Dorothy L. Sayers, the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, was also a brilliant lay theologian. She wrote The Mind of the Maker, a book that not only offers a unique perspective on the Trinity but an insightful look at the creative process as well. She also wrote a translation of The Divine Comedy, whose notes alone put her among the premiere scholars of Dante. In addition, she wrote popular essays on various aspects of Christianity, such as the seven deadly sins and the importance of dogma. After C.S. Lewis, she is perhaps the Christian writer who has influenced me the most. While Lewis' approach to explaining the faith was a subtle mix of clear logic and an avuncular manner, Sayers was much more bracing. One gets the impression that she didn't suffer fools gladly. One passage that I want to quote at length is her reaction on the popular picture of “Jesus, meek and mild.” Sayers wrote, “The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused Him of being a bore—on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround Him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him “meek and mild,” and recommended Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew Him, however, He in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to Him as a dangerous firebrand. True, He was tender to the unfortunate, patient with honest inquirers, and humble before heaven, but He insulted respectable clergymen by calling them hypocrites; He referred to King Herod as 'that fox'; He went to parties in disreputable company and was looked upon as a 'glutonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners'; He drove a coach-and-horses through a number of sacrosanct and hoary regulations; He cured diseases by any means that came handy, with a shocking casualness in the matter of other people's pigs and property; He showed no proper deference for wealth or social position; when confronted with neat dialectical traps, He displayed a paradoxical humour that affronted serious-minded people, and He retorted by asking disagreeably searching questions that could not be answered by rule of thumb. He was emphatically not a dull man in His human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But He had 'a daily beauty in His life that made us ugly,' and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without Him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness.”
Today's gospel (Luke 29:49-56) was undoubtedly one of the passages that shaped Sayers' analysis. Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” And in case you didn't get the point, Jesus says a few verses later, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” And then he goes into detail about how even families will be split in their opinion of him. It is a very distressing thing to hear from the mouth of our Lord.
It has been said that a preacher ought to do two things: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. In this passage Jesus is trying to wake up those who think things are fine as they are or who wish to go back to the way things were. In the previous chapter of Luke Jesus had it out with the Pharisees. They accused him of casting out demons by accessing the power of the prince of demons; that is, healing people using the power of Satan. Jesus points out that this makes no sense for it posits that Satan's kingdom is in revolt against itself. It makes more sense that a stronger power is routing the powers that oppress people and make them suffer. He accuses the Pharisees of hypocrisy, of being more interested in preserving the minutia of the law while neglecting “justice and the love for God!” They bury people under the burden of religious rules and do nothing to help them.
It's still true today. Rules are supposed to make things better for people. They are supposed to protect us from bad or reckless behavior and they are supposed to guide considerate behavior. Regulations are supposed to help people. But people have always figured out how to game the system. Some folks work out ways to violate the spirit of the law while still observing the letter of the law. They know every loophole there is. Or if they are powerful enough, they get the rules rewritten so that they don't impede them in doing what they want. Our tax code is not complex merely because it is trying to cover all economic situations. A lot of it is exceptions and special rules for certain industries and people with certain levels of wealth or sources of income. That's the only way that it is possible for companies to make millions or even billions of dollars and yet pay little or no tax.
You know why Nixon said, “I am not a crook?” Because a reporter from a small town newspaper had found out that Nixon had made more than $400,000 one year but only paid $800 in taxes. It turns out that he had gotten a big tax break for donating his presidential papers to an institution. The problem was that exemption had gone away before he did that and he backdated the transaction so he could claim it. People were clamoring for him to release his tax returns and he resisted. Finally, he did release them to show the people that he was "not a crook." And presidential candidates have done so since, to show the American people that they are honest. It also usually shows that they have good tax lawyers who can minimize how much they pay in taxes.
It's not that regulations are bad in and of themselves. It's that some regulations are good and some are bad. Before the Food and Drug Acts of the early 20th century, you had no guarantee that the food you ate wasn't adulterated or tainted or mislabeled or poisonous. Today medicines have to be shown to be both safe and effective. When they aren't, someone has usually not followed the regulations. On the other hand, in 15 states, a rapist has parental rights over the child he has fathered! He can demand visitation, although he may cleverly bargain that away in return for being freed from having to pay child support. The mother may not be able to give the child up for adoption without getting permission from her rapist. Only 35 states allow those rights to be terminated but first the man has to be convicted. Unfortunately, less than one fifth of rapes are reported and only 5% of those reported end up in convictions. These laws essentially let the rapist continue to stay in the life of his victim and continue to torment her.
Rule making is not easy, because you have to balance the rights of everyone involved. But often the rules don't even take that into consideration. Jesus objected to rules, even those in the Bible, when they were used to harm people or to allow us to neglect them. And he knew that pointing out such injustices was not going to be greeted with applause by those in power.
Jesus didn't relish the fact that his insistence of justice and mercy would divide people; he just knew it would. He knew it would happen despite the fact that he was going to die to bring peace between God and humanity and between different peoples. Which is why he is under such stress in this passage. He wants it over; he wants it completed. He wants to see the good news reach everyone and people to love God and each other and his kingdom to come on earth. I think Jesus is expressing the frustration of anyone who knows he is going to encounter opposition simply for doing the right thing.
