August 18, 2019

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost Year C 2019

Most of us tend to put our best foot forward in public, projecting our best self in our social interactions. But at home, we tend to let our guard down, we’re more honest about what we really think and feel, because hopefully we feel safe at home. We also know that those who know us best and love us most are not easily fooled. So we can get away with less at home than with people who don’t know us as well. Unfortunately, that also means that the place where we may experience the most intense conflict might also be at home.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that one in three females and one in four males will experience some form of violence at the hands of an intimate partner or family member in their lifetime. In addition, 28% of homeless families are homeless because they have left a violent situation at home. So maybe our homes aren’t always safe.

But I don’t think Jesus’ words to his followers in our Gospel today were meant to invoke violence:

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.

Remember how Jesus’ birth was announced by the angels near the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” And isn’t Jesus known elsewhere in the scriptures as “the Prince of Peace?” And isn’t the Kingdom of God that Jesus’ announces and inaugurates with his life and teaching a kingdom of peace?

So why does Jesus say he has come to bring division, and not just between the religious leaders of his day and his followers, but even down to the very foundation of Jewish society, the family? Does the fifth commandment become invalid for Jesus, “Honor your Father and Mother?”

Now we could just chalk this up to Jesus being stressed, maybe he didn’t really mean it. After all we all say things we regret when we’re out of sorts, especially to our family. And our passage begins with Jesus talking about bringing fire to the earth, and that he has a baptism to be baptized with and how stressed he is until it is completed, talking of course about his impending death. So maybe once Jesus cools down he’ll apologize and say he really didn’t mean it.

Two chapters later, in Luke chapter 14, Jesus says,

Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.

So apparently, Jesus doesn’t have a change of heart and means what he says. Remember earlier in Luke’s Gospel when some people came to Jesus and told him his Mother and brothers were there, but Jesus responded that his Mother and brothers were those who heard God’s word and did it. Jesus’ primary concern is our allegiance to God’s priorities and kingdom.

I don’t think what Jesus is doing in all of these instances is meant to under-mind our respect and honor for our elders, not at all. But I do think Jesus is instructing his disciples about the priorities of God’s kingdom. And Jesus was on a mission. He had turned his face toward Jerusalem and had seen what was coming. His words may be more descriptive than prescriptive. He knew that the kingdom of God challenged the status quo and called for radical change.

Teresa Berger, a professor at Yale Divinity School says this:

If our world were nothing but a place of created goodness and profound beauty, a space of flourishing for all, just and life-giving for all in God’s creation, then Jesus’ challenge would be deeply troubling. If, on the other hand, our world is deeply marred and scarred, death-dealing for many, with systems of meaning that are exploitative and non-sustainable, then redemption can come only when those systems are shattered and consumed by fire. Life cannot (re-)emerge without confrontation. This is the basis of the conflict Jesus envisions. He comes not to disturb a nice world but to shatter the disturbing and death-dealing systems of meaning that stifle life.

Maybe Jesus is talking about fire in the sense that John the Baptist did before he baptized Jesus in the Jordan river, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming … He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

And remember the tongues of fire on the heads of the disciples at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was given. Maybe this fire is a purifying and empowering fire to enable Jesus’ followers to do even greater things than he did, to bring about a world that is more just and equitable, where there is less violence and more love, where our homes and communities are places where we can be honest about our doubts and our struggles without threat of excommunication. Where we can know that we are loved no matter what may come. And that in the midst of the daily stresses and challenges of life, we know we follow a savior who has been through the worst life can offer and has shown us that even though we cannot avoid suffering, we can experience God’s presence and peace to see us through.

Lisa Fithian says, “crisis is the edge where change is possible.” Maybe what Jesus is trying to say here is that the division he is bringing is for the purpose of bringing about the reign of God in our lives and in the lives of our families and friends. Even a revolution of radical love and acceptance cannot help but bring division to those who are threatened by a God who looks like Jesus. May our lives bring forth the fruit of transformation born of the Spirit’s fire.

Amen.