Sunday, August 15, 2010

How Are We To Deal With Division?

12th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 15) – Year C (RCL)
Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56
Sunday, August 15, 2010 –
Trinity, Redlands

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51)

Wait a minute! Something is not right here. One of the major themes of Luke and of Jesus’ ministry is peace and reconciliation. Luke starts out with choirs of angels at the time of Jesus’ birth proclaiming peace on earth. At the end of Luke, Jesus greets his disciples with “peace be with you” the last time he sees them before his ascension. And in between, Jesus preaches a message of peace and reconciliation through his words and actions. But here in the middle of all that, we have Jesus giving us a different message. Here, it seems that Jesus is defining his ministry not in terms of peace and reconciliation, but in terms of division and judgment. If Jesus were a modern-day politician, we would accuse him of flip-flopping. So what are we to make of this reversal in position, albeit momentary. It must be important if such a radical departure from the central message is recorded.

Over the last 2,000 years, scholars have been attempting to unlock the key to this particular passage, which is, without a doubt, the toughest collection of verses in Luke’s gospel. The most obvious interpretation is that as the Gospel of Jesus Christ spreads and takes hold, there will be differences and disagreements between believers and non-believers. Even amongst believers, there may be differences in interpretation of what the Gospel message means and how we are to live it out. Others influenced by ancient Greek ideas regarding rationality or by more modern concepts of individuality view this passage as symbolic of division and struggle within the self, with rational thought being the key to overpower sinful impulses.

In attempting to figure out what Jesus is talking about, there is some thought that the key may lie in his use of fire imagery. “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” Is the fire Jesus references a refining, purifying fire, in which the faithful will be cleansed of sin? Or is it fire of judgment and destruction in which those who have sinned will be tried and if found guilty, subject to harsh punishment?

Given the overall nature of Jesus’ ministry of peace and reconciliation, I cannot accept the idea that he was referring to a fire of judgment and destruction. A cleansing, purifying fire might be a little more palatable. But looking at the Gospel message of love, justice, mercy, and inclusivity, I think he may have meant something a little different still. When you consider the overall Gospel message, I cannot help but think that the fire he brings to the earth is a bold proclamation of the Gospel that would be incendiary: a message so revolutionary the world had not seen the likes of it; a message which, once ignited, would spread like wildfire; a message so inflammatory that there would be some who don’t want to hear it. This would undoubtedly include the audience of Jesus’ proclamations in preceding passages – corrupt temple leaders.

Now as to the breadth and depth of the division, Jesus indicates it’s going to cut pretty deep. Jesus uses family imagery in describing the severity of division: father against son, daughter against mother. I don’t think that Jesus is speaking literally as much as he is speaking metaphorically, using a redefined understanding of family. Earlier in Luke, Jesus is told “your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” He responds by saying “my mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:20-21). It is apparent from this exchange that for Jesus, the definition of family and kinship is redefined. For Jesus, kinship is not based on family ties and allegiances, but rather on obedience to God. In the wake of Jesus’ death and resurrection, kinship is not based on family bloodlines, but rather on Christ’s blood. By virtue of our baptisms, we are made part of the family as redefined by Jesus. And we even use that language, talking about our church family. So this familial division that Jesus is talking about is division amongst us, the faithful.

Throughout our history, we have seen divisions in the church. In the early centuries of Christianity, we experienced disagreements and divisions over the nature of Christ and over the nature of the Trinity. In the 11th century, we experienced the Great Schism, the division that separated the singular Catholic Church into the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. In the 16th century, we experienced the Reformation, the division that separated a number of different Protestant groups from the Roman Catholic Church, including our own Anglican Church. In our own denomination we have experienced division over such issues as slavery and the validity of female priests and bishops. And now The Episcopal Church is experiencing disagreement and division over issues of sexual orientation – should we bless same-sex partnerships and should we ordain bishops who are in same-sex relationships? Throughout history, we the church have dealt with our differences through division and breaking apart.

