"Rather division"-Sermon for Proper 15, Luke 12:49-56
Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three”. So, how you like them apples! As we just heard, this is really how the gospel passage assigned for this Sunday begins, and as I read the passage some weeks ago and began my regular sermon writing process, my first thought was that it might be the perfect week to preach on the Old Testament…or the Psalm or just about anything else! But, I have learned over the years, that the more difficult a particular passage of scripture is to hear…the more challenging or even just down right confusing or upsetting it might be…especially when it comes from Jesus’ own lips…actually means that you deserve to hear your pastor preach on it. So, I will do my best to offer something…some reflections on Jesus’ teaching today that is worthy of your time and attention this morning.
Now, to begin with, in an ironic twist of fate, I returned home just about 4 days ago from a family vacation. We spent the better part of 5 days in home in the Hill Country with my 2 parents, my 2 brothers, and their families…13 of us in all…and of those 13…8 are adults and 5 are kiddos. Now, when Jesus talked about families divided…he noted a family of 5, in which, 2 were against 3 or 3 against 2. But, in my family, it is like 3 against 3 against 1…for there are 3 distinct political and theological world views in constant conflict in my family…and that totals 7 people…because one of my sisters-in-law, the 8###sup/sup### adult, is always Switzerland…she remains neutral and doesn’t engage…perhaps a wise woman. I think you likely know this…but, if your family doesn’t always see eye to eye…even on weighty matters that are very important to us and to our world…you are not alone. Your experience is entirely normal, and I always think normalizing our experiences helps. It just helps to know it’s not just me, and that we are in this thing called life, all of its joys and all of its challenges, together.
Now, as I began to dive into this passage, I figured that there is no way Jesus could possibly mean that he came among us…that the God in flesh born at Christmas…that the light and love that entered into the darkness of this world in the life of Jesus…I figured there was no way Jesus, love incarnate, came among us to accomplish the goal of sowing division among members of a household…of dividing beloved family members…one against another. And, friends, I am happy to say that both my scholarly study of writings on the New Testament and my heart have led me to the conclusion that this is not why God became flesh and lived and breathed among us. Instead, I believe Jesus glorious incarnation…that is Jesus’ life, death and resurrection…is intended to unify this world…to reconcile all of us and everything in creation to God in Christ. Jesus came to this world not to condemn it…but to save it…to save us from our own worst impulses…to save us from the power of sin, evil and death…to unite all of us…all the peoples of this world…into the family of God…living in harmony under the banner of the Prince of Peace. This work, which we call salvation, was completed in Jesus’ glorious resurrection from the dead at the very first Easter. But, as this is not always our actual lived experience today, what theologians say is the we live in the already but not yet. In other words, Jesus has already completely his divine work of defeating sin, evil and death…already completed the work of tearing down all the boundaries…all the walls…all the barriers…that divide one human from the next. But…but, we are yet to fully realize that reality…so, again, already but not yet.
And, during this in-between time, this not yet time, this time between Easter and the day when God will be all in all…when the world will be set to rights…when all people will be reconciled one to another and all to God in Christ, we, in this not yet time, this in-between time, as the Body of Christ, alive and active in the world, we are called to work together, with our whole selves, souls and bodies, to help this world…beginning in our own families and work places and schools and community…to inch ever toward what God is already doing among us…to build the peaceable kingdom…a kingdom in which all are loved and belong…all are connected and counted and listened to and seen. Friends, we are called and get to participate in working with God in the ministry of rebuilding broken things…of mending broken hearts…reconnecting those people to the common good who have been separated from it by abuse, inequity or poverty. As Paul describes in his second letter to the Corinthians, we are now called to the ministry of reconciliation for which Jesus gave up his body on the cross. And, now, as his raised body alive and active today, the Body of Christ, the Church, we, again, enter ourselves into that reconciling work…not dividing but connecting, rebuilding, reordering, until everyone finds their place at the table…God’s table…where everyone, who every they love, whatever they look like, whatever they believe, find the love and belonging for which they were made.
