Division (begins at 33:18)

August 18, 2019

Series: August 2019

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Luke 12:49-56

49"I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

54He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, 'It is going to rain'; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  Thanks be to God. 


          I was away for a couple of weeks at the end of July, beginning of August.  It’s amazing how much happens in just a couple of weeks:  two mass shootings, three if you count the recent shooting of police officers in Philadelphia; and racism again rearing its ugly countenance right in our own community.  When I was getting ready to leave for some study leave and vacation—which now seems like forever ago—what was capturing my attention was the 50th anniversary the Apollo 11 moon landing.  Upon seeing one program, I remember thinking, “How did they pull this off?  With less computer power than is in the average pocket here today, they flew to the moon, landing on its service, re-docking the lunar module while the two craft orbited the moon.”  To state the obvious, the moon is really far away.  As interesting as the moon was, it was the images looking back at the earth, this tiny marble of color in a sea of blackness, that fittingly take your breath away. 

I heard a long interview with astronaut Michael Collins.  Collins was the one who remained on the craft orbiting the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface.  Collins had a poetic flair for giving voice to these space journeys.  He spoke movingly about gazing at the tiny earth.  Able to cover it up with just his thumb—can you imagine covering with your thumb very image that ever inspired Shakespeare, every landscape that moved Van Gogh, every feature and creature that inspired songs and rituals of peoples of all places and times, the only home the dinosaurs ever knew—he gazed, toggling his thumb back and forth revealing swaths of color designating what we call continents and oceans.  I don’t know if there was a palpable sense of oneness among those who watched from the earth’s surface, but it was clear the astronauts recognized the higher unity of the moment.  I found myself tearing up as they read the plaque on the lunar module:  We came in peace for all humanity, “mankind,” as they put it. 

          That’s inspirational unity. 

We know there is another kind of unity too, a false unity, manipulative unity.  True story—it’s about a church, with the players and roles a church has, but it could be translated to a family a company, a community or a country.  It was not unified, and understandably so.  Things weren’t going well, but disunity wasn’t the problem; it was the symptom.  Rather than engage the underlying causes, there was an ill-conceived attempt simply to push unity.  One particular Sunday the choir was instructed to surround the congregation and lead everyone in a refrain that repeated over and over again, “Unity!  Unity!  Unity!  Unity!”  You can imagine how that felt.  As the prophet Jeremiah once said,

 4 They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
   saying, ‘Peace, peace’,
   when there is no peace. 
15 They acted shamefully... (6:14-15)

 You cannot coerce community.  You can’t force togetherness, especially when there are people who have been wronged, hurt, and their wrongs have not been redressed, wounds not tended.  Jeremiah calls this an abomination because he recognizes that sometimes calls for unity are really attempts to stifle rightful complaint or protest.  This is a challenging word for me, someone who likes it when everyone gets along.  The church can fall into this trap of comfort, and who doesn’t need a place where you can just feel comfortable?  We must remember, though, that the church is called to be planters of holy and just peace, not purveyors of false peace.

          Jesus, like the prophet before him, has no time for false peace.  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he asks in today’s reading from Luke.  “No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Lk. 12:51).  In Matthew’s telling of the story, Jesus says he brings a sword!  That passage has gotten us in all sorts of trouble, as we’ve misinterpreted it as permission for violence.  We should be sophisticated enough to recognize Jesus speaking metaphorically, words, the truth, piercing in nature.  They divide people. 

Hasn’t civilization been propelled forward at critical moments by people who dared to stand apart and tell the truth, piercing through the contradictions and hypocrisies that have come to be accepted as normal?  In hindsight they’ve been celebrated as heroes.  In their time, they are not.  Jesus was killed because he dared speak the truth about those who misused their power.  He betrayed the false unity imposed by top-down power, empire unity, to bear witness to the true unity of seeing the sacred in everyone, including neighbor and enemy alike. 

          Jesus was divisive.  That’s not to say divisiveness was the goal.  We can miss that crucial point.  The pastor and activist Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove recounts an encounter between Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier.  Hauerwas is a professor of Christian Ethics at Duke.  He’s a fiery pacifist known for his colorful, even harsh, language.  Vanier was a gentle giant, known for starting the L’Arche communities, households where people of vastly differing abilities lived together in intentional community.  One night, they were all together and as Wilson-Hartgrove put it, “Stanley got fired up arguing for nonviolence.  I’ll never forget,” Wilson-Hartgrove continues, “Jean wrapping his huge hand around Stanley’s face and saying, ‘It’s OK Stanley.  It’s OK.’ ”[1]  The two agreed on the issue, Vanier was simply calling Hauerwas back home lest his fire for peace consume him and everyone in his path.  The truth is we need both, at times the sharp tongue of Hauerwas to maintain a voice for the truth and the gentle hands of Vanier to maintain the relationship, as we try and journey to a new place as a people. 

