Now I’m up here in a robe, so as you might guess, I like the Bible. But it’s a big library of books, right? There is some stuff in there that is very approachable. Like, “love is patient, love is kind.” We all like that, right?
And then there are passages like today that start off with fire and division. My first instinct was to say, “oh, no no no no,” and preach on something else. But as often happens after my initial reactions to the text, it started to speak to me differently.
I’ll start off by saying that when I read passages like today’s, I often wish our biblical ancestors weren’t such fans of dramatic metaphor and hyperbole, but when I remember the moments of turmoil and conflict out of which some of these texts come, it’s easy to imagine how language begins to escalate.
The Gospel of Luke is written in a first century community that is divided. This Jewish community is arguing about Jesus and what his life and death means, their occupation and oppression by Roman forces, and how to live forward their religious life in the wake of the destruction of the temple, which most scholars believe this gospel was written after. The way that Luke tells Jesus’ story has to be seen in the context of that moment and its people.
Now, versions of this story exist in Mark and Matthew. Mark, the earliest writer, doesn’t talk about fire. Matthew uses the imagery of a sword. It has a little different flavor in each telling, but what seems clear is that in the wake of Jesus’ death, those who sought to bring the message forward ARGUED.
And it got ugly. Things felt turbulent. Everyone thought what THEY thought was the right way. Right? In some ways, the church is STILL having this fight, right?
One of the things that I love about the UCC is its theological diversity. One of the mottos the UCC has used over the years is “that all may be one.” It’s the idea that we don’t truly make change or work forward when we’re trying to make sure we all think exactly alike, but when we commit to diversity in a way that allows all of us to engage authentically and be seen in our truest, best light.
But now I’ve fast-forwarded 2,000 years.
Jesus was speaking to his own turbulent moment. To a time when the power structure wasn’t serving the people. When government and religious leaders seemed more corrupt and concerned with money than justice. When different leaders and prophets were popping up left and right, speaking to a tense population seeking security and safety in the face of a scary world. When the path forward seemed unclear and like it was a real possibility that we would all start heading down the WRONG path.
Wait, was that 2000 years ago?
I think prophecy is deep spiritual insight into human nature.
Like, many of us could not have predicted that the 2016 election would have gone the way it did. In fact, most of our established polls and institutions predicted that Hillary Clinton would be our president right now, and they were wrong.
Some of us did predicted it, though, right? Sometimes the signs of the times are written in fire right in front of us and we are unable to see it or we don’t believe people when they tell us a truth we’re not ready to hear.
And now there are 20-something candidates running for the democratic domination because there isn’t agreement on the way forward.
These are the times of change. And change can lead us to feel divided– to be divided. It can be like cleaning a wound, but when we do, we can begin building scar tissue and building strength again.
Many of us have navigated these times of change in our personal lives, when the signs of the time become clear and the hard work, the seemingly turbulent work of change becomes necessary. Many of my LGBTQ-identifying beloveds have navigated senses of division within themselves and their lives as they have come to terms with their own truths. Some of us have navigated those divisions that come in the wake of living our truths outwardly.
Families or relationships in phases of separation or divorce experience many divisions and scars that form, heal, break open, and heal again during the process of rebuilding. During these kinds of life moments, maybe when we are separating from a partner, when we or our parents or guardians are getting divorced or separating, when loss or illness in a family leads to new kinds of tenderness and the resurfacing of old wounds… people will tell us it gets better, and intellectually, we might know this and have faith that it will. But that doesn’t necessarily change the way things are now, right?
When I was in my early twenties, I found myself in a time of personal turbulence. I was in an unhealthy relationship, I had an eating disorder, untreated depression and anxiety, and I was working and going to school full time. I ended up dropping out of college and going through and making many life changes.
Now each of us have different journeys, but at that point in my life, I felt very low. I felt divided within myself about how I was treating myself and about how my boyfriend was treating me. I felt divided in my obligations and responsibilities. I felt like my struggles and failures were dividing my family. When I dropped out of college, I think I was catering to the chaos within me. I let my depression and eating disorder consume me. I let the failure that I thought I was become me. I started to feel like that moment was the whole story.
I started working full time and tried to brush my struggles under the rug. I tried to fight my disappointment in myself and the disappointment of others and pretend everything was fine. As anyone who has struggled with eating disorders or depression knows, though, pretending doesn’t help. It may get people to leave you alone or to allow yourself to hide behind a facade, but pretending you’re okay when you’re not only makes the pain worse. Like a dying star, you can begin to collapse in on yourself. You become alone in grieving for yourself and for the person you wanted to be. You lose sight of whatever light you used to have. Like a dying star, you become self-cannibalizing until you have no more of your energy left to consume.
Ignoring the signs of the time, like I tried to do for too long, only inhibited my healing.
Turbulent times in our lives require us to do the work. Sometimes it’s only when we acknowledge our division and brokenness that we can begin rebuilding a sense of unity. We can try to ignore the signs, or we can roll up our sleeves and do the difficult stuff. We can have the tough conversations, tell the hard truths, and try to heal.
Turbulent times in our larger lives require the same. This moment in the life of this nation has been years, decades, probably centuries in the making. The division is real. And so is the work ahead of us. But as I look around this room, I know it’s the work that we are engaging in.
In my early 20s, I felt divided and doubtful. I ended relationships. I dropped out of school. I treated by body poorly.
But then I confronted my wounds. I accepted help where it was needed. Now I have a partner that I have been in a HEALTHY relationship with for a decade. I have a masters degree. I have built up systems and relationships of support that I didn’t have and couldn’t have imagined then. I’m no longer trying to live into predetermined roles; I’m trying to live into my authentic self.
Resurrection happens in Jesus, in the grandeur of the universe, and in the smallness of our own lives. It happens in the times when it feels like it’s not happening at all. When we feel like we’re arguing– with ourself, with our spouse, with our families, with our nation, with our neighbors, with our co-workers– and that sense of conflict can make us feel quite uneasy.
It’s doubtful that the author of Luke could have foreseen what would become of the divided spiritual movement of which he was a part. There are SO MANY reasons he couldn’t imagine what we are doing here, right now, today.
It can be hard to discern what is next in our own lives– where this moment will take us personally or where it will take our larger world. We may not always be able to read the signs of the time… and that’s when we can look to Jesus. Despite those who would try to keep him quiet, keep him out of the synagogue, keep him away from certain members of society, he kept going out into the people, doing the work.
As is evidenced again and again in our spiritual tradition, the life of the church, and the life of the universe, resurrection happens. The explosive deaths of celestial bodies lead to opportunities for Life. Our Earth exists because of a series of deaths and explosions. When we feel divided, let’s learn to put our finger to the wind. Our moments of division serve a purpose in the greater work. It’s the movement of change and re-formation. Reformation. It’s the work of making real peace, not just quiet.
As we all continue that work of making peace in our own ways, and in all the divided places in our lives, let us remember that the work is ongoing. I’ll draw from another spiritual ancestor today in closing, St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.