Monday, August 16, 2010

Pentecost 12C

One required seminary course was called “Conflict Management.” It looks like the folks putting together the seminary curriculum had been around churches long enough to know that Christians don’t always get along. And so we were taken through techniques and scenarios on how to “manage” conflict, rather than “resolve” conflict.

To be honest, I still don’t understand the distinction between “managing” conflict and “resolving it.” But either way, the idea is that human beings will fight with each other. And Christians aren’t exempt from conflict. Perhaps we’re more prone to it. After all, we take our lead from Jesus, who said in today’s gospel:

“Do you think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth!?? NO I tell you. Not peace, but division!”

Not peace. but division.

That’s not the kind of talk we expect from the prince of peace, is it? Peace is what the angels proclaimed the night you he was born. Peace is what Jesus is known for.

Clearly, Jesus was upset about something. He even pointed out that he’s under a lot of stress before his mission - or baptism - is completed.

That’s a curious way of talking about his job on earth, don’t you think? Jesus calls his ministry his “fiery baptism,” and he can’t put his feet up until it’s complete. He REALLY wants to get it out of the way.

But we tend to think of baptisms as a joyous occasion. A baby in a white dress. Friends and relatives gather from all over the known universe to witness the initiation rite of the church. We pour some water over the child’s head. He or she might cry a little. We “ooo” and “ahhh” over how cute the baby is. Then we go downstairs to eat cake.

That’s a far cry from what Jesus was talking about in this bible passage. He’s talking about a fiery separation. A dividing of loyalties. Family verses faith. Friends verses God. Following Jesus verses following the herd.

Most of us here in North America haven’t really felt the sting of division for being Christians. Of course, there are some loud-mouthed preachers who believe that Christians in Canada are a persecuted minority, which usually means that the culture isn’t deferring to them the way they’d like.

For folks in Jesus’ time, abandoning your family to join another religion was an act of unbelievable betrayal. It was unfathomable. Incomprehensible. It just wasn’t done without heavy social and economic consequences, not just for yourself, but for your family.

They NEEDED all the hands they could to keep food on the table. They needed EVERYONE to keep the household going. Everyone had a job. No one was superfluous. To leave the house and run off following some preacher was to spit in your family’s face. You were dead to them. If you left, you could never return home.

It’s hard for us to understand the kind of commitment the early followers of Jesus made. In our culture, we try our best to keep families together, but Jesus seems to actively tearing them apart, pitting them against each other.

But Jesus didn’t ask his followers to do anything he didn’t do. He left his mother with no one to take care of her after Joseph presumably died. He abandoned his domestic obligations to do God’s work, as if the two were somehow different. He never bowed to social and religious pressure to get married and have lots of Jewish boys and girls to carry on the faith. He even rejected his mother in public, severing the blood ties he had with her in favour of a more universal family of faithful people.

Family clearly wasn’t Jesus’ first priority. It wasn’t on his radar screen. He was more interested in preaching the message of the kingdom of God than in settling down in domestic respectability.

He was living a different story than the one he was born into. And he knew that he couldn’t bear witness to God’s new reality without causing some trouble. He knew that preaching the kingdom came at a cost.

He knew the living in God’s kingdom meant living according to a different story. Where the dominant story values revenge, Jesus says to forgive. Where the prevailing narrative emphasizes the strong and wealthy, Jesus to prioritized the weak and poor.

Jesus didn’t confront the dominant story that people lived by, but to showed others that they don't have to live according to the culture's expectations. Another story is at work. A story that tells us that our lives can be life-giving, creative, hope-filled, and other-oriented. We can be a healing presence, an example of how God wants the world to be.  

But also, living according to God’s story recognizes that it's God who is at work in the world through us. The Spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus makes us holy when we cannot be. It’s acting with humility, knowing that we are not the world's saviour.

The division that Jesus is talking about is the conflict that emerges when two stories smash into each other. And often those two stories collide even within ourselves as we live out our faith in Jesus. We are conflicted inside ourselves. God’s story and the world’s story fight it out within our own hearts.
Separation isn’t something that Christians go looking for. It happens to us when we live according to Jesus’ story instead of the world’s.

I don’t think Jesus was particularly happy about the conflict he knew he was creating. That’s why he wanted to get it over with.
He wanted to gather the whole world to himself.

But he also knew hard it was for people to grab hold of what God was doing. The kingdom that he preached didn’t make sense to our understanding of how worked. He knew his preaching would hurt people, and perhaps push them away from God because they were so grounded in their own ways of dealing with the world.

So Jesus blasts them, probably because the stress he said he was under. And because he knew that the cross was just around the corner. The cross where he would finally take all the conflict he created, all the division in the world, and take it to the grave with him, so he and the world can rise to the New Creation, where the Prince of Peace will finally reign with all people gathered to himself.

A New Creation where all people are gathering around God’s throne, and mercy, justice, compassion, healing, and forgiveness reign in the world that God so lovingly made.

And today we catch a glimpse of the day when we gather around the table as a family, equal in sin, equal in forgiveness. All conflicts cease as we hold our hands to receive our Lord in the bread and wine - the very presence of the crucified and risen Jesus, who has made all things new.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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