August 18, 2019
What is this talk of division
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy Texas 77493
Last Tuesday I introduced the Tuesday bible study to a meditation technique taught by St. Ignatius. I had them close their eyes and place themselves in this gospel passage. I asked them to imagine what it looked like, the smells, the sounds using all their senses. Then I read the passage as I imagine an early storyteller might have done it. Then I asked them to open their eyes and tell me what they experienced. Many of them said they were quite uncomfortable after experiencing this passage.
The big problem we have is this sure doesn’t sound like the Messiah of love does it? I would not select the hymn, the King of Love my shepherd is for this Sunday. What in the world is Jesus talking about you might well ask? Where is the loving, kind Jesus? What is all this talk of division?
To start with we have reached a turning point in Luke’s narrative. There is a major pivot point in Luke when Jesus sets out for Jerusalem and that has occurred earlier in the previous chapter. Everything starts to get darker and more foreboding. So the entire tone of this passage changes. Just prior to this he has launched a vicious verbal barrage upon the Pharisees. He is condemning them for their “false” practices and hypocritical actions. The previous verses also contain the famous ‘no one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but on a lampstand to give light. Jesus is holding up the actions of the leadership to the light and many of them do not look very good in that light of truth. They in turn begin to now actively plan to act against Jesus. So that is the setting for this story today.
Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem for what he knows will be a huge confrontation and probably knew that things would end badly. He’s been warning the disciples about this for quite a while. Even the disciples are not completely sold on his plan of action. Remember what he says to Peter in the famous get behind me Satan statement. He is also on his way to what will be the cleansing of the temple when he really pushes the Jewish leaders over the edge in an act that is revolutionary.
So yes, Jesus is bringing a revolution and now these actions are getting a. serious and b. dangerous. Now the language he uses would really resonate with the people of that time. Think in terms of Elijah calling down fire on the priests of Bail, Sodom and Gomorrah, Ezekiel and a flaming chariot. This is the imagery that would be very familiar to the crowd and the religious authorities but is missed by most of us today.
At this point the Message translation is helpful: “I’ve come to start a fire on this earth—how I wish it were blazing right now! 50 I’ve come to change everything, turn everything rightside up—how I long for it to be finished! 51 Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice? Not so. I’ve come to disrupt and confront!”
Now this is language that makes a little more sense to our modern ears. The idea here is lighting a fire under people to bring about change. I appreciate the translation of turning things rightside up. This foreshadows his actions in the temple with the money changers and animal sellers.
There is also a wonderful foreshadowing of all this in the beginning of Luke. Luke begins his story with the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist and Zechariah’s prophesy about his son. In that first chapter we also have Mary’s Magnificat, and remember the words there. He has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has brought the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has given the hungry good things to eat, but the rich he has sent away empty. Finally, his birth is announced to shepherds to lowest of the low. So, Luke has set this conflict up from the very beginning and is now closing the circle of his masterful story.
Another reference to earlier events in Luke is the reference to bringing fire on earth. Think back to the baptism scene in Luke. John bursts into the scene with the famous brood of vipers speech with visions of chaff being thrown into the furnace. The he says, I baptize with water, but he will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. Ever the masterful storyteller Luke brings these images from chapter 3 right into our scene today. So this is all quite consistent with the message Luke is bringing to his audience.
Jesus is turning the world upside down, not only for the Romans and Jewish authorities but for his own followers. And yes, following the gospel will on occasion cause division in families, in churches and in countries.
I am thinking of a young college student that had become a member of Wendy’s campus ministry. Like many he had met her as she walked around campus with Kuma and Kimba our two dogs. If you want to attract college students, you need something other than a clergy shirt. Wendy was often asked if she was some sort of religious person. Dogs and the promise of a free home cooked lunch on Thursday did far more to attract the students. Once she got them in the door with a dog to snuggle with and food in the fridge, she would start talking to them about school life etc. Eventually a little Jesus talk would drop in.
For whatever reason this young man started to come around on a regular basis. Canterbury became his favorite study place and he started to come to the services. He told Wendy that what she taught was totally unlike anything he had heard in his parent’s fundamentalist church in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. Eventually he decided to join the Episcopal Church and was confirmed. When he returned home that summer, he told his parents and they went ballistic. How dare he turn his back on his Baptist roots and join those Godless Episcopalians. Life became so miserable for him at home that he returned early to campus and found a summer job in Norfolk. Sadly, I don’t think the rift has ever been repaired. They were convinced that college and those Godless Episcopalians had filled him with all these horrible liberal ideas and they basically disowned him. All because he made the decision to follow a loving Jesus.
So yes, sometimes following the gospel is hard. Sometimes we are called to turn over the tables. Yes, we preach of Jesus of love and compassion but make no mistake, Jesus is no pushover. Following Jesus is hard work, really hard work especially in our world today when so many are pushing us in other directions.
Bishop Curry often says, keep your eye on the prize, don’t look back, keep your eye on the prize. The prize is a world that reflects the love of God, the peace of God which passes all understanding. It’s just that the road is often bumpy, but keep moving on.