Jesus Kicks It Up a Notch
Aug 18, 2019
Luke 12:49-56 – Jesus said,
49 “I came to throw fire on the earth. I wish it were already kindled. 50 But I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, no, but rather division. 52 For from now on, there will be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against her mother; mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”
54 He said to the multitudes also, “When you see a cloud rising from the west, immediately you say, ‘A shower is coming,’ and so it happens. 55 When a south wind blows, you say, ‘There will be a scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky, but how is it that you don’t interpret this time?
What a challenging text! Oh dear, I pick em good right? No man, it’s just in the Bible. And what are we gonna do with it? Well we gotta do something with it. Because the Bible claims to be a good word for the people, telling the story of God, who loves us relentlessly. So how does this text, do that? Let’s see.
Cause the reality is, sometimes it’s used to do the opposite. Sometimes biblical texts have been misused. To coerce, to manipulate, to shame. I’m pretty sure a few cults have used this line,”father against son, and son against father; mother against daughter, and daughter against her mother” to get people to commit their lives, and money usually, to their cause, abandoning their family who all saw what you were getting into and got worries for you. So you can’t just blanketly apply a text to a situation for your agenda. What I mean is: “Just because your family hates you doesn’t mean you’re doing God’s work.”
If we’re going to take this text seriously, then we’ve got to consider the context in which Jesus was in, who the audience was that Jesus was talking to, seriously. Why Jesus said such things, to whom, for what situation, and what he must’ve meant by it. Honestly we’ll never know what he exactly meant, because we don’t have a time machine, and just like you never know what Mark Rothko meant with his art. I mean, it’s just boxes of colors. But let’s consider, what does it evoke in you. And the search for what he might’ve meant is the journey worthy enough. We dive into the text with eagerness, hope, and humility. What does Jesus mean by these words? And I really struggle with this statement. “Do you think that I have come to give peace in the earth? I tell you, no, but rather division!”
I mean them are fighting words here. Ain’t nobody wanna hear that right now, at this time of our own political environment of division, our generation of widening gaps among folks!
A few weeks ago I preached from Ecclesiastes and in that book, it reminds us that there is a season for everything:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
So what might have been this particular time for division that Jesus was talking about? What was the context of Jesus’ time that prompted him to say this.
History and texts outside of the Bible tells us that Jesus was born into a time and place when the Roman Emperor Augustus reigned. It was marked by a time called Pax Augustus, the “peace of Augustus” ruled with a mighty hand. What did this mean? The Oxford History of the Biblical World says that it, quote, “brought stability to the empire as a whole, but its benefits were not spread evenly. While some enjoyed freedom and prosperity, subject peoples and those on the fringes of society experienced oppression. Such inequity often leads to unrest and even insurrection, and some scholars have viewed the ministry of Jesus as a hostile response to oppression by the Romans and their representatives in the east. Certainly the Roman treatment of Jesus and later his followers indicates that they were considered a threat to the peace.” (Coogan, p.390) Meaning, it was peace for some but oppression for some. For those who are enjoying peace, it’s always a nuisance when their peace is interrupted. Those folks often say, everything was fine, why the unrest? Fine for you but it hasn’t been fine for others.
Of course peace is ultimately something everyone wants. The meaning of the Greek word used here for peace is, peace. “A favorable circumstance”, or ‘tranquility’ or, ‘to be without trouble’ or ‘to have no worries” or, sometimes it’s helpful to hear it as that culture’s idiom, ‘to sit down in one’s heart’. That sounds so nice. To sit down in one’s heart. Who wouldn’t want that? It’s because some folks didn’t have peace, they had troubles and they had worries and they could not sit down in their own heart, they were running around just to keep up. It’s peace for you but what if others are not experiencing that peace right next to you. Can you sustain your peace? Martin Luther King Jr said, “He (one) who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he (one) who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” Passively accepts. I think that’s often what happens with situations that we think as peace for some. We just all go along with it. We just passively, silently, let it be because we don’t wanna cause trouble.
That kind of “peace” is not what Jesus came for. Jesus didn’t come here to just numb the pain or even accept some enlightenment of peace no matter what’s going on around you. He came to fundamentally change the whole system . Which meant disrupting the current one under the yoke of the Roman Empire. He didn’t even come to just make you feel better but he came to uproot the very nature of the way the world operated, which you are a part of. He’s like, I didn’t come here to just chill with you. I’m sorry but we’re gonna get up and get some work done. You think I came to have a good time? No I came to challenge the status quo. Rock the boat. Not ignore. Wake up. Bring things to light. And people hate it when you bring things to light. Because it disrupts the norm.
And when Jesus talks about one house being divided, well, it’s bringing disruption close to home, into every fabric of their lives and community. Not only so but it’s disrupting the everyday norm of the time, and pulling apart the most basic nodes of system that the whole system builds on. Jesus is disrupting familial system. This is challenging. This is hard.
