Cody J. Sanders
Text: Luke 12:49-56
Alliance of Baptists Sunday
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No…division!”
Well, it’s not Christmas, that’s for sure. It’s a far cry from the multitude of heavenly host saying, “Glory to God and peace on earth,” like they were doing at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.
It’s not the Jesus of Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” – a gentle Jesus instructing his followers to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27-28). The seventh Sunday after Epiphany is when you’d hear that one. So you’ve missed that already, but it’ll come back around.
There’s no tender, “Peace be with you,” like the disciples receive at the resurrection in Luke 24. Easter is just a distant memory on the liturgical calendar now.
But you’ve managed to make it to Pullen Memorial Baptist Church on the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the season the liturgical calendar so creatively calls “Ordinary Time.”
Now, those who only come to church on Christmas and Easter get all the feel-good scripture passages – all the Prince of Peace stuff at Christmas and the glory and splendor of the resurrection at Easter with the pageants and plays and cantatas and the floral displays and all the rest. But for those who stick it out until the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, you get this: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
So, congratulations. That’ll teach you to be regular attenders.
While some live their lives in the constant bipolarity of a peaceful Christmas and a glorious Easter, here we are today in Ordinary Time. Nothing too special – no feast days or festivals or holy days in sight – just life in the mean time. But, let’s face it, that’s where we live most of our lives, after all – nothing too spectacular, just fairly…ordinary.
And while being invited to preach on the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the season of Ordinary Time is an honor all by itself, that’s not the only occasion we’re marking here today. For Pullen, today is the Sunday you celebrate an historic relationship to the Alliance of Baptists – to celebrate the history of the Alliance and your congregation’s connection to the 140 Alliance churches in the U.S. and around the world. And celebrate we should! We recognize today the peculiarity of a group of Baptists that has made its mark on the world through advocacy and prophetic action on concerns of racial justice, gender equality, the affirmation of LGBTQ people, just relations between the U.S. and Cuba, peace in Palestine and Israel, and a host of other concerns we continue to believe exist at the nexus of the Gospel’s intersection with contemporary society. We should celebrate that legacy heartily!
So, given this legacy of work for peace and justice, it’s a bit ironic that on the day we are celebrating Alliance of Baptists Sunday at Pullen, this text turns up in the lectionary. You can believe that when I got the call a few months ago to join you in preaching this service and I turned to this Gospel text in the lectionary, I immediately thought, “Well, let’s see what the Old Testament reading is…or maybe the Psalm for the day.” But the words of Jesus were too intriguing in their utter unsuitability for this occasion: “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” It’s just a coincidence that today of all days we are confronted with Jesus preaching not peace, but division – just a strange coincidence.
So, as we often do with the words of Jesus, we can interpretively finesse this text a bit to fit the occasion – just tone down the intensity of his scathing words a little so we can hear ourselves celebrate over his rancorous rhetoric, so inappropriate for this, of all days. Most of the interpretations of this text I’ve encountered have, in fact, been rather tame. The usual commentaries and sermons on this passage explain the text something like this: Following Jesus causes people to make difficult decisions which some will inevitably dislike and find divisive. So, as disciples, you can expect to encounter division if you devote your life to following Jesus…nothing to get too upset about.
It’s not a bad interpretation of the text. In fact, it makes a lot of sense on this Alliance of Baptists Sunday. The Alliance was born out of this type of division – a bold standing on the side of justice and inclusivity that didn’t make sense to some of our Baptist family. In 1987, when the Southern Baptist Alliance formed out of the Southern Baptist Convention, those founding individuals and congregations were following a call to affirm, cultivate, and support women in ordained ministry. This, of course, set the emerging Alliance at odds with many of its Southern Baptist brothers and sisters. A Baptist house divided.
Certainly, following one’s sense of call to a life shaped by the example of Jesus will bring about division. It’s a perfectly fair interpretation of this scripture.
