When Faith Divides

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “When Faith Divides” Luke 12:49-56

Our faith may put us at odds with others.  Take my family for example.  My grandparents were all Presbyterians.  But that homogeneity of belief is a thing of the past.  My sister is a Methodist lay pastor.  My brother is a born-again southern Baptist. I have an uncle who converted to Judaism. A bevy of cousins are fundamentalists, an equal number are nominally Catholic, some are completely unchurched.  I imagine that if we were to break into small groups and share a little about the religious context of our families and friends, we would hear similar stories of conflicting beliefs and convictions.  We have probably learned through bitter experience that conversation around the Thanksgiving dinner table should never turn to matters of faith unless we want to risk a food fight.

Jesus warned his followers that his life and ministry would bring conflict and bitter division to their lives.  I bet the disciples didn’t like to hear those words of warning any more than we do.  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”  This is no warm and fuzzy lesson.  As Jesus spoke, he and his friends were on their way to Jerusalem.  We can hear in his words the stress and tension that he must have felt.  His mission was nearing fulfillment in his death and resurrection in a holy city rocked between the joyous welcome of “Hosanna!” and the murderous shouts of “Crucify him!” There would be no peace in Jerusalem that Passover.

Jesus knew from personal experience that pursuing God’s purpose would cause family trouble.  Remember the day that Mother Mary and Jesus’s brothers showed up at the house where he was teaching (Matthew 12:46-49)? Fearing for Jesus’ mental and physical well-being, they sought to forcibly take him home to Nazareth.  Jesus refused them an audience, turning instead his followers and said, “Here are my mother, brothers, and sisters. Whoever does the will of the Father is my kin.”  Think of the sorrow and worry with which Jesus’s family turned around and went home.

Jesus’s followers knew that discipleship would bring trouble from the moment that fishermen James and John left their father Zebedee behind in the boat and answered Jesus’s call. When Luke recorded his gospel (about the year 75), the early church was plagued by division.  Traditional synagogues had driven out Christians as heretics. Many fled Israel to live in exile across the Roman Empire, from North Africa to Greece to Rome. We admire the Acts of the Apostles with its vivid stories: Philip teaching Samaritans and Ethiopians, Peter preaching to Roman soldiers, and Paul witnessing to the Gentiles.  Yet, we fail to recognize that behind those bold and risky triumphs there were scandalized parents, alienated siblings, lost loves, and outraged neighbors. Discipleship brought days of triumph, but it also brought sorrow, pain, and oh yes, plenty of division.

There are places in this world where being a Christian remains a recipe for conflict, rejection, and even death.  245 million Christians in 150 countries experience high levels of persecution for their choice to follow Christ. That works out to about 1 in 9 Christians around the world who live with threat of violence right now. For the most recent year that data is available, 4,136 Christians were killed for faith-related reasons. 2,625 Christians were detained without trial, sentenced, and imprisoned. 1,266 churches or Christian buildings were attacked, many destroyed. For persecuted Christians the world over, Jesus’s scary warning about family rejection and coming persecution are an affirmation of their faithfulness in a hostile world where belief can cost you your life.

Today in Cuba, where Christians face ongoing harassment from government authorities, David Walter Fis pastors a church. State security officials demolished the church building, and when the congregation continued gathering, officials placed restraining orders on Pastor Fis and the congregation. Despite the government’s attempts to silence their witness, the church has continued meeting in the homes of church members or in fields.

In Pakistan, Sahid and his wife Memona live in a small Hindu village. In April, they were confronted by Hindu family members and neighbors about their Christian beliefs. The couple refused to renounce their faith in Christ. Around two weeks later, their home was set on fire, and their two youngest children were killed. When the couple notified the police, the authorities tried to pressure them into saying that the fire was an accident.

In Indonesia, Nia became a Christian through the influence of friends. When her Muslim family learned of her faith, they threatened to behead her. They subsequently kept her locked in her room.  Although the parents eventually released her, they have forced her to take psychiatric drugs and see an Islamic leader for “healing.” Her Christian friends and church community are unsure how to help.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”  It’s all so black and white in the world of Jesus and the disciples.  It’s all so cut and dried in the experience of believers in those 150 countries where Christians are persecuted.  Indeed, those experiences of hardship for the sake of faith make our Thanksgiving dinner family squabbles seem tepid and innocuous.  Yet I believe that when we live with integrity, our calling as followers of Jesus continues to put us at odds with others, continues to invite us to speak truth and risk conflict for the sake of the gospel that we hold dear.  There are moments in our lives when we will risk conflict and division if we are to keep the faith. 

