Recently Marcos and I attended a family reunion in Indiana. It was predicated on the fact that both my parents will be turning 80 in the next few months. In the banquet room of a restaurant, fifty relatives, from both sides of the family, gathered for the first time ever. While on one level I was excited to renew ties with folks I hadn’t seen in decades, I was also full of trepidation. Some folks you don’t want to see for decades, and a few of my relatives fit that bill.
Among my biggest concerns was the fear that conversations about the good old days would turn into conversations about these political days in America. I knew that tempers would flare if the conversation turned toward the election and so I had a prepared a response in the event that anyone tried to goad me into a political discussion: “Aunt So-n-so, today is about my parents. Let’s all focus on them.” And if that didn’t work, then I would simply walk away.
I am, by nature, conflict averse. I may have opinions about all sorts of things, but I would prefer not to discuss most of them. It just doesn’t seem worth it to me, knowing how entrenched most of us are. Do you know anyone who has ever changed her mind because of a clever cartoon, witty saying or collection of statistics on a Facebook feed? We’re all just preaching to the choir.
Well, you can imagine my relief and delight when my mother announced earlier on the day of the big event, that there would be no discussion of politics… or religion. “What?” my dad asked. “What are all the preachers in this family supposed to talk about if even religion is off the table?” “Pop,” I said, “there’s a lot more to talk about than religion.”
And that’s the truth. In fact, within my own lifetime, it was considered impolite to speak about religion or politics in public. The goal of that prohibition was to maintain a certain kind of public decorum. Polite society wanted everyone to behave in a certain way, and raising one’s voice or arguing about personal beliefs didn’t fit their vision of the way we should behave. And there is something to that. But the unintended consequence of this prohibition is that the systems of oppression, so often tied to one’s religious and political points of view, are left unchallenged. Harmony at all costs is an excuse for the status quo, no matter how unjust it is.
Well, Jesus would never have made it in our version of polite society. As we discussed last week, Jesus was a prophet in the tradition of the other Hebrew prophets, meaning that he could be a rabble-rouser in the quest for justice. Jesus was always talking about politics and money and religion – upsetting the false harmony of society.
Event though we’re hearing this lesson in August, it’s really a reading for Lent. Jesus had begun his last journey ever into Jerusalem. Before him lay an unjust trial and a public execution. Immediately before this scene, Luke says that the Pharisees began to be very hostile to Jesus. They were cross-examining him at every turn, lying in wait to catch him in something he might say. Luke also points out that the crowd that day numbered in the thousands. And some folks had already gotten trampled. And all of these pressures seemed to converge in this one moment, pushing Jesus over the edge.
Suddenly, Jesus raised his voice and said: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” And here we should pause for a second to recognize the naked humanity of the Son of God. Jesus is totally stressed. And while I am sorry that Jesus experienced such a thing, I’m comforted to know that Jesus knows just how we can feel.
Sometimes when I am under stress, all my verbal filters disappear. And it seems that this is what happened to Jesus. He continued: “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
I read that this week and thought: “Frankly, Jesus I do think you came to bring peace on earth. Didn’t the angels sing ‘Peace on Earth’ as they heralded your birth? Didn’t you promise to leave us a peace that no one could take away from us? Aren’t you called ‘The Prince of Peace?’ So yes, Jesus, I do expect you to bring peace! And I certainly don’t expect you to bring us any more division, in this world so deeply divided by religion and fear and greed.”
A Savior who promises division is not attractive to any of us because we all want peace. The world needs peace. But the question Jesus asks is, are we willing to do those things that actually make for peace? Or do we want harmony at all costs - a polite society with a thin veneer of respectable religion?
Like it or not, Jesus preached a Gospel of Crisis. The contemporary theologian Fred Craddock coined the phrase “Jesus is the crisis of the world.” And what he means by that is that Jesus stands in judgment over the systems of oppression that so often rule the world. The Gospel is a direct confrontation against anyone or anything that degrades and demolishes human beings. And we have all been called to the struggle by virtue of our baptisms. In the baptismal liturgy of the United Church of Christ we ask: “Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?” In other words, there are two distinct ways to live. Choose one.
The Gospel of Crisis is, at its root, a declaration that everything is not fine and dandy; that all is not right with the world. Lots of us avoid confrontations and label them as bad. But conflicts are not, in and of themselves, bad things. In fact, a conflict, rightly understood and communicated, can open new avenues between disparate parties. A conflict can clarify the truth. Conflict is a tool, but it is never the goal.
We know that because Jesus’s story didn’t end here, with this declaration of division. His story nears the end with a crucifixion, but finally ends with a Resurrection. The end result of the Gospel of Crisis is new birth, new understandings, transformations, new ways of living in the world.
We all long for harmony and unity and peace. We are all exhausted by the competing claims of an election season run amok. But our desires for harmony cannot trump the desire for justice. As Martin Luther King once said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”
And justice is a struggle, a conflict, a crisis… that gives birth to glory.