The problem is that division and separation do not do anything to resolve differences. If anything, division makes the differences more tangible, more felt, more hurtful. And given Jesus’ foundational message of peace and reconciliation, I do not think this is what Jesus intended. Yes, as illustrated in today’s Gospel lesson, he predicted that it would happen. But I don’t think he wanted it to be this way.

Given Jesus’ message of peace and reconciliation, I think his statement of division within the family – and again, that would be us, the family that is the church – is not necessarily prescriptive, but rather is descriptive. Disagreement and division will happen. It’s inevitable. But the degree to which it happens, how we chose to handle the division is open. Division does not necessarily mean a breaking apart. That’s not what Jesus wants. I think that today’s Gospel is more of a warning. “Okay guys, you’re going to experience division. What you do with it, how you deal with it, is up to you.”

Even though Jesus talks about division, I have to believe that he has no patience for the petty divisions that detract from the true message of the Gospel. Over the last few weeks, our Gospel lessons have shown us that we are not to allow obsessions with possessions and constant activity to distract us from what is truly important: our relationship with God and with others. We are not to allow our anxieties and fears to get in the way of trusting God and experiencing his faithfulness to us. We are not to allow ourselves to be distracted from preparing and being vigilant in waiting for the kingdom and the eternal life God promises us and is even now preparing for us.

When it comes to obeying God and living the Gospel, Jesus synthesized it all down to two commandments. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Boiled down even further results in love of God and love of others. It’s that simple. All else flows from these. These commandments are primarily demonstrated through love, justice, mercy, and inclusivity. Specifically:

God’s love for us is the standard for love and provides the example whereby we are to have love for others – and not just the people who agree with us.

God’s justice for the marginalized is the standard for justice and provides the example whereby we are called to work for justice for all, particularly for the marginalized.

God’s grace and mercy toward us is the standard for mercy and provides the example whereby we are to be merciful and compassionate toward others, toward all people.

God’s inclusivity of all as his children is the standard for hospitality and provides the example whereby we are to welcome and include all our sisters and brothers around the table.

This was the focus of Jesus’ ministry – in his words and his actions. Jesus believed in this so much he was willing to die for us, so that the world might truly hear and live this Gospel message. What that says to me is that if Jesus was willing to die for that, we as his followers need to focus on living the Gospel message and not the other extraneous stuff that gets in the way – the stuff Jesus never even mentions anyway.

I was a parishioner at St. Francis about 20 years ago when the whole issue of sexual orientation within the church started getting hot and heavy. We had a parishioner who was against the direction in which The Episcopal Church was moving. Knowing that I was on the opposite end of the issue, she took every opportunity to try to convince me I was wrong and she was right. One Sunday after church, she caught me in the parking lot and started in. Before she could get very far, I cut her off and said “Stop. You know where I stand, and I know where you stand. Neither of us is going to change the other’s mind. And frankly, as far as I’m concerned, this is not a salvation issue. The important thing is that you and I are brother and sister in Christ and that despite our opinions and political beliefs, we can come together at the same table and share Eucharist.” I went on to tell her that even though I did not agree with her, I support her right to her own beliefs and encouraged her to do what she felt was necessary – writing the bishop, the national church, or whatever, to make her voice heard. That conversation changed the dynamics of our relationship. The subject never came up again between us, and in many ways, we were closer than we had been before. Focus on issues of sexuality divided us, brother and sister in Christ. Focus on the Gospel of Jesus Christ brought us together.

Of course division will happen. And there’s no way to ignore differences and disagreements. For the health of the family, they need to be dealt with. But that must be done with mutual respect for opposing views and those holding them. The only way we are going to deal with our differences is to focus on living the Gospel. The only way we are going to prevent divisions from becoming needless schisms, is to keep everyone at the table, in conversation, in relationship, with respect, with open minds and hearts, with love.

Otherwise, what happens at that table [pointing to altar] means absolutely nothing.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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