by Ellen Sims
texts: Jeremiah 23: 23-29; Luke 12: 49-56
Today’s scriptures are heavy with accusations and bristling with conflict. The prophet Jeremiah, rightly called the “weeping” prophet, reminds me in today’s Hebrew Bible reading that “the one who has a word” should “speak the Lord’s word faithfully.” But he warns: God’s word can be “like fire” and “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.”
Our Gospel text today matches Jeremiah’s fiery tone. Jesus’s words also burn like fire and hammer at us in ways we don’t usually associate with the Prince of Peace. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” gentle Jesus asks. “No, I tell you, but rather division!”
I thought he HAD come to bring peace. Scriptures tell us so again and again. I don’t recognize this Jesus.
And I don’t want to hear this in a season of divisive presidential campaign rhetoric. Lately I read my Facebook newsfeed, produced by politically diverse friends, as if I’m walking through verbal landmines to get to the videos of the puppies and kitties.
Thank goodness the boundary crossing aims of the Olympics have given us some recent respite from divisiveness as we’ve celebrated the human potential to defy categories. We cheered proudly for the USA but still admired the athleticism of the Chinese, the Russians, the French, the Australians, the Ethiopians, the Iranians. We rejoiced that a boundary drawn by race prejudice was crossed by the first African American female to win a gold medal in swimming. We watched three female gymnasts line up across the Olympic medal podium: one a Jew, one a Christian, one a Muslim. We honored the spirit and story of the refugee team who’d made it to the Olympics after heroically making it across national boundaries to safety. Even at our most competitive, we can still root not just for our group but for our common humanity. We all deserve a gold medal when we can do that.
But biblical prophets in the Jeremiah-to-Jesus tradition tell us we first must recognize that divisions exist. Jesus identified divisiveness within cultures that resembled the Hunger Games more than the Olympic Games. He predicted that a baptism by fire is needed before transformation can happen. The Jesus whom Luke described knew that his Gospel would cause division even within families. The early followers of the Way whom Luke wrote about/for were from fracturing families: two members of the family might be part of the early Jesus movement and three would not; in another family three would be Jesus followers and two would not. The social fabric was being rent.
We want to believe that what Jesus meant to say is that division could be an unintended consequence of following him. But Luke’s Jesus doesn’t say, “I’ve come to bring transformation that might result in division.” Luke’s Jesus says, I am coming to divide families. Maybe he says this for rhetorical impact. Maybe so that Luke’s readers, dealing decades later with splintered families as the consequences of following Jesus, could accept the sad separations as God’s will. Maybe so those separated from their kinship groups could understand that God’s kingdom requires such boldness of conviction so they would stand for Jesus’ Way above all else–even if it meant that fathers and sons must part, even if daughters and mothers must live unreconciled. Maybe this startling language causes you and me to think very hard about what God’s fiery baptism may have to burn away in our lives if we are to be truly transformed. We want to think that following in the hopeful way of Jesus is as easy as the baptism by water. But the baptism Jesus anticipates with dread and “stress” is a future baptism—by fire. Not a baptism of initiation into his ministry but the baptism that will “complete” his ministry and his life—that is, his crucifixion: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
How lightly we take our baptisms into the life of Christ. For many that rite is a cultural given, a nice symbol that we’ve become part of the church, an ID card.
But what if we allowed our baptisms to exact from us such a seriousness of intent to follow in the ways of Jesus that we would risk all other relationships to be identified with him and faithful to his Gospel? What if we would engage in this world’s struggles—social and political—with complete commitment to him? What if our love of God and neighbor leads us to critique social structures and confront those with whom we disagree?
Sadly, we as individuals can’t always take a stand without alienating friends and family. Has anyone else here lost friends because of your support for LGBT rights, for example—support you gave because you felt that’s what Jesus followers should do?
Sadly, we as a faith community can’t always take a stand without alienating some within our very own faith community.
Some churches squash all talk about “the issues.” Others require lock step agreement. Still others manage to voice and hear passionate calls to action—and find enough common ground to move forward together despite differences.
