Sunday, August 18, 2013

Gospel Text: Luke 12: 49-53

49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

After this week’s bloodshed in Egypt, today’s Gospel reading explodes with violent metaphors.  After this week’s divisive politics of race in our city, the nice Jesus we’ve come to expect declares today that his purpose is to foment division. After this week’s experiences of our own everyday strife and conflict with friends, family, and coworkers, this ordinarily cozy contemplative service injects MORE conflict into our lives.  I wouldn’t blame you if you left now, you seekers of peace and quiet.

But the thing is, I hear the Gospel calling us to be makers of peace and justice, not seekers of peace and quiet. I hear Jesus pulling us into conflict.  Because true peace does not exist until there is real justice.

We’re going to start our exploration of conflict with a free association game.  In the margin of your worship bulletin, list words that first come to mind when you think of conflict.  Don’t censor your thoughts. Write quickly.[i]


Examine your list.  Are all of your words negative? Why is that? Is conflict always a bad thing? Does anything positive ever come from conflict?


Think now about how the family of your childhood dealt with conflict.  (Did they avoid it at all cost? Jump into heated battles at the slightest provocation?  Stake out rigid positions?  Or did they flexibly and creatively seek solutions acceptable to all?) How did YOU deal with conflict in that family?


How do YOU deal with conflict TODAY?  What are benefits of that response to conflict? What are drawbacks?


One reason the “spiritual but not religious” folks give for dropping out of church is the conflict they experienced or witnessed in past churches.  I understand how badly churches handle conflict. But conflict is part of life and is, in fact, necessary for growth. Some say they don’t like the messiness of church, so they worship alone on a sand dune at the beach at sunset.  I say we have to make mistakes and get our feelings hurt sometimes and “waste our time” on people who may never change . . . because WE might change.  Here is the best curriculum for life–right here in the messiness, divisiveness, brokenness, contentiousness of community life, in the problems we work through, the solutions we discern, the mistakes and triumphs we experience. You cannot learn alone what you can learn here. Messed up people are your best textbook. And your messed up self is a textbook for others. There are times to sit on the sand dunes at sunset and rest your weary soul.  But here is a place to grow and learn and be transformed and be part of transformation out in the world.

Sociologist of religion Robert Bellah, who died last month, warned about privatized spirituality: “The way ‘spirituality’ is often used suggests that we exist solely as a collection of individuals, not as members of a religious community, and that religious life is merely a private journey. [Privatized spirituality] . . .  idolizes the . . . individual as the prime reality in the world.”[ii]  We as a faith community value and care for each individual, but we do not see the isolated individual as “the prime reality in the world.” We who live “in Christ” are part of a larger reality. We are learning how diverse individuals manage our distinctiveness while functioning as a cooperative whole.  We may have been taught that the Christian way to handle differences is to deny they exist or to let some patriarchal figure or system standardize our actions at the expense of those on the margins.  But that’s not what Jesus taught.

The song we sang earlier[iii] describes Jesus provoking those to whom he preached, confusing those who heard his voice.  You may have found Jesus’s words from today’s Gospel lection provocative and confusing, so at odds with his usual peaceful message and manner.  “What’s gotten into him?” you might wonder.

But of course the Jesus we’ve come to know in Luke has been provoking the religious and political establishment all along.  You may remember that Jesus began his ministry (Luke 4) by insulting the people in his hometown, which so riled his former neighbors they nearly hurled him off a cliff.

Even before he was born, his mother was talking trouble. We may think of Mary as demure and quiet, a good girl who pondered a lot of stuff in her heart while smiling sweetly.  But the song she sang upon learning she was to bear a child was seditious (Luke 1: 46-55).  Her song says God favors the poor and sends the rich away empty and lifts up the lowly and brings down the powerful.  How can we be so surprised to hear the son of Mary vowing to bring division and pit son against father, daughter against mother? We’re right to feel a little uneasy with this talk of conflict.