Pullen certainly knows something about this type of division as well. In 1992, when Pullen voted to allow services of blessing for same-sex couples, you found yourself disfellowshiped from the Southern Baptist Convention, stricken from the roster of the North Carolina Baptist Convention, and kicked out of the Raleigh Baptist Association. A household divided, for sure – long, historic relationships between a congregation and a larger Baptist family ended in division when you followed your call to disturb the peaceful acceptance of a second-class citizenship for your LGBTQ neighbors and move toward the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.
Perhaps more close to home, some within the Pullen congregation couldn’t go along with you – “divided, three against two and two against three,” like the scripture says. Those who worshipped together, learned together, served together, ate and drank together, found themselves suddenly divided. Mahan Siler recounts the pain incurred when about twenty-five families left Pullen after the church’s decision to bless same-sex unions. He says, “Most of these friends were cherished, long-time members. It felt like what it was, the severing of family ties. There is no pain like the pain of family separation. Great sadness and anger marked their leave-taking.” [i]
It’s not a bad interpretation of this scripture passage. Following the call of Jesus does, at times, put us at odds with others, setting father against son and mother against daughter, congregation against denomination and church member against beloved church member.
Maybe this interpretation is just what we need on Alliance Sunday, speaking to the interwoven history of both Pullen and the Alliance in continued response to the radical call of Jesus that leads, again and again, to the difficult but seemingly inevitable parting of ways with fellow Baptists – to disfellowshipings and disassociations and the sadness and anger of severing family ties. Could be just what we need to hear – succor for our oft-wounded hearts as we follow our call and celebrate the Alliance of Baptists.
But is that all this text has for us here at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church on this thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the season of Ordinary Time – Alliance of Baptists Sunday? Even though many sermons and commentaries I’ve read on this passage favor this reading, it just seems too passive a reading of these difficult words for a congregation as active in following the radical call of Jesus as Pullen. As if Jesus were just warning folks, “People aren’t going to like the decisions you make as my followers and might not associate with you any more” – just a simple, “don’t be surprised” and a little “take heart” when the going gets rough. And maybe it would be best just to rest a while in Ordinary Time and take heart knowing that the divisions we’ve experienced in following our call to pursue peace and justice in the world just come with the territory of following Jesus – no big surprise, to be expected, perfectly ordinary.
But there is something in these furious, feverish words that beckons beyond a simple description of what life will be like if you choose to follow a peculiar call from Jesus and your closest friends and family don’t. Beyond description, there is something of a call in this passage trying to work its way inside of us. These words beckon us beyond a recounting of our inevitable losses on the journey, to embrace our sacred calling to be disturbers the peace.
Just read this text in light of what has come before it in Luke’s Gospel. A few chapters prior to this text (Luke 9:28-37), Peter and John and James experience the glory of the transfiguration and emerge so wishing to say up on that mountain with Jesus and Moses and Elijah. So ecstatic about what they experienced, they were ready to build three tents for them and just stay up there a while. But, by God, Jesus came down the mountain to meet the great crowd beneath and he dragged the disciples down there with him. From glory to the ordinary.
You’d at least think they would have been profoundly changed by the experience – that they would have gained a new perspective on things and see their lives in light of the unfolding mission of Jesus. But just a few verses later, they were arguing over which one of them was the greatest – getting right back to the same ol’ stuff.
A little later, Jesus even takes them over to the side and tells them, “‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it’” (Luke 10:23-24). He really went out of his way to help them open their eyes, to really get what was going on around them. I can’t help but read these words of Jesus about fire and division in light of these prior episodes in Luke’s gospel. The more the disciples see, the less they seem to understand. The greater the revelation, the smaller the questions they ask.
