Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Jeremiah 23:23-29 | Psalm 82 | Hebrews 11:29-12:2 | Luke 12:49-56
I remember in high school one day, walking down the hall to English class with my friend. There were about two minutes left in the passing period, and she kind of curiously asked me to explain real quick what Christianity is and what Christians believe. (My friend was Hindu.)
After feeling like *omg this is my evangelical moment* I started saying well, you know… I go to a Methodist Church, but that’s different because I was baptized Catholic but now I go to an Evangelical youth group, and a lot of it really depends on who you ask… and by the time I got to anything about Jesus she was kind of like… whoa y’all can’t just all be Christians? Seems pretty complicated.
And she’s right! Christianity in the US is really complicated, and really divided. I grew up thinking that was kind of sad and wrong, but then in seminary we read from a book called Christianity As A World Religion whose authors (Kim and Kim) described US American Christianity as a mosaic.
A mosaic is all these little bits of broken glass or rock, placed together and arranged to create a beautiful whole. There is brokenness, but the beauty of it is that each little piece is able to take in its own shade and color. (I imagine the United Methodists are a big red curvy piece, and the Southern Baptists are a big green rectangle, and the Pentecostals and Mennonites and Orthodox all have their own colors…) And by each piece being more itself, it enhances the whole.
That was a really different idea for me, because I had been thinking about division as a problem or a threat. In my ideal world, we could all just get along and agree on the main things, and not sweat the other stuff, you know? But the problem is that divisions are there whether they’re expressed or not. Divisions exist under the surface, or in smaller factions, or subgroups of the whole.
For a *totally hypothetical* example, imagine a faith community with a lot of people under one big tent. The main group believes that men are the only people God is calling to be pastors, but a smaller group knows that God calls women to lead. As long as “everybody’s getting along,” the power and policies of the community will reflect the dominant group; only men will be pastors.
But then the Spirit stirs up the smaller group to speak their faith and advocate for the leadership of women. And… There is division! The smaller group causes tension and conflict. It makes people upset or confused. A few people from the big group listen and decide to become part of the smaller group, and so the smaller group gets bigger. And the people in the first group feel threatened! Why are they causing so much trouble? Why can’t Christians just live at peace with each other?
And of course it begins to become clear that there was never actually peace in the first place. The smaller group didn’t cause the division or tension. They just gave voice to the division and tension that had been there all along, imperceptible to the dominant group. What felt like peace to the dominant group, felt like erasure or domination to the rest.
So in Jesus’s ministry, we hold these two images—peace and division—in tension with one another. God’s promise has always been shalom, real community wholeness and peace for God’s people and for all creation. Jesus life, death, and resurrection mean that that shalom has come to us and is unfolding among us even now. And at the same time, Jesus is very clear: I did not come to bring peace but the sword.
News outlets love to say things like: “This country has never been more divided than it is today.” And maybe you can feel that. We are separated from neighbors and from our own families by ideology and political values, by religion and life experience.
And if nothing else, today’s gospel reading is here to tell us this division is nothing new. For Luke’s community– this community of brand new Christians for whom Saint Luke writes down the story of Jesus as they know it– division was a reality of being a Christian in the first century. Not everyone was a Christian, and that mattered. Parents against their children, in-laws broke ties, people hurt or rejected by their community.
And it’s always important to remember that while Christians in our own U.S. context are more often the dominating force instead of the rejected ones, that is not true all over the world. Many Christians still face persecution for their witness to the gospel. And so this word from Jesus is an encouragement: division doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.
Division doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. On the contrary, this is what Jesus’s ministry is about.
Because if Christians could live peacefully and without any tension in a world dominated by the Roman Empire—with its violence and war, its neglect for the poor and destruction of life—what are the Christians really doing anyway? If Christianity is flexible enough to be at peace with all that suffering, what is even the point of being Christian?
When I sort my skittles, it’s because the reds are different from the purples. If they were all purple, I’d just leave them alone, but dividing them into separate groups makes sense because they’re different. And so the question is:
Are Christians different than the empire?
I mean is it worth sorting green from yellow? YES!
Yes, Christians are different from the empire. And if that is true, then there is division. Because the ways of empire are not the ways of God.
The prophet Jeremiah knew that. In the reading that we heard this morning, Jeremiah is speaking out against the false prophets that have empty happy dreams. They tell their “prophecy” to the king (the one who conquered and is occupying the land by force) because their fancy words keep him happy and keep themselves employed.
And through Jeremiah, God says:
No. You don’t get to stack up my word like a little brick fortress all around you to keep the monarchy safe and protected!
No! God says: My word is like a fire that burns away all the bullshit. Like a forest fire that gets rid of the undergrowth and makes room for new trees to grow. My word is like a hammer that is powerful enough to break through the brick walls of your palace.
And this is good, good news for any of us who know we need to be saved by that word. Good news for those of who know we need salvation because we have been that small group without a voice, or we have been hurt or dehumanized by the way things are, or we carry shame or pain from what its been like to live here in the world-as-it-is.
And this good news also comes as a warning: Following Jesus won’t be easy… if we’re doing it right. It won’t be convenient or comfortable.
Because remember, this Jesus is the one whose birth caused his mother to sing, “God has cast the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” The lyric isn’t, “God let everyone stay in their seat because it’s rude to ask them to move.”
The lyric isn’t, “God let everyone keep what they already had because each one had earned it fairly.” No! It’s, “God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”
This isn’t nice or peaceful. It makes a difference exactly because it is divisive.
Because when Jesus eats with prostitutes, that is divisive. And when Jesus gives his big famous sermon on the ground instead of in the houses of power, and says, “Blessed are the poor,” that is political. And offensive. And when Jesus refuses to blame individuals for the pain caused by a broken system—the ones who are sick or disabled and ostracized by their community—and restores their sense of agency, that is countercultural. And when Jesus preaches, “The word of the Lord is upon me because God has appointed me to bring good news to the incarcerated, to let the oppressed go free,” you can bet that not everyone thought that was very nice.
And this is our example, as people who have decided to follow Jesus. So when the wider church declares that white supremacy is a sin, or declares ourselves a sanctuary denomination, or commits ourselves to inter-religious cooperation (all of which and more happened at last week’s ELCA Churchwide assembly) and lots of people shake their fingers saying, “Now that is divisive!”
…That is correct.
And when our congregation embarks on intentional Antiracism Ministry for the first time, and that feels tense or uncomfortable or political sometimes… that is correct.
It is divisive, and it is worth it, because you know what? We belong to a God who is willing to do difficult and uncomfortable things for our sake.
We belong to Jesus, who knows what it’s like to be part of the smaller group, who is with us when we feel forgotten, who is willing to take sides with the ignored and hurt ones among us. We belong to Jesus, who divides hurt from wholeness, oppression from freedom (they’re not the same thing), and life from death. Our God loves us and the whole world so much that God is willing to be divisive, to do the difficult thing, to make people angry enough to kill her because we were made for more than false peace.
At the end of the division is the promise of God’s radical shalom, wholeness restored to every household, room for us exactly as God created us to be, big enough for all creation. Thanks be to God.