A newly published book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan, became a source of controversy last week after a disrespectful Fox News interview backfired and made the book a best seller overnight.[iv]  Unlike the antagonistic Fox reporter, I have no problem with a Muslim writing a book about Jesus, and I agree with most of Aslan’s points that dismay conservative Christians.  In fact, one critique that scholars make is that Zealot contributes nothing new to our understanding of the historical Jesus.  But Aslan does get one thing very wrong and it’s his titular point. Jesus was not a Zealot with a militant agenda. (Find arguments against the Jesus as Zealot thesis here:

It IS troubling to hear Jesus say his purpose is to bring division.  But let’s understand the context. And appreciate ironic, metaphorical, and dramatic rhetoric.  And recall that Jesus, who protested the religio-political system of his day, had deep commitments to the goal of loving even the enemy, forbidding retaliation, and relying on creative nonviolence.  He was also realistic: the Way of Jesus often upset relationships–from the family unit on up through the social strata. Some people today understand what it means to form a family of choice when the family of birth cannot accept them as they are: beloved children of God.

Reza Aslan’s misunderstanding of Jesus is understandable.  We all tend to operate in either fight or flight mode.  We speak in either/or terms.  We are deaf to nuance and irony and ambiguity and novelty. We polarize our political and religious discourse especially.

No wonder some found Jesus threatening. But he did not threaten them. His understanding of God’s ways were threatening to the status quo. Jesus was called to bring division—but not through violence. This distinction is one that his contemporaries misunderstood.  And it’s a distinction that Reza Aslan has also, I believe, misunderstood. One can challenge and promote change and even make people uncomfortable in the cause of justice—but through peaceful means and for just ends.
Even as his contemporaries misheard his message, so people today continue either to keep Jesus’s bold message bound in the swaddling cloths of the sweet baby Jesus—or peg him some aspiring emperor who continues to inspire the crusaders of each new generation to enlarge their empires.

Jesus did engage the conflict of his day—but not with violence or triumphalism.  Conflict is not always negative.  It depends on why and how you enter the conflict.  Conflict can be an opportunity to recognize different perspectives and needs in order to work for the good of all.

But it is hard to know if, when, and how to engage in a situation of conflict.  Most of us are conflict avoiders.  And even though we see Jesus as a model of someone engaged positively in conflict, well, we also see where conflict led him.  There is great risk.

I’m going to offer a short and certainly not exhaustive set of guidelines for entering into,, perhaps even provoking, conflict in transformative ways. You will have other thoughts to add to these. Much more can be said about how to listen to others with divergent opinions and how to present your needs and ideas to bring about solutions and lasting harmony. But first I invite you to call to mind a conflict that might be looming on the horizon for you–perhaps a difficult conversation you’re anticipating or a situation on which you may need to take a controversial stand. Think through how you might respond to this conflict. Might these guidelines prove helpful?

  1. Know your own motives and tendencies. Be wary, for instance, if you are assigning yourself the role of hero in a cause. Take your ego out of it. You are not responsible for righting all the world’s wrongs.
  2. Be humble. Even after researching a topic and praying about a situation, you have limited perspective, and problems are always more complicated than they seem.Listen more than you speak.
  3. Be confident. You may be the only person who can offer this perspective or speak on behalf of someone who can’t.Speak directly.  Use “I” language.  Don’t apologize for your stance. Being “nice” is not a Christian virtue.  You’re not responsible for someone else’s feelings. Act with conviction.
  4. Critique an unjust system or actions; don’t demonize a person. You earn the right to work through conflict with someone else when you can sincerely regard that person with kindness. Seek their good.
  5. See conflict’s potential for good. Look for common ground. Move through the conflict toward the change.

Are there other guidelines you have for determining when and how to use conflict for positive transformation?


PRAYER: O God, we ought to be good at conflict because we have lots of experience with it.  May we learn the way of Jesus that offers peace through justice.

[i] This activity comes from Kraybill, Ronald S. and Robert A. Evans and Alice Frazer Evans.  Peace Skills: Manual for Community Mediators.(San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001) pp. 10-11.


[iii] Bell, John. “First Born of Mary” There is One Among Us: Shorter Songs for Worship

First born of Mary, provocative preacher,

Itinerant teacher,

Outsider’s choice;

Jesus inspires and disarms and confuses

Whoever he chooses
to hear his voice.


Category Prayer, Scripture
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