A sermon preached by Virginia Gilbert August 15 at Berea Presbyterian Church, St. Louis
Hasn’t the weather been crazy lately? One week we have thunderstorms every day — every day. Then we have a week of blistering heat, with high temperatures hovering around 100 degrees. Thursday when I was preparing this message, the sky got dark, the thunder rumbled for an hour or more, the wind picked up… and at least where I live, we got very little moisture. I watched those thunderclouds roll right overhead and felt just a few drops, nothing more.
I know this: Those dark clouds dumped water somewhere. Just because I didn’t get wet that time, doesn’t mean it didn’t rain. And the next night, we got less thunder and plenty of rain in our neighborhood.
The crowd listening to Jesus that day– earlier in the chapter Luke said that there were so many people they stepped all over each other — this crowd knew very well how to read thunder clouds and heat waves. Yet, when presented with evidence just as strong, they couldn’t see the storm coming in their lives.
To this crowd, on this particular day, Jesus had been alternately preaching “don’t worry” — as in the passage on the lilies of the field and the sparrows in the sky — and “be prepared” — keep your lamps burning, watch for the master at all hours of the night.
At one point, Peter summed up what many of Jesus’s close disciples were probably thinking: um, are you saying this for the whole crowd, or just for us? Jesus’s answer is that to whom much is given, much is required.
Our passage today is at the end of this speech to the crowd. Jesus has been talking about changes coming, telling the crowd not to worry about trivial concerns and warning his close disciples to be alert. Today’s passage begins where Jesus gets impatient: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? A storm is coming, and people in the crowd are focused on their inheritance or what they will eat. Don’t you know, every now and then Jesus just wanted to slap them up the side of their heads and say, “don’t you get it? Can’t you feel the fire, even a little bit?”
Today, we have plenty of signs that a storm is coming, maybe it’s already here.
We at Berea and the PCUSA in general could look at our dwindling membership and think we are doing something very wrong — until we discover that, as Robert Putnam painstakingly outlined in his book, Bowling Alone, we discover that post World War II Americans have been turning away from memberships of all kinds for the last 40 to 50 years. We don’t bowl together; we don’t join women’s clubs; we don’t join the Rotary Club; we don’t hold dinner parties like our parents did; we don’t join Democratic or Republican ward committees; we don’t join Unions; we don’t join churches.
How many of the attempts in the last few decades by denominations or individual churches to build back church membership have been futile because we were so busy dodging the raindrops, we didn’t see where the storm clouds were going?
People in a suburban church with a large membership and healthy budget, they think just because they don’t feel any raindrops, there aren’t any storm clouds. So they ignore the storm, thinking it’s only for others.
We want it back — those days in the 1950s and 1960s when Baby Boomers like me were causing the Sunday School classes to burst, and everyone built new buildings or new wings and thought this was the future. Forever.
We want “peace,” as in surface harmony, where everything looks all right with the world. Trouble is, those idyllic 1950s weren’t so great for some of us. You know that. Those of us who were kids then remember — nearly all of us were going to segregated schools.
This is not the kind of “peace” that Jesus came to bring. He came, as one version of this passage puts it, to disrupt and confront.
This is a society change we are going through. I could draw parallels with the economy or politics, but then we might be distracted from the full message.
Writers like Phyllis Tickle and Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass are pointing to a historic shift in the way people in our society understand God, humanity, authority and, by the way, the Church.
Every 500 years, such a shift takes place.
Five hundred years ago, during the Protestant Reformation, European reformers split from the Roman Catholic Church. Society turned toward democracy, universal literacy and a reliance on scripture rather than the Pope as the ultimate authority for interpreting the nature of God. The Reformation was part of a larger shift in consciousness called the Age of Reason, that overturned Western understanding of government, economics, science as well as the nature of humanity and God.
We are protestants and we are probably pretty familiar and comfortable with those changes. We’d call it progress.
But the Reformation wasn’t the first time things changed completely, and, it seems pretty obvious now, it won’t be the last.
Five hundred years before the Reformation, the Latin church and the Orthodox church split in what was called the Great Schism. Five hundred years before that, the “Great Decline and Fall” of the Roman Empire plunged Europe into paganism and “the Dark Ages;” 500 years before that, Christianity and modern Judaism began rising amid the chaos of the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. And if you want to continue the trend, 500 years before that, the people of Judah were dragged off to Babylon; 500 years before that, a shepherd named David was anointed king of a collection of tribes calling themselves Israel.
