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Sermon (8/15): No peace! Division!

August 16, 2010

Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth… Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! …father against son, and son against father, mother against daughter, and daughter against mother…”

This bit from the Gospel of Luke feels awfully strange to me. Jesus says, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” And even though I know it’s the wrong answer I’m tempted to say, “Well, actually, yes, I did think you’d bring peace. I thought that was one of the great goals of your life and ministry and the hope of your resurrection.”

But Jesus says, “No! No peace for you… Division!” That’s what you’re going to get—division!

It’s kind of unsettling.

I mean: we know that Jesus talks frequently about toppling the existing social order. He talks about the last being first and the first last, he blesses the meek, the poor and the oppressed. And he issues a litany of woe to the rich and the powerful. And when he does so, he’s not merely making predictions about the future, he’s recalling the past.

Crashing down to earth: that’s what happens to the rich and the powerful, says Jesus, as it has always been, now and forever. And, of course, God has repeatedly exalted the poor and lowly as well. Just look at Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Moses, King David, the prophet Elijah, Ruth, Tamar, Rahab and others—all became great people of God and all from very humble beginnings. In each case, the rise of these great people defied humanity’s social order. And in our scripture, we uphold them as exemplar’s of God’s social order.

Or, as Mary puts it, when she was still pregnant with Jesus and recalling the great history of salvation: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

That’s from the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, which appears earlier in the Gospel of Luke:

“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

If our scripture is to be believed, God’s social order is a reversal of our human social order. In God’s social order the last are first and the first last. The powerful are brought down and the lowly are lifted up. The hungry are filled and the rich are left empty.

But how? How does that happen? How can that happen? Wait—does that happen? When we look around us, it seems as though the hungry tend to stay hungry and the rich tend to stay fat and happy, doesn’t it? And the first keep being first and last keep being last, right? We see it every day, don’t we?

Well, today, I think Jesus is warning us that our belief in the constancy of our human social order is a bit short-sighted.

As Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel reading:

“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 know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Jesus is pointing out that, here, today, as always, there’s a storm coming and it’s going to up-end our existing social order. And when we are in the midst of that storm, there will be very little peace and a whole lot of division, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.

Eventually, the clouds will part, the storm will pass away, and our human social order will have given way to God’s social order—the hungry will be filled and the rich will be empty. And maybe, if we humans learn to live together equitably so that there are no longer such divisions of hungry and rich, then, maybe, there will be real, sustainable peace on the earth. But if not, if the hungry simply become the rich, and the rich become the hungry, then we’ll be right back where we started. And just like the weather, the cycle of calm before storm to calm before storm will repeat itself.

So what are the signs of our coming strife today? What is going to set us against one another, daughter against mother, and son against father right here and right now?

Well… I think it’s in trying to predict the coming storm, whatever it may be, and in trying to explain its causes, that we tangle with one another. I mean, we’re already at each other’s throats, right?

Here, today, in the United States, we’ve got those who predict the breakdown of our social order if we allow the government to regulate health care and investment banking and the oil and gas industry. And then, on the other side, there are those who predict the breakdown of the social order if we don’t regulate health care and investment banking and the oil and gas industry.

We’ve got those who believe that private businesses are going to destroy our way of life slowly but surely, that only the government can save us. And on the other side, we’ve got those who believe government is destroying our way of life, slowly but surely, and that only private business can save us.

And it’s one thing when representatives of these two sides are a pair of talking heads inside our TV sets. But it’s a much different thing when representatives of these two extremes are found within our own families. And mother is set against daughter and son against father.

It happens though, doesn’t it? In my experience, it happens all the time. I’m guessing that many of you have had arguments on these topics with those closest to you. I know I have. I’m guessing that many of us have gotten into arguments over the signs of the coming storm with those we love most.

Because, if anything, I think we can agree that a storm is coming. We are in the midst of a time when there are reports of increased unemployment, falling stock prices, rising sea levels, increased global temperatures, unending gushers of oil poisoning our water, unending wars killing our children, unaccounted for nuclear weapons threatening us and throwing us into panic. And so we see the signs, they’re out there and we’re arguing, we’re fighting with each other about them. What do they portend? What do we do? Whose at fault? How did this happen?

And what does Jesus tell us, in the midst of all that? What does our savior advise us in the midst of our squabbling? Well, what I hear him saying in today’s Gospel reading, what I hear our savior telling us as he overhears us all arguing on Fox News and MSNBC and on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and…

In today’s Gospel, I hear Jesus saying, “Good! Fight, argue, get in each other’s face.” I hear God incarnate telling us, “You all have got some issues. You’ve got things to figure out. And the only way you’re going to figure it out is by working together. And the only way you’re going to work together is if you hash it out. And if that means arguing and carrying on, father against son and daughter against mother, so be it. But don’t walk away. Don’t walk away from one another.”

I think Jesus is telling us that we need to experience this division, this strife, we need to embrace it. That’s the only way we’re going to get through it.

And I think Jesus is also reminding us that getting through it will not result in us somehow maintaining the status quo, it will not result in us holding onto our puny human conception of the social order. There is going to be upheaval. There is going to be cataclysmic change. Our puny human social order is going to give way to God’s social order. God is going to see to that, whether we like it or not. What we can do, what we are called by God to do, is to stick together, despite our disagreements, despite our distaste for some of our fellows’ opinions. We can argue and fight and give each other a hard time, but we can also try to listen, we can do our best to listen to one another, and we can try to see the good in one another.

And if we do, if we do manage to listen to one another, and if we embrace the virtue of compromise, and if we discard the idolatry of purity, if we repent of the sin of perfectionism, then maybe, maybe we’ll all find a way to work together, every last one of us, in harmony with God.

And then, just maybe, we can establish a social order that is ordained by God. Maybe, if we all work together, our human social order can become more like God’s social order and we won’t have to go through all this upheaval, all the time. Maybe.

Now, I know, I know what you’re thinking. We’ve all seen Glenn Beck and we’ve all seen Keith Olberman. I know I sound naïve. But I can hope, can’t I?


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