The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15), Year C.
Jesus said, “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?”Luke 12:49-56
A word that seems to be tossed around rather loosely these days is “unprecedented”. It’s in headlines, public service announcements, advertisements, and now, even sermons! Our common discourse has leaned into describing practically anything that hasn’t happened in the last five years as “unprecedented”. Yet, the problems we face have remained largely unchanged since we traveled east of Eden. Why then, are we in a perpetual state of surprise? We faced a political upheaval yesterday, a pandemic now, tomorrow an economic crisis, and who knows what else after that. The names, faces, and places may change, but the fears, challenges, and solutions remain the same. Why then, is there some innate and urgent need to see our current problems as so special and unique that there has never been any kind of precedent that we can draw from?
There is a certain amount of narcissism that seems to have slithered into our culture. Our obsession with novelty, “innovation”, and “disruption”, leads us to see all things as new, even when they are quite old. It seems that we have rather short memories, because there have always been plagues, politics, and problems. Yet we wonder, “how did it become like this?” “Whatever happened to the ‘good old days’?” Especially in the last few years with the disruption of the pandemic, there is more nostalgia and longing for “normalcy” than ever. Between the health crisis, political division, and social division, people keep asking, “when are things going to go back to normal?”
Usually what gets blamed for keeping things from going back to “normal” is the “unprecedented” division between us. You hear politicians, pundits, and preachers all lamenting how divided we have become. There are surveys, studies, and stories about how in the last decade or so, we’ve become increasingly polarized and angry with one another. In response to this division, the same politicians, pundits, and preachers call us to be “more like Jesus”, peaceful, gentle, loving, kind to all and would never stoop so low to participate in the divisions of His time. If we could all just get along and be more like Jesus, then everything could go back to normal, when everyone got along, and everything was better.
For those who are used only to the Jesus of nativity plays, bumper stickers, stained glass, and pious greeting cards, today’s Gospel lesson is shocking. Where is the peaceful, docile, comforting Jesus? Where is the Good Shepherd, the Prince of Peace? Where is the normal Jesus?
“Do you think I’ve come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather to bring division!”
But why would Jesus, who’s birth was announced by angels with “peace on earth, good will toward men”, come to bring division? Is this not the same Jesus who preached forgiveness for the prodigal son, reconciliation with the brother who sinned against you not seven times but seventy times? How can this be the same Jesus? Where is the “normal” Jesus that talk radio hosts and pundits base their “Christian Family Values” on? Certainly not this Jesus, who brings fire to the earth, and pits families against one another.
Why, with all the division and strife going on in the world today, and in Jesus’ time, would Jesus want to bring more? Why can’t we just go back to normal?
As contrary to the kind, forgiving, and peaceful Jesus we’re used to this passage seems, His proclamation of fire and division is not unprecedented. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is entirely consistent: He is coming to bring peace to the earth, the Kingdom of God where all will live together in Justice and Righteousness. He is coming to bring true peace, but what we forget about in our deradicalized, domesticated, “normal” Jesus, is that it takes a whole lot of disruption and division to get to that true peace.
The bitter truth this Gospel lesson teaches us is that there were no “good old days”, no “normal”, to go back to. This is the frustration Jesus has with us when He describes our inability to interpret the present times. We keep looking backward to “normalcy” as if it were some perfect time, praying that things may go back to normal, when we should be looking ahead, toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. As out of place this divisive and shocking message seems to us in the middle of the lazy days of summer, when Jesus spoke these words, He was about to enter into Jerusalem for the last time. Though we are in the middle of “ordinary time”, we need to think about this passage in the context of Holy Week. Jesus is about to change the world, and for all His teachings about peace, non-judgement, forgiveness, and loving your enemy, the radical change that is about to happen will cause division. For as peaceful and merciful as Jesus is, the radical nature of the Gospel, and how people react to it, will pit brother against sister, sons against fathers, spouses against in-laws.
The desperate desire to go back to normal is a desire for a false peace. “Normal” was never good for everyone. Sure, if you were a certain race or born into a certain class normal was great, but for most of humanity, normal was poverty, discrimination, violence, and insecurity. That comfort, that normalcy, that false peace, it was built on making peace with evil. Tolerating injustice, exploitation, and hate all for the sake of keeping things normal. Normal is a false peace, made from an alliance with evil.
Because we have normalized Jesus, we often forget how radical the Gospel really is. True peace is quite radical to us. The Gospel calls for no less than a perfect relationship between God and our neighbors. For us, this means fire and division, because we are called to radically re-order our priorities and our society. True Peace from God means that our economy will have to be re-shaped to ensure everyone has what they need, rather than what makes the most profit. True peace means our politics will have to change from squabbling and protectionism to respecting the dignity of every human being. True peace will be when we have no more weapons of war because we love all our neighbors.
Peace for its own sake is no peace. The radical nature of the Gospel will cause fire and division, because while many may pray for the Peace of God on earth, few appreciate the radical changes that will entail. Many actively fight against the Peace of God because they benefit too much from things staying normal, even if it means no peace on the earth.
What then shall we do in these times of “unprecedented” division? Now that we have been shaken awake from “normal” we can take an honest look at our society and our world, and perhaps for the first time in a long time, work toward the Peace of God. In a way, the division we see now is a blessing not a curse. While it may be disruptive, there is a certain amount of honesty to it. We are no longer simply tolerating injustice because it’s “normal”. No longer can we make peace with evil because “that’s how it’s always been”. Maybe we are even able to interpret the present times like Jesus wants us to.
The real challenge of our present time isn’t the division. Because of the radical nature of the Gospel, there will be division, there will be resistance, but that does not trouble us. We know and we have seen how transformative the Gospel is; that in defeating death on the cross and reconciling us to God, we will have Peace on earth. The real challenge for us is living out the Gospel in these divisive times. To live out the Gospel is to fight tooth and nail for Justice and Righteousness, bringing fire and division to shake the world out of “normalcy”. Yet to live out the Gospel is also to fight for these things while still loving even our most bitter enemy. When we live into the Gospel, then the Peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall come. Amen.