St Bride's: Sermons

A pourer of oil

Luke 12: 49-56

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49 I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled?

50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!

51 Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division:

52 For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three.

53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.

54 And he said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower; and so it is.

55 And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat; and it cometh to pass.

56 Ye hypocrites, ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth; but how is it that ye do not discern this time?

A pourer of oil
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There are some personal comments which people make which stick in the mind, perhaps because they touch a hidden chord in our psychological make-up.

One such comment was made to me by my first incumbent when I was doing my first curacy, forty years ago, and learning the job. My vicar was a great colleague and mentor but he was also a natural creator of conflict: he seemed to enjoy stirring things up, often I thought, unnecessarily.

After one particularly lively PCC meeting during which I had tried to soften his somewhat aggressive approach, he said to me 'David, you are an inveterate pourer-on of oil.' He said it not altogether approvingly, as though he felt I was letting the side down by not being as robust and belligerent as he was.

Well, I do recognise that I am someone who naturally seeks consensus and wants to avoid conflict. My colleague at the Archdeaconry Office said as much just the other day. I still think that having a row about a particular issue and going in guns blazing does not usually produce the best results or bring out the best in people. But I also recognise that sometimes we do have to confront issues, be blunt about what is going on, and be prepared to differ, to stand out from the crowd.

And Jesus seems to recognise this too in today's Gospel reading, in which he sees the crisis coming for Israel, the crisis that will involve his own death, and is astonished that so few of his contemporaries can see it too. 'Do you suppose I've come to give peace to the earth? No let me tell you, rather division,'

Pretty strong stuff. And Jesus' words here are in stark contrast to his words which John quotes: 'My peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid. (John 14: 27). It's as though Jesus is saying 'You think I'm the Prince of Peace, do you? No, I'm the Prince of Division. Because once my message about the coming of the Kingdom gets into households there will be no peace. You'll have to decide whose side you are on.'

The fact is, the title 'Prince of Peace' never implied that Jesus was harmless, meek and mild. Truth telling peace would always come at a price, because it would mean we would have to give up participating in the conspiracies of silence we sometimes maintain, the silences we justify by saying 'Well, we want to keep the peace. We don't want to cause division. We don't want to rock the boat.'

That can be a weakness. 'David you are an inveterate pourer-on of oil.' That's the trouble with being a pourer-on of oil. It can mean that in our desire not to offend or upset, we avoid confronting issues or saying the hard thing that needs to be said. Sometimes, either as individuals or as a church, we need to take a stand, even if that makes us unpopular or sets us against the mood of the times.

I still believe that we are called to be peacemakers, and that in many situations pouring on oil, creating consensus, avoiding a battle is, in the long run, the more productive way. But sometimes we do have to take a stand, make a point, speak the truth as we see it.

There's an old proverb that goes: 'The candle says to the darkness "I beg to differ".' Jesus calls us to let our lights shine in the darkness, and if the darkness is offended, well, so be it. Part of the prophetic role of the church is to read the signs of the times and address them with the message of the Gospel. And if that brings division, well, so be it.

The composer Beethoven sometimes used to play a trick on his polite audiences, especially if he thought they weren't really interested in serious music. He would play a gentle slow movement on the piano and everyone would be lulled into thinking beautiful thoughts and relax into semi-slumber. Then just as the final notes were dying away, Beethoven would bring his forearm down with a crash on the keyboard and frighten the assembled company.

Sometimes, like Beethoven and his salon audiences, people can become too cosy and too comfortable. Maybe there are times when the church needs to wake people up with a crash.

Pourer on of oil or creator of conflict? Prince of Peace or Prince of Division? Where, I wonder, do the natural instincts of your personality lie? When in our lives does God want us to be peacemakers, and when to be truth tellers? We need to be both, but perhaps, in the words of Jesus, setting the earth on fire is a skill Christians will increasingly have to learn to acquire. Amen.

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