It may be the day that you become a whistleblower, putting your foot down over the ethical corners that your boss cuts.

It could be the time that you stop your uncle in the middle of his familiar racist or sexist jokes.

It could be your refusal to turn a blind eye to the way a family member has mistreated their spouse or children. 

Perhaps it will be when you invite your non-believing spouse to stop treating your faith like an inconvenient hobby and ask them to join you in the pews.

It may be the day when you speak truth to a parent about the harm that their addiction has caused the family and insist that they get help.

It could even be when you stop a friend from spreading a malicious rumor by reminding them how hurt the target of their gossip would feel to hear those cruel words.

If we are willing to truly live as a disciple of Christ, there will be plenty of occasions for us to stand firm in the faith in ways that will place us at odds with others.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Christians like us, who live with tolerance and religious liberty, isn’t persecution.  Instead, the challenge we face is our reluctance to make waves for the sake of our faith.  When our Christian conscience is pricked by the unethical, hurtful, or harmful behavior of others, we bite our tongues or look the other way.  We do not take a stand for fear of being labeled self-righteous, judgmental, or holier than thou.  We don’t want to be known as one of “those Christians.”

My former colleague, the Rev. Dr. John Walton, with whom I served at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, Delaware, teaches that today’s reading from Luke, with its scary warning about family conflict, is meant to be read alongside the following reading in Luke 13:6-9.  That’s the equally uncomfortable parable of the unfruitful fig tree.  Remember it?  When a fig tree refuses to bear fruit, a land owner threatens to cut it down.  Fortunately for the fig tree, a good gardener bargains for more time, promising to apply fertilizer and special care to ensure a fruitful future.  It’s a parable of judgment that begs us to consider if we are fruitful fig trees.  Are we bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God?  If we stood in a court of judgment, would there be sufficient evidence in our daily living to convict us of being Christians?  Or, have we hidden our faith and refused the risks that come when we affirm that Christ is Lord?

According to Jesus, the Kingdom, with its demand for action is always all around us.  It’s as obvious as the storm clouds that bring rain or the south wind that causes a scorcher.  If we are willing to truly live as a disciple of Christ, if we take the obligations of the Kingdom of God seriously, then there will be plenty of occasions for us to stand firm in the faith in ways that will place us at odds with others. Pick your battle.

Resources

Jerusha Neal. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 14, 2022. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Matt Skinner. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 18, 2019. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Emerson Powery. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 18, 2013. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

David Lose. “Commentary on Luke 12:49-56” in Preaching This Week, August 15, 2010. Accessed online at workingpreacher.org.

Statistics on Christian persecution around the world are from Open Doors.  Accessed online at https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/stories/christian-persecution-by-the-numbers/

Stories of persecuted Christians are from The Voice of the Martyrs. Accessed online at https://www.persecution.com/stories/


Luke 12:49-56

49 “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 From now on five in one household will be 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 mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 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. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56 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?


Photo credit: Getty Images, accessed online at https://www.newsweek.com/christian-persecution-genocide-worse-ever-770462

Faith, Not Fear

Sabbath Day Thoughts — “Faith, Not Fear” Genesis 15:1-6; Luke 12:32

Ruth is afraid.  Ever since she got that diagnosis, she wakes in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.  Her thoughts race. She wonders how she’ll pay the doctor’s bills.  She knows how much her kids need her now – they may be grown, but, Lord, they depend upon her common sense and encouragement.  She thinks about her husband Bud and wonders how he’ll get by if she doesn’t beat this.  The man can barely fry an egg.  With heart pounding and the acrid taste of fear in her mouth, Ruth tosses and turns.

Brad is afraid that he’ll never pass the bar exam.  He wasn’t at the top of his law school class, but he worked hard and did all right.  He even took one of those courses that prep you for the two-day test.  But when Brad sits down to take the exam, things don’t go so well. While everyone else seems to fly through the six essays, Brad can’t concentrate or organize his thoughts, and the more he thinks about it, the more stressed he feels.  He feels even worse when he begins to think about paying back his law school loans. He has failed twice.  He’ll try once more, but he doesn’t feel confident. 