When sociologist Parker Palmer was interviewed recently about our country’s “ divide-and-conquer politics” that prevent us from talking with people “across our lines of difference,” he estimated that 15 to 20 percent of the people on the far right, and the same on the far left, are unable to participate in a line-crossing conversation. But that leaves at least 60 percent in the middle who can. And in a democracy, that’s more than enough to do business.”
He explained, “This country was born out of conflict. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, 30 percent of the delegates walked out without signing the thing — and those who did sign disagreed so fundamentally that they were forced to create a conflict-holding system of government. In fact, they created the first form of government that treats conflict not as the enemy of a good social order but as the engine of a better social order. Conflict can be creative, and we have to recover that sensibility.”
To do that, Parker Palmer explained, requires us “to stop talking about ‘them’ all the time” and “start talking WITH each other.”
One way to do that is hinted at in the poem “The Place Where We Are Right” by Yehuda Amichai:
From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.
Palmer concluded the interview this way: “We can talk across lines by talking about what we love, because a lot of us love the same things: our kids and grandkids, our country, the natural world, the idea that people should be able to get ahead in life. Then we can talk about our doubts, because we all doubt that what we love is being served well. Beginning a conversation with loves and doubts rather than political ideologies opens a new door to dialogue, driven by story-telling rather than political point scoring.”
Parker Palmer spoke in that interview about reaching across political divisions. But in his book The Company of Strangers, he recognizes, as did Jesus and Jeremiah, that divisions also exist among God’s people who should be engaged in the public realm: “The church preaches a vision of human unity which means very little if not acted out in the public realm. . . . The integrity of the church’s vision depends on its public expression” (23). However, “the unity sought by the church is not achieved through calculation and manipulation but received through contemplation and vulnerability and self-giving” (24).
Vulnerable self-giving amidst divisions and tensions is what the cross of Jesus epitomizes. In fact, the cross itself, with its arms reaching left and right, symbolizes “the ways we are pulled between this and that and “the tension we feel as we stand in the middle of it all” (114). Most of us will do anything to avoid tension, of course. Church is where many go to escape conflict and differing opinions. But according to Palmer, the cross teaches us a way of “living the contradictions” by “taking tension into our lives and transforming it from a force of destruction into an energy of creation” (116). “Withdrawal from the world is not the message of Jesus’ life. Jesus fully accepted life’s contradictions and lived fully in the midst of them—in the power of love. They led him to the cross, and they will lead us there, too, for the cross is contradiction. But on the cross we discover the paradox that joy and the power for life lie on the other side of pain. The cross overcomes contradictions through the power of a God in whom all things are made one. And that is the opportunity for growth and service afforded us by the public life” (117).
Palmer goes so far as to warn us against the image of church as an “idealized family” where “intimacy is the primary and often exclusive goal.” But he says this popular image of family “is a threat to public life” (119) because a church formed around that image “is not likely to prepare its members for full public involvement.” Instead of offering experiences of creative conflict, diversity, freedom for innovation, church “becomes dominated by the expectation of closeness and warmth. . . . Church members “receive little experience with problems of power and compromise and decision making” and listening in “church families.” People hide disagreements in a fragile and unfulfilling unity. This kind of church will “forfeit their chance to become tools of collective action and become, instead, vehicles for emotive expression . . . unable to invent new forms of church life which might minister to a public in need” (120). Maybe it’s no wonder that “some of Jesus’s hardest sayings have to do with family” ( 123)—as today’s Gospel exemplifies.
It’s normal and, up to a point, good to seek a church where you feel warmly welcomed in a familial way. But the Gospel suggests that we can live in a community and society that works through tension forthrightly.
Know that you ARE loved here as a sister or brother. But it’s healthy for each of us to feel uncomfortable at times, to hear varied perspectives, to work with others to find common ground, to give up idealized images of Christ’s church. Since Jesus came to sow division, we can reap creative lessons from conflict. Since Jesus did not withdraw from the world, let us accept life’s contradictions and live fully in the midst of them. For Jesus’ sake.
Grant us, God of the cross, new opportunities to learn and grow as we engage the world together. Amen
Palmer, Parker J. The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life (New York: Crossroad, 1981).