At the beginning of sabbatical I took a trip to Scotland for ten days. I unplugged at the Abbey on the magnificent ancient Isle of Iona, then I struck into the city and met with colleagues – I had been connected with the ministers at St. Giles Cathedral, the mother church of Presbyterianism, where John Knox himself preached for a bit. We had a delightful evening, and time the next day after Sunday worship, talking about the life of the church there and here. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had met the week prior to my arrival, and one of the items of business was a historic agreement between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England that allows for relatively free transfer of members and exchange of clergy. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, had come to the Assembly and spoken in the midst of this debate. What is remarkable is that this was the first time he had EVER done so. The Church of England was chartered in 1534. The reformation in Scotland found its heart with John Knox in 1560, but wasn’t formed until 1688. Regardless, we’re talking about more than 400 years, and this was the FIRST TIME the Archbishop had addressed the General Assembly in Scotland. “We know how to keep a grudge,” said my colleague there with a twinkle in his eye.
“Do you think,” Jesus says in today’s text, “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.”
This text initially struck me as odd, because division doesn’t seem to something we need Jesus’ help on. We’re fine on our own – contemporary society specializes in division – political, with its hyper-partisan news-cycle intensity, theological, racial, to be sure. Class divisions…those who have, those who don’t and don’t feel like they have much hope of ever having. Social – who is IN, who is connected. Religious, as we wrestle with and learn from brothers sisters of other faith traditions, and those who claim no faith at all. Responses to the painful events of this summer from Orlando to Baton Rouge to Dallas to Nice. Divisions run deep within families for all sorts of reasons that seem to surface in the summer when you try and plan one of those big family beach trips when everyone is packed on top of each other in a scenario set up for someone to get mad at someone else, or when you don’t consider one of those trips because you can’t stand to be in the same space for that long. Divisions over petty stuff in our neighborhoods, maybe in our churches, small slights long remembered. We need Jesus’ help on a lot of stuff, but I’m not sure division is one of them.
Scholars struggle some with what to do with this passage. Many presume, and I don’t blame them, that these are disconnected sayings – things Jesus might have said at other times but Luke wanted to make sure they weren’t lost even though they don’t fit the narrative arc. We can’t know for sure. But Luke stuck them here for some reason, and our job is to read as carefully as we can to try and figure out why. Jesus has been moving us in a more difficult direction. Luke makes his great turn in 9:51 when we are told that the time was drawing near, and Jesus had ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem.’ Everything He says and does from this point on moves that direction, towards the great city and the death he knows comes.
His words have challenged in recent weeks, that you have read and heard, in Taylor and Betty’s great sermons this summer: “Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” Jesus has taught us how to pray…as Betty reminded us of Karl Barth’s words: “To clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”1 In the last chapter Jesus has stopped preaching and started meddlin’ – to the man who had built bigger barns God says, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things – the big barns and beautifully restored kitchens – where will they be?”
Jesus begins this text sounding like John the Baptist, with the winnowing fork in his hand, separating the wheat and the chaff with fury. Jesus is beginning to feel the urgency for himself, it sounds like the stress is wearing on him. He sees the end coming, he knows how important all this is, how important HE is. And I think he’s worried people are missing it, so it’s time to shake them up. This passage is filled with a deep urgency:
I came to bring FIRE, and how I wish it were already kindled.
I have a baptism with which to be baptized…I have work to which I have been called, and I MUST do it. I did NOT come to bring peace, but a sword. I have not come to bless everything you like about your present life, but to call you to change EVERYTHING.
On March 29, 1956 Martin Luther King stepped into the pulpit of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. The next morning he was to stand trial – this was the heart of the bus boycott. He preached a short sermon entitled, “When Peace becomes Obnoxious.” A Federal Judge had forced the University of Alabama to admit an African-American woman, and you can imagine the threats and violence that accompanied her arrival, crosses burned, eggs and bricks thrown, vicious words. The President and the Trustees were sure it wasn’t safe and asked her to leave, and the next day everyone was so relieved. Things are quiet today in Tuscaloosa, one headline read. “There is peace.” The question King posed was, ‘what was the cost of that peace?’ Using this text, King claimed that:
What [Jesus] is saying is: “I come not to bring this peace of escapism, this peace that fails to confront the real issues of life, the peace that makes for stagnant complacency.” Then He says, “I come to bring a sword” not a physical sword. Whenever I come, a conflict is precipitated between the old and the new, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. I come to declare war over injustice. I come to declare war on evil. Peace is not merely the absence of some negative force – war, tension, confusion, but it is the presence of some positive force – justice, goodwill, the power of the kingdom of God.2
There is something about Jesus – and he’s a real PAIN this way – that he, that his presence, that his love, which is deeply bound up in the division he brings – Jesus forced us to question our deepest commitments. What matters to us? Not the stuff you think you like, but what REALLY matters – your checkbook and your calendar will tell you if you aren’t sure. Why do those things matter to you? The work is for each of us to look deep inside, first, in our own spirits, to listen as carefully as we can for God’s call. Then, and only then, can we enter into situations that bring conflict, out of our faithfulness, honoring each other all the way. While the peace Jesus brings, ultimately, is the deepest, most real and full peace one can find, the journey of discipleship, of trying to be a part of the Kingdom of God that was then and is even now breaking in, is rarely, if ever, one that brings us pleasant comfort and butterflies and flowers. In our moments of deep grief the comfort overwhelms us. Yes it does. But the rest of the time, Jesus calls us to look ourselves in the mirror, wondering WHO we will be about? If you really follow me, I think Jesus is saying here, I am going to cause you trouble. Righteous, holy trouble, but trouble nonetheless.
How will we let his love overflow from our hearts to all places…. with work and the ways we interact with colleagues? How will we live that love as we model faith for our kids – you know as well as I do kids and teenagers sniff out our hypocrisy or lack of real commitment in a second. How will we live as church, as we continue getting our hands to work for clothing for neighborhood families the clothes closets at Hope Valley Elementary and Githens, because kids, our kids, don’t have the clothes they need? From the places you all visited in Durham on the Mission Stay, to the work for brothers and sisters in Haiti. To the kindness you extend to the folks sitting around you, even though I know you need to rush out and grab something and do something important. The life of following Jesus is not something to be tucked away at inconvenient times, but one that ought to overwhelm every single one of our commitments.
Then Jesus turns and points up. You know, friends, when you look to the west to the Mediterranean, the dark clouds over the water tell us rain is coming. And when the wind blows from the south, from the Negeb desert, it comes with scorching heat.3 You get WRAL Weather Alerts on your phone, you know all of those signs. Why then, Jesus pleads. Why don’t you open your eyes now, as busy and full and distracted as they are, to see the kingdom of God right in front of you, so you can jump on board?
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. “How to Pray,” Sermon delivered by Rev. Betty Berghaus on 24 July 2016, Durham, NC.
2. “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious,” Sermon delivered by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on 18 March 1956, Louisville, Ky.
3. WBC: Luke, Sharon Ringe, (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995), p 182.