Jenny is afraid that she’ll spend her life alone.  She is shy.  A middle child with two overbearing siblings, she learned to keep a low profile growing up. Her work as a researcher is solitary, and since the pandemic began, she has been working remotely.  Her college friends are married with families of their own.  She tried one of those dating apps, but found that the people she met didn’t share her values and had little interest in commitment.  It doesn’t help that Jenny’s sister reminds her that her biological clock is ticking. Some days, Jenny feels hopeless about the future.

Abraham was afraid.  He was already getting grey in the beard and long in the tooth when God called him away from his ancestral home in Ur of the Chaldeans.  God promised Abraham and Sarah land and children, so they took a big risk and made the long journey.  Along the way, there had been blessing, a land that flowed with milk and honey, flocks, prosperity, and victory.  But what Abraham and Sarah really wanted, a child, remained an unfulfilled hope.

In this day and age when people may opt to not have children for any number of reasons, it may feel difficult to understand the despair and disappointment that Abraham felt.  In the ancient near east, childlessness was a source of social ridicule and shame.  Tradition taught that God alone governs fertility and opens and closes wombs, so a childless couple must be displeasing to the gods.  This view persevered in the rabbinic tradition.  In Jesus’s day, a childless man could not sit on the Sanhedrin, the governing board of the Temple.  According to the Mishnah, the childless man was reckoned as if menuddeh, “cut off” from all communion with God, like one who has deliberately disregarded divine commands. Some texts consider a childless man to be already dead.  From a purely practical point of view, in those days long before a social safety net, children were one’s heritage and safeguard for care and protection in old age. 

Given that cultural context, we can hear the fear and hopelessness in Abraham’s voice.  God tells Abraham to not be afraid.  God promises that Abraham’s reward will be very great.  But the patriarch laments, “O Lord God, what difference does it make what you give me for I continue childless?”  The questions within Abraham’s question are, “Do you love me, God?  Are you with me? Can you bless me when the world seems stacked against me?”

Fear can get the better of us.  When we are afraid, our body responds powerfully.  Threat kicks our hypothalmus, pituitary, and adrenal glands into overdrive. Primary stress hormones, like cortisol, adrenaline, and nonadrenaline flood our systems.  Our heart rate and respiration soar.  We feel the butterflies of panic.  When we experience chronic fear, like illness, vocational woes, social isolation, violence, or crisis, we experience a reduction in our defenses and adaptive energy.  Pretty soon, we are feeling overloaded, burned out, and fatigued.  Our immune system can be compromised.  Our sleep/wake cycle gets disrupted.  We can’t eat—or we eat too much. Our headaches turn into migraines, muscle aches become fibromyalgia, body aches turn into chronic pain, and difficulty breathing can turn into asthma.  Fear can even affect our spiritual life.  Like Abraham, we may feel bitterness or confusion toward God.  Like Abraham, we may struggle to trust God.  We may even find it hard to be hopeful about the future.

I love how God responded to Abraham.  God didn’t chastise Abraham for his ingratitude.  God didn’t withdraw God’s love in an act of punishment.  God didn’t treat the patriarch like a spoiled child and take away all his blessings.  Instead, God took Abraham outside, into the deep dark of the night before the advent of electric lights.  God called Abraham’s attention to the night sky, the milky way stretched across the heavens like a tent, a dazzling, visual symphony of stars and planets dancing across the darkness. “Take a look at this Abraham,” God promised, “This is what your progeny will one day be like.”

I suspect that Abraham felt very small beneath the night sky. To think that God, who had created that great cosmic lightshow from God’s very self, should care for Abraham!  To imagine that God, who spins the whirling planets, should stand with him in the darkness and promise him a future!  Surely, if the great God of the universe could do all this, then maybe Abraham could trust that God keeps God’s promises.  As faith and trust swelled within the patriarch’s heart, he began to fear less.  His heart slowed, his breath became even, the butterflies of panic in his gut flew away. There beneath the arc of the heavens, Abraham felt peace.

It didn’t happen overnight.  It took fourteen more years.  There were some rocky moments and crises of faith along the way.  But in God’s time, Abraham and Sarah conceived.  They were old as dirt and good as dead when their son was born.  They named him Isaac, which means God laughs, and Abraham and Sarah laughed, rejoicing in the faithfulness of God.

We all contend with fear.  Like Ruth, we have sleepless nights plagued by big and little fears.  Like Brad, we may fear that our dreams just won’t come true.  Like Jenny, we may fear the social isolation and disconnection that are characteristic of our world today.  What are you afraid of?

