Preacher: Jeanne Choy Tate
~ Luke 12:49-56 ~
In today’s passage, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. So far, trouble and conflict have followed him everywhere he has gone. Rejected by his home town of Nazareth, his family soon claimed he was insane. Next the people of Capernaum ran him out of town. Then a Samaritan village wouldn’t even let him enter. As Jesus walked along, he might as well have been carrying a protest sign reading: “No Justice. No Peace” for he brought conflict and division everywhere he went. And the worse is yet to come, soon his own disciples will divide and flee his crucifixion. Hear then these unusual words of Jesus found in Luke 12:49-56:
“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; they 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.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
Whoa! Who is this Jesus who seems so angry?! What happened to the Prince of Peace and the angels’ promise of “Peace on earth, Good will to all?” In today’s scripture, Jesus instead claims he is the bearer of conflict and division.
The Message puts it this way: “Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I’ve come to disrupt and confront!… I’ve come to change everything, turn everything right-side up—how I long for it to be finished!… I’ve come to start a fire on this earth—how I wish it were blazing right now!”
This angry Jesus is confusing, disturbing. For many progressive Christians, it brings up childhood images of an evangelical fire-and-brimstone God—an image we have worked hard to leave behind and would prefer to avoid. We would much rather have a peaceful Jesus, a “nice” Jesus, made in the image of the ‘nice’ people we would like to be. After all, aren’t Christians called to avoid conflict and division, especially in our families and our churches? With all the divisiveness in society today, the last thing it seems like the last thing we would need is a call to division! How can this be good news?
Families Divided: In what may be the most troubling section of this passage, the fire Jesus came to kindle on earth seems to start in the family home. For he says: “From now on five in one household will be divided:” father and son against each other, mother and daughter divided. What kind of savior would bring division into the heart of the Hebrew family?
Perhaps Jesus was simply pointing out the obvious—the Hebrews were indeed becoming a “house divided against itself.” For, by the time of Jesus, land that peasant families had farmed for generations was being gentrified, gobbled up into large estates by rich absentee landlords. Once family plots could no longer support the extended Hebrew family, younger sons were forced to leave the land of their ancestors on an exodus to the teeming cities where they hoped to eke out an impoverished existence.
Here, faced with a confusing mixture of religious and cultural traditions and cut off from the support of family and home community, divisions, not unlike those we know today, began to emerge between life in the more traditional rural areas and the more sophisticated multicultural lives of the city.
Though the age-old Hebrew social order was crumbling, people seemed unable to discern the signs of the times. And here comes Jesus inviting people into a new inclusive community based, not on ethnic ties of blood and heredity, but defined by those who seek to know God. Is it any wonder he encountered conflict and resistance?
Indeed the story of the church that would rise in Jesus’ name would also be a story of conflict. There has never been an undivided church and maybe this is not such a bad thing. As Paul told the Corinthians church, “Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine” (1 Cor. 11:19) …
Congregations Divided: I cannot read this passage about division without seeing it through the lens of my work in clergy sexual abuse. Many of you know that for almost 15 years now, I have been working with Cameron House in Chinatown to heal the victims of three generations and four decades of sexual abuse by the pastor/director there.
Nothing shatters and divides a congregation like having allegations of clergy sexual abuse come forth. It is painful and threatening to face the horrific truth that a beloved and respected pastor, a person you have trusted with something as important and fragile as your faith, has been sexually abusive.
A deeply troubling question arises: How could this happen without members seeing that the abuse was going on? The reality is that we all live in bubbles we have created of the world as we would like it to be. Our first bubble forms in childhood, shaped by our family and hometown culture. Later, with exposure to broader worlds, that bubble may simply be expanded or it may be dramatically pieced and burst wide open. Later we will form new bubbles for ourselves; place new blinders on our eyes to prevent us once again from seeing the world as it really is.
For bubbles and blinders are an unavoidable aspect of being human and we cannot wish them away. We can only acknowledge their reality when they burst, in what can a very painful, but also a very liberating, process. And in truth, no matter how much we value stability and predictability, in these days of mass shootings and lethal politics, we often live on the edge of uncertainty burdened with a gnawing fear that at any moment life as we know it can be upended.
Congregations have bubbles and blinders too. Most of us however think of our church congregation as a sanctuary, the one place we can go to find solace in the troubles of life. Here we expect peace and harmony to prevail. Surely this is the one safe place we can cling to where life will not be turned upside down!
Then, a victim with the courage to name reality as it is coming forward and says, “something is very wrong here!” The carefully constructed meaning a congregation has made of their world is broken open. Assumptions and allegiances must be questioned. This has an unavoidable effect: division strikes deep into the heart of the faith community. Congregations split into those who believe the victims and those who side with the pastor. Please God, not here in our church! Not here in our sanctuary! The split is painful and filled with anger. Members lash out and call those who pierce their bubbles, “trouble-makers” just as Jesus was called a troublemaker for naming God’s truth.
