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Luke 12:49-53 (Sermon 2017.07.23)

July 24th, 2017

shaneblackshear

This week Gena Minnix shares with us from Luke 12:49-53.

 

What is Good Conflict?

Luke 12:49-53

The scripture passage for today invites us into a conversation about conflict.

So we’ll look at that passage in just a moment, but before we do, I’d like to begin by sharing a story you may have heard if you’ve been listening to the Invisibilia podcast on NPR. It was such a compelling story a group of artists got together and made a video to go along with it.

The story begins with a group of friends, several couples and their school age children, who had gathered together one summer evening for a dinner party at one of the family’s homes.

So let’s take a listen.

https://youtu.be/aWseEycdXS8

So, I’ll pick up the story from there – we discover the hand belonged to a stranger who’d entered the backyard through an unlocked gate.

The man was wearing a clean pair of sweats. He aimed the barrel first at the Michael’s wife, and then at their friend, and he began demanding that the group hand over their money.

But they didn’t have any. And Michael recalls his adrenaline surged and he thought, this is going to end with someone getting hurt.

So conflict…

I’ll return to this story in a bit, but first I’d like to get some feedback from you all.

When we think about conflict here are a few things that might come to mind: a fight or battle, a struggle for power or property, opposing or incompatible needs.

So when you think about conflict, what words or phrases come to your mind, associated with that word conflict? Just call them out.

How many of you, by a show of hands, would say you like to avoid conflict when possible? You find it worrisome or stressful?

How many of you would say you feel energized by it? You may even seek it out?

It’s possible both conflict avoiders and conflict seekers may feel equally misunderstood and frustrated by one another.

My hope is that we’ll leave here this morning thinking about conflict in some new ways.

Because for most of us, I think conflict has become synonymous with violence. So we can’t conceive of a way to wage good conflict that doesn’t inflict harm of some kind, whether physically or psychologically.

But what if I were to suggest that conflict may be an essential component of love? And that learning to wage it well may be an important spiritual practice?

Our scripture passage today gives us a window into how Jesus thinks about and engages with conflict.

So with that said, our scripture passage for today is Luke 12:49-53…

-49 [And the Lord said] “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.

52 For from now on in one house there will be five 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.” – Luke 12:49-53

So perhaps the first thing that stands out in this passage is Jesus speaking about his distress over the conflict he finds himself in.

49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! – Luke 12:49-50

For Jesus, the conflict is both physical and metaphorical. Physically he’s at odds with those who want him dead. He’s also in a philosophical struggle with religious teachers who are harming the poor. And over and over he finds himself in relational conflict with his loved ones trying to discourage him from doing what he needs to do.

Jesus is no stranger to conflict.

I often speak on the value of relational connection with God and with one another.

I’d like to invite us to consider the possibility that disconnection might play an equally important role in loving God and loving others.

That to become more like Christ is to become better at conflict.

Here’s a side note.

For someone with my personality, conflict itself can seem like the enemy because it threatens that which I desire most—harmony and for us all to keep our heart rates low and use our inside voices.

So the fact that I’m preaching on this need is evidence that God is real and will do strange things in our lives.

49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! – Luke 12:49-50

“I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished.”

Throughout his life, Jesus was intimately acquainting himself with the pain of those on the margins.

Living with injustices not yet resolved causes us all distress – whether we recognize it or not.

And also stress arises just out of being in relationship with those who are different from us.

Difference by nature is stressful – sometimes we find that stress fascinating. More often it feels maddening.

In his book Everything Belongs, Richard Rhor writes about how the spiritual life helps us transcend our personal egos.

According to Rhor, suffering and distress is an effective way in which this can happen. He says it like this:

“In terms of soul work, we dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us.” – Richard Rhor

Now, I don’t read that and take it to mean that pain in general is always good or there’s always a lesson in it, I don’t believe that. Violence that leads to physical or psychological harm is not good stress. It doesn’t help us transcend – in fact it can do the opposite.

But I believe there’s a difference between good stress and harmful stress – and part of our work is learning to tell the difference, to remove ourselves from harmful situations but hold up better under tension that is beneficial.

Parker Palmer is a Quaker who holds that much of the war and violence in our world comes from our inability to hold tension.

He says we tend to collapse it prematurely before it has time to transform us. So he teaches, “sometimes our job is to hold the tension created by others — and sometimes our job is to create tension that is necessary.”