Today’s reading from Hebrews retells the story of our ancestors stepping out in faith to get to a new place.  The image of them crossing the Red Sea is archetypal.  Liberation comes through separating from false power, moving through a necessarily divided sea.  It involved all sorts of suffering, even torture, but they endured it because at their best our ancestors were more committed to their integrity than their comfort.  They were tempted to return to slavery because of the predictability and stability it offered.  If we want true liberation, we have to step out as they did.  It’s hard, because we all have responsibilities.  There are no easy answers, just good companions.  Hebrews reminds us that in our journey we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses,” helping us to run the race not necessarily that we would choose, but the one “that is set before us.” 

I went out on a run recently, a literal one, and not one I’d choose again.  I was on vacation and running to meet up with my family at the beach.  Two trails were coming together and I saw the biker coming.  I thought I could get across his lane and out of the way so he could pass safely by.  I was half right.  A couple strides into my new direction and I was knocked to the ground along with the rider, with lacerations from his chain and spindle up my leg and scrapes from the pavement on my hands, arm, and side.  When I made it to the ocean, I headed over to a lifeguard station to get cleaned up. 

I asked the lifeguard how long I should wait before getting back in the water.  He replied, “Well everybody’s afraid of the flesh-eating bacteria, but we get in with cuts and scrapes all the time and haven’t had a problem, so I wouldn’t worry about.”

“Oh, okay,” I said, it then hitting me, “…flesh-eating bacteria!?  What, if you start to show signs of infection you just need to go in and get some antibiotics?”

“No, there’s nothing they can do.  So, they just cut your hand off.”

Two thoughts immediately came to mind: 1) Don’t go in the ocean.  2) Don’t tell my wife.  The problem was of course I was going to tell my wife, and what I neglected to mention, I had already rinsed off in the ocean.  Now, I’m fine, and I tell you that story not only for the laugh, but for the look… the person who hit me reached over to help me up, his eyes seemed big as saucers.  He was scared.  You see, again to state the obvious, most people don’t want to hurt us.  I know we’re told the opposite all the time, and to be sure there are exceptions and there are unfair systems, but for the most part we’re all looking for a lane to take on the road to freedom and peace.  We mustn’t lose sight of this especially when stepping out and choosing to go against the flow of traffic to suggest it’s time for a course correction because the goal is to get everyone on board not to leave people behind.  After all, we are on this tiny marble together.

During the coverage of the Apollo 11 anniversary reached back to the Apollo 8 mission, which was the first manned craft to orbit the moon.  The astronauts were told that they would have the largest television viewing audience in history—no pressure—and they should do something appropriate.  When the time came, they read:

(William Anders)

We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

 (James Lovell)

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

 (Frank Borman)

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.

 The person charged with communicating between ground control and Apollo 8 was Michael Collins.  Poetic as he was, he recalled in a recent interview flubbing the opportunity to say something profound the moment Apollo 8 was to fire its boosters to leave the earth’s orbit en route to circle the moon.  The technical term for the maneuver was “lunar thrust injection,” “LTI” for short.  When the command was given, all he said was, “Apollo 8, you’re go for LTI.”  And the response something like, “Roger, LTI.”  No poetry, no profundity, he regretted.

Several months later, the same interviewer shared a stage with Collins and said, “If you could do it all over again, what call would you give?  Collins stopped, thought, said, “Well, I would abide by the NASA rules, which you can’t…say more than I think eight words in a row, and, preferably they will all be monosyllabic.  But,” Collins paused, “under those conditions, I would say, ‘Apollo 8, the moon is yours.  Go.’ ”

Sometimes you have to venture out in front of everyone else in order to get us all somewhere, you have to leave the safe gravitational pull of home.  It’s difficult work.  It’s scary journey, but it’s necessary one to show the rest of us a different perspective…and the view is out of this world.  Amen.

[1] From Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s Twitter account, @wilsonhartgrove.