Jeremiah 23::23-29 and Luke 49:56
“Lord, we don’t need another mountain,” as the song goes, “we’ve got mountains enough to climb.”
Likewise, Lord, we don’t need any more division in our world today.
With terrorist attacks
and violence at political rallies
and Presidential candidates encouraging people with guns to take matters into their own hands .
But that’s what it sounds like Jesus is bringing, promising,
Maybe even calling for
in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke.
We really don’t need a text or a teaching like this, do we?
Many of you have probably heard me complain at one time or another,
about the painting on the back wall of one of our UCC congregations in a Rochester suburb:
A blue-eyed soul,
white clad Jesus,
golden tresses and all,
carrying a pure white lamb on his shoulders,
curled around his neck like some luxurious, pre-depression woman’s fur collar.
in front of a sunrise whose light is bathing the whole world in a perfect pastel pink.
It’s not the kind of image
that leaves much room for
the complexities and brokenness of our real lives or the world as we know it.
It’s what makes people whose lives are far from perfect feel less than welcomed.
And it leaves church looking like it’s rose-colored glasses or make believe.
But in these unsettled and unsettling days,
I see the attraction of checking in for something irenic, even if a little escapist or fake;
frankly, this morning I might even prefer it to Jesus announcing
he’s come to bring fire,
He seems to wish the world were already kindled.
Snatching out of our grasp any prospect or hope of peace,
even some surface pastel peace,
And leaving us with division that comes right home to dwell and to divide us.
Into our families or among us here at church.
But is that the message Jesus means to live with us?
You might have noticed the title of this sermon is “There’s Division and then There’s Division.”
Set inside the larger narrative arc of Luke,
I’m not sure Jesus means to point so much to some desired division of his own creating
(afterall, in Ephesians, Paul writes about a unity that comes from Christ,
unity enough to knit the whole together in love. )
Perhaps, Jesus’ reference is to the realities in which we find ourselves today,
and the situations our being faithful will occasion,
the what about where
…where we are called to follow, minister and heal.
Less about Jesus, I think the passage is about our world and about us…
what our faithfulness is going to look like in a field of wheat and tares,
where not everyone means good —
where trying to do right, people are going to disagree with you,
and you’re going to be driven to distraction if you don’t accept you can’t make everyone happy.
Rather than announcing what can only be bad news,
isn’t Jesus offering encouragement for what we as his followers are to do and expect.
Church, fire was meant to destroy, but not indiscriminately…
It was not a weapon to hurt; rather it was a tool to save.
Jesus’ ire was with the reigning systems that were not about salvation,
that did not serve the general good;
perversions that were means of someone’s taking unfair advantage of others.
Primary examples of Jesus’ anger were
the domination, exploitation and impoverishment of colonial territories by the Roman Empire
or the institutional religion of Jesus own day,
when a system guaranteed salvation, but in effect more often distanced people from God,
even as it successfully gave social and political advantage to a few at the expense of many.
(In so many ways, the religion of our own day often also distances people from God in various ways.)
For Jesus, fire can purify,
destroying our human fears and the consequent need for security
…and by extension taking down those institutions that exploit our fear rather than offer us security in God.
Jesus refers to Baptism, I think,
because it was his entry into the ministry of his life,
the ministry that was to lead to his death.
Likewise, our baptisms are our entry into our lives as ministry.
Do you primarily understand your life as ministry?
Baptism is the outward sign of our inward calling.
Not meant to be simply an easy, joyous occasion for gathering the family to meet the new baby. But our invitation and initiation into life as a vocation.
….With all the hardships and headaches that living one’s life for God will inevitably add to your life.
Do you see where I am going here, folk?
Jesus isn’t coming to create chaos in the world.
Rather, he’s about raising up the good,
even if, in a world where not all the forces are for good…
well, inevitably, promoting good will occasion pushback and cause conflict.
Not just in the public square, but in the closest intimacies of our own families.
Beloved, we live in a broken, divided world
Jesus needs us to understand that following him will not be easy.
The gospel will not always bring immediate peace,
no matter how much we want or nee!
I often reassure people who are shocked that the church is less than a perfect community;
“Just because church isn’t always the most peaceful or easiest community,
that doesn’t mean that God is not at work through it. And in it.
The same is true everywhere else.
All the other places where there is less than perfect peace.
God can and does work in mysterious ways and surprising places.
What if division is not the problem?
Perhaps it is in our own naive expectation that we have more truth than others.
Could God be at work on both sides of an issue?
Can God see something in your enemy that you cannot?
Could there be a broken reaity for Christianity, no matter how hard we try.
Maybe human togetherness is not what the Gospel is about.
Rather, the Gospel, preached into individual lives and into the world, will do its work,
and we are left to trust that God is at work
and resist our temptations to control the outcome.
Isn’t that what Jesus is talking about in the end of our passage?