Last year, I attended a gathering of theological educators and sat next to a theologian and a leading author in Black theology and I asked him about a book he’d published on racial tensions within the church.

And at a certain moment in the conversation, he pointed to a corner of the room and then he said something I’ve been thinking about ever since.

He said, “You see I believe tension is good – we should feel grateful for it. You see where those two walls meet?

They’re in tension, and that’s what’s holding the roof up.”

Here’s what I took from that. When we lean into meaningful differences between us, we’ll undoubtedly experience some of that good stress that holds important values up between us. So how might we learn to tolerate that stress better?

49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!  – Luke 12:49-50

FIRST APPLICATION

One helpful thing Jesus models here is simply not avoiding the stress of good conflict. And here’s what I mean by that.

Whereas after a difficult interaction with a coworker or a friend, we may be inclined to numb our stress…

Instead, Jesus has an emotion and he lets himself really feel it… “How great is my distress!”

Words spoken in sincerity… from someone in a position of power – a leader, a respected teacher – who is refusing to collapse tension prematurely… but instead is letting it break him apart and transform him.

How does he do that? How does Jesus manage to feel his feelings so completely?

Practicing Good Conflict:

  • Contemplation

My guess is contemplation. Contemplation just means silent prayer – sitting prayer– it’s a practice that as we engage it, it teaches us to see our ego more clearly – we start to become familiar with the unhelpful stories we tell ourselves –and we begin to hold those stories more loosely, and allow for the possibility that God may be up to something we don’t fully understand.

So if we want to learn to wage good conflict, we can start by not avoiding it – and practicing contemplation, so we can better tolerate the stress it brings us. Make sense?

Alright, let’s keep going. Jesus says this next.

51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.

Luke 12:51

So… this is a way we haven’t often heard Jesus talk. One way we might hear this is he’s saying, I’m fixing to bring about some positive changes – and that is not always a peaceful process.

Another place in the gospels he says almost the exact same thing – except the word is a sword.

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.  Luke 12:51

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.   Matthew 10:34

Now these can be troubling passages. Jason and I worked with the Quakers up in Oregon and they have a peace practice of refusing weapons or violent confrontation of any kind. They believe that’s what Jesus meant by loving our enemies.  Now, I know Christians who feel differently.

But suffice to say, we have no stories of Jesus engaging in violence towards another human being. Not when he’s angry in the temple. Not when he’s threatened. Not ever.

So, how then do we reconcile this bit about division and a sword?

Here’s how I’ve come to think about it. First, the same word here for sword is used in other passages metaphorically- as something able to divide soul and spirit, or the intentions of the heart.

And so, I wonder if Jesus is referring here to the important role that division often plays in bringing about positive change in us and among us.

Connection is meaningful and beautiful. It tends to make us feel warm and safe. It doesn’t however always help us mature as people. My research has led me to believe that growth tends to happen more when we engage in meaningful disconnection, conflict, division if you will.

That does not however, that does not however, require violence. In fact, I would suggest that violence typically prevents us from growing. Now, take a look at the people around you in this room – would you say violence is much of a problem here? Our issue may actually be the opposite – valuing our connection so much we feel hesitant to allow for any type of disconnection.

So that leads us to the question – where are the really effective paradigms for how to wage effective nonviolent conflict for positive change?

You may have been asking the same question.

Well, so far we’ve been looking at interpersonal conflict, but here’s an example on a bit larger scale.

This is Jamila Raquib, She was born in Afghanistan and her early years were filled with the trauma of war. She learned that if people see violence as their only choice – they will continue to perpetuate that harm.  She says growing up she thought there must be a tool at least as powerful and effective as violence, to bring about change.

Raquib has now spent thirteen years teaching about effective nonviolent conflict.

She says, people have been using nonviolent action to produce positive change for thousands of years– because human rights do not tend to be automatically shared, even by people of the same faith and culture – instead, they tend to be negotiated through effective, nonviolent conflict.

And learning this art form requires patience, practice, discipline, creativity, and good relational skills. Take a look at this example, I found it really interesting.

http://www.ted.com/talks/jamila_raqib_the_secret_to_effective_nonviolent_resistance?language=en

So there are a lot of things we could learn from that story. The woman who started the movement by the way was 53 years old, a wife and mother, with no prior activist experience. I don’t believe in formulas, but I do believe nonviolent action can be surprisingly effective.

And here is one more thing I take from this story.

When two needs – like for instance the needs of the individual and the needs of the community– are in tension – how do we hold both as equally valuable and resist the temptation to collapse the tension between them in a way that does violence to one or the other?

