(A sermon preached on Luke 12:49-56 at All Saints' Littleton, NH on 8/15/2010)
This morning’s Gospel lesson is not a pleasant passage of scripture to deal with. It often appears at inopportune times, and ultimately gets used to justify all sorts of bad behavior.
Case in point. I follow a website via Facebook called Beliefnet. It is an interfaith website that offers daily inspiration with news articles on faith, religion, health, and more. It offers good op-eds, and provokes thoughtful questions for people of all faiths.
For the start of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer where Muslims seek forgiveness and a faithful renewal, Beliefnet offered an article, written by a Muslim, called “21 Ways to be a Better Muslim.” The list of 21 is a normal feature of Beliefnet, and, after a brief description of why it’s important for Muslims to seek to improve themselves, goes on to list things like “rejoice in the light of God’s love”, “establish daily prayer,” and “reach out to your neighbors with kindness.”
Almost instantly upon it’s posting, people that later identified themselves as Christians starting writing:
Why is this on here? Are you kidding me???? You are kidding right??????? BE A BETTER MUSLIM???? GET OUT OF DENIAL. DO THEY CARE ABOUT OUR OBSERVANCES???
They started bringing up 9/11 and the treatment of women in Islamic countries, and, as the final argument, that American is a Christian nation.
The reaction is not unrelated to what is happening throughout the country, and not just near Ground Zero. People throughout America are protesting wherever new Mosques and Islamic culture centers are proposed. The arguments are familiar: not in my neighborhood, stop rewarding those responsible for terror, and that this should not happen in America.
Returning to the post on Ramadan, others, including me, responded with words about tolerance, an open mind, and reminders that Beliefnet is an Interfaith, not a Christian website. Those who responded sought to remind people that the acts of extremists do not represent a religion, that America is built in a large part on freedom of religion, and, of course, that Christians are called by Jesus to love and kindness, and not to hate.
Perhaps because it was on my mind in my sermon preparation, but I kept waiting for someone to bring up this scripture, or something like it, as proof for their negative comments. No one on the website mentioned this week’s text, but I for one can imagine how easily it could have been used to justify the negative reactions.
In truth, this morning’s text, and others like it, causes a great deal of confusion. We hear week after week about Jesus’ message of love and inclusion that is found throughout the Gospels. However, when we get words from Jesus like this, we are often unprepared, and wonder what is going on.
“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.” (Lk 12:51-53)
The relationships that one would assume would be closer and more loving thanks to Jesus’ presence, are instead, fractured.
(Quick aside: I have to admit, after 35 some years observations, I sort of laugh at the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law inclusion. Maybe Jesus should of left that one alone as an example of a surprising source of conflict. Oh well.)
We are called to attempt to discern Jesus’ point in all of this; taking into account ALL that Jesus has said before reaching a conclusion that, in truth, will likely be far from complete.
With this in mind, let’s turn to what the text doesn’t mean.
First off, I don’t believe for a second that this is a convenient out for having to treat one another in a generous, loving way. I don’t believe that this passage is to illustrate the way that differing religions are to relate to one another.
I am also unconvinced in the interpretation that the message is that Jesus should be “loved more” than those we traditionally love (this is more from the hating mother, father, brother and sister version of the saying, but one can see that parallels).
Ok, the easy part...what it isn’t, is out of the way. Now the hard part: what might this mean?
I think that this is a warning for those who would follow Jesus. Perhaps it can be illustrated by a quick story I encountered from Andrew Prior on his website.
A lecturer at Agricultural College (in Australia) said he had once casually asked a student if he was going back on the farm after university to take over from Dad.
The young man replied, “Well, Grandpa hasn’t let Dad have a go at running the farm yet.”
This quick one liner illustrates a structure of power that is still found today in many families.
John Dominic Crossan notes that the emphasis in the Gospel lesson is on generations rather than gender (“father against son, 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 suggests that the reign of God’s love tears families apart along the axis of power, particularly power that is abused as parental power has often done. (Quoted by John Shearman in Prior’s blog post)
Think about it this way: So often in families, we are told that we have to preserve peace at all costs. The problem is, what society often refers to as “peace” is often putting up with the current divisions of power, keeping one’s mouth shut, fitting in, and not questioning out loud.
‘Peace at all costs’ has no place here. That kind of harmony gilds oppression with respectability and rewards wrong. Instead we face a full scale conflict, taken right into the heart of human formation: the family. The family is being dethroned from its absolute claims....Jesus is confronting the gods of family and warning that this is very dangerous territory.
It was not that Jesus sought to subvert families as such. It was rather that he espoused a vision of God and God’s agenda for change which often stood in direct conflict with other absolute claims, like wealth, possessions, land, culture, religion and family. He appears to have deliberately encouraged some to dislocate by leaving behind the claims of their local communities, clan, and family. Like him they traveled with him as a kind of entourage of protest against the prevailing systems. But he also encouraged others who stayed where they were to put the kingdom first. Everything else has its place but falls into proper perspective when the ‘God part’ is taken care of. That is not a guarantee of peace and harmony, but an involvement in change which will have its own rewards. It will encounter resistance and rejection from the powerbrokers of the gods of family and tradition.”
This morning’s Gospel is not an invitation to provoke others, or permission to demean those that follow a different path. Instead, it voices a reality that following Jesus will likely upset business as usual, especially along the established lines of wealth, power, and custom, and it is not surprising to expect that these divisions will especially cause friction among those in close relationship.
The heart of human formation, in the beginning, is the family, nuclear or not. It is there we begin to learn, and are first injured. The freedom the gospel offers us is to step out of that family, and place the heart of our formation in the hands of God....
...we come to follow Jesus, seeking peace, justice, and the kingdom. What does this do, but immediately challenge the power structure to which we formally gave allegiance? How much do we wish for the peace? We may need to endure great and painful division....”
While some of these “painful divisions” may still need to occur in our lives, most of us here today have likely already experienced more than our share of them. It is along lines of religion, sexuality, and family expectations that often today top people’s lists for causing division, but there are surely other places as well. While it is ultimately liberating when we follow where God leads us, some of the places of division in our lives leave faded scars, and others still are open, deep wounds.
In conclusion, I believe that Jesus’ words today call us into action in at least three ways.
We are called to not fear the truth, even if it will upset the understood peace in our lives and in the lives of others.
We are called to be generous, gentle, and patient with each other; as we ourselves walk towards truth, or as we witness others moving or recounting transformation.
And, finally, we are to remember that division does not end love. Coming into conflict with each other, and experiencing division, does not relieve ourselves from the responsibly (and great honor) of being loving as one’s neighbor. It is always within God’s love, that we are ultimately called to see one another.