Sermon: Divided We Stand

BLM_LetterheadSunday, August 14, 2016
New Hope Lutheran Church, Aurora, IL

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?

There are quite a few pastors out of town this week, following the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in New Orleans. And I imagine that a lot of them are probably thinking the same thing right about now: “Thank God I don’t have to preach on this text this weekend!”

These eight verses from Luke are among the most challenging verses of the entire New Testament. The harsh and divisive language that Jesus uses doesn’t really match up with the way that most of us tend to think about him. I mean, Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the Good Shepherd who gathers all the sheep together into his fold, even sheep that don’t belong to his fold, uniting them all in the one family of his father. This is the savior who healed the sick and told us to love one another. So what’s the deal with this text? Was Jesus just having a bad day?

Part of understanding this text requires understanding where exactly it falls in the overarching narrative of Jesus’ life. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus speaks these words to the crowds as he is on his way to Jerusalem. He is marching toward what he knows will be a showdown with the Roman Empire. Under the circumstances, it’s understandable that he is “under great stress” until he has completed the work that he has come to do. More than anything, Jesus is intensely focused on what is to come, and he is understandably frustrated that no one appears to grasp the seriousness of the events that are happening. His coming was foretold in the scriptures, and yet, as he says to the people, “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?” Why can’t you understand what’s going on here?

Yet, this isn’t all there is to Jesus’ words in our gospel passage. Jesus also asks, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the world?” Personally, I find myself answering: “Well… yes?” But Jesus’ answer is clear: “No.” “No, I tell you, but rather division!”

It’s a challenging word. Our world already feels so divided and angry. And especially in the midst of a heated election season, most of us probably feel like the last thing we need is more division in the world. It seems really out of character for Jesus to say these things.

As I was preparing to preach on this text, I decided to go back and read some of the gospel stories that tell us what it was like when Jesus came to this world – his words, his actions, the parables he told, the people he hung out with. And as I was reading, I began to realize something: Jesus was not kidding about bringing division. On the contrary, the gospel witness about him is absolutely full of it.

Think about it. I mean, think about literally any time in the gospels when Jesus has an interaction with the Pharisees or the Sadducees or the scribes or the lawyers. Jesus frequently goes against Jewish tradition, he heals on the Sabbath, eats with tax collectors, casts out demons, doesn’t tell his disciples to wash their hands, and flat out calls the scribes and Pharisees a bunch of hypocrites who devour widows’ houses.

Jesus also has a tendency to divide up families. He starts his ministry as he is walking by the Sea of Galilee; he calls James and John to just up and leave their father Zebedee sitting in a boat so that they can come follow him. He aggravates a rift between the sisters Mary and Martha by praising Mary’s behavior and criticizing Martha for being too busy. Jesus refuses to even recognize his own mother and brothers when they come looking for him. And he straight up tells people to leave their fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers behind for his sake.

Even when Jesus does things that seem like they could only be good, he creates division. When Jesus heals the servant of a Roman centurion, he ends up making the Jewish elders mad because the man was Roman. Jesus preaches and heals people in his hometown of Nazareth, but ends up making people so angry that they try to throw him off a cliff. Even when he gives sight to the man born blind, the people who hear about it go crazy arguing with one another about how it actually happened.

When you consider all of these stories of division and anger that make up so much of the gospel narratives about Jesus, it makes you wonder how we came to know him as our Prince of Peace at all. Many of Jesus’ words have led to division, and his actions led him to a very violent end.

And yet, we find that Jesus does talk about bringing peace. Jesus greets his disciples with peace, and instructs them to do the same when he sends them out two by two. In fact, one of the best-known verses of the Bible is John 14:27, where Jesus says to us, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” So why then, in our text for today, do we have Jesus saying that he’s not bringing peace?

I think it has a lot to do with how we understand the concept of peace. I think when most of us imagine peace, we think of it as the absence of tension and division and argument, the absence of war and violence. We think of peace as freedom from our stresses and our worries. But there are other ways to think about peace.

While reading this text, I remembered a few lines from Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In his letter, Dr. King expresses frustration with a church full of white moderates who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.” And he describes them as a church that “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” I think this concept of negative peace versus positive peace can be a really helpful one.

Negative peace is the peace of people who don’t want to rock the boat, of people who prefer to always try to remain “neutral” in political and social justice issues. It’s a peace that says that things are “good enough” the way they are. In Dr. King’s day, it was the peace of people who said, “Well, hey, nobody’s forcing you to work on the plantations anymore, you’ve got your freedom, you can vote. Isn’t that good enough?” In the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire maintained “peace,” which meant that there was no war, but it was a kind of peace that didn’t exactly feel very peaceful to the oppressed peoples who were living under the empire’s thumb.

That’s the fundamental issue with negative peace. It tends to require a kind of blindness and deafness to what’s happening outside our own little bubble of peace. Negative peace is content with things being peaceful on the whole, and so it tends to erase the experience of those whose lives aren’t peaceful at all.

Positive peace is a very different kind of peace. As Dr. King described it, positive peace is the “presence of justice.” Positive peace is not content with “good enough,” and it isn’t content to let some people suffer in order to maintain the peace of the whole. Instead, positive peace seeks to ensure the wellbeing and happiness of all. In many ways, positive peace is God’s peace. Positive peace seeks to make sure that all voices are heard, and that everyone receives justice. For Dr. King, it wasn’t enough that African-Americans had been released from slavery; as long as they continued to be treated like second class citizens in this country, they had neither justice nor peace.

Creating positive peace often requires lifting up one particular set of voices that cry out for justice so that everyone may hear it and work to restore that justice. It’s impossible to stay completely neutral when working for positive peace. That’s why Jesus stood up specifically on behalf of the “least of these” – women and Samaritans and widows and children. Instead of just preaching generally that we should all love each other and try to get along, Jesus highlighted the injustices suffered by specific groups of people.

That kind of work creates division – intentionally – but it is division aimed at enacting peace. And if we want to help enact God’s peace, we need to become a little more comfortable creating the kind of division that Jesus created. I’m not talking about starting fights, or even about leaving your parents sitting in a boat somewhere; but rather I’m talking about being aware that the world is more unjust for some people than for others, and having the courage to stand up and say so, even if it provokes division. If we try to achieve peace without provoking division, we will inevitably end up glossing over the experiences of certain groups of people. Erasing division means ignoring the real differences between different people, and the differences in how they experience the world. This leads to a negative peace, instead of a positive one.

Creating division for peace can be painful, discomforting work. Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders were often told that their tactics were offensive and off-putting to white leaders. But Dr. King knew that only that division could draw attention to the injustices being suffered. In our days, the Black Lives Matter movement has been accused of using “divisive rhetoric” by people who would rather maintain a negative peace. But they are creating the same kind of division as Dr. King, to draw attention to the fact that, in this country, black lives are treated like they matter less than white lives.

This is only a very small slice of the division happening in our country right now and in the world. It can be disheartening for us sometimes to see it, especially the way it has been highlighted by the current presidential election. We might think that all this division means that there will never be peace. But this is where we have a chance to use some holy imagination. Because where there is division, there is opportunity for bringing justice and reconciliation. There is an opportunity to bring God’s peace. As Christians, we can ask ourselves WWJD – Where Would Jesus Divide? We can imagine what a just resolution to division might look like, and we can work for it. And maybe, like Jesus, we can bring a little holy division of our own.

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