Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 14 August 2016. Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56
My husband and I recently participated in a Wesley pilgrimage in England. One story from John Wesley’s life stands out as we hear today’s gospel lesson.
Early in his work, John came to Bristol to help start a Methodist Society there. Bristol is a port city, and at that time most of the economy of the city came from shipping, including the slave trade.
As a Christian, as a follower of Jesus, as one who believed in the God who had set the people of Israel free from slavery in Egypt, John adamantly opposed the slave trade. So John announced he would preach about slavery at a Society meeting in Bristol. This was a courageous thing to do. Most people in Bristol were involved in shipping, and shipping slaves affected their livelihood. But John knew he had to talk about it. Over 1000 people showed up. A small riot broke out. He kept preaching. John’s preaching influenced others to be concerned about the evils of slavery. Eventually, after his death, England abolished the slave trade, largely because Christians like John Wesley convinced Parliament to outlaw it.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus said a strange thing. The Prince of Peace declared, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
How many of us enjoy confrontation and conflict? Who likes to be in a room where people are arguing past one another or giving stony stares across the dinner table? Not many do. But Jesus said division is something he brings.
This does not mean all division is a gift of Jesus. Keep in mind other things Jesus said. Love one another as I have loved you. Do unto others and you would have them do unto you. Jesus prayed that his followers would be one as he and the Father were one.
But he also said he came to bring division. From now on.
And he spoke specifically about division within family.
I know very little about counseling and psychology. When people come to me needing individual counseling, I refer you to Pastoral Institute or other counselors because they have the specific knowledge and expertise you need. But I am aware that one skill a lot of counselors try to teach people is the skill of self-differentiation.
The term comes from a guy named Murray Bowen who developed theories about family systems. His idea was that growing up in families trains us to think and act as a group. Families teach us to need the approval of others. It was helpful for early people where survival depended on sticking together, and it is still helpful today. But there are times when we have to think and act as a self. Sometimes the group is wrong. Sometimes, what the group wants is not helpful. Bowen realized that emotionally, it will usually be easier to go along with others. That’s what most of us learned to do from our families – stick together, don’t make Mama mad, don’t rock the boat. Maturity is learning to discern what we really think and then to act on that basis rather than on fear of disapproval.
Bowen and others also recognized sometimes people go too far with this and cut off relationship. They decide they don’t need anyone’s approval, or they don’t need a particular relationship anymore. That’s not helpful either. It just leads to selfishness and narcissism. In rare cases, a relationship may need distance or may need to end because of abuse or harm. But usually, the goal, Bowen and others said, is to be in relationship with others but be differentiated and not be controlled by that relationship. He used the term self-differentiation to describe that inner work. .
So Jesus said, Love one another as I have loved you. Be in relationship.
And Jesus said, Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. Be differentiated.
I know – this is way too heavy for Sunday morning, especially when we are blessing backpacks and welcoming back the choir and having a good time. But this is vital spiritual work. And we pray our students will learn to do it. To our young people, we want you to be the beautiful, gifted, unique blessings God made you to be. We already think you’re great, but God’s vision and plan and dream for you is so far beyond what we can imagine. We want you to be you. We want you to learn how to stand up against peer pressure. We want you to become adults who think for yourselves and do what you know to be right even if it makes others mad. But we also want you to be in relationship – to love fully and freely and joyfully.
Jesus modeled the wisdom of differentiation. And in this weird gospel lesson, Jesus shows us how to be differentiated ourselves.
Jesus started by declaring his purpose – what he was here to do. I came to bring fire to the earth. I have a baptism with which to be baptized. He knew who he was and what he needed to do.
Then he accepted that living his purpose would require differentiation from others. From now on they will be divided. He didn’t give a license to be mean. This is not a call to be a bully. But Jesus would say don’t be controlled by others. Sometimes division is necessary to be faithful.
And then he said, pay attention. You know how to pay attention to the weather. Pay attention also to the times. Pay attention to what is happening around you. Interpret the present time. If we don’t pay attention, we act out of reactivity and emotion. Notice what is happening in you and around you and choose how to respond.
John Wesley interpreted his present time. Slavery was evil but most people at that time accepted it as a normal thing. Despite all the pressure in Bristol where people’s incomes depended on it, he spoke against it. And his example led others to do the same.
We all have different opportunities to be differentiated, to pay attention and choose a course of action based not on pleasing others but on doing what we believe to be right. Here’s another story from more recent times.
Columbus and other cities are starting to be more intentional about helping homeless people get into housing. We are realizing it cheaper and more helpful to provide housing than to leave people in precarious situations. But several years ago, a group of homeless families in north Philadelphia were pretty much on their own. Shane Claiborne wrote about this story in his book Irresistible Revolution.. They were on a waiting list for subsidized housing, but progress was slow. They were living in a tent city, with children. But down the road was an abandoned Catholic church building. The congregation had been closed by the diocese, but the building was still standing. It was a huge complex that took up an entire city block, plenty of space, pretty good shape. So the families moved in.
I don’t know why, but rather than work with the families or help in some way, the archdiocese decided to evict them. Legally, they had every right to do this, but morally it looked strange for a church to kick out homeless families. The newspaper wrote a story about the situation. A group of Christian college students got involved, including Shane. They moved in with the families, ready to be arrested with the families if it came to that. When officials came to evict the families, of course TV cameras came with them. The families boldly announced they had talked with the owner of the building. “God says this is his house and we are welcome to stay.” The archdiocese decided not to evict anyone that day.
But the archdiocese kept up the proceedings. They got the fire marshall involved who scheduled an inspection of the facility. The homeless families and the college students realized what was happening. If the building failed inspection, the families would have to be moved out, and the archdiocese would claim it was for their own safety. The students and families worked all night trying to get an abandoned building ready to pass a safety inspection. Then, at midnight, two fire fighters showed up. At first, the families and students panicked, afraid the inspection was starting early, but the men interrupted and said:
“Wait, wait, you don’t understand. We are here against orders. In fact, we could get in very big trouble for being here. But we know what is happening, and we know that it’s not right. So we thought we’d come by and help you get ready for tomorrow because we know what they will be looking for.”
The fire fighters were there because they realized their duty and purpose was to help people be safe. So they pointed out what was needed. They supplied them with smoke detectors and exit signs and fire extinguishers. They left and no one ever saw them again. The next day, the building passed inspection, and the families were allowed to stay.
That’s the kind of division that is the gift of Jesus. Not divisive sound bites. Not stony silence across a dinner table. Not rants on social media. Just calmly, deliberately doing all we can do to bring more good to the world, regardless of what others think.
May God give us the differentiated spirit of Jesus. Amen.
© 2016 The Rev. Dr. Grace Burton-Edwards