There was a time in my family, when things started to unravel. It mostly started because I decided to start going to therapy in seminary. Before then, sure we’ve had problems but certain things were understood as, ‘that’s just the way things are’. But then, the youngest of 3, had to go and process family systems theory and it began breaking open old secret boxes of our family. I began to ask questions. And my family at first were open to it, like that’s cool you’re doing this, but soon the questions got too deep. And things got emotional. I asked my dad why he no longer talked to one of his sisters. My mom and my dad both claimed that nothing particular happened. That they just drifted apart. I asked if we could reach out to them, and my mom began to get defensive and walked away. My dad sat there and this darkness came over him.
When our family gets together, there were certain things that always happened. Certain expectations. Certain behaviors. There was this one time, right in the middle of my deep journey into therapy work, we planned a family vacation in Vegas. To be honest, I didn’t want to go because some of the things that came up for me that made me sensitive. I was starting to change, from the role I had always played, which was the youngest, which in korean is mang-neh, which connotes so much meaning of who you are and what role you play in the family, and in my family mangneh was the one who always entertained everyone and made everyone happy. Growing up, I was the harmony maker in my family. And on that trip, I decided to not be that anymore and it was so awkward.
Everyone was staying together in one suite. And vegas suites are huge, but this was with my sister, her husband, her 3 kids, and my brother, his wife. And I, needing boundaries and some personal space as I was working through some family trauma, and said that I will be staying in another room by myself, in another hotel. And at random times, I’d duck out, saying I needed to go to the gym. Yeah I was that person. And they were like what? Lydia doesn’t work out. I remember them looking at me weird, in one sense realizing their youngest was growing up, and in another sense it began disrupting everything. My family was uncomfortable and yes, I was making things more difficult. Using money to get my own room? Selfish! Causing awkwardness to our family vacation. But I needed to. There was some family trauma that nobody was talking about and I needed to bring it up.
Because Peace is not just all agreeing with one another. Unity is not uniformity. That’s people pleasing. Real peace, is justice right? Not just nicey-nice, easy going, but real peace, shalom, is holistic righteousness in every aspect. Even the thought of division, I don’t necessarily think division is bad sometimes. Not everyone needs to be on the same page. I have a pep peeve when someone calls America a melting pot. It’s like, no, we shouldn’t expect everyone to just melt into the rest and lose our unique flavor and individuality. I’d much rather like a pasta salad, please, with kimchi on top. Give it some kick. Some spice! That something pickled. Much tastier. You know what you get when you melt everything together in a pot right? Poo poo color soup.
So, is it better to just blend in and not start trouble? Shall we just stay silent as to not cause conflict? I mean, it is very uncomfortable. I mean, I talked about being the one to kind of instigate change and speaking up in my family but I, for most of my life have much rather just avoid the conflict and crack a joke instead. Or distract us. Or numb us. I never knew how to do healthy confrontation, and of course that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s never confrontation, it just mean when there is, you don’t know how to do it well and things are piled up and saved up and erupts. Most days I love avoiding discomfort.
Look, I love TV. I love Netflix. Grey’s Anatomy, Queer eye, Orange is the New Black, Give me your drama, not my drama. I love just tuning in and zoning out. My husband, not so much. Him, he likes to connect. Talk about things. He loves to ask me this questions, “so what happened today?” And I’m like, uh nothing, nothing happened today, just same ol’ same ol’. I’m like trying to just watch some TV and not process the things that happened that day, but him, oh he loves to discuss things, things I saw or heard, things I felt. He’ll ask me like, anything that stood out to you today? Like a journal prompt. And then I’ll kind of start sharing about something that happened that kind of bothered me and then as I talk about it I realize how much it bothered me and I get all worked up and he’s like you’re just now telling me this? And then he’ll get worked up and say something like, “why didn’t you say something?” and I start questioning and replaying everything. And now both of us are worked up. In one sense, I’m like, man we could’ve had just a quiet night where we watch a TV show, poke on our phones next to each other, and then go to bed. You know, a peaceful marriage. But no, he wants to talk things out and make me feel stuff.
Here’s another example. It’s like the great TV show, cause you know I love TV, Kitchen Nightmares with chef Gordon Ramsey. I mean, he brings in conflict. And the reality is that the restaurant he’s come to work with has already been dying a sad slow death of no customers. But then he comes in and calls the menu, insert flowery language I can’t say here, and yells at the owner, the owner is kind of just numb and the staff is checked out and the chef has lost all passion. And Gordon comes and kicks it up a notch. He’s like, this is disgusting, do you even care? And like barges out of the kitchen back door, throwing out food into the trash. He pulls out spoiled food from the fridge, meat that’s been frozen for years, lays everything out and makes them look at it and confront their failures. Everyone starts crying.
