Jesus Isn't Elmo

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19Luke 12:49-56

You thought last week’s text was tough…It doesn’t look like we get a break this week. Fire? Division? Should we skip the sermon and go straight to the prayer? Let’s see if we can ease into this one a bit…

How is it that you see your life?

I tend to see my life as a series of Venn Diagrams. Does anyone else remember learning about Venn diagrams? Maybe it’s my inner math geek, but there is something about this simple geometric configuration of relationships and groupings that speaks to me as I look at my own life. To oversimplify things for a moment, I’ll boil it down to three circles: there’s my church circle, there’s my social circle, and there’s my family circle. Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than that – my church circle is a series of overlapping circles as well: Oglethorpe folks, former colleagues at the national Presbyterian offices in Louisville, other pastors and friends in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, sisters and brothers in Christ in the worldwide church – you get the picture. But for the sake of illustration, we will stick with these three: church, social, family.

For the most part, these circles tend to be isolated from one another. And yet, for this Venn Diagram to illustrate the point, there are places where the circles must overlap. My family comes to church. My social interactions are with church members and friends. People from each of the circles sometimes even find themselves in the same place and the same time. One way that I see my life is as a series of overlapping circles.

Since moving back to Atlanta, this “social” circle has been largely populated by a group of folks that now gets together once a week to play on a co-ed adult soccer team. I got connected to them through an old high school friend, whom I’ll call Kirk, who works at a local advertising agency. They needed a left footer, I guess, so I got the call to show up on Tuesday nights and get some playing time.

In each of these circles, there is some aspect of my personality and my identity that is at the center. Among family, it is my role within a relationship – as a son, a husband, a cousin, a father, a grandson, an in-law – that names and claims me. In this soccer circle, it is my ability – or inability – to run fast and kick hard and jump high and move quickly that takes center stage. And for that church circle, it is my identity as a Christian and as a pastor which is most important, and it shapes – or should shape – everything that I do within this realm.

It is on the edges, at the places of overlap, that these circles get interesting. And those places where the circle that includes our faith overlaps with our other circles are potentially the most interesting of all. Is our faith truly the center of our life? If so, does it shape how we interact with those with whom we work? Those with whom we play? Those with whom we share a last name or a zip code?

Now, before I go any further, I feel the need to stop here and confess something: I did not write this sermon alone. I should clarify that this is not as shocking a revelation as it might initially sound. I never write my sermons alone. There are the scholars and commentaries on the Bible text itself which I might consult, the theological bubblings of conferences and books and colleagues in ministry, the many conversations with you in the course of our ministry in this community – all of them, in some way, participate in the sermon-writing process. And of course, there is always the hope that what is said from this pulpit will somehow be open to the workings of the Holy Spirit and will somehow present some kind of eternal and powerful truth through – and often in spite of – the words the preacher chooses. I never write my sermons alone. But, at least in this regard, this one is very different.

It was a few months ago when we were hanging out after a soccer game that my friend Kirk, the one from high school, stopped me and said, “You should let me write a sermon for you.” I laughed. At first I thought it was just payback for the many horrible advertising ideas I’ve given him over the years. Like this one I have for Office Max: Does anybody really know the difference between Office Max and Office Depot? They’re both big stores that sell lots of office supplies, right? So to build brand identity (notice how I throw the lingo around?), Office Max should hire a spokesman. Make him a dude with crazy blue hair or something wearing his big employee nametag: “Max.” That way Office Max begins to stand out. It’s nothing short of genius, right? I’ve got dozens more where that came from.

But the more I thought about Kirk’s offer, the more I realized that it was a tremendous moment where these two circles intersect. Kirk, like most in this middle circle of mine, is what I would call de-churched. He grew up a Christian. He knows about God and about Jesus and about Scripture. It’s not that he’s given up on any of the three; they are all still at work in his life somehow. It’s the church that is problematic.

Over the past year I’ve shared with you many stories of my own growing awareness of the need of the Church to engage the un-churched and the de-churched. And I am slowly learning to listen to what these beloved children of God say about the church, about Christians, about us, about me, without my natural defensiveness or my desire to take it personally.

