take. Before you know it, your life will begin to look just as Jesus has described: “Father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother . . . five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.”

The good news – and, there is good news in the midst of all of these hard, difficult words – is that, in the work of the gospel, things always seem to have to be put upside down before they can be put right.

Some things need to come apart before they get put back together. We eat Eucharistic bread that is broken in order to be made whole. We sip Eucharistic wine that has been poured out before we can be filled.

We see this in the life of Jesus in his time in the Wilderness. We see it in the lives of his disciples, who left home and family, jobs and the relative security of their lives, to follow Jesus. We see it in the lives of saints – ancient and modern, secular and religious – who entered into the chaos often brought by living with authenticity and integrity into their true identity, their true vocation.

We see it in our own lives when we go about our daily routine and one day at the breakfast table we look up and the kids are all grown and gone and we think, "Who is that person sitting across from me?" Or, "Who am I, and what am I doing sitting here? My life was so full and now it seems so empty. What am I supposed to do now?"

The vocational process of authenticity and integrity is life-long and on-going. It’s a process of being broken open and poured out – and that can make us feel depleted. But, the journey with Christ is always toward wholeness. And the journey toward wholeness places us on the pathway toward holiness of life. In the mystery that is our God, we must often be broken open before we can be made whole.

As Jesus points out, it’s a matter of discernment – of paying attention to the signs in your life.

He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?"

Well, that’s Jesus being crabby again. I’ll share with you another little gem from another wonderful book which was also part of my summer reading. It puts this in a more positive frame. It’s from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love in which she learns this:

"Life’s metaphors are God’s instructions.”

What is your life saying to you? What are the metaphors of your life? What is God trying to teach you through them? Have you taken the time to listen for your vocation? If not, or if it has been a while since you’ve listened to you life, I urge you, with what’s left of these last, few, lingering days of summer, to spend some time beginning that process.

But, fair warning – the journey toward wholeness can make you feel empty, at times. And that can make you fairly crabby - until you begin to read the signs, the metaphors of your life, as God’s instructions.

It can happen to the best of us, from time to time.

Don’t believe me?

Ask Jesus. Just mind the fire and brimstone.



Muthah+ said...

Oh, yeah! You got it! These were not the nicest readings to come back from vacation to. But they are the ones that speak so clearly to us of God's uncompromising love for us--and the call to us for the same uncompromising love for God.

It was my last Sunday as an Episcopalian for awhile and I took advantage of Jesus words to speak to the people I loved too.

The division among us always produces a chrisis where God can always introduce us to the toughness of God's love.

KJ said...

Amen, Elizabeth. This is the stuff of life and life.

Rachel Stampul said...

Huh. Thank you. Very timely.
Cranky And Waiting for Wholeness