Sermon: When Division Is a Good Thing

“When Division Is a Good Thing”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
August 18, 2019

Genesis 31, selected verses
Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘Come now, let us make a covenant, you
and I; and let it be a witness between you and me.’ So Jacob took a
stone, and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsfolk, ‘Gather
stones,’ and they took stones, and made a heap; and they ate there
by the heap. Laban said, ‘This heap is a witness between you and me
today.’ Laban called the pillar Mizpah (which means
“watchtower”), for he said, ‘May the Lord watch between you and
me, while we are absent one from the other. If you ill-treat my
daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though
no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you
and me.’

Luke 12:49-56
‘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.’

As we prayed in our Prayer of Invocation this morning, these days we so often long for the healing of our divisions – in our families, communities, country, and world. But we’re going to talk this morning about when division is a good thing.

How many of you were familiar with the line in this morning’s Hebrew reading, “May the Lord watch between me and thee, while we are absent, one from another”? What do you associate with these words?

We tend to think of these words – the Mizpah – as a blessing, a benediction, something warm and tender that asks God to watch over us until we can be reunited. I served a church in Atlanta where this benediction was said at the end of every service.

So imagine my surprise when I read the context of these verses – that the Mizpah is actually asking God to keep Laban and Jacob apart, to keep two feuding family members from harming one another! It takes on quite a different connotation, doesn’t it – especially with that barb thrown in there about not mistreating Laban’s daughters or taking any more wives!

As Christians we talk often about being kind and forgiving, but we don’t talk as often about the importance of setting good boundaries. Yet that’s exactly what Laban and Jacob were doing: asking God to set a boundary between them so that they wouldn’t come into unnecessary, unhealthy conflict. Setting boundaries is not about excluding people; it’s about excluding behaviors that are toxic, abusive, or deadening to our spirits, in Jacob’s case no longer being taken advantage of by his father-in-law. I had a mentor who said it this way: “You are welcome, but this behavior is not.”  

Many of us have established such boundaries or watched others do so:

“My brother and his spouse are always welcome to come visit, but not to stay at our house since they don’t clean up after themselves.”
“I eat lunch with my coworkers every day, but I don’t go out with them after work because I’m not comfortable with their behavior when they’ve had a few drinks.”
“My relationship with my spouse really improved when we decided I’d go to book club myself and she’d stay home for those few hours. It turns out she’s an introvert and makes a much better partner when she can recharge alone!”

You see, God calls us to be in right relationship with one another, and setting boundaries is a way to define what kind of behavior we will allow in our relationships to ensure they are not one-sided or damaging to either party. Rather than an invitation to cut people off or leap to estrangement, setting boundaries creates the freedom for a relationship to flourish without the broken trust, anger, and resentment that comes from one