Listen to how Kirk puts it: “my relationship with Church is like my relationship with an old childhood friend of mine who has gotten into trouble over the years and owes me thousands of dollars, won’t address his problems, and won’t accept help. I love him,” he says, “And we’ll always have some kind of relationship; but until he gets straightened out, there’s only so much we can do for one another.”

Do these words ring with some truth? Do they sting a bit? Do they do a little bit of both?

The more Kirk and I talked about his offer, the more intrigued I became. It struck me as a fitting story for the life of faith as lived where these circles overlap. I gave him the text, which was our lesson from Luke’s gospel, and the general theme, which I boiled down to: “Following Jesus isn’t easy.” He could write the sermon, but I could edit it, rework it, or refuse it. He might not even follow through on it. And if it ended up being the theological equivalent of my Office Max guy, we’d simply be even and leave it at that. But who knows – I might just learn something in the process.

On Tuesday, Kirk’s email arrived in my inbox. It’s not the sermon I would have preached, but that’s partially the point. It’s also shorter than the sermon I would have preached, and that might be the point, too. But there’s good theological instinct at work, and there is truth, drawn from Scripture, and yet coming from beyond the bounds of the church. Will you listen with me?

When I was a kid I used to get the words to “Jesus loves me” mixed up. I would sing, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And if he hollers, let him go. Eanie, meanie, minie, moe.” I liked the tune but I didn’t know the lyrics. And it felt right when I was singing it. It was a child’s innocent mistake. But when adults are still molding Jesus’ message to fit their own notions, it’s not as funny.

We have a tendency to fashion Jesus into a comfortable, fuzzy figure. We do it all the time. He’s there when we need him providing comfort. He’s there to tell us that everything is going to be all right. But that’s not Jesus. That’s a Muppet.

Jesus isn’t Elmo.

You know Elmo? The red muppet? Can you imagine Elmo saying, [And here he’s got some stage directions for me to do an Elmo voice:] “I came to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were already kindled! Hahaha! That tickles!” I haven’t watched Sesame Street in a while but it seems a little out of character. But then again, a lot of us can’t fathom Jesus saying it either. It just doesn’t fit our image of the warm and fuzzy savior.

And Jesus goes on to say: “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” He has come to overturn everything that has gone before. So, if we haven’t figured it out yet, Jesus is a bit of a revolutionary.

“They will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Now, I’ve always thought it is kind of anti-climactic ending with “daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” In-laws not getting along? Oh no! The world is upside down! But the point remains. Everything is changing. People will be divided. Families will be divided. And they will be divided over Jesus’ message. These are not the words of a nice, warm and fuzzy guy. We can try to turn Jesus into that comforting, comfortable figure. But it’s not being honest.

Life is tough. It is unfair. And it is unrelenting. It would be nice if we could make it all better just by invoking Jesus’ name. I’ve heard people say, “If you have a burden that’s weighing you down, give it up to Jesus. Alcoholism? Give it up to Jesus. Spousal abuse? Give it up to Jesus. Nothing on TV? Overcooked pot roast? Any burden at all? Just give it up to Jesus.”

Jesus isn’t Elmo. But Jesus isn’t a skycap, either.

Jesus takes away the sins of the world, not its trials. We are tested and we are challenged every day. And Jesus died and rose not so that we won’t have to face burdens ourselves, but so that we would know that there is a path. He is challenging us. We do have to walk that path. And it’s not always going to be easy. But we don’t have to walk it alone.

And he finishes with this:

We can’t just pick the Jesus you want – eanie, meanie, minie, moe – Muppet Jesus…Sky Cap Jesus…There’s just one Jesus, and he’s not messing around.

Friends, the gospel texts these past two Sundays have been tough ones. There’s no getting around that. They offer us far more challenge than comfort. And that’s one reason that more and more churches are embracing the lectionary and its three-year cycle of Scripture lessons, because we can’t tiptoe around the passages we’d rather ignore and thus fashion God in our own image.

So what is it that the Spirit wants us to hear in these tough lessons? Could it be that we are all being called to the edge of our circles, to the places of overlap? Can we sit there a while and listen? Will we hear and know the ring of truth? Will we know and feel some sting? Will we feel and trust that it could be both? I invite us to do just that. And when we do, we might be surprised to find those different circles less and less distinct, overlapping more and more, as we find our faith in Christ at the center, shaping it all.

May it be so.

sermonsMarthame Sanders