Proper 15(C): Embrace the Awkward!
By: Jay Butler
I’m a youth minister, which obviously means that my job mainly consists of dealing with teenagers. Teenagers are inherently awkward and uncomfortable. I often revel in their awkwardness, because every teenager that has ever lived, including me, no matter how cool they think they are, has been or is awkward. One of the main reasons why teenagers are so awkward is because they’re starting to figure out who they are as a person. They start to figure out what they like, whom they like, and they begin to process what they want to do for the rest of their lives. However, their brains haven’t developed enough to reach the best and wisest decisions, and so sometimes awkwardness is the product of this exploration. As a youth minister, it is my job to help my teenagers explore, and to advise them on how to live a fruitful, prosperous life rooted in Christ.
Even as we grow older and more assured of ourselves, we encounter awkward moments all the time. Awkward situations don’t end when puberty does. In fact, awkwardness is part of the human experience. Sometimes when a person expresses certain political views or cheers for a certain team, situations with people on “the other side” can get awkward. Unfortunately, awkward or uncomfortable moments can also lead to arguments, insults, and even rejection. When a teenager is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, or Questioning, and accepts their gender or sexual identity enough to the point where they want to be open to their family, too often parents throw their children out onto the streets, causing irreconcilable divisions within the family.
But there are also awkward situations that make us better people. When our brother or sister in Christ calls us out on a sin or struggle we refuse to acknowledge, it can be awkward coming to terms with that. However, it can make us better people by looking to fix that and growing closer to God in the process of sanctification. Jesus does that for us in these verses. He calls out the people following him to live better lives and to be truly transformed through Him.
To give some background for these verses, Jesus is traveling with some of the largest crowds He has ever had. Recall Luke 12:1: “when the crowd gathered by the thousands, so that they trampled on one another…” (NRSV). As with many crowds, there were people following who fell into different camps. Some were devoted followers, like the twelve apostles, and some were actively against Jesus’ teachings, like the Pharisees and other temple officials. However, a large majority of them probably fell into the category of just being along for the ride. They were there because Jesus was famous, or because they really liked the idea of taking on the establishment. Jesus, sensing this, starts to cull the herd, and says some things that might be hard for people to accept.
Jesus immediately speaks in powerful and dichotomous terms. In verse 49, Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” In the next verse, Jesus references baptisms, which are defined by their use of water, “and what stress [He is] under until it is completed!” Fire and water are naturally opposite, but both forces are used to accomplish the same thing for Jesus: purification.
For centuries, Christians have used both of these ethereal forces to talk about purification. Seminal hymns like “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” have allusions to fire and water in the lyrics. They both seek to do the same thing, though, which is to make us holier through growing closer to God through the Holy Spirit. It seems like Jesus intends for all of us to grow, but the means of growth are always meant to keep us on our toes and feeling a little awkward.
The purification received by Jesus is truly transformational, and not everyone will understand it. Jesus mentions in verses 52-53, that groups will be divided and even families torn apart by the work that Jesus is doing. Jesus’ work is meant to upset the oppressive systems and people in power. Jesus wants the transformation in our lives to affect the world as well. He emphasizes that point in verses 54-56, even to the point of calling His crowd, “hypocrites.” In calling them hypocrites, Jesus is saying that their sanctification isn’t just for the afterlife, but for transforming the present time.
God calls us to embrace parts of our faith that can be divisive. Too often we prefer a faith that is insular, piety-centered, and safe. That type of faith doesn’t promote growth and sanctification. Our faith is purified only when it inspires change—not just in ourselves, but also in the world around us. We must step out of our bubble to challenge and improve the world. Jesus predicted that the world would be divided because of the power of what He brought to the world. We are called to make the world feel awkward because of the way Jesus lived His life.
Jay Butler is the Minister of Youth and Discipleship at Mt. Sylvan United Methodist Church in Durham, NC. He is a graduate of Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He is a die-hard University of Georgia and Atlanta sports fan, and would have Robert Downey Jr. play him in the movie centered on his life.