Lukewarm Faith is No Faith At All
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
There is a scene in the play Steel Magnolias by Robert Harling about six Southern women (oh yes, many times), when the lead actress M’Lynn Eatenton (played by Sally Field in the movie) is surrounded by her four closest friends at the cemetery after her daughter’s funeral. M’Lynn is so distraught, she can’t contain herself. Her friends are trying to console her saying the usual things friends say who don’t know what to say in their grief, who really should have just kept their mouths shut. “Don’t be sad. Everything will be all right. Shelby is with her king.” Fighting back tears, clenching her fists, and struggling to keep her composure, M’Lynn lashes out. “I just want to hit somebody ‘til they feel as bad as I do! I just wanna hit something! I wanna hit it hard!”
Clairee (played by Olympia Dukakis) grabs Ouiser by the shoulders (played by Shirley McLaine) and sets her squarely in M’Lynn’s path. “Hit this! Go ahead M’Lynn, slap her!” After some more back and forth that I cannot quote to you word for word, the tension is broken, and they burst into fits of laughter. M’Lynn breathes a sigh of relief. Meanwhile Clairee has gone after Ouiser who has walked off in a huff. “Don’t leave. I was just kidding.” “You are evil,” she tells her, “and you must be destroyed.” Eventually in a later scene they reconcile. “Ouiser, you know I love you more than my luggage.”
Have you ever been so worked up, so mad and frustrated and outraged that you just had to go fill out a ballot and vote in an election? Political rallies tend to feed on and fuel such anger and frustration and outrage. But the intended outcome of course, is that as many voters lend their voice and cast a vote to address the issues. It is the civilized, reasonable, mature, and democratic response, but it’s also the farthest from our minds when we are seething with rage, breathing fire out our noses, and blowing smoke out our ears … which is probably a good reason to avoid making important life decisions in the heat of anger and frustration, or any other intense emotion for that matter.
So when Jeremiah wore out his welcome by his repeated and insistent warnings to the king, his court officials, and the nation of impending disaster and defeat in war for their infidelity to their covenant with God, his opponents couldn’t take it anymore. With the king’s approval, they lowered the prophet into a cistern, a secret underground water receptacle, in an effort to shut him up. And Jeremiah’s feet sank into the mud.
Instead of giving Jeremiah an objective hearing (it was probably well past that stage), his opponents turned a deaf ear. They knew all they wanted to know, and they didn’t want what Jeremiah was offering, because he was relentless against their idolatry and their unjust treatment of their neighbor. Rather, he insisted they repent of their evil deeds, and be reconciled with God. We often hesitate to welcome change to our way of life, even if it promises better things, better relationships, better possibilities than we now have, because change will frequently require that we let go of our present comforts and certainties. If we would be less resistant, more eager to welcome change, we would rather someone else deal with the discomfort and uncertainty. We like what we have just fine. Prophets are not welcome either. So leave us alone, or someone could get hurt.
We hear a similar frustration in Jesus’ voice. The passage is from Chapter 12 of Luke’s gospel, which is really a collection of many different teachings, so the context is difficult to determine. Prior to the passage we read, Jesus was speaking about being vigilant because the Son of Man will come when we least expect him. Peter asks Jesus without much enthusiasm (probably while texting on his phone), “Is this teaching meant for us or for everyone?” Jesus ignores Peter, but tells everyone else, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” He was telling them in a way, they should be concerned.
From here he launches into what we read. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” It appears Jesus was feeling strongly about his message calling his listeners to examine their lives and commit to reform. And he can tell his words had little effect, as he watched his listeners’ eyes glaze over, as they started counting spiders on the wall. So he tries something different. “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three.”
Did it work? If only Peter and the other disciples were paying attention when Jesus spoke about being alert and vigilant, admittedly not a very compelling subject; if only they recognized their unique privilege and access to his friendship, and that they, along with all his followers through the ages, have been entrusted with so much, they would also sense the urgency Jesus felt. The world was in need of much renewal and transformation. If we saw what Jesus saw, we too would be fired up. But to accomplish his work, his disciples then, and we his followers now, have to be completely on board, and committed to bringing about that renewal and transformation. What they didn’t suspect was that they had to experience renewal and transformation personally first. Jesus knew we would never be convincing and effective messengers of the Kingdom if we did not also know and experience personally our own renewal and transformation.
So by announcing that he would cause division, Jesus was showing us how his message of renewal and transformation would divide even his own followers, those who were as passionate and committed as he was, and those who would be at various levels of conviction and apathy. This can cause conflict even in a Christian household, between the lukewarm who claim their discipleship in name only, and the committed follower who understands what that commitment demands. The lukewarm disciple will resist any push toward a more authentic discipleship. It will mean renouncing all selfishness, pride, resentment, and worldly attachments as a way of life. The lukewarm disciple will hear none of it. Leave me alone. I like my Christian discipleship fine the way it is. I like that I can call myself a Christian and get to keep my selfishness, my pride, my resentments, and my worldly attachments. I don’t need any renewal and transformation. And while we’re at it, leave everything else alone, too—our traditions, our devotions, our affectations, our external practices that make us look good but don’t demand anything substantial.
The passage from the letter to the Hebrews lays out some implications for Jesus’ call to renewal and transformation. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, the saints, who show us what authentic discipleship means. And Jesus is our leader and example. He endured the cross. We cannot expect to do better than him.
As Ouiser said, the evil within us must be destroyed. Our commitment to Jesus and his cause must far surpass any other, our relationships, our possessions, even our luggage.
Rolo B Castillo © 2016