Remember the Brady Bunch?
How about The Waltons? Beaver Cleaver’s family
– Ward, June, Wally, and the Beaver?
Remember Ozzie and Harriet.
Even Lassie lived in a family of health and harmony.
Not many of our families actually lived up to that fictional standard.
It made us feel like failures.
So along came Rev. Dobson and Focus on the Family.
In an extraordinary religious revolution,
the family became all-important.
God was reduced to a kind of super-family therapist
or angelic power to help us become the Bradys.
Well the religious prescriptions for family felicity failed too.
Despite all of Focus on the Family’s thou shalts and thou shalt nots,
families continued to have the same basic problem.
They are made up of people.
So in despair, we began to celebrate family chaos.
We TV fans watched The Loud Family disintegrate before our eyes
In the first major reality program.
From there we went on to watch all manner of families
misbehaving and falling apart.
An endless string of reality TV shows has fascinated us
with the disintegration of family lives:
Nick and Jessica on The Newly Weds;
Carmen and Dave on Till Death Do Us Part;
Linda and Hulk on Hogan Knows Best.
The list goes on.
The Real Housewives have had seven divorces in five years.
We went from the fantasy ideal of harmony
to a seemingly addictive prurient delight in chaos.
Today we can even have a major political leader
whose ex wife recounts tales of horrific domestic violence.
Eventually television producers recognized that
the family is the basic unit of society,
but what happens in the family isn’t limited to the family.
You don’t have to be married or next of kin
to cheat, steal, lie, and betray one another.
So we got Survivor, The Real World, and Big Brother.
All of a sudden the whole world looks pretty questionable.
I don’t know whether TV causes society to be the way it is
or vice versa.
Most likely the two are egging each other on.
But just look around and what do you see?
Our nation has not been this torn apart since the Civil War.
We are divided by race, class, religion, political convictions,
-- you name it.
We live in gated communities
of people who look like us.
More than ever before, we associate exclusively
with our own kind and live in fear of
and loathing for anyone who is not like us.
We get our news from networks that tell us so called facts
but only the ones that support what we already think.
Political discourse has gone from principled debate
to the level of hate speech that our House of Bishops condemned
last Spring as the wrong way to be a democratic society.
So what does Jesus make of all this turmoil
on TV, in society, and in our homes?
Well if Jesus were a TV producer I expect his show
might look more like Keeping Up With The Kardashians
than The Brady Bunch -- but none of them quite get it.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus says,
“Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?
No, I tell you but rather division.”
Then he goes on about family conflicts.
Luke stands out as the Gospel in which Jesus is most clearly
the Prince of Peace.
But here, smack dab in the middle of Luke,
Jesus says he has come to stir up division.
What are we gonna do with this?
The key is the way the lesson starts.
“I came to bring fire to the earth.”
Later on people started talking about fire
as God’s instrument of punishment.
But that isn’t what the Bible means by fire.
Fire represents purification,
the refiner’s fire used to separate base metals
from precious metals.
It’s the smelter, the refiner’s fire.
The prophet Malachi said,
“He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
burning away the dross.”
Peter writes of our faith being refined by fire like gold.
It’s an image that comes up over and over:
fire removing the dross of ego
and purifying the precious heart of humankind.
John the Baptist had prophesied that Jesus
would baptize us with fire.
So Jesus says he comes as the refiner
and we will walk thorugh his fire.
But what does that mean literally?
Just how are we to be tried, refined, purified?
Brothers and sisters, we are changed
– not by sitting on a mountaintop contemplating nature’s beauty
-- not by esoteric spiritual disciplines
-- not by hanging out with other enlightened holy beings
We are purified through the ordeal of real human relationships.
We are changed through the spiritual discipline of loving each other
at those times when we are not especially lovable.
The place people rub up against each other most is at home.
We call it family friction.
Jesus says family troubles, addressed and endured faithfully,
are the refiner’s fire.
One of the best books ever written on Family Therapy was titled
The Family Crucible,
because family life heats up and if it doesn’t kill us,
it makes us stronger, better, kinder, wiser.
I heard of a family therapist once who was working with a couple.
He told them to go ahead and let their anger out.
Say what hurt them. Say how they actually felt, however negative.
But there were two rules.
They had to hold hands and look into each other’s eyes
the whole time.
No matter how choppy the surface waters of our relationships may get,
we live in a deep tide with a constant direction
-- a direction that leads us back to each other.
And it isn’t just family life.
It’s the challenge of human relationships wherever we meet.
It’s life at work, in schools and hospitals, in our politics,
and most certainly life in the Church.
We bump up against different people with different ideas
and we all get our egos invested in our ideas
and getting our way.
That’s a recipe for fire.
But Jesus says we need a little fire to refine our souls.
We need the fire to burn out the ego
so the spirit can shine through.
For centuries, Christian have said our mortal life
is a pilgrimage and it ain’t easy.
“Through many dangers toils and snares
we have already come.”
Pilgrimage is an arduous process of growing in grace.
It burns out the ego and lets the love light shine through.
The pilgrimage, the refiner’s fire,
isn’t about being the Bradys on the one hand
or the Loud family on the other.
It’s about being real people working out real differences
with the real people God has given us to love.
But why do we need to go through all this?
It’s God’s way to prepare us for something.
St. Augustine said these relationship struggles
prepare us to “bear the weight of glory.”
We’ve already got our admission ticket to heaven.
Jesus paid that price for us on the cross.
But we aren’t ready to go in yet.
God’s love light is too bright for our feeble eyes.
We need to prepare them through the gradually brightening process
of letting our own love light shine,
letting Christ shine out through us.
That’s what the poet William Blake meant by this immortal verse:
“We are put on earth a little space
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.”