Scripture: Luke 12:49-56
Friends above all else desire unity. We will table decisions for years waiting for unity within the meeting. This is one of our greatest strengths as well as one of greatest weaknesses. We work diligently to find unity in one way or the other, even where there is no clear view of unity on the horizon. For centuries Friends in America worked for the abolition of slavery. The quest to end slavery was championed by John Woolman. John worked his entire life sacrificing his career and livelihood for the cause, he would often be asked to write wills for people, yet if they owned any person he would refuse to write the document unless all humans were granted freedom. John went so far as refusing to consume any product or service that used exploited labor in any way. He would not eat sugar or wear any clothing that was dyed, because these products were largely produced under the thumb of slavery. John would travel throughout the colonies preaching and pleading that the Friends would not tolerate slavery in their meetings, for many years his message would fall on deaf ears because slavery in many areas was seen as a necessity. Sure many early American Friends who owned slaves treated them humanely, in many cases their slaves were treated as members of the family, but they did not have liberty. John’s cause eventually gained acceptance and he did eventually see universal acceptance among the American Friends, so he then took the quest to the heart of the slave trade, England, where he inspired others to take on the challenge of abolition and where John eventually died. John saw progress, but never resolution in the ministry he was divinely called to pursue, though among Friends even before the United States came into existence they championed freedom of all mankind.
There were other Friends that made great advances in areas that the culture at large rejected. Bayard Rustin, an African-American Quaker helped organize the push for civil rights, and was an advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr. Though we all may not agree with Mr. Rustin in every aspect of life, we can agree that in this issue Bayard was a hero and deserves respect. Without Bayard Rustin the march on Washington that made King famous and greatly advanced the civil rights cause would not have happened. Through the lives of Rustin and Woolman we see that it is difficult to pursue the right path in a culture that opposes what you stand for.
I bring these up because within the Religious Society of Friends there is a tension between doing the right things and maintaining unity. Woolman and Rustin both spent years pursuing radical changes in the world, changes that would bring about greater equality. This is one of our greatest testimonies though it has come at a great cost. Even today our testimony of equality has raised eyebrows among groups that do not accept female pastors, and many of us do not really know how to respond to the idea of a Friends School operating in Ramallah
, located in the West Bank area of Israel. When we look at the Society of Friends we take pride in our unity, integrity, and peace testimony but even among a people that takes great efforts to maintain unity we find areas where even peaceful people stand divided.
Which brings us to today’s passage. This passage is probably one of the most challenging passages of scripture. Jesus asks “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” If we were to stop right there we would all answer YES! To be honest most people Israel would probably have said yes as well, the messiah was to be the prince of peace the unifier of the Jewish nation. But Jesus answered His own question in a very different way. He says, “No, I tell you, but rather division!” This is a very troubling statement. One must ask where is the prince of peace in this statement?
This is one of those difficult areas of scripture that many wish to quickly pass over because it does not fit nicely into the image we wish to project. Then there is the other side of the coin, some will latch onto this passage and use it to fuel the fire of justification of their agendas. But how then should we look at this passage? Does Jesus intend to purposely divide or is there something else?
Jesus walked the soils of Israel in a very troubled time; it was a time where the people of Israel were divided between thoughts of nationalism and submission. Even the very religion that seemingly held it together was caught in the middle of very divisive opinions that threatened the stability of the community. Each side of the issue wanted submission of the masses to their perspective. They were hoping that Jesus would bring unity and order between the two factions. There will not be unity among people who focus on being right instead of doing right.
Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” This statement says, in essence, that the movement that Jesus came to start was not even on the radar of the community at that time. While the community was focused on themselves they failed to see where God was actually working. It was not in the temple but in the streets, not among the ruling class that God was moving but among the exploited and broken people marginalized by the ruling class because they did not fit into their agendas. The fire of the movement was not even kindled because the leaders that were in positions of making a difference were too focused on themselves than the people they were leading.
There is not unity among the power seekers because to have unity one must submit to the other. It sparks off a great show of lights and explosions but the fire never takes hold. It is like the parable of the sower and the seeds; some of the seeds fell on good ground, while others fell on rocky, hard, or weedy ground. When power seekers come to the table there is an initial flash of light but like the seeds that fell on the rocky soil springing up quickly, no real lasting growth occurs. This is why after centuries of struggle and conflict there is still no peace in the Middle East. For a fire to burn it must be kindled, built in such a way that when the sparks ignite it will continue to burn until there is resolution. The powers within Israel in the first century were throwing sparks quickly flashing flames but it was just pyrotechnics.