Do you begin to see what Jesus is saying about division? To this crowd in Galilee, Jesus said, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, rather I bring division.”
Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law. In other words, between the generations, there will be division in families. But don’t take it literally. Jesus predicted divisions between segments of society, and, as we have seen in history, between institutions following God.
Notice what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say the sons are right and the fathers wrong, or that the daughters-in-law should listen to their mothers-in-law. One commentator notes that the division Jesus mentions, three against two and two against three, seems to indicate that scapegoating is out. No more incidents of four against one, letting one person or point of view get clobbered by the rest.
Again, going back to Phyllis Tickle, if you look at the historical trends, you see that the Great Schism did not mean that the Catholics “won out” over the Orthodox church. In fact, today with the fall of the Soviet empire, the Orthodox church is gaining strength all over the world, including the United States. Likewise, the Reformation did not mean the end of Roman Catholocism.
Something new is emerging. I don’t understand it very well. But enough of it is visible that people are calling it the Great Emergence, also the title of Phyllis Tickle’s book. It won’t eclipse Protestantism. Instead, we will see multiplication by division.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” Jesus tells the crowd in this chapter of Luke. “Don’t be afraid, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”
Indeed, in nature, division often means growth instead of death. Look at the picture on the cover of the bulletin today. When I saw it, I thought immediately of dividing plants in the garden. You dig up an iris or a hosta, divide it in two, replant one and transplant the other. Then you have two healthy plants. Is that what God has been doing with God’s church?
For instance, God ending the Roman Empire with its toxic violence and inequalities and turning the gospel over to Irish monks, who focused on bringing Christianity into Northern Europe through herbal healing and sharing written texts in the monasteries.
Or God seeing that the Great Schism between the Latin church and the Eastern church provided at least two points of view of how to organize the church and relate to God. And the Schism changed both churches.
The same could be said for the Reformation.
Jesus came bringing division, not peace. Lets use an analogy from biology: living things grow by cell division. A baby in the womb begins as two cells come together as one. Then that one unified cell divides and divides. No one mourns the loss of the first cell. Division is growth. “Peace,” — if you mean a calm status quo where nothing changes — that’s a definition of death.
Jesus did not come to smooth things over and ignore differences. Jesus came to stir things up.
Instead of consolidating church congregations to achieve comfortable numbers and endowments, smoothing over differences or choosing scapegoats on which to concentrate conflict, the Church should be following Jesus. The Church could be looking for natural, healthy ways to divide — sending out shoots for new plants, splitting the unified germ cell into ever-dividing cells that make up a new organism — instead of sitting back and waiting for a peaceful death.
God has plans for us, for the Church, for America. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that all we need is faith. The faith of Abraham, who set out for a new land promised to him, not knowing where God would take him.
The Hebrews crossed the Red Sea and flattened the walls of Jericho; the leaders listened to people like Rahab the prostitute, an unlikely carrier of God’s word. Through acts of faith, they toppled kingdoms, made justice work, took the promises for themselves. “They were protected from lions, fires, and sword thrusts,” the writer tells us. “They turned disadvantage to advantage.”
I count myself as a very puny member of the clouds of witnesses, those that the writer of Hebrews said “faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.”
I feel lucky in comparison. Over the last year as I tried to understand why presbytery rejected me for the ministry, I listened to a song by Neil Diamond, “If I Don’t See You Again.” He was singing about a broken love relationship. I have heard it as a broken church relationship, with various members of presbytery taking the part of “you” in the song, including, in the last verse, you in Berea who have believed in me and my call from beginning to end.
Listen, please, to the last two verses:
It’s time for saying goodbye
‘Cause if I stayed for too long
You’d get to know me too well
And find that something was wrong
The time is perfect to go
Before the curtain descends
Right now when both of us know
That everything’s got to end.
If I don’t see you again
Somehow we both made it through
I would have gave up on life
Before I gave up on you
You went and turned me around
Could be was something you said
I couldn’t make out the sound
I didn’t care what it meant
If I don’t see you again
If I don’t see you again
If I don’t see you again
I know I’ll see you again. We care about each other and we’re going in the same direction…
But back to the letter to the Hebrews, about those who were stoned and sawed in two and put to the sword..
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
So I will run the race marked out for me, setting my eyes on Jesus, and I will cheer you on as you run the race marked out for you. And we will not look at division as a death, but as a rebirth,
Thanks be to God.