Rev. Juanita Austin
Based on Luke 12:49-56 (read from the Message)
When I read the gospel for today, where Jesus clearly says he’s come to bring fire and turmoil, not peace, I said to myself, ‘Ah yes, this is why I take holidays in August – so I don’t’ have to deal with these scripture readings!’ But… here it is dear ones and here we are, so let’s look at it together.
If Jesus were a performer at the Roots and Blues festival this weekend, we would quietly and politely dissipate and find a more upbeat performer. Hey we’re here to be entertained, not hear gloom and doom – who wants to hear that Jesus bringing division to families – they are divided enough aren’t they? Most of us have known the bewildering struggle of mothers against daughters, sons against fathers, siblings disagreeing with one another over the inheritance, and bad mother-in-law jokes.
And in Jesus’ culture, family loyalty was of utmost importance. It was an `honour and shame’ system where everything you did reflected back on your family – if you did well in school or business, you honoured your family. If you made poor choices, especially poor moral choices, you brought shame to your family. You couldn’t make a decision and say, `Hey it’s my life and it’s none of your business!’ There was very little room for individualism. So for Jesus, steeped in the Jewish tradition of the Torah, founded on the 10 commandments, – remember the one that says `honour your father and mother’ – for Jesus to say that he came to bring division and turmoil rather than peace to the world, and to families in particular, would be well… as awful as it sounds.
So, I hope you’re curious about what’s going on! A little biblical commentary is helpful here. It’s important to remind ourselves that the gospels were written down long after Jesus earthly ministry. The gospel of Luke was compiled about 50 years after Jesus’ death. By then there have been some big changes in his society. The most disruptive would have been the Roman invasion of Jerusalem in the year 70, including a massive massacre of its citizens. By then the early Christian community has been growing, but not without conflict of its own. There are Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, and there are disagreements in the congregations – we wouldn’t have most of the books in the New Testament if there hadn’t been. And there are faithful Jews whose city and religion and very lives are under threat.
So, if we only see Jesus’ words in the context of the culture of the day, the honour /shame system, then choosing to follow Jesus over loyalty to your own family, would feel very confrontational.
Reading Jesus’ words as the early church, already experiencing division because of their loyalty to Jesus, would make these disturbing words a little more comforting, sort of like, “See, he tried to warn us this would happen.”
According to the commentary on Luke, the first few verses 49 to 53 are spoken to the disciples, not the crowds in general. They are spoken as one who has set his face to Jerusalem aware of what his words will cost him. Remember also that John the Baptist said, I baptize you with water, but the one to come baptizes with fire and Spirit and that Holy Spirit will judge, cleanse & inspire.
If we look further back in Luke, we’ll realize we’ve been given some warning that Jesus is not all about sweetness and light, but demands courage and compassion for the kingdom of God. Way back at the beginning of the story when the infant Jesus was being brought to the temple to be dedicated to God, old Simeon prophesied, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel.”(Luke 2:34)
The Jesus’ bandwagon is not for the faint of heart, and back in chapter 9, Jesus speaks bluntly about the cost of discipleship. The decision to follow Jesus can disrupt even family obligations… (Luke 9:57-62) these are some of the responses he gives to `would be’ disciples…
I have nowhere to lay my head… Let the dead bury the dead,…if you look back you are not fit for the kingdom. With these dissuading words it’s a wonder any of us are here trying to be Jesus’s disciples today.
As well as the shame/honour system of the Middle- east which Jesus grew up in, he was also planted in the middle of the world power that was the Roman Empire. The official slogan of the Roman Empire was `Peace through Victory.’ In other words, `Do what was say or we will kill you. If Jesus had a slogan it would be `peace through justice.’
And that, my friends, is where the rub is. There is a wonderful hymn by Sylvia Dunstan called Christus Paradox, and the first verse lays it out for us:
“You Lord are both Lamb and shepherd, you Lord are both prince and slave, You peace-maker and sword-bringer, of the way you took and gave. You, the everlasting instant; you, whom we both scorn and crave.”
We want Jesus to be the peacemaker – we attribute to him the titles of the anointed one from the book of Isaiah: Prince of Peace. And indeed he is that, but it’s not peace through putting his head in the sand. It’s peace through justice and that means it has a cost to it – it always involves giving up some privilege or sense of entitlement, for the sake of making the world fairer for the most vulnerable, for those who have not been the `winners’ in history. And none of us like to give up privilege or entitlement; sometimes it’s even hard to give away another box of `stuff’. E.g. last week, I brought a box of treasures for the thrift store here in Sicamous, along with a brand new baby gate. Then on Friday, we had our carpets cleaned. Then the dog wanted back in the house, and we thought, wouldn’t it be handy to have that baby gate back, so she could be comfortable in the house, but not drool or leak other bodily fluids on the newly cleaned carpet! This is what my daughter would call a `first world’ problem. Yes, not something Jesus would spend a lot of time worrying about!
But I have tried to be a disciple in my life, and I will continue to try. I want to follow the Prince of Peace. I’ve wanted to be a peace-maker in my own life – I was always the one, as a kid, trying to break up the fights between my younger brothers; opening the door to one of those classically picked on kids in school, when someone else wanted to beat him or her up; confronting a teacher who was treating a student unfairly, and I have tried to be the peace-maker in my ministry – supporting the United Church’s position on the ordination of homosexual persons, supporting the healing fund for First Nations residential school survivors, encouraging congregations to be open to same-gender weddings, trying to name and heal old wounds and prejudices, naming the misogyny that still exists in society and in the church, trying to advocate for and live by healthy boundaries and self-care in the process of caring for others. But, I’ve found it quite true, as the saying goes, `No good deed will go unpunished.’
Sometimes in the process of trying to be a peace-maker, trying to follow the Prince of Peace, I have found that, as the T-shirt says, I’ve had to be (pardon the language) the `shit-disturber.’ It’s not my favourite role, or even my intended role, but it is a consequence of trying to live peace through justice, and it helps me to understand Jesus’ strange and disturbing words in this passage from Luke.
There is a prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr, you may know the shortened version as the serenity prayer: God grant the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The “original version” is worth holding close to your heart as well, and so I end my reflection with the fullness of this prayer: “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right, if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.”
Word for all ages:
When I asked Allie if she had a favourite hymn for today, she mentioned `Each Blade of Grass’. Keri Wehlander who wrote the words, found the tune in an old book of American folk songs – it was written in shape-notes. When each differently shaped note – triangle, square etc. has a tonal value, and she was delighted when she was able to discover what it sounded like. She wrote the words, inspired by a lovely saying from the Talmud, a book of Jewish wisdom.
Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow! Grow!”
What might your angel be whispering to you?
Where do you see the glory of God reflected in the world…?
What have you seen, felt, experienced recently that inspires or blesses you, and `makes full the circle of God.’?