It is odd how preaching peace can make people angry. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. tried to change their societies through non-violent protests. The result was that the authorities responded with violence. Just as they did to Jesus. (Okay, Jesus did do one violent thing. He chased the moneychangers out of the temple for ripping people off, essentially profiting off poor people in the name of religion. But nobody arrested him then because they knew he was right. They just wanted to know why he was upsetting business as usual.)
People don't want to hear the truth, especially if it isn't simple and easy. Jesus knew the truth is often a paradox. For instance, we all want justice and we all want peace. But if you administer absolute justice it will disturb the peace. Because nobody is sinless and often society is built on a lot of inequities. In this country we have moved the original inhabitants off their lands and onto reservations; we imported people from Africa and enslaved them; as recently as World War 2, we rounded up and interred Americans who happened to be of the same ethnic makeup as one of our adversaries, the Japanese, but did not do the same to German Americans or Italian Americans. A recent study said it would take another 200 years for the average black family to acquire the same wealth as the average white family. For that matter, when my Mom bought her house and car, she had my dad pretend that they were still divorced so that she could own them in her own name and not her husband's. Women still don't make on average what men do for the same jobs. That's a lot of injustice and though you may not have personally done these things, the results of those actions persist. If strict justice were done, then it would upset a lot more than people's peace of mind.
But if you opt for total peace, that means not making everybody pay for the injustices that they have done or from which they have benefited. In other words, it means forgiving a lot of people for a lot of bad behavior. We like forgiveness in theory; we don't like it when it means we have to forgive specific people for specific wrongs they have done to us. I once talked to an inmate who was troubled by this because his sister was murdered by a serial killer. The killer was in prison. This man couldn't forgive him. I understood. I don't imagine I would be nobler in his position. I told him to try to do what Jesus did. At Golgotha he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” He said this while they were crucifying him! I said to the brother, “Notice that Jesus didn't say 'I forgive you.' He said, 'Father, forgive them...' Why not try asking God to forgive your sister's murderer and help you to eventually get to the point where you can, too? Because otherwise, this man is still hurting you. He is still dominating your memory of your sister. You don't want to be his last victim.” Still I don't know if I could take my own advice. But peace is antithetical to absolute justice.
The truth can be tough. It doesn't always lend itself to the simplicity of a bumper sticker or a Tweet. That's why Jesus often asked tough questions and said things that are tough to accept. He wasn't a politician, telling people what they want to hear. He was more like a physician, making diagnoses difficult to listen to and prescribing treatment and therapy that would be hard on those who followed it.
My dad was the maitre 'd of a fancy restaurant at the top of an office building. One Saturday night, as he was closing things down, he tripped over a coffee table in the lobby and broke his leg. He was the last person in the building and so he lay there, in pain, all night. He was discovered Sunday morning by the cleaning crew. They carried him to the phone to call my mother. It was the only time I ever heard my dad cry. But that wasn't the worst of it. When they got him to the hospital the X-rays showed that his bones were already knitting together, though they were displaced. So the doctor had to rebreak his leg so that it could be set properly. Sometimes the right thing to do is painful.
People don't want to hear that. That's why we have the saying, “Don't shoot the messenger.” Because that is our first instinct. A lawyer who represents whistleblowers says he tells his clients to count the cost. They will probably lose their job, become a pariah in their industry, have to wait a long time to see a result, may not win and if they do, those behind the injustices they exposed may never be punished. That's how much we hate hearing and facing the truth.
Jesus was blowing the whistle not just on one aspect of life but on all of it. He was not exposing the sins of one group of people but of everyone. That's why they felt they had to nail him to a cross. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “Mankind cannot bear too much reality.”
One last observation: Jesus chose the word “fire” deliberately. Last week we talked about how fire can be good or bad depending on how it's used. It cooks our food; it gives light and warmth. It can destroy. It can also refine and purify by burning up dross. Here on Big Pine they use controlled burns to get rid of underbrush which could fuel out of control wild fires. They literally fight fire with fire. Jesus wants to do the same. He wants to separate the wheat from the weeds. As do we all. We all want to eliminate the things that make life bad. We want to root out evil. But we have our prejudices and we want to protect our own interests. We are not the best judges of who or what is obstructing goodness. Jesus has no such bias. And when he was being attacking for healing and helping people, of course he wished he could just get the whole mess cleaned up already.
There is another thing fire is good at: spreading. And sure enough, the good news of God's burning love revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ spread through the Roman Empire like wildfire. Jesus was crucified in 30 AD. By the end of that century there were house churches in every major city ringing the Mediterranean Sea. Despite it being an illegal religion, more and more people responded to the message of God's grace and forgiveness and became Christians. At times, this meant persecution and even death. And it split families and communities as Jesus predicted it would.
We still live in a world where folks are offended by the idea that God wants us to love even our enemies, to forgive what we consider unforgivable, to minister to those who have made bad life decisions, and to repay evil with good. They hate it so much they can lose it and get violent and divisive about it. They will shoot the messenger. God knows that. Jesus foresaw that. But with the power of the Spirit we need to do the right thing and spread the good word, no matter who it infuriates. The world needs to wake up and face the uncomfortable truth that the way we've been doing things all this time just increases injustice, strife and misery. It's as obvious as the signs of an oncoming storm. We need to follow the orders of the great physician, Jesus. Yes, it may difficult and painful at times; Jesus knows that better than anyone. But until we put ourselves in his hands we won't heal properly. But if we let him change our hearts and minds, no matter how traumatic it seems, we will be healthy and grow to be who we were meant to be.