A Separate Peace

I sure don’t know how to interpret the present time. That’s my instant thought when I read these words from this week’s Gospel Lesson. I haven’t a clue. Thank you very much. But, I’m trying really, really hard to listen especially as I sit here by the beach watching these waves crash over the top of any number of books that might help me understand what’s happening in congregations today. But, I also know that when most people hear these words, they get really uncomfortable about their fathers and sons and mothers and daughters because Jesus just started hacking up their family tree. (Nod to Richard Swanson.)

The thing about families — or any community really — is that we are not all on the same page. We don’t see things the same way. We are not always as united as we might like to think. So, Jesus tells us that the opposite of peace is not war — but division. You’ll remember, of course, earlier in this story when someone along the way says he’ll follow Christ wherever he may go, he replies rather curtly. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). The situation gets worse when this poor guy explains that before he can hit the road, he has to bury his father. Christ is having none of this. “Let the dead bury the dead,” he says. Because the work that they are about is proclaiming the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:60). For it is impossible to be divided between your obligations to your mother and father and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. You simply can’t do both.

Perhaps this is what is stressing Jesus out in verse 50. Oy! What stress indeed! Who can possibly divide themselves in such a manner? Of course, every commentator seems to conclude that this “stress” isn’t really stress. Not how we understand stress anyway. It’s something more like “holding tightly” or “squeezing.” Right. So Jesus is trying to hold everything — and particularly everyone — together. Which we know very well doesn’t work. Because no community is that unified. Not even in your own family. 

Think about it. Think about your aunts and your uncles, your cousins and even your immediate family. We tell this nice story about our families where there is no difference. We are connected by blood and so there are no such thing as political, religious or economic difference. Surely your temperament is exactly the same! (That was sarcasm, in case you missed it.) And while it fight against every instinct ever embedded in you in this culture we share, from the experience in your own family, you have come to know that separation isn’t the worst thing in the world. Instead, that separation — that division — led you to find a place you belonged. It’s then that you felt that tension that Jesus explores in verses 52-53. Because everything feels disjointed as you try to find a place where you really, truly belong.

After all, it’s what we all want — some place, some people to whom we belong. Jim Abbott would grow up to become a star major-league pitcher. But, as a little 5 year old boy, there was one noticeable fact about him, one thing that set him apart from his family and everyone else: he was born without his right hand. So, at that young age of 5, he found himself in a rehabilitation hospital where most of the kids were far worse off than he was. He was there to get a prosthetic arm, but he didn’t belong there even though this was the only place where he was like the kids around him. The kids at school teased him, but here he was like everyone else but no community is that unified. Instead, he found acceptance on the baseball diamond. He explains:

I wanted to play. I loved to play. But there was more. I sought acceptance beyond what my appearance told people about me. 

In worship, we’ll color peace signs and ponder the
many ways that we make peace.

I found this story after Googling wildly after a church member told me about the New York Times bestseller Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon. In this book, Solomon asks one crucial question: why do parents seek to raise children that are nothing like them? There’s the division, right? In answering this question, Solomon identifies vertical and horizontal identities. Vertical identities describe those traits that parents pass onto their children. In his own words, Solomon says: “Attributes and values are passed down from parent to child across the generations not only through strands of DNA, but also through shared cultural norms. Ethnicity, for example, is a vertical identity.”Those identities that a child acquires in their life that parents cannot possibly understand are horizontal identities. Some are biological like deafness, a physical disability or intellectual disability. Others are more complex like being gay or transgender or a prodigy. In these horizontal identities, children create families beyond their biological family. They seek out others that understand this unique experience — something that their parents can’t understand because they haven’t lived with this same experience.

That’s perhaps how we find ourselves here in this horizontal family we call the church. For some reason, each of us has chosen to separate. You have chosen to seek peace through division. You have chosen to claim that these people gathered here in this church are your family. There is no peace in denying it. We know very well that people who claim their life within the context of a congregation live longer. They find support that they never thought possible. And it all comes because that division that seems so cruel and unusual actually brings the peace that we wanted all along.

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