In the beginning of Luke chapter 12, Jesus says, “The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all. Whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be shouted from the housetops for all to hear!” Bring it to light. Expose the back of the kitchen. And he talks about these two metaphors fire and water. He says he’s bringing down fire. And this metaphor for fire isn’t just judgement or destruction. We know that fire destroys but also it cooks, it shed impurities, it shapes metals or glass. It heats and give energy. Jesus also talks about the waters of baptism. Which also, water can destroy, but also refreshing, it permeates and drowns everything. Water of the womb breaking to release new life. And that my friend, is not peaceful. I remember hearing that that pain, it’s one of the most natural supposed to happen kind of pains that we can experience in life. Jesus is bringing fires of change and water of new life to this earth.
The reality is, the gospel is really not a feel good message to be honest. If it was, then we’ve dumbed it down. The gospel, which by the way comes from the word evangelion, which was the exact word the Roman Empire used to announce some new decree of “good news”. The early Christians intentionally used that exact word to describe what Jesus was bringing, the real good news. Funny how words evolve over time, “evangelism”… But I digress.The gospel is more than just a nice fortune cookie saying for your week. It’s much more disruptive, discombobulating, and challenging to the status quo and your comfort level. I have the weird job of preaching a sermon that you like but also that makes you a little uncomfortable. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Let us not be lulled into thinking that the gospel is to make our lives better. That’s prosperity gospel. The gospel convicts us to sometimes turn our lives upside down. And it sometimes really is not pleasant or convenient.
The last church I was at went through some difficult times over the years. But this is not the story of just this church but so many churches. About a decade ago, it left a denomination they were a part of to make the shift in allowing women to be ordained as pastors. It was a divisive issue. A big chunk of the church left when they made that change. There were budget cuts and loss of relationships. And then about 5 years ago, it made another transition, to be a lgbt affirming church. It was a divisive issue. A big chunk of the people left. And for some people, it disrupted many personal and professional relationships. There was a social cost. I know professors who’ve been dropped from their jobs from seminaries for taking a stand. Some of these folks’ networks, friends, organizations that they help build, all turned their backs because they decided to accept their gay son rather than disowning him.
Last story I’ll tell. I know this wonderful woman. Her father was a minister growing up and she herself had always been involved in serving in the church. She’s now married to a woman. They have a son together. And because of it, her parents do not speak to her. They do not visit their grandson. And that makes me so sad for her but when you talk to her, I mean really talk to her, she really has so much love for her parents who have distanced her. She says she knows that they love her and that this is their framework, their way they know how to love her. She says that she doesn’t know what God is doing but she knows that God is working through them too somehow. It deeply pains her and she longs for her grandson to know his grandma. But she honors her parents, not at the cost of denying her own truth, or being gay, or her own calling—which by the way, she is like THE pastor to so many Asian-American queer Christians I know—but with her heart, with a divided heart that loves with grace and aches with pain.
It’s really hard you know. And it’s not clear. One man doesn’t disown his son. And another man rejects his daughter. And the point isn’t that division is God’s calling. Like I said at the beginning, there’s a time for everything. Like a good gardner, uprooting everything, turn over the dirt and pull out the weeds, before replanting, watering, and waiting. Like a good physician, that cuts or rebrakes to heal. The point is that there will be some fire. Some heat. The burning sensation is normal! Jesus came to throw down and allowed himself to be hung up on a cross. He came to kick it up a notch. So that we may know peace through his death. What paradox. And that’s what the gospel is. A beautiful paradox that we can’t organize neatly. May we have the grace to hold both, and wonder and be in awe of the great work of God that is done through Christ’s divided hands.
Look, there are lots of divisions in this world. You know it already. And Jesus never said, “why can’t we all just get along?” Jesus invited us into the tension, into the fire, into the waters. Maybe there’s a way to honor the divide, and the work it needs to do. Could it be possible that maybe God could work through both? just, consider, maybe. The text today doesn’t say which side God is on. Whether God’s on the mother-in-laws side or the daughter-in-laws side. It’s that whole iron sharpens iron verse people often quote from Proverbs. You know what happens what iron sharpens iron? It cuts both and there’s fire sparks everywhere! And it’s really loud! God is big enough to work through both.
Let me close us with this invitation to flourishing and a spiritual practice.
Invitation to flourishing:
Notice a particular division in our world. Notice your feelings and emotions about and towards both sides. Try to see each of the side’s motivations, their logic, their longings, their story. Consider what this divide is bringing attention to. What each of the side is truly concerned about at the end of the day. What truth or value is this division bringing to light? Without judgement, pray for the refining fire and waters of baptism that brings forth new life through this division.
And consider trying this out.
Two hands prayer – Honoring the divide. Consider each side.
On the one hand: I’m angry… I’m grieving… I’m frustrated… I deny…
On the other hand: I wish… I hope… I want… I positively desire…