Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Division. Division. Division."

Almost always, whenever we read passages or parables from the Gospels, we come away feeling uplifted, inspired or comforted.

Whether it would be Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where he says “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” or one of his incredible miracles like the healing of the leper or when he wept upon learning of the death of his friend Lazarus or of the embrace of the loving father in the story of the Prodigal Son – these texts and many more like them usually make us feel good about being followers of Jesus, and consequently make us hopeful that in the end, everything will be ok, that the world will be ok, that we will be ok.

That’s the common feeling we have when we leaf through stories in any of the four canonical gospels. But then, every once in a while, we encounter a passage that is quite unsettling – almost puzzling, just like the one we just heard proclaimed.

Regardless of the theological stance that attract us; meaning, whether we tend to be traditional, bible driven and evangelical as opposed to being progressive, radical or liberal, to say the least, quite often, the image we have of Jesus is one of peace, love, compassion, forgiveness, etc.

This image of kindness and love and mercy gets translated in Hallmark images, for example, as the Jesus whose eyes, often blue in color, penetrate your inmost being; an image often used to portray what a loving son of God we have. The Good Shepherd, particularly the Mormon version, is a good example of what I am talking about. And as I said, this is what we commonly imagine Jesus to be.

And yet, in today’s Gospel passage, Jesus is being portrayed quite differently especially in line with the unsettling things that come out of his mouth. He appears to be mean-spirited.

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

And then he continues on citing personal instances on how that “division” is played out. “Father against son, son against father; mother against daughter, daughter against mother; mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

Although, that last one we can all understand. Right? Just kidding. But seriously, those are some pretty serious and disturbing things coming from the mouth of Jesus.

And so we wonder what exactly is Jesus talking about, and why does it not sit well with us if it is really what God wants to reveal to us?

I don’t know about you folks but I like an “Amazing Grace” kind of moment; comforted with the assurance that a “wretched” like me is saved. It’s the kind of assurance I get when He tells me: “Come to me all you who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” I’m sure you too would like a happy and joyful and serene kind of relationship when you attempt to commune with the Holy.

Obviously that’s not the feeling I get in seeing Jesus paint a much different picture of how things are going to be. And if I’m being totally honest, I must say that I really don’t like the image Jesus is placing in my mind.

But that’s just me. I know that Jesus uses a variety of means in calling people to holiness with which he instructs his followers in ways where to base their discipleship. Sometimes he chooses stories or parables. At other times, he teaches through concrete examples of forgiving, feeding, accepting, understanding, and healing.  Often, he simply uses words of comfort and kindness and mercy. But once in a while he says the tough things to his disciples; giving it to them “straight” to their face and probably so they won’t misunderstand what he is saying. And I think, this passage is a good example.

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”

Division! What a negative word! Indeed, it usually conjures a lessening of number; a disharmony of relationships; an inducement to the setting of barriers and walls and its derivative, exclusivism.

Quite often, we get tempted to follow this line of reasoning and simply focus on the “division” aspect of this passage. When we do that, we miss out on what might be the main theme of Jesus’ message. We eventually become a bit unsettled on how to reconcile these two camps. On the one hand, we dismiss it as simply too “un-Jesus” like. On the other, we end up wondering what really is this all about.

So, here’s my take on that. Early in this passage, Jesus tells his disciples something that can help shed light on what this saying is all about.  He tells them: “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”

Setting the earth on fire! Wishing it’s ablaze! It’s no longer just merely “kindling” but “blazing”. Think about that for a moment.  Jesus wants to set the earth on fire. What in the world does that mean?

When we think of fire, many of us see it as a tragedy, as something having gone wrong, as a destructive force that leaves virtually nothing in its path.

Those of you who had been to Reno or parts of Colorado and Arizona, must have seen grim reminders of the devastation that fire has caused in those areas. There were huge losses, acres and acres of land and countless property structures destroyed including human lives. Indeed, fire could visit us as a destructive force that renders those in its path devoid of forms of life.

I’m sure Jesus knew what havoc fire could cast upon us. But he saw something else that made him declare he wanted to set the earth on fire. He knew that fire not only destroys but it also has a transformative character! 

It is a fire like those forest fire in parts of the Sierras or Colorado or Arizona that clears out old growth and decaying trees but then, it also makes room for new ones.

And it is a fire like the fires deep within the earth of the Big Island in Hawaii which burst from the earth with terrible force and fury, but which also ultimately brings about new land, new life, and new possibilities.

It is like the fire used in metallurgy that wonderfully transforms seemingly useless fragments of ore into things of great beauty and usefulness. And it is like the fire within each human heart, a fire that is fueled by the living God within; a fire which continually creates anew every person who is open to it.

However, like the forest fire, the volcano, and the forge, the transforming fire of God does not always manifest itself in calm, gentle, soothing ways.  It’s quite the opposite. When Jesus calls us to follow him, he’s not calling us to something static or some kind of a detachment from the world. He calls us to something very demanding!

You see, when Jesus calls us to discipleship he calls us to a very arduous, taxing and challenging venture. There is always a cost to discipleship, always something that we need to let go of in order to live a life of faith – a life in which God’s Spirit continually pours forth from all who respond to the grace God so freely gives.

When we talk of how “costly” discipleship could get, we only have to look at the cross to know that doing the right thing, doing the loving thing, does not mean that life will be easy or simple or without difficulties.

In our Old Testament from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we read of the Lord’s vineyard and His frustration about its harvest; producing wild grapes rather than the best. After all, God has set up His vineyard with all the best that He could think of. This passage alludes to the challenges needed to be met in order to produce the much-desired harvest. That, as the image suggests, needs a lot of work!

And that’s just but one image of the challenge of discipleship. And yet, if we think about what is possible when we open ourselves up to the transforming fire of God, we most certainly will come to realize that it far outweighs whatever the cost; far outweighs whatever it is that we must surrender for the sake of God and his kingdom.

Jesus has come to “set the world on fire”. He wants us to “burn” off the decaying and dead brushes of our life. He looks forward to our new state of transformed life. But that might be a bit more than difficult to do. And this is where the division will definitely come to play.

In the interplay of human relationships, as in between father and son, mother and daughter, including the extended relationships with in-laws, in all the interplay, there will be “division” especially when the demands of discipleship come into play. Responding to its demands would mean letting go of the decaying brushes and trees and Jesus wishes it’s already happening in your lives. He is wishing it were already ablaze!

My dear friends in Christ, are we ready to face the challenges of discipleship? Are we ready to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us”? Are we ready to let Christ “set on fire” the earth we have been grounding ourselves so there could be growth and new life and new opportunities? Are we ready to face “division” and are we willing to stir the seeming placid waters of indifference and isolation?

These are scary personal questions but that’s what we get by claiming to be disciples of Jesus. That’s what the sign of the cross on our forehead at our baptism demands of us.

Fellow Christians, it is my prayer that each of us become the fuel God uses to make the world the beautiful place he created it to be.  And may we never fear the fire of God, but welcome it with open hearts. 

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