The very heart of faith feels threatened. For abuse not only has physical and emotional consequences but spiritual consequences as well. Many members will experience a crisis of faith as deeply painful theological questions surface. How is it possible to trust a God who does not protect us from evil? How can God be trusted if God’s representative on earth cannot be trusted? How can someone who may have done many good things also do something so evil? Theology that has been taken for granted—concepts of love, grace, forgiveness, evil, and justice—must be rethought in light of the reality of that, acting as a representative of God, a minister can manipulate believers for evil purposes.
While the pastor is only asking the congregation to keep their blinders intact and look the other way, by contrast, victims are asking the congregation to question their relationship with a powerful authority and the role faith plays in their lives. The tendency toward denial is very strong. Or members try to minimize the abuse by asking victims: “Why can’t we all just forgive and get along?” “isn’t that the Christian thing to do?” “You should forgive and move on with your life.” Questions like these about forgiveness hide anger at the victims for disturbing the peaceful surface of a congregation. What is usually meant is not “Why can’t you forgive?” but “Why aren’t we allowed to forget…or pretend that it all never happened.”
A Nation Divided: When I found out this scripture was Sunday’s lectionary passage, I wanted to preach from it in the hope it would speak to me about the current divisions in our nation and our political process. The last time this passage was in the lectionary cycle, in 2013, one writer said: “This cultural moment feels ominous, as if we’re living next to a parched forest. It only takes a lightning stroke or an electrical spark to set off a raging forest fire. This combustible environment stresses us out.”
In the last three years, it seems as if things have only gotten unbelievably worse. Our politics have gotten nastier, unbelievably vulgar. Our major parties are so divided that nothing is happening in terms of legislation. The House is divided against the Senate. Our president is divided against the House. Daily we lament our loss of unity as a nation. In perhaps the greatest divide of all, the so-called intellectual elites of the coasts are said to be divided against mid-America’s working class. We have become such a divided nation that, if the Son of God intended to bring fire to the earth, it certainly seems as if the fire of division is already upon us!
Division itself is not the problem. Division is justice bursting through the bubbles we have created for ourselves. It comes to point out the reality of an already broken community. How a congregation—how a nation—responds to the division is what matters. When division comes, Jesus insists that we discern the signs and remove the blinders that keep us comfortable, that we prick our bubbles so we can see how power and privilege influence our lives. Maybe this is why Jesus challenges: “If you know how to discern the weather by watching the winds, why do you not know how to discern the present time?” Why have you not recognized what is really going?
In her book of essays, Call Them by Their True Names, Rebecca Solnit says: “Naming is the first step in the process of liberation…. I think of the act of naming as diagnosis. Though not all diagnosed diseases are curable, once you know what you are facing, you are far better equipped to know what you can do about it.” Jesus asks us not to focus on our fears of division but to look deeply into the roots of those divisions and call them by their true names. What do we need to name about our broken nation?
There can be no redemption or hope of transformation for those who insist that nothing is broken. When abuse occurs, the faith community must name the unthinkable and proclaim the unspeakable—that sexual abuse by someone known and trusted, by a representative of God, can and does occur. While truth-telling and confession of sins are unlikely to come from the abuser, they are absolutely essential to healing a congregation…and to healing a nation. There will never be true peace and reconciliation if conflict and division are pushed aside to keep everything nice.
Elizabeth Palmer suggests that “The presence of God’s fire on the earth is cause for fear and trembling, but perhaps also for celebration. Redemption can only come when the systems of meaning we have made for ourselves are shattered and consumed by fire. Things have to be broken open so God can move into our lives and breathe new life into our community.” It is going to take more than a ‘nice’ God to redeem a world that is anything but nice and this is the God we must be willing to turn to.
When a pastor abuses, it is possible to walk through to the other side and discover a restored community and a renewed faith. After many years of truth-telling and confession of its sins, followed by years of working to expose and change the systems that allowed the abuse to take place, the Cameron House faith community was also able to reclaim that much good had been part of its program. Some program participants only had good experiences with the pastor. Many felt that the program had contributed greatly to their personal and vocational growth. Now that the full diversity of experiences could be acknowledged, life together as a faith community was enriched by its greater complexity.
Having dared to name its darkness, Cameron House could now name both the good and the bad, the light and the dark of its story. The faith community could re-weave its story and build an even stronger community on the powerful experience of brokenness healed and justice redeemed.
Our nation also needs to renew its story by engaging in truth-telling and confession of sins to name both the light and the dark of our history. Only when the death-dealing systems of meaning that have stifled our life together are shattered and consumed by fire will we know redemption as a nation. America’s story must be broken open just as Jesus was willing to be broken for our sakes.
May the peace and reconciliation—that must always first be grounded in justice—be so with our nation!
For prayerful meditation:
Where is God moving in your life today to burst your bubble and remove your blinders?
Where is God pushing your life to move you toward justice?
Where is God moving through the divisions in our nation?