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Sermon: Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

 

“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”

Rev. Dr. Janet Parker
First Congregational UCC, Portland

August 18, 2019

Luke 12:49-56

I have a love-hate relationship with fire.  I love fire when it’s controlled, in a well-built brick and mortar fireplace or a well-tended campfire.  I love the fire of candle-flame flickering during those magical concluding moments of the Christmas Eve service, when we sing Silent Night and feel the love that lights up the darkness.  But I am terrified by fire that’s out of control, fire that destroys homes and communities, and that kills everything in its path.  When I was at Holden Village recently, the remote Lutheran retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington, I saw the devastation of wildfire up close.

A few years ago, a fire raged out of control all around Holden Village and was only kept from consuming the village by savvy new fire-prevention systems and a hotshot fire-fighting crew that arrived in the nick of time.  Once you leave the perimeter of the village, you see the scars of the fire all around you.  Scorched and dead trees climb up some of the hillsides nearby and line the hiking trails. Fortunately, there’s still lots of forest that wasn’t consumed by fire, but you can’t miss the evidence of the Wolverine Creek Fire of 2015.

So, given my love-hate relationship with fire, I get really nervous when I read Jesus’ words in today’s passage from Luke:  “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.” I want to ask Jesus—just what kind of fire are you talking about here?  My worry only deepens when I read the verse a little farther down, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three….”

Whoa! What happened to loving Jesus, welcoming Jesus, the Jesus who came to bring peace on earth, good will to all? This is the passage that comes up today as the assigned gospel reading in the three-year lectionary cycle that many denominations share. But when I saw it, my first thought was, really?  I’m supposed to preach on division, now, in our social and political context? Where’s the good news in that?

Do you know that I have lived in or visited a good number of what you might call the “protest capitals” of the world in my lifetime?  I’ve lived in New York, Washington DC, Chicago; I’ve had the good fortune to visit London, Paris, and Hong Kong.  I’ve even lived in Portland!  Do you know we not only made the national news yesterday, but also the international news? I turned on the TV last night for a late-night news fix, and being a Saturday night, the only kind of news that was on was world news, and there was one of those awkward-looking, stilted, global news anchors reporting on the protests in Portland yesterday!  I mean, really. I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when things wrapped up yesterday, for the most part, without the much vaunted and feared violent clashes between the Proud Boys and Antifa.

So what are we to do with this Jesus we meet in today’s reading from Luke? Well, I think we need to listen to this Jesus very carefully and also interpret this Jesus very carefully. Too much harm has been done by bad exegesis of passages like this.  One example of bad exegesis is to turn this into some kind of hellfire and brimstone sermon that threatens judgment and condemnation for those who don’t believe in Jesus or practice the “right” kind of Christianity.  This is not the kind of fire and division that Jesus is talking about.

The first thing to notice is that Jesus is giving us a window into his own state of mind and heart at this very tense moment in his life when he’s on the way to Jerusalem…and to certain death. Can you hear the cry from his heart when he says, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed.” He’s talking about his crucifixion, his very own baptism by fire.  His enemies are pressing in on him and it’s almost like he’s just ready for it to all be over.  And maybe his words are really a kind of lament–that he came to bring God’s love and peace to the world and instead he’s provoked opposition and enmity in the powers that be.

At Christmas when we read the birth stories of Jesus, we love to recite the angels’ announcement of peace on earth, good will to all. But we often skip over the prophecy of Simeon, who blessed the baby Jesus in the Temple and said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign to be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Lk. 2:34-35)  In fact, you could argue that if we’re surprised when we get to this passage in Luke, we haven’t been reading very carefully.  Think of Mary’s song at the beginning of Luke, the Magnificat—what a divisive text that is!  When Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty,” did we really expect the powers that be to roll over and accept all this without a struggle?

As the former slave and famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” And as our Modern Testimony for today indicated, Jesus’ ministry had the effect of exposing people’s true selves, stripping away their masks as surely as the fire burns away the underbrush from the forest floor.

With that in mind, what are some takeaways for us today, in the middle of the conflagration that is the United States, and indeed, the world, circa 2019? And is there any good news for us here? Jesus challenges his hearers on their inability to interpret their present moment. Can we do any better? How do we rightly read the signs of our times, and in the ashes of our dumpster fire, do we find hope or despair?

I recently ran across an African American social commentator and blogger named Adrienne Maree Brown. In her blog post, “living through the unveiling,” she writes, “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.  we must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” Brown’s post reminds me of the course I just took on white anti-racism at Holden Village when I was on study leave there. One of the articles we read and discussed happened to be by a former doctoral colleague of mind, Jennifer Harvey.  It’s called, “For White Women Learning Calculus In a School Building on Fire.” It’s a challenging article.

