Do you think I am here to bring peace on earth? I tell you, the opposite is true: I’ve come to bring division.- Jesus
This text is why pastors, if they're smart, go on vacation during August and avoid this gospel reading. Here we have a version of Jesus that is glaringly inconsistent with what we’re used to. I mean, is this the same Jesus we sing about at Christmas as the 'Prince of Peace'? The same Rabbi Jesus who taught about the unconditional love of God and the inclusivity of God's realm? Who prayed in his farewell prayer: “. . . that they may all be one”? Who is this Jesus who says, “Do you think I’m here to bring peace? No, just the opposite; I’ve come to bring division”? This just doesn’t track.
Although, if we know our gospel stories, we know the ministry of Jesus really has never been peaceful. Remember last week I talked about Jesus’ first act of public proclamation, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:“God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” That was all well and good, very inspiring. But after declaring what was, in effect, his mission statement, Jesus follows up with a biting
criticism of the religious community. At which point, the crowd turns on him and tries to throw him off a cliff.
This text is unsettling. It’s challenging. And frankly, with the division we see in our country right now, it doesn’t seem very helpful. And in the church, it’s equally unhelpful. There is division in the body of Christ – which is nothing new, Jesus’ unity prayer not-withstanding. But it seems to be getting worse. Responses after some of the decisions of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly have been divided between those applauding these actions and those condemning them. And both sides claim to be doing so out of their understanding of what it means to be followers of Jesus. People on both sides claim to be prophetic in their positions. One person, making an amendment to the Inter-religious Policy Statement, said that he was “speaking truth to power.” I didn’t agree with his amendment; I wouldn’t have voted for it. But hearing that phrase, which is not often used for more conservative causes, was jarring; it made it clear that he believed that my side of the issue is the “power.”
I don’t think we’ll resolve this dilemma any time soon. A recently published book titled Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide is marketed to clergy who have members on both sides in their congregations and are struggling to manage, if not bridge, the divide. I read it; it’s not a quick and easy method of bringing people together and singing “Kumbaya.” It’s making a commitment to a process that includes preaching, but also to listening to one another, learning how to have respectful conversations despite political, theological, or any other differences.
In one way, the situation we’re in is helpful. We can relate to the people around Jesus. Luke has put together elements from collections of the sayings of Jesus, material from Mark and Matthew and other sources, but also recollections from the life experiences of the author himself, who knew all about families being divided because of their commitment to the way of Jesus. This text is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Division wasn’t – and isn’t - a requirement of discipleship; it’s just what was – and is - happening.
But in another sense, it’s not helpful. I used to like this text; I liked its unflinching honesty about the cost of discipleship. Yes, Jesus is the 'Prince of Peace,' but that doesn't mean peace at any cost. Talking and teaching the way Jesus talked and taught not only caused division, it got him killed. So, it’s reasonable to expect that following Jesus could have very serious implications. His outburst was a call to wake up and smell the coffee. “You want to be a disciple? OK, but there will be risks involved.” By jolting them into awareness of the challenges inherent in a life of discipleship, Jesus also warns us not to take our discipleship too lightly.
But it used to be easier to say there are some things worth standing up for, some things worth dividing over. But now that we have divisions in households: father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, and divisions among friends, and even church members – it’s harder to be so clear. I’ll be honest. I knew that, when I was at First United, I was preaching to a solid blue congregation; it was easy to take strong, prophetic positions. But after I retired and started going out to preach in other churches, I realized that I had entered the “purple zone” and I had to balance my commitment to preaching the gospel as I see it with being mindful of those who would disagree.
Another aspect of this divide is in how we see the future of the Church. Everyone has an opinion about the reasons for decline in membership, finances, and social influence. There’s no doubt that the Church is in a time of change – I guess that’s one thing we could all agree on. But what that change is or should be is quite a different matter.
But the fact is: the whole world is changing lightning fast. And people respond to change in different ways. There are those who respond to new circumstances with fear, anxiety and/or anger, who want things go back to the way they used to be. And there are those who respond with creativity and resilience, who are able to live with an undetermined future. And to be perfectly honest, depending on the day and the issue, I could be in either camp. Fear, anger, and conflict in the face of drastic change is unavoidable. And, according to Jesus, so is division.
Jesus challenges us in this gospel text to interpret our present time. And in light of our present time, I want to ask this question:
Accepting the givenness of division, how do we, in our communities, in our churches change together instead of being torn apart by conflict? Even where there are divisions, how can we be together in our differences?
I mentioned last week that I was at an interfaith event called Accelerating Peace at Stanford, hosted by the United Religions Initiative. On one of the days, there was a conversation between Bishop Bill Swing, founder of URI and General James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense. In the Q&A time, General Mattis was asked this question:
“What do you see as the greatest threats to peace or the greatest challenges to peace from the perspective that you’ve seen in the world in your time?”