So it makes a little more sense when we are confronted by Jesus in this text, disturbing the placid acceptance the disciples have developed for small questions, uneasy with their desire to linger a little too long in the glory up on the mountain, absolutely agitated that they don’t seem to recognize that their work is amid the ordinary, swarming crowds beneath and not on the glorious mount above. “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!…Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?,” to pitch a tent with you up on the mountain, to adjudicate your bickering over which of you is the greatest? No! NO! Our place is down the mountain with the swarming crowds where the people are not living in the bipolarity of peace and glory but in ordinary time where what is called for is not the peaceful acceptance of the status quo, but purposeful division!
Perhaps this passage seems so disturbing because we often think that those who stand in opposition to justice also stand against peace. But reading the words of Jesus in this passage, I’m not so sure about that. Jesus and the disciples lived squarely in the midst of the Pax Romana, “The Peace of Rome.” Peace? Certainly, but a peace wrought by the sword because there was no one left standing in the known world who could resist the Roman war machine. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?” No! But to rend the veil that shields your eyes from seeing life in ordinary time where a veneer of enforced tranquility and a fractured, piecemeal justice go a long way toward bringing about peace. “Why do you not know how to interpret the present time?,” Jesus implores his now wide-eyed disciples.
And here we are, at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church on the thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the season of Ordinary Time – Alliance of Baptists Sunday – celebrating for good reason a strong legacy of work toward peace and justice. But rest too long and Jesus will drag us down the mountain with him. So as we celebrate our rich legacy of justice-seeking and peace-building, allow these words of Jesus to sink in – to get inside of us – tempering our celebration with just a bit of sobriety. I can hear the nagging voice now: “You know how to interpret conditions on earth and in the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret the present time?”
Let the question get inside of you to agitate you a bit. This question of Jesus must also become our probing refrain to our friends and neighbors, our sister congregations and our elected officials.
How is it that we don’t know how to interpret the present time, when sexism, racism, heterosexism, and classism represent practices of injustice and violence taken from different pages in the same playbook, setting the rules to a game none of us can win?
How is it that we don’t know how to interpret the present time, when those who are pulling hardest on their own bootstraps keep sinking lower into poverty and those at the top lobby to stack the deck in their own favor as the “American Dream” turns into a veritable nightmare for the masses?
How is it that we don’t know how to interpret the present time, when a young black teenager can be gunned down on his neighborhood streets and the victim comes out looking like the villain and the killer comes out looking like a hero of the fabled Wild West in the ordinary time when the distance between what is “legal” and what is “just” makes it dangerous to inhabit black and brown bodies?
How is it that we don’t know how to interpret the present time, when public outcry over the death of Trayvon Martin can spill into our own streets and public squares but we are systematically shielded from knowing the names or seeing the faces or lamenting the losses of the innocent struck down from above by our own drones in the streets of another land?
How is it that we don’t know how to interpret the present time, when, in the very same week, the Supreme Court deliverers great advances in marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples while simultaneously eviscerating the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action for racial minorities and not nearly enough of our public celebrations are tempered by indignant lamentation when the rights of some are advanced at the same time that the rights of others are diminished?
How is it that we don’t know how to interpret the present time, when we celebrate the gains in civil rights for LGBTQ people at the same time that violence is perpetrated against the very souls of queer folk by our churches and denominations and we’re not downright refusing to keep the peace until it stops because a placid unity forged through the subjugation of human difference is not a peace worth keeping?
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” It’s a call. Hear it. Let it get inside you.
Today, on this thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the season of Ordinary Time, let’s enjoy one another and celebrate the stellar legacy of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church and that great collective of faithful Baptists known as the Alliance.
But – be warned – if we stand too close to Jesus up on this mountain, if we forget for too long that the bulk of our life is lived in ordinary time, we, too, may feel the tug of Jesus on our collar, poised to drag us back down with him to the crowds below.
I can hear him now…
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you but rather division!…You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? Look around you, by God. The peace must be disturbed and you…you are my beloved disturbers of the peace!”
Hear it? It’s a call. Let it get inside of you.