51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.

Luke 12:51

It may sound strange– but I wonder what it might look like for us to engage whatever growth-fostering division Christ might bring us, and to do it gracefully?

I don’t have the answer, but I do have one suggestion for us.

Practicing Good Conflict:

  • Contemplation
  • Engaging differences

Perhaps, in addition to building our tolerance for good tension, we might practice engaging our differences more and more effectively. And I think there are many ways we already do this well. But here’s one example. Say someone behaves in a way I find off-putting, or says something I don’t like, perhaps instead of just moving on to the next person, maybe we slow things down… become curious… begin to wonder what this person might have to teach me about human beings – or about myself. Even if it feels disconnective.

And indeed that’s exactly what research has found makes for the most growth-fostering relationships. It’s the movement – the dance – between connection and disconnection and reconnection – where we tend to thrive and grow most as human beings.

So… not avoiding it, practicing contemplation, and engaging our differences – three ways we can get better at good conflict for positive change.

Okay, so wrapping up, Jesus concludes by saying this.

52 “For from now on, in one house there will be five 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.” – Luke 12:52-53

So what’s Jesus is saying here?

I suggest he’s not in fact prescribing anything, but rather describing the likely outcome of the positive change he’s about to bring.

That whereas before, pretty much the whole household was expected to go along with the patriarch or the oldest son– in the new paradigm every member is valued equally.

And that will not always go over well with those accustomed to more power and privilege.

And… I do not believe that broken relationships are always inevitable.

Because I know of many, many instances, where community members were faced with a positive change and were able to allow the tensions in that process to mature and transform them.

And I haven’t always thought this, but anymore these days, here’s how I think that happens.

52 “From now on, in one house there will be five 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.” – Luke 12:52-53

“They will be divided, father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law…”

I think it may be through our close friends and family members. People who know us intimately. People who’ve seen us in  pajamas, we visit in the hospital, whose funerals we’ll help  plan.

Because our loved ones have access to parts of our brains and hearts that no one else does, and vice versa.

And so it makes sense then that when a sweeping positive change is on the horizon, the tension will be felt most acutely between friends and family members who find themselves at different stages of the process.

And I want to say… that’s okay. That’s where we are invited to practice good conflict by engaging our differences, allowing expectations to be defied, allowing some surprises to emerge around the dinner table.

That’s where we might practice “flipping the script”.

I borrowed that term from the podcast I mentioned at the beginning. They use the phrase to describe when a person gives a response vastly different – or even opposite – of what’s expected. And when the difference is positive, it can have a dramatic impact.

Let’s end by picking that story back up.

So this group of friends and their children were gathered after dinner, sitting in the back yard drinking wine when a stranger enters through the back gate, holding a gun.

And the man said, “Give me your money or I’m going to start f’ing shooting.”

Michael was there with his 14 yr old daughter and he says the friends started scrambling to think of a way to prevent the violence that seemed inevitable.

Michael says at first they tried guilt. Someone said to the man, “What would your mother think of you right now?”

And the man said, “I don’t have an f-ing mother.”

So things were looking pretty bad. And then something surprising happened.

https://youtu.be/aWseEycdXS8?t=2m16s

He said, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.”

And they’re like, “We get it. These things happen.” We’ll address that in a moment.

But Michael says the man then did something even more strange. He said, “Can I get a hug?”

So they came around him and hugged him. And the man said he was sorry. And then he turned and walked out the gate with his glass of wine.

Now, I don’t believe there’s a one size fits all strategy for every situation.

What I did find compelling about this story was the reason the journalists gave for why this scene unfolded the way it did. And that explanation is rooted in the idea that as people, we tend to naturally mirror each other, so warmth begets warmth, hostility begets hostility. And breaking this pattern – being warm when someone is being hostile – is really difficult to do. And when people do manage it, it often seems like a miracle.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you.”

Perhaps flipping the script is one of the most powerful ways we can practice waging good conflict.

Practicing Good Conflict:

  • Contemplation
  • Engaging our differences
  • Flipping the script

The more we practice, the more we build our tolerance for tension, the more we sit in contemplative prayer, I do believe these small things can make a big difference.

Michael ends the story by saying later that evening, after everything had calmed down, they would find that wine glass neatly placed on the sidewalk by their alley.

Not shattered, not carelessly discarded… placed.

Defying expectations.

49 {And the Lord Said} “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!”

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