His answer: “Very simply, the lack of respect for one another, contempt for each other’s belief. It’s a lack of willingness to listen to each other. I see it in all walks of life and those are the seeds for what is becoming a much more violent response - this lack of respect and I would even say alienation that you see in so many people today. It’s as if we’ve forgotten how to be human beings with each other and I think it goes back to respect.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’m involved in an initiative called Hearts Across the Divide, which is modelled on Hands Across the Hills, a project that brought together two very disparate groups after the 2016 election. One was a group of liberals from a peace organization in Leverett, Massachusetts. The other was a group from Letcher County, Kentucky, a conservative coal-mining community deep in the heart of Appalachia. The facilitator was Dr. Paula Green, founder of the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding in Boston.
Green has extensive international experience in peacebuilding and conflict resolution in the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East. She received an award from the Dalai Lama as an “Unsung Hero of Compassion,” among many others. After the 2016 election, she began to focus her attention on restoring relations fractured by political and cultural divides. The project was a great success. I highly recommend watching the video of some of the process on their website https://www.handsacrossthehills.org.
"What was astounding for us [was] we didn't know what was going to transpire between us, and although we don't agree politically, we've come to love and care about each other a great deal." - Paula Green
Our goal is to recreate this process, with Dr. Green’s help, in the Bay Area. Not to try to get people to change their minds politically or get everyone to agree, but to learn again how to have civil discourse in the midst of our disagreements. Not everyone thinks this is possible. Several friends have told me, “It’s too late.” Others – from both sides of the divide - have been critical of even thinking about talking to the other side. And according to Jesus’ words today, it sounds like we could just say, “Oh well, division is inevitable. Everyone back to your corners.”
But just as we always do, we have to look at this text within the whole message of the gospel.
Yes, there will be divisions when we stand up for what we believe Jesus calls us to do. And yes, Jesus calls us to be one. How can that possibly work?
It can work when we realize that we are united in our humanity and treat one another accordingly. It’s too simplistic to demonize people we don’t agree with. I know that there are people who make assumptions about what I believe or think. I wrote to a music teacher to inquire about taking bass guitar lessons and didn’t tell him (yet) that I’m a pastor. I know what the assumptions usually are.
In Hands Across the Hills, the people from Letcher County worried that they would be ridiculed and mocked by northern liberals.One woman said, "I was a little apprehensive — afraid it was another 'save the dumb hillbillies' project."
Dr. Green says, “Now, as friends, we are working on a range of common projects, including reaching out together with our dialogue process to another region of the country, collaborating on agriculture, working on gun control issues we agree on. Hands Across the Hills has melted away stereotypes so that we can see each other’s human face.”
Division, is still a reality, but perhaps with human interaction, love and care, the battle lines can be softened just a bit.
I think Jesus would be pleased.
I don’t know how and if our project will succeed. I do know that I’m often uncomfortable with the prospect of talking to the “other side.” I know that I couldn’t facilitate a group like this; my buttons will surely be pushed. But I’m convinced that we have to try.
I recently had a conversation with a young man who lives now in San Francisco, but who comes from the Midwest. His family includes people with whom he does not agree. He described trying to communicate with them on Facebook, laying out his position and expecting them to change their minds accordingly. It didn’t work. As I told him, I believe it’s going to take going much deeper, in face-to-face, in-person relationship-building. It will take courage and commitment.
But isn’t this what the call to discipleship is? Being a follower of Jesus is serious business. If you're looking for a nice, comfortable religion, where you can sit back and relax – this isn’t it. If you're looking for a church that will provide you with spiritual nurture but won't ask for your help in creating a better world - this isn't it. If you think that being a Christian means you’ll always be happy and peaceful and contented and never have any more problems – nope. No more difficulties – nope. Maybe even conflict – yep. Maybe even division – yep. Maybe even peacemaking – yep.
Most of us, probably none of us, will be called upon to risk our lives for our faith – at least not in the same way as the 1st century martyrs or 20th century martyrs like King, Romero, and Bonhoeffer. But that doesn’t mean we’re not called to take risks of our own.
Where in your life are you perhaps hearing a call to boldness? Is Jesus beckoning you forward, saying, “What? You think that I have come to bring peace and make you comfortable? No, the opposite is true: I have come to make you squirm.”
The old saying of the purpose of the gospel is clichéd but true: that it is ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ And sometimes we are both at the same time. Being a follower of Jesus is serious business. Thankfully, God takes us seriously and is with us in all our endeavors. May we always be prepared to interpret the signs of our present time and to step out in risk-taking faith.
LUKE 12:49-56 Jesus said, “I have come to light a fire on the earth. How I wish the blaze were ignited already! There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!
Do you think I am here to bring peace on earth? I tell you, the opposite is true: I’ve come to bring division. From now on a household of five will be divided—three against two and two against three, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Jesus said again to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say that rain is coming—and so it does. When the wind blows from the south, you say it’s going to be hot—and so it is. You hypocrites! If you can interpret the portents of earth and sky, why can’t you interpret the present time?”