Jesus says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Division, this does not sound too good. This does not sound like the life I thought I was committing too when I began following the footsteps of Jesus. But in many ways that is just what happens. I am divided. One aspect of my personality wants one thing while another wants something totally different. Like the apostle Paul states in Romans 7: 15-20:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells with in me.
We are often caught in the middle of some battle within us between what we think is right and what we feel is right. We are caught justifying our actions to make ourselves feel like we follow diligently, but ultimately and if we are honest we find ourselves far from Christ. Divided. We strive to be right and in the process we slice our communities in half while we stand on principle forgetting why we gather in the first place.
Jesus goes on to say, “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?”
Can anyone else say ouch? We can interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but not the present time. Jesus in this statement is calling us out. He is saying we have wisdom of man but are ignorant. We have studied science, economics, societies, arts, and everything else yet we are still ignorant about what is important. We learn to interpret the things around us for our own gain, but we totally miss the point of why God gave us that intelligence in the first place. Why is it important to know how to determine when rain is about to come? We study meteorology so that we can prepare. But there is something deeper to it. If you had the knowledge that a storm was approaching do you have the obligation to share that information with others? The answer is always yes. What we have is to be shared. We are neglecting our community and not respecting or loving our neighbor if we do not encourage and share what we have with them. It is like knowing a tornado is approaching and not sharing a shelter with those who do not have one. We have a responsibility for those around us.
This is why Jesus divides. In our worldly wisdom we look after ourselves first. Sure we may put our children and spouses equally on our list of priorities, but the obligation to others seems to take a steep decline after that. Jesus divides, because in his view you would not go into the shelter until everyone in your community was safe from the storm. Jesus divides because unlike the kingdoms of the world, in his kingdom we do not stop laboring until everyone in the community is taken care of. Wait does this mean that Jesus is a socialist? Absolutely not! But in the same breath Jesus is not a capitalist either. Jesus is all about the community, the people around you. Jesus is not at all self-centered, but community centered. Jesus gladly laid down his life not for himself but for others and why did he do this? Because building relationships and a community is what the Kingdom of God is all about. If you are focused on your own needs you are not part of the kingdom. If you are focused on your own wants you have no place in the kingdom. If you are expecting someone else to take care of you, you are not part of the kingdom. If you think someone else should be doing something to help, you have no place in the kingdom. Jesus is dividing us all, because this is what the world is all about. We are divided because we have an idea about how the world should work and in our mind we are right, but if we were to really look at ourselves we would find that we are not even close to building a good fire that will truly change the world around us.
Jesus divides because in the division we will see the aspects of our community where our opinions fail. With John Woolman he saw that the Society of Friends said that all men were equal in the eyes of God, yet some men were bought and sold by others. There was a divide, and men were falling through division. That is where we find our ministry. Jesus divides to cause us to recognize where we ourselves fall short and where we must rely on God to bring resolution and unity, and then take a different approach. For Woolman it started by simply asking Friends who have a testimony that all men are equal, if they would free the men they held in bondage, and if they were unwilling then they would need to find a different scribe. It is in that divide where we are called to act, not just called to be activists but to contribute and live. It is in the divides where we see the injustices of our communities and where we are called to bring justice. It is in the divides where we begin to kindle the fires that will heat up actual bonding change.
We are a divided people, and I am ok with that. I am perfectly fine with people that do not see things from my point of view, because it shows me that there is a reason for us to be here and to have this meeting. If there was not a different point of view then that would mean that the world would be perfect and our work would be done. What are the things that we are dividing over and how would Jesus respond to the issues? Explore this in your own minds and hearts as we enter into this time of Holy expectancy and let us consider how Jesus would respond to the divisiveness of our community, would he pat us on the back and say to us to stand on our principles or would he call us hypocrites? It just might surprise you that where our strongest opinions are, may actually be the area that Jesus is calling us to serve and to bring justice and unity. Let us then explore what we are personally doing to bring and end to the injustices that have us so riled up.