Abraham reminds us that faith is the remedy for fear.  Jesus knew that.  Indeed, that’s why Jesus encouraged his disciples with the words, “Fear not little flock, for it is your heavenly Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” We might write those words off as an empty promise if they weren’t spoken by Jesus, who rose above fear to face head-on the agony of the cross and reveal to us the limitless love that God holds for us.  God, who spins the whirling planets, God, who raised Jesus from the grave, God is more than a match for our fears.  Let that truth swell your heart and bring you peace.  Have faith. Fear less.

Ruth decided that she wasn’t going to allow her fear to get the better of her.  She likes to tell folks that when you can’t sleep, don’t count sheep.  Talk to the shepherd.  She still feels overwhelmed from time to time, but those late-night times of prayer remind her that God is powerful, even when she is not.

When Brad realized that his fear was jeopardizing his vocational future, he went to his pastor about it.  The pastor referred Brad to a counselor who has helped Brad add a few tools to his belt to help wrangle that overwhelming fear, like meditation, breathing exercises, and visualization.  Brad and his pastor prayed together, and Brad has been added to the church’s prayer chain.  He knows that when he next takes the exam, he’ll be better equipped, and he’ll have some caring folks praying for him, too.

One of Jenny’s married friends invited her to come to church.  Jenny is still shy, but in the shared acts of worship, service, and learning, she has found that she is not alone.  There are other folks who have the same values.  They like her for who she is and make her feel welcomed.  In their kindness and love, Jenny can feel God’s love for her.  When Jenny’s sister reminds her that her biological clock is ticking, Jenny says that Jesus never had kids, but he left quite a legacy.

May our faith cast out fear.

Resources:

Judith Reesa Baskin. “Infertile Wife in Rabbinic Judaism” in Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 31 December 1999. Jewish Women’s Archive. https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/infertile-wife-in-rabbinic-judaism

MJP Atchison. “Children: A divine inheritance” in Religion News Service, June 18, 1996. https://religionnews.com/1996/06/18/commentary-children-a-divine-inheritance/

Jaime Rosenberg. The Effects of Chronic Fear on a Person’s Health. In AJMC, Nov. 11, 2017. https://www.ajmc.com/view/the-effects-of-chronic-fear-on-a-persons-health

Joe Pierre. “How Does Fear Influence Risk Assessment and Decision-Making?” In Psychology Today, July 15, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/psych-unseen/202007/how-does-fear-influence-risk-assessment-and-decision-making

Sara M. Koenig. “Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6” in Preaching This Week, August 11, 2013. https://workingpreacher.com

Callie Plunkett-Brewton. “Commentary on Genesis 15:1-6” in Preaching This Week, August 11, 2019. https://workingpreacher.com


Genesis 15:1-6

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” 4But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.


Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Blue Morning Glory

Poem for a Tuesday — “Blue Morning Glory” by Anne Pitkin

“Voracious, yes. But when you see it,
shy blue flowers blaring like trumpets in spite of themselves,
center star shaped and yellow; when it startles you,
early in the morning, all over a white picket fence, say,
in Massachusetts, you might think ‘triumphal,’ ‘prodigal,’
‘awake.’

Of course you don’t want it in your rose garden
among all the pruned, the decorous bushes. You don’t want it
in the vegetables, for it will romp through the tomatoes,
beans and peas, will leave no room on the ground, or even
in the air, for the leafy lettuces and cabbages soberly
queueing up in their furrows. It will hog all the sky it can get
knowing as it does what enormous thirst is satisfied by blue.

Father Michael says Follow the God of abundance
Says we hurry from the moment’s wealth
for fear it will be taken. Think of this:

the morning glory has been blossoming for so long
without permission that in some gardens it is no longer censored.
What does that tell you? See how it opens its tender throats
to a world that can sting it, how, without apology for its excess,
it blooms and blooms, though even yet
it seems surprised.”

in Cries of the Spirit Within, ed. Marilyn Sewell. Boston: Beacon Press, 1991, pp. 33-34.


Poet Anne Pitkin was born and raised in Clarksville, TN. Her poetry collections include Yellow and Winter Arguments. Her newest volume But Still, Music will be published by Pleasure Boat Studio in September. Pitkin’s work explores nature, family, and the tensions of growing up in the Jim Crow South. With regard to her craft, Pitkin has said, “I cannot say just when or why I started writing poetry. I read a lot of it during and after college, and I responded, I guess, by trying to write it, initially piqued by the tensions between words” (from Rattle #27, summer 2007).


Photo by Barbara Webb on Pexels.com