I grew up in a house without conflict. No one ever fought, no one ever yelled, and certainly, no one ever hit. There may have been disagreements, but they were quickly resolved and our house was restored to peace. Given that was my experience growing up, I assumed all family handled conflict in hushed, quiet ways. But then I visited a friend who taught me differently. I was staying with her family for a few days, and on a car ride to dinner, her mother and father started arguing and were quickly yelling at each other in the front seat. My eyes bulged and my whole body tensed up. I immediately thought, “This is the most horrible thing I have ever seen!” I surreptitiously glanced at my friend to see if she was equally horrified, but she just sat there like it was an everyday occurrence. But even more strange than the fight was how the family acted later. There was a bit of quiet after the yelling, but by the time we stopped for dinner, everyone was back to normal. I, however, could not manage to release the tension in my body, and my mind was racing. Are they okay? Is this normal? Will it happen again? How do I act now?
I remember after that visit feeling relieved and almost proud. Clearly my family had the better conflict management system. Clearly we were more in control of our emotions and cared for each other with tenderness and love. I let myself believe that lie until my parent’s divorce. My entire world view about conflict and family and love came apart. Suddenly my quiet house was not simply quiet. My quiet house was a conflict avoidant house. The lack of yelling in my house was not simply a lack of yelling, but was a stuffing of hurt and pain for the sake of pretend peace. Now, do not get me wrong. I am not suggested that you all go home and yell at your loved ones. What I am saying is that no matter what your experience of conflict has been – avoidance, dramatic confrontation, reasoned discussion through disagreement – we have all experienced conflict in our family.
All that is to say that nothing Jesus says about families should be shocking today. Most of us like the loving, caring, gentle Jesus the best. We like Jesus being hailed as the Prince of Peace, not hearing Jesus say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”[i] That is not the version of Jesus we come to hear about on Sundays. That is not the version of Jesus we want to read about when our best friend is mad at us, our brother won’t talk to us, or our spouse is thinking about leaving. That is not the version of Jesus we want the preacher talking about on the Sunday we decided to bring our friend to church.
And normally, I would be right there with you in protest. I like the Prince of Peace who cares for the poor and downtrodden. I love the Jesus who tells me not to be afraid and not to worry, especially when the lilies of the field are so well tended by God. I adore the Jesus who forgives and unites all kinds of people into one. But all of my protest comes from being someone who used to be pretty conflict avoidant. That is, until I learned another way. I will always say that one of the greatest gifts of my time on Long Island was learning how to not only handle conflict, but to really appreciate conflict for all that conflict can do.
For those of you not familiar with the cultural dynamic of Long Island, several things are at play. First, Long Islanders have a different way of communicating. They are direct, incisive, and honest. For a Southerner, their style of communication can feel rude, but over time, said Southerner realizes that all that directness and ability to dive into conflict means you get everything out on the table. There is no listening for innuendo or passive aggressiveness. There are no cute phrases that sound nice, but really mean something entirely different. Instead, you know where people stand, and you go home quite clear about the varying viewpoints. Of course, that style of communication does not always feel good. If you have sensitive feelings about criticism, your feelings can and will get hurt. If you get uncomfortable with heated arguments, you will be challenged to stay calm. If you prefer niceness over brutal honesty – well, you probably should not live on Long Island.
But here is what I learned and came to love about the beautiful people of Long Island. They taught me how to listen, even if all I wanted to do was flee the room. They taught me how to sit through criticism instead of getting defensive. They taught me how to see conflict not as the ultimate evil, but instead as a critical key to transformation, reconciliation, and restoration.
That is at the heart of Jesus’ message today. Of course Jesus says that he is going to divide fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and in-laws against one another. What Jesus is teaching about is a radical reordering of the world.[ii] We heard that proclamation from his mother’s mouth as she sang out the words of the Magnificat earlier in Luke’s gospel, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 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.”[iii] Mary was not just talking about the enemy Rome. Many of the Israelites themselves were proud, powerful, and rich. We in the modern world are the proud, powerful, and rich. And to us, Jesus shouts, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
The good news is that Jesus is not telling us he wants us to fight. He is not encouraging violence or abuse, or even neglect or pain. Jesus is simply telling us that his message is going to upset the status quo. And as people who benefit from the status quo, we are going to have to face our demons and look at our brothers and sisters who are in need and take real stock of ourselves and our lives. And when we start upsetting the status quo – when we start making women equal to men, when we start treating minorities with dignity and respect, when we start empowering the poor thrive and turn their lives around, we will have friends and family who push back. We will have people who try to convince us to protect our power rather than share our power. We will have family who walk away because they cannot face the truth. All we have to do is look at the church – look at the hundreds of denominations who could not agree on whom could be baptized, what Eucharist means, and whom can be ordained or married. We are a family divided because Jesus’ love is so revolutionary that we will be divided about how to define his love, how to share his love, and how receive his love. Jesus does not want us to fight. But he knows that if we are going to authentically live into the Gospel life, we are going to deal with conflict and we are going to be divided.[iv]
But that is also why Jesus went all the way to the cross. His death was an effort to transform and redeem our conflict and to help us live fully into the people of peace and love we are invited to be in him. Jesus knows that we will have to fight. But he also knows that if we are willing to enter into conflict with an open mind, with listening ears, and a discerning heart, we will become a people who do not avoid conflict, but understand conflict as the purifying fire that burns away the mess of life and leaves behind the fertile ground for creating something new and holy.[v] So yes, Jesus is still the Prince of Peace, who brings peace upon earth. But the path there is not a smooth, straight, simple path. The path there will take us through conflict, tension, and pain. But the peace that awaits on the other side is more glorious than any community that will sit through passive aggressive avoidance just to maintain a false sense of security.
And just in case you are already feeling weary, wondering where you can muster the strength to survive such a rocky path, our letter to the Hebrews today gives us a clue, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”[vi] That group of people you are going to be in conflict with – whether your biological family, or the crazy family you selected as your church home – is the same group of people who have left us an example of how to work our way through conflict. They have shown us how to survive the race toward peace and reconciliation, reminding us that Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter who gets us there. We will not get there avoiding conflict. But we will get there together, holding hands when we disagree, loving each other when we say helpful but painful truths, and rejoicing when we push through to the side of reconciliation, renewal, and rebirth. Amen.
[i] Luke 12.51.
[ii] Richard P. Carlson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 361.
[iii] Luke 1.51-53.
[iv] Audrey West, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 360, 362.
[v] Elizabeth Palmer, “Living By The Word: August 14, 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time,” Christian Century, July 26, 2016, as found at http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2016-07/august-14-20th-sunday-ordinary-time on August 11, 2016.
[vi] Hebrews 12.1-2a.