We don’t recognize all that is happening:
we’re so often blind to things right in front of us concerning God and Christ.
And we’re hypocrites when we fool ourselves we have a monopoly on the truth,
…about ourselves and the world.
Maybe we don’t have to have everything figured out…
more pointedly, maybe God doesn’t need us to have it all figured out.
Are we really listening to God’s call,
or is God our excuse for doing what we see as right,
…or our heavenly justification for what we really want to do?
Let me finish this morning this way:
I saved an March 2014 article from the NYTimes
that shared a critique of “safe space.”
These days, we find ourselves often talking about spaces where people can feel free to be themselves.
It’s also part of our vision and hopes of our theology, and
for our church:
we want to create a space where people can be free to look honestly at themselves and their lives,
and before others and God confess their shortcomings and sins.
Church as a place to be authentic, uncover and find freedom from our fears and doubts.
Where we can struggle forth from the shadows and come into the light.
Where those deep down secrets lose the power of being hidden,
…a place where judgement is withheld so a person might experience grace.
Curiously, when I read the article, the first safe space place I thought of was not church.
Or the college campuses that have enacted covenants of behavior and for speach that all might feel safe.
Instead, my mind jumped to 12 step groups that begin by establishing some safe apace.
But the article was pointed out a danger:
does a commitment to safe space fail to provide us with
the distinct difference between a real threat and annoyances,
or even just being made for cause to feel uncomfortable?
Is having your ideas challenged a threat?
Does the promise or possibility of safe space leave us sort of fragile,
so that having alternative interpretations of experiences come off more like harm to oneself,
rather than part of the process of give and take in a big, diverse world?
Does someone telling you your idea is bad constitute a threat?
Does someone believing your opinion is wrong-headed or self-serving really make you unsafe?
Do insensitive comments, short of inciting violence, really harm?
Could our commitment to safe space prevent us from
— or at least make it more difficult for us to have —
important yet difficult, controversial conversations.
(Some I think, wish we weren’t having our sacred conversations on race,
afterall, church is an environment, many insist, meant to put everyone at ease, to make us feel comfortable.)
As the article stated:
“…the notion that ticklish conversations must be scrubbed clean of controversy
has a way of leaking out and spreading.
Once you designate some spaces as safe,
you imply or even judge that the rest are unsafe.
It follows that they should be made safer.”
But church, the world isn’t safe.
And creating safe spaces, while perhaps in certain circumstance is helpful even necessary,
can we make the whole world safe?
Will safe spaces here and there make the world safe?
Could they set up false hopes that fail to prepare us to face and function well in the real world?
Maybe even make it harder to function anywhere?
Churches of all communities know this:
sometimes we are completely paralyzed for fear the wrong word or deed will give offence
and make someone uncomfortable or angry.
The article wondered if in our attempts to create safe space,
don’t we unwittingly make it impossible to have authentic conversations about difficult subjects?
Do we with safe space, sand off rough edges to save ourselves some tension,
but do we also stifle the synthesis that comes of opposing viewpoints?
And rob ourselves of the energy that comes from differing people rubbing shoulders or even bumping into each other?
Do we aiming to keep the peace, come up shy of a real solution we might get to
with more rigorous disagreements?
How many church meetings belabor a tough decision,
not because the members empowered to decide are unsure,
but over fear of how others, often the most reactive, will respond to?
Church folk easily confuse being made uncomfortable or being displeased with being harmed or injured.
Maybe Jesus is calling us to take responsibility for our own feelings.
And to serve, maybe even prophetically, when our environment doesn’t feel safe.
Beloved, you are stronger than you think.
We can disagree and still love.
We can stay engaged when we see things differently, even when we are offended.
We can bear the discomfort. Even pain.
It’s hard work.
Harder than blaming someone else.
Harder than insisting that everyone be careful not to step on your toes, or to challenge or to offend you.
In a broken world with broken people, insensitive things will be said and done.
The real work of our faith is becoming people who can be in relationship with people
who not only are different from us,
but who also challenge our most tightly held beliefs.
Faith is about living in the midst of all the division, hopefully,
because God can surely make more of it that we can.
And because there is a certain promise and power in the friction
when we truly meet one another as we are,
and receive them as they are,
when we relate with one another across all that would keep us apart.
When I was installed as the pastor at my second church,
I received a letter from Arthur Wells, the sort of self-appointed, but also recognized Dean of UCC pastors in the NY area.
He wrote about the pastorate ahead of me (perhaps foreseeing it wasn’t to be an easy run!):
Ministry is never always easy.
Misunderstanding and mistrust persist.
Unkind things will be said.
Difficult responses will occur.
But God’s love and mercy will prevail.
And getting through it all faithfully,
and staying together,
and coming out on the otherside,
well, there’s unquestionably a great blessing there,
like unto heaven.