The Holy Gospel According to St. Luke, the 12th Chapter
Jesus said, "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! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
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?
A new pastor went out to visit a man by the name of Elmer Snodgrass IV. That’s right there had been three other people named Elmer Snodgrass before him. Elmer was, well, a little different and his house looked almost normal. I say “almost” normal because there was a couch and some chairs, pictures on the walls of the Snodgrass family but there was also a toaster. Yes, a toaster... silver with two slots for bread. Now that might not seem enough to make his house “almost” normal but this toaster was on an end table in the living room and there were two light bulbs screwed into each of the slots where the bread was supposed to go.
The two sat down and Elmer reached right over to the toaster and pushed down the lever that you push to toast bread (except of course there was no bread; just a couple of light bulbs). When he did that... nothing happened. Nothing except that Elmer gave the toaster a frustrated, disgruntled look. Now pastors with a couple of years of experience generally don’t ask questions about things like light bulbs screwed into toasters because, well, experienced pastors know that some things are better left as mysteries. But this pastor was young and curious and as their visit went on his attention strayed to the shiny, silver toaster with a couple of sixty watt-ers screwed into the bread slots. Eventually the pastor just couldn’t stand it anymore and he blurted out the question that he just couldn’t keep inside any longer, “Elmer, why are there light bulbs screwed into that toaster on that table.”
“Well,” said Elmer with a nostalgic air, “Back in my great grandpa's day when electricity came to town no one really had any idea what to do with it. It was strange and different and didn’t come with any instructions. They just got electricity and then a bunch of electrical stuff like light bulbs and toasters came in on the train. Lots of people in town tried different things to use this new fangled electricity but my great grandfather knew the truth. He knew that you were supposed to screw the light bulbs into these slots and you would get light. Nobody believed my great grandpa but he kept going until he died trying.”
“So he tried all his life?” asked the young pastor. “Yup, all his life. Of course, he only lived a couple of days after electricity came to town. You see he wanted to read while he was taking a bath and set the toaster with the light bulbs on the side of the tub for light. And well... You know my great grandpa is a town hero because of that. No one else has ever taken bath with a toaster after that…saved countless lives.”
“After that his son, my grandpa took up the cause and kept trying to get light by screwing light bulbs into toasters. He passed on the mission to my father who then passed it on to me. Lots of people say it won’t work, but it’s our tradition! Every Snodgrass has sworn to keep trying until we get a toaster to light up a light bulb.”
“So, you’ve tried to get light by screwing a light bulb into a toaster for four generations?” asked the pastor. “Yup, and nobody’s gonna tell me that light bulbs don’t go into toasters. You aren’t, are you?” asked Elmer. “No” said the pastor. Elmer quickly added, “But I won’t take a bath with a toaster…I’m not stupid.” “Right,” said the pastor… “good idea.”
The moral of this story is the same as the moral of the story from the Gospel today and that is, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” It’s not that the Snodgrass family needed to try harder to get light by screwing light bulbs into toasters, (after all he and his family had been trying for four generations!). What they needed to do was to try something entirely different, like, say a light socket! But for Elmer, screwing the light bulb into the toaster was more than just his personal quirk. It was tradition! It made him feel comfortable, stable and connected with his family through the generations and no one was going to tell him that things just didn’t work that way. He would never go against his family that way.
That’s what Jesus meant by telling us that he brought division and not peace. You see, Jesus brought with him a new idea, that God was really a God of grace and love and justice. That God was more interested in how we took care of the people who were the least and the lost and the last in our society than anything else. Jesus challenged the political and religious powers of his day and insisted that God was not a God of vindictiveness and revenge that needed to be pacified with sacrifice but that God was calling us to change the world. He challenged them to change the world from a human made empire where a very few people had lots and lots of everything but many, many people didn’t even have enough to survive and change it into the Kingdom of God... a place of peace and equality where no one had too much but everyone had at least enough. (Truth be told it really wasn’t a new idea even when Jesus pitched it back then. The prophets had pitched it time and time again though the ages as well but unfortunately it never seems to catch on for very long.)
Of course to the people with all the power and wealth in Jesus’ day his idea was a threat. It was VERY different than the way things had been done for generations, and as we all know, for comfortable folks, different is bad.
Jesus knew that if someone from a family started following him and his teachings about God, then there would be trouble in that family. He knew that, but Jesus also knew that “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” Jesus knew even before Einstein quoted it, that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and over again and each time expecting a different result.
Even though a couple of thousand years have gone by since Jesus told this story, it’s still true today... Jesus came to change the world into a place of radical equality where everyone had enough and where there was peace because of that kind of justice. His warning about it is also still just as true today, that changing the world... even just a corner of it in your family or community or in your congregation is not an easy thing. We all know that when someone suggests that something should change, even the suggestion can cause that “fire on the earth” that Jesus talked about.
Our challenge from Jesus today is to take a step back from the comfortable spots in which we live and see things through God’s vision of peace, equality and justice. Some of the things we’ve always done do promote God’s Kingdom and need to be kept and built up even more. But if we’re honest about the world we live in and the decline of the Church over the years; some of what we hold onto and some of the things we do work more like a toaster with a light bulb on the side of the tub.
Jesus knew that changing the world into the Kingdom of God would bring about division and it would burn like fire. But Jesus also knew that to be faithful to God, some things would have to change. What needs to change? What can and should stay the same? My prayer is not just for us here at Nativity, but for the whole Church and really the whole world; that we would have the courage to brave the fire and change what needs to be changed, but also honor the things that need to remain the same and, as the Serenity prayer says, be given the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.