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.
“You only hear the things you want to hear!” It was a comment my mother made to me many times in my childhood; and even in my adulthood, come to think of it. In the times of mother/son disagreements about something I did or didn’t do, she would say “Steven, you only hear the things you want to hear!” Looking back, I suppose she was right. I mean, she would say “If you mow the lawn, you can have a bowl of ice cream.” What I heard was “You can have a bowl of ice cream” and I would start scooping. Or she would say “If you get an “A” in math, dad will buy you a new baseball glove.” and I would immediately tell my friends “Dude, I’m getting a new baseball glove!” Do your kids do this? Mom would say “Take your dirty clothes down to the laundry room” and from my room I would yell “Mom, why don’t I have any clean underwear?” After all these years, I am ready to agree with my mother; I usually hear only the things I want to hear.
But selective hearing is not just an issue between mothers and sons. In the political season that stands before us, thousands of television ads will feature the two major candidates for president. Since the category of “undecided voters” is really quite small, most of us will watch those political ads and our reaction will either be “that’s the truth” or “that’s a lie.” It all depends on which candidate we favor, and message we want to hear. That, too, is selective hearing.
But selective hearing is also an issue in the Church. Author Juan Carlos Ortiz says that most Christians in 21st century fail to read the Fifth Gospel. You thought there were only four gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but Ortiz says there is a Fifth Gospel. He says “Open up your bible and look at all the verses that you have circled, highlighted and underlined…the verses like “For God so loved the world” and “I am with you always” and “nothing can ever separate you from God.” It’s all right there in the four Gospels, Ortiz says. But the verses you do not underline, the ones you do not circle or highlight or memorize; those are the Fifth Gospel.
That’s what this sermon series is all about – the fifth Gospel, the hard sayings of Jesus. I dare say that you have probably never underlined the verse that says “I wish that you were hot or cold, but because you are luke-warm, I will spit you out of my mouth!” I’ll bet you haven’t’ memorized Luke 3:11, “If you want to be my disciple, whoever has two coats must give one to the person who has none, and the same with food.” Those are verses in the Fifth Gospel, but we would rather just hear what we want to hear. We cannot ignore the Fifth Gospel. We cannot. Not if we want to know the sort of people that Jesus has called us to be.
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The verses from Luke this morning are perhaps the most troubling among all of the hard sayings of Jesus, for they describe a Jesus we never knew. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” says Jesus. “I have come to divide mother against daughter, and father against son.” All along, we have thought Jesus united people, not that he divided them. All this time, we thought his purpose was peace. We recall the Old Testament text we read every year at Christmas, “And he shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” How can Jesus then say that he has come to bring division and conflict? This indeed is a hard, hard saying of Jesus.
I believe that the answer is to be found not so vividly in the 21st century, but in the earliest years of the Church. In that day, when Christianity was a radically new religion, people were despised for following Jesus. If a Jew converted to Christianity, his family had a funeral for him, and he was disowned. If a person claimed to be a disciple of Jesus, they were considered the enemy, and a bounty was placed upon their head. They could have merely gone along with the crowd, and a relative peace would have prevailed. But when they came to faith in Jesus, their convictions were proclaimed, and their past life was erased forever.
My friend Murray Haar grew up Jewish in Brooklyn, but he made a fatal error when he was 18 years old; he enrolled at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. It was there that Murray came to know Jesus Christ, and his life took a dramatic turn. He went on to seminary and became a Lutheran pastor. Today he teaches in the religion department at Augustana College in Sioux Falls. Murray told me that his conversion was always an issue between his father and himself; always, until the final week of the father’s life, that is. Late one night, Murray was sitting by his father’s bed, and his father said quietly, “You know Murray, sometimes at night, I lie awake thinking ‘Maybe you’re right.’” And Murray answered “You know, Dad, I lay awake at night too, thinking ‘Maybe I’m wrong.’” Such is the tension when a person’s life is radically lived for Jesus Christ.
I have told you before of the tension in my own family when I became a Christian. My parents didn’t understand my new priorities. They didn’t get it when I started getting up on Sunday mornings to go to church. But most significantly, my dad was bewildered by my decision to become a pastor. He had this dream that I would one day join him in the family construction business, and it deeply disappointed him that I would follow a different dream. It wasn’t until late in his life that I found out that he was proud of me — so proud that he forgot to tell me! Such is the tension when people follow the way of Christ.
But the tension was not just with my family; it was also with my friends. When I was with my church friends, I prayed before eating a Big Mac, and I quoted bible verses, and I talked about how strong my faith was. But when I was with my other friends, I let the F-bombs fly, and I told the dirty jokes, and I made fun of the religious people I saw. I was at peace in either world, but inside I felt like a total hypocrite. Such is the tension when Christ brings his velvet sword into someone’s life.
Which brings us to you; to you. If you are committed to following Jesus in your life, it will most likely put you at odds with people who do not share your convictions. Life would be easier if you didn’t take your faith seriously; you could then go with the flow, adjust your convictions and your lifestyle to fit the circumstance. Then there would be peace in your family, or peace in your friendships, but inside you would be a mess, because you cannot serve two masters. That’s another thing that Jesus liked to say. That if we try to live in two worlds, we will alternately hate one or despise the other.
You see, the hard sayings of Jesus are only hard because they call us to live by our convictions; to walk the walk as well as to talk the talk. We cannot just hear what we want to hear. We cannot just love those we want to love. We cannot serve only those we want to serve. We cannot put our faith in a drawer and take it out in certain circles at certain times. As Detrich Bonhoeffer said, “there is a cost to this discipleship.” So, if we want to live at peace with the world, we ought to enthusiastically and unapologetically embrace the values of the world. It’s easier that way. But if inner peace is at all important, then we ought to take the road less traveled, the road where we listen to the still, quiet voice of Jesus, and follow it.
You must know that it might cost you some friends, and it might affect your family, but a different sort of peace will be yours. I must be honest and say this; I am preaching to myself today. I don’t want all of this for you…I want it for me, and then I want it for you. May God grant us the courage to follow him, and bring the peace that comes from a Velvet Sword. Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2004, Steven Molin. Used by permission.