The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 15 Year C - August 14, 2013

The Rev. Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 15, Year C

August 14, 2016

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor


Jesus 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! 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; they will be divided:

father against son
and son against father,

mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."

He also said to the crowds, "When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, `It is going to rain'; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, `There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?" (Luke 12:49-56)





August sure has been busy for our church family. Upon my return from a trip to my own family on the west coast a few weeks ago, we launched into our preparation for last Sunday’s visit from our bishop, with baptisms and confirmations, receptions and reaffirmations…welcoming extended family and friends.  After that, we had another eventful week of vacation bible school, which engaged family members and visitors of all generations. 

So, as you can imagine, I’ve been thinking about families and how we relate to one another.  And then of course, we have today’s gospel. 

When I was in seminary, I came across the teaching of Murray Bowen, who in the 1960’s introduced his theory of family systems into the field of psychotherapy. Since then, those of us who work with families and communities recognize the extent to which individuals are inseparable from their network of relationships.  Instead of seeing isolated, unrelated parts, we look at the whole.  Our lives are understood as a system - a set of forces and events that interact, such as a weather system or the solar system, a rich complexity of interdependent parts.

Any system, and that includes systems of relationships, requires a certain level of stability to survive.  We develop patterns to ensure reliable and continuous interaction.  Consequently, when a customary pattern is disturbed, we suffer a kind of “culture shock.”  

Newlyweds experience this with one another as much as a visitor to a foreign culture does!  A new church member from Ohio laments the loss of fixed ways, saying, “This isn’t the way we did it back home!”  Almost instinctively, we either resist change or reduce its shock by restoring the familiar, making a situation “like home,” or “the same as in Ohio.”  As the saying goes, we are creatures of habit.  We need continuity and we need sameness.

And yet, in order to thrive, to live fully, we also need to be flexible.  Living things grow and develop.  Change is as normal as the norms to which we grow accustomed.  With the passing of the “honeymoon period,” reality steps in and we have to negotiate new ways of living together.  I bet every person in this room who is married or has been married knows about this!  Or, if you’re part of a group, a community…your goals will shift.  Old adjustments are challenged.  Or trauma suddenly bolts into life, forcing us to alter our usual pattern of relating.  There is a time for homeostasis, and there is a time for change.

Of course, as we all know, change isn’t always welcome, or easy, it brings with it a certain degree of stress and anxiety, along with the fear of what we might lose in the process. This upsets the stable balance of the system and alerts us to potential danger.  When shocked, we lash out, or hold our ground, or retreat. 

This kind of anxiety also makes transparent what is not alike.  Even more, it magnifies differences.  “Differing” can be a synonym for discord.  Relationship systems need a certain degree of agreement and commonality, and are threatened by separateness, differentiation, diversity and division.  Even so, anxiety and discord can be our deliverance.  It has motivational power.  It provokes changes.  It prods and pushes us toward innovation or transformation.[1]

Jesus knew something about this and he knew that the changes he was going to make were going to provoke anxiety.  In today’s gospel he says, “I bring fire to the earth….not peace, but rather division!”  He also knew a thing or two about family systems.  “From now on,” he said, “five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never liked these words of Jesus, even though I acknowledge the stress that even healthy change places on family systems.  But, I yearn for less, not more division in our families and our communities.  In our nation! I want the teaching of Jesus to bring us closer together, more harmonious, more in synch with one another.  Not farther apart.

But according to Jesus, to truly follow him would create tension and conflict; his ideas and way of life were going bring division within families, synagogues, and the larger public arena.

In first century Judaism and in the Roman Empire, the household was seen as the fundamental building block of society, as a microcosm of social reality.  By claiming to bring not peace, but division, and then illustrating such divisions in terms of the household, Jesus was hitting the heart of the status quo. As his mother Mary predicted before he was even born his life was destined to turn things upside down, “The powerful would be brought down from their thrones,” she declared, “the lowly would be lifted.” (Luke 1:52)

The radical social reversals Jesus introduced made people anxious!  He was rejected by his home town of Nazareth. His family tried to apprehend him as insane and his brothers didn’t believe in him. The people of Capernaum ran him out of town. His detractors said he was demon-possessed and "raving mad." The religious elite "opposed him fiercely."

Jesus had first-hand experience of family members, and even his closest friends, the disciples, who disagreed with him, and who could not come to terms with the changes he presented.  He was talking about the Kingdom of God, but challenging what people thought were the laws of God – breaking the Sabbath, welcoming and touching people who were unclean or disreputable, confronting the habits of the religious authorities who sought to preserve an unjust system. 

Announcement of the kingdom as Jesus saw it would not bring peace, at least not immediately.  It would bring conflict and division.  Those who were to commit themselves to him were going to have to prepare for the opposition they’d face, even from their own families. 

From what I’ve seen in my own life, and in the lives of those who are close to me, following the way of Jesus still isn’t easy.  You could even call it divisive, because in many cases it leads to polarizing decisions that re-prioritize our commitments.  I think many of you know about this.  Some of you are children of fundamentalist Christians, or Roman Catholic Christians, or even atheists or agnostics, and your decision to worship here, in the Episcopal Church has created stress in your families. I’d say at least half of us worship in a way that is different from our parents, even when they, too, call themselves Christian.

The church has always argued over what the Kingdom of God is supposed to look like – and how it is we will be church.  This has ended up in a lot of disagreements, has led to persecution and sadly, war.  It has also, and will continue, to disrupt our personal lives. 

For instance, if we take Jesus’ teachings seriously, it means that our attitude toward material possessions is bound to change, and if we heed the prophets’ call to justice for all of God’s people – we’re going to embrace people our families may not like or agree with.  The fact of the matter is that making a real commitment to walking in the way of Jesus will affect the way we relate to our family, to friends, and neighbors.  Our commitment shapes our values and priorities, goals, and behavior - and there will be changes in old patterns of life.   This will create anxiety and it will bring about division.

I’ve been wondering about this.  Getting back to systems theory, what we understand from biological systems is that division is necessary for cells to multiply so that an organism can grow and live.  What if we consider the ways that division, though it can be painful and stressful, has brought about God’s justice in our world?  America is a nation born of division from England. Our Anglican Tradition arose from division within Roman Catholicism.  Could apartheid have ended in South Africa, or slavery and segregation in America, without division? [2]

“I have brought fire to the earth” Jesus says.  Not peace, but division.  Where do we see this baptism by fire happening in our own lives…in this congregation? Where do we think it ought to happen? I think it’s worth naming those things that might need to be shorn in order for new life to grow. Just as the clouds rise in the west and you know it is going to rain,” Jesus tells the crowds, or “the south wind is followed by scorching heat,” so you can count on things being torn apart before they are bound back together. Jesus doesn’t say he wants it to be this way, but that it simply will be this way.

Entering into the fire with us, Jesus emerged from it resurrected. This fact doesn’t eliminate anxiety or make division any easier.  But it carries us through our own fires with a promise that at the other end is healing and transformation – and that we will be forged back together by our maker into a new kind of family, wiser and stronger, divided no more.



[1] For further discussion, see Peter Steinke’s influential book, How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Herndon:  The Alban Institute, 2006), pp. 3-47.

[2] I am indebted to The Rev. Robin Teasley for some of the material in several of the previous paragraphs, which have been adapted from her sermon delivered at St. Luke’s Blackstone in August of 2013.

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