A House Divided: Raising the Roof, or Razing the Foundation


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“He (Jesus) knew what they were thinking and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.”  Mt. 12:25

The Only Thing Constant is … Change

A few weeks ago, on a sunny January Sunday morning, I went to a worship service at a parish I once pastored for 24 years. I’d not been back since leaving there over 15 years ago. But I’d heard this was going to be the last occasion the dwindled congregation was gathering before shutting its doors. And, I felt moved to return for one last time to see the old place, and have a closing chapter to that story of my life.

Inside the sanctuary, little had visibly changed; except the few congregants there who warmly greeted me looked older, of course! As I sat through that hour, a flood of memories rushed through my mind. There were the thousands of worship services I had led and sermons preached, hundreds of baptisms, weddings and funerals, joyous celebrations and deeply-moving rituals sometimes used to express more than words can muster or minds can imagine. And then there’d been all the music, with a multitudinous chorus of voices that would nearly shake the walls and raise the roof.

I’d once arrived to be the vicar of a struggling mission congregation on its proverbial last legs. But instead, it had grown and flourished. More than heads and hearts, a faith community had built with our own hands a building that had once been set aside as holy, sacred ground. Now it would either be demolished, with the valuable real estate acreage sold off by the ecclesiastical hierarchy; or the building “repurposed” for some other use.

And I thought to myself, yep, the only thing constant is change.

The More Things Change, the More They …

In 1965, I was a junior at Cranbrook School for Boys. Strumming my guitar and singing the popular songs of the era, I also learned to play the harmonica at the same time; so I could try to imitate the poet-songwriter of our generation, Bob Dylan.

When I turned eighteen the following year I would be required to register for the military draft. Along with the rest of my classmates, I’d already determined the best way to try to sit out the American war raging in Southeast Asia was to continue my education with a student deferment. But the anti-war movement had divided the country, and many of us would take to the streets in protest marches to try to let those in the seat of power know that change was unmistakably in the air.

Come mothers and fathers, throughout the land
And don’t criticize what you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly aging’
Please get out of the new on if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

As vigorously as we sang to express our emergence into young adulthood, in retrospect it seems almost quaint now. Except there were these lines to that song that have turned out to be profoundly prophetic:

Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt, will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

More than a half century since Dylan penned those haunting lines, what he prophesied with his pen has come literally true. 

And I think to myself, the more things change, the more they stay the same.



















A House Divided

The other day, a cable news anchor launched a new series, exploring the question of whether the United States was on the brink of another civil war. He began by quoting from a speech by Abraham Lincoln: “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” 

That line was delivered in 1858, at an Illinois Republican Convention; two years before the nominee would be elected president, with a nation about to be tested by a civil war over slavery and the racial divides we would subsequently inherit that would remain to this day.

Curiously, the news anchor did not bother to cite the source from which Lincoln borrowed the now-familiar line: “He (Jesus) knew what they were thinking and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.”  Mt. 12:25

I’m usually relieved when scripture texts are not employed in an effort to validate or reinforce a point; since it is usually misappropriated and taken completely out of context. Still, in this instance, it caused me to reconsider for myself what was the context in which the Jesus character in two of the canonical gospels (Matthew and Luke) purportedly uttered such a truth about a divided house? 

More than a question of whether Lincoln – or the newscaster — misquoted scripture, what might have been going on in the divided world the Galilean peasant sage inhabited? What was the message from that wisdom tradition that might be most applicable and relevant today?

The Devil is in the Details

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute, and when the demon had departed the mute man spoke. And the crowds were amazed. But some of them said, “He drives out demons in the name of Beelzebul, the head demon.” Others were testing him by demanding a sign from heaven. But he knew what they were thinking, and said to them: “Every government divided against itself is devastated, and a house divided against a house falls. If Satan is divided against himself – since you claim I drive out demons in Beelzegul’s name – how will his domain endure?  If I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name, in whose name do your own people drive (them) out? In that case, they will be your judges. But if by God’s finger I drive out demons, then for you God’s imperial rule has arrived.”  [Lk. 14-20]

The two maxims I previously referred to in my personal examples are parts of an age-old glossary of human wisdom and experience. Change is constant, and it’s the one sure-fire thing we all endure and learn to accept, if we can. That, and the longer we live to see all the changes that go on all around us and within ourselves, the more we see a recurring pattern to it all. Things come and go; only to seemingly return again.

Part of that same folklore of human wisdom has to do with whatever the foundation may be that we’ve built for ourselves. Human communities strive to understand who we are, and what we believe and most value, by differentiating ourselves from others. The borders and barriers of governmental structures and religious traditions most commonly depict this. And, over time, those divisions will inevitably shake the foundations. And then — to borrow a biblical phrase from the battle of Jericho — the walls will come tumblin’ down.

The historical Jesus may have uttered the words attributed to him; about a divided house or government being unable to remain intact. But it was certainly not original with him. If nothing else, the peasant sage from Galilee was certainly part of his oral wisdom tradition of his time and place. What is striking is the context in which the two gospel writers chose to place this line on the lips of the one who was dead and gone; but had chosen to follow in his footsteps and teachings, nonetheless.

As the tale is told, their Jesus character was working miracles; exorcising demons in order to restore sight (in Matthew’s version) and speech (in both Matthew and Luke) to one who could neither see, nor speak.  He was blind and speechless. 

There’s a metaphor there. And that metaphor is far more powerful than some idle belief in any supernatural feat of magic.  To those who would understandably contend it would take a miracle for this divided house that our fractured nation currently inhabits to withstand all that “shakes the windows and rattles the walls,” it is empirically and unavoidably true that the times, “they are a’changin’.”

It is in this same context in which the gospel tale is spun — with that common wisdom uttered that we all understand and experience — that is most pertinent. The Jesus character is casting out the demonic; in order for one to see, speak and hear anew.  It is the challenge and task to identify and exorcise those demons who would – in Jesus’ words – veil from sight and deafen from hearing what he would have us discern and embrace as what he calls “God’s imperial rule.”  

As a post-theist myself, the “god” verbiage in this ancient tale can be readily deciphered and disarmed, by understanding the different time and place the historical figure lived; but also with the very same kind of fractious divisions in the governmental powers of Empire, and his own religious tradition that ultimately rid him from their midst.

A divided house will come and go. And the times are certainly changing. But the devil is in the details. Where many may claim they do not seek to  demonize the ‘other,’ the demonic among us remain those who would seek to conceal those truths that a government such as ours might aspire to claim are self-evident. And a faith tradition that may come and go, but with an affirmative gospel message that endures.

It may well be the time to identify the demons among us; in order that we might see, and hear, and speak anew what we affirm as the abundant life worth living.

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