Jesus’ opening words are anguished. You can sense Jesus’ frustration and anguish, even anger in these words: “I come to burn the earth and how I wish it had already started. I will be submerged entirely and totally [in the fire] and how anxious I am for it to happen! Don’t think I’m bringing peace to you. I am bringing division to you!”
Jesus’ reference to burning the earth is a metaphor for judging the world and the world’s response. He is frustrated that after all of his words and actions, his followers still our not submerging themselves into his teachings and vision of the Kingdom of God.
But he obliquely references that he is going to have to go all the way to the cross to consummate his teachings … a baptism of suffering so that new life can be brought to the world.
He knows that what God wants him to do will divide even the most intimate of relationships. We know from Mark’s Gospel (Mark 3:21) that his family was not in agreement with his teachings inasmuch that early on they tried to restrain him. So Jesus knows from personal experience the pain of family division … but it also makes him a realist about the cost of what he is doing.
Jesus is God Incarnate and his call is clear. He followed through on what he had to do to remain true to himself and to God. One of the consequences he had to live with was a divided family.
This passage of Luke’s is a harsh one for us. We think of Jesus as bringing peace not divisiveness. We think of Jesus as being a support of families and not a divider of them. Yet here we see the judging and upsetting side of his ministry.
What are we to do with this? Are we to do what the Gospels tell us no matter the affect on our families or other relationships?
Unlike Jesus, we are not God. We cannot claim to know perfectly what God expects of us and for that matter what the Bible is telling us. We never know for sure. Our lives are lived in uncertainty. Each day that we live is an opportunity to learn more of what God wants of us … little by little. We will never know it in it’s entirety but if we are faithful we come closer and closer each day … and that’s all God requires of us: to do our best.
We are living in a very divisive age. We Americans seem to be fighting over everything. We fight over abortion. We fight over gay marriage. We fight over the deficit. We fight over national security. We fight over health care. And on and on.
And here in NJ, we fight even more. We fight over the budget. We fight over the school systems. We fight over property taxes. And on and on.
And I say “fighting” intentionally. In a democracy we are to discussion and argue over issues. That’s how as a people we come to a decision as to what we should do. But in this present age, we don’t debate. We fight. And that fight has descended into character assassination and blame. A debate presents facts and analysis. A fight just destroys.
We are Congregationalists. We debate and we are good at it. We know the difference between a debate and a fight. We know how to agree to disagree. It is on this basis that we can resolve the meaning of Jesus’ observation that the coming of the Kingdom will be divisive.
The Kingdom is not some magical far off alternate world. It is emerging right here right now. We are called to discern it. It emerges wherever humans are in need and wherever the creation needs care. It emerges to care for all of God’s creatures. It emerges to bring peace and justice. And all of these emergings are controversial. So we can expect an argument. But we can wish that they be civil debates not civil wars.
And of course that must start with us. We ourselves must practice what we preach when we are confronted with a change or an issue that is controversial. We must seek out God’s intent with this new change or issue.
Jesus teaches us that the truth shall make us free. And it is the truth that we must seek out. Karl Barth was a very respected Swiss theologian. He once noted that each morning he seeks what God wants of him. He did that by reading two things: the bible and the day’s newspaper.
We cannot know God’s intent unless we understand what is happening around us, whether it is in our families or in our work place or in our state or in the world. We cannot live in isolation or hidden away. No one of us is an island unto him or her –self.
We need to listen, to seek out the facts, and to uncover the truth of the matter before we act on an issue. Unlike the people of Jesus’ time, we are blessed to live in a democracy. Indeed, when we look over the arc of history, we are probably the most powerful people in history. We are not powerful by virtue of our military or our statecraft. We are powerful because we, the people, actually rule this nation. We are the government. That’s the grave responsibility we take on when we create a democracy … after all the word “democracy” means “government of the people.” So it is our responsibility to be responsible citizens and know what we are talking about and what we are voting on. How can we vote for a candidate unless we can judge if she or he knows what they are talking about and have made wise choices?
And this duty is part of our stewardship of God’s great gift. The seeds of our independence were sown in the bible. Now we must do our part.
So listen to what people who have an opinion say. Listening is always the first step. What really is all the fighting about? Try to ascertain what are the facts in all of this. Who is giving facts and who is giving opinion (possibly wrapped in a label claiming to be facts)?
But most importantly we must understand the underlying truth of the matter. Truth is more than just facts. Facts can be interpreted many different ways. Given the facts, what are we to do about the issue? What does God really want us to do?
I suspect that you have heard of the controversy swirling around the World Trade Center site and the proposed Mosque. It’s a painful controversy. The WTC site has become sacred ground and a lot of people feel a nearby Mosque would be sacrilegious. Indeed there are Americans who do not live in the Metro area who have come out against it. Yet Mayor Bloomberg came out in support of the Mosque in a speech he made a couple of weeks ago.
This is a hard one, particularly for we who live so close and probably know families directly affected by the assault on the WTC. Yet the right and wrong of this is not a clear cut answer as some would like. It is a complex issue … as almost all issues are in a democracy.
We can certainly argue that the developers of the Mosque are terribly insensitive to the sacredness of the area. We can also argue that they are setting themselves up to be suspected of nefarious motives. Indeed the feelings are understandably strong and powerful and it is natural for us to want to stop its construction with the power we have as free and voting citizens.
But there are more facts. It turns out that the developers aren’t entirely insensitive. They have promised to be 100% transparent as to who their donors are so we, the public, need not fear that they are being supported by suspicious organizations. They are also planning an interfaith center to heal the divisions among Islam and other faiths. But can we believe them? That becomes an act of faith and trust – not an easy achievement.
Those are facts. But do they present a strong enough truth of bridge-building to justify the angst that will result from their juxtaposition to a sacred site? All of this begins to feel like a irresolvable quagmire.
But Mayor Bloomberg sought out the truth of the matter. He did not justify his support with these facts of donor transparency and the building of an interfaith center. He went back to our founding roots. He reminded us that here in the USA we’ve created a haven for all faiths. So long as a group stays within the law, they can practice their religion. That Constitutional right has allowed Jews and Catholics … and Moslems in this country to practice their faith despite that fact that this nation was largely founded by Protestants. That truth has to prevail, he said, even when we don’t like it. Once broken, it is forever broken.
So agree with him or not, Mayor Bloomberg went to the heart of the matter… and as Christians we also must go to the heart of the matter even if it leads us to an uncomfortable place. It is for us then to decide what we will do with that heart …
Our age is a difficult and demanding age. But if we are faithful to God and seek out what the Divine requires us … and do this with integrity and honesty and compassion, we can be a light in this dark age.
Think about it.
God’s grace and love be with you …