Harvey, a white woman herself, basically says that we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in today if white women had worked collectively with women of color decades ago to create an unstoppable multiracial alliance to overcome our poisonous American stew of white supremacy, sexism, heterosexism and all the other interconnected ‘isms.  But instead, most of the time, the majority of white women sat silently by or aided the project of propping up white supremacy in the US.  So for the last four hundred years, African American women have been learning how to do calculus when it comes to fighting the forces that degrade their humanity while white women have been stuck doing basic addition.  And now just as white women are really waking up to the fact that the school building’s on fire, we’ve realized it’s time to learn calculus.

Yeah. It’s a tough article.  But it’s true.  The school’s been on fire for people of color since the beginning of our nation’s history.  Things like the #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the naked autocratic power grab of our current Administration is just exposing that fact for those of us who enjoy white skin privilege.  Check out the New York Times today.  They’ve launched the 1619 project, a journalistic initiative to observe the 400th anniversary of American slavery, to “finally tell our story truthfully.” “so, what feels new,” Brown writes, “is the unveiling; the heaviness is the increasing weight of the truth becoming undeniable as more people believe it.”

Whether you agree with me or not in my diagnosis of our situation, I’m sure you agree that our social divisions are worsening.  Painful disagreements on what really matters, who’s right, and who’s wrong are dividing families and friends down the middle. Jesus’ prophecy is coming true in that sense.  These divisions are creating real wounds for some, and exposing long-standing wounds for others as people take sides and as the underbelly of our society is being exposed.  In the midst of this, it’s tempting to cry, “Can’t we all just get along?”  We Protestants, white Protestants in particular, aren’t very good at conflict.  We’re much better at sullen silence, or passive aggressive peace!  But at the first whiff of a real fight, many of us would rather pull up stakes and leave, especially if it’s conflict within the church, God forbid.  But here’s what I believe. It’s precisely this moment that holds the greatest promise for new life, for real transformation.

When the fire has burned away all the underbrush, and we can see the skeleton of the forest clearly, the real work of reconstruction can begin. Some of that reconstruction work requires that we learn to do conflict differently, and that’s something we’re going to be working on as a congregation in the coming year—developing tools that will help us to have healthy disagreements, and work through them with both truth-telling and love. And those tools will stand us in good stead not only as members of this church but as family members, parents, lovers, and citizens. Another aspect of that reconstruction work calls for white people to do our own work in understanding and dismantling white privilege, and I’ll be inviting you into a book study this fall to join me in doing my own work on this.

One of the primary if not the primary species of tree around Holden Village is the Lodgepole Pine.  The Lodgepole Pine is gifted, or cursed, depending on your point of view, with something called “serotinous seeds.” Serotinous seeds require an environmental trigger to be released from their protective covering and fall to the ground. An environmental trigger like forest fire. The floor of the forest around Holden Village may be cleared of underbrush, but it’s also populated with baby trees, seedlings of Lodgepole Pines who are finally getting their chance at life.  As we go through the fire of the upcoming election season and ride the waves of global turmoil around rising nationalism, xenophobia, climate change and other stressors, what serotinous seeds might be released to grace and green our world?

I know that Jesus’ challenging words were ultimately words of hope not despair. I know this because the baptism of which he spoke, his own crucifixion, was but the prelude to his resurrection, the ultimate victory of life over death. Every baptism involves a descent into the death of the old and a rising to a new kind of life, symbolically or proleptically if nothing else. We must believe that our times are bringing such a baptism.  How else will we go on?  But we do not go on alone. And that’s where the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ comes in. For Jesus goes with us, and the Holy Spirit empowers us, and the gifts that God implanted in us through our creation in God’s image uplift us and energize us to do the work—the work that the world is waiting for.

“liberation is no small task,” Adrienne Maree Brown concludes, “it is appropriately daunting for miraculous beings. it is a gift, to be given such undeniable purpose, such immense odds. hold each other tight, and let’s do this work.”

 

NOTES:

[1] Jennifer M. Wood, “20 Powerful Quotes from Frederick Douglass,” http://mentalfloss.com/article/92216/20-powerful-quotes-frederick-douglass, (Feb. 24, 2018).

2 The “Modern Testimony” in today’s worship service is by Michael J. Chan, “Jesus’ Ministry of Fire,” in Dear Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5370, (Aug. 11, 2019).

3Adrienne Maree Brown, “living through the unveiling (sic),”  http://adriennemareebrown.net/2017/02/03/living-through-the-unveiling/

4 Jennifer Harvey, “For White Women Learning Calculus In a School Building on Fire,” https://medium.com/s/story/for-white-women-learning-calculus-in-a-school-building-on-fire-42fb0aa2cac2, (October 10, 2018).

5 “The 1619 Project,” in The New York Times Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html (August 14, 2019).

6 Brown, “living through the unveiling.”

7 Heather Love, “Lodgepole Pine Trees Love Forest Fires,” https://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/lodgepole-pine-trees-love-forest-fires/, (Oct. 9, 2018).

8 Note: All of Adrienne Maree Brown’s blog post,  “living through the unveiling,” is written without capitalization.

 

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