Which takes me back to Jesus’ words today. Though the purpose of Jesus’ life was not to create division but reconciliation, he knew and lovingly wants to prepare us for the reality of what that reconciling work, that is now ours, can and will mean for our lives. For Jesus knew that the work set before us would not be easy. Reconciliation sounds wonderful…but it is a hard task in a world full of broken people who struggle to share…who fear difference and scarcity…whose hard-wired instinctual nature is to protect and provide for self before others and by extension our own tribes over those we perceive as different from ourselves…something less evolved or valuable than ourselves. Jesus knew that reconciliation and inclusion would often actually be a quite unpopular sentiment, and that our desire for a world where all of the rainbow-colored people of God love and belong will not always be shared by those with whom we journey…even those closest to us…even perhaps those in our own family. Therefore, Jesus, in this passage today, is, in a sense, forewarning us that our partnership with him in brining Easter’s work to its completion will…the very work of reconciling all in this world into unity with God and one another will, perhaps ironically, be replete with conflict and division…even among those we love the very most. And yet, as followers of Jesus…followers of the way of love…the work of bringing everyone, without distinction, to God’s table of love and belonging, where all receive the dignity and respect they deserve, where all are fed and filled…remains our sacred task. If we are to truly be followers of Jesus, this difficult work of being reconcilers in the very name of God…is not optional
R. Alan Culpepper, commenting on this very passage in Luke, writes, “We cannot make a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord without it affecting the way we relate to friends and to family members. Because our commitment to Christ shapes our values, priorities, goals, and behavior, it also forces us to change old patterns of life, and these changes may precipitate crisis in significant relationships.” And, he continues, “Some of the most unexpected crisis we face come from the opposition of others when we set out to do what we perceive to be the good, moral, and right thing to do. Jesus himself knew how devastating such crisis can be, and he warned his followers to be prepared to encounter them also.”
Thus, Jesus’ words to us today, as fired up has he clearly is, for, friends, this is serious stuff, worth getting fired up about, I believe Jesus’ words are intended to lovingly, graciously call us to be prepared…prepared to be received with suspicion and even anger, at times, by those closest to us, by our own expressions of the expansiveness of God’s love…by our own words and deeds and organizing and ministries that extend God’s love to everyone without distinction…that extend God’s love and a place at God’s table to all the rainbow-colored people of God…especially those very different from ourselves…those most disconnected, most disenfranchised, those most in need of the love and belonging we extend from this table…God’s table.
And, I think this is really important to say…I think Jesus is forewarning us about the conflict and division that we are surely going to experience as we enter into this Easter work of reconciliation…to normalize our experience. It helps to know it’s not just us…just my family…we are in it together. For all, or surely most, of us will know the pain that comes with deep disagreement with those we love over opinions about who belongs in the household of God…and with that knowledge we can be there for each other. We can bear that weight together, and it becomes a little bit lighter. But, even more so, I believe Jesus is forewarning us about the conflict and divisions we are surely to experience, even among those we love most, as a way of saying to us that these people we love but find ourselves in conflict with…are also among the people to whom we must be reconciled…we must seek reconciliation. For by the grace of God go all of us, and we are all a part and piece and included in God’s plan, fully realized in the death and resurrection of Jesus, to reconcile and save the world.
And so, while standing up clearly for the way of love…the way of God’s reconciling love…and with clarity around our own convictions, we go on family vacations together. We set good boundaries. We determine and commit to conversations that honor the dignity of all involved, including ourselves and those we are talking about. We note without attacking when things are said that are contrary to our experience or the faith that is alive in us. We work to identify the values and beliefs we share and lean into them. We find the things that we agree need work, and we work on them together. We never stop loving each other. We never let each other go…most especially in times of deep disagreement and disconnection.
For, if a conversion of the heart is ever possible, for those with whom we disagree and ourselves…for I’ll admit I don’t always get it right and am a constant work in progress…if true unity is to be found in the reconciling love of God…hope lies in our willingness to make these sorts of commitments to each other…to never stop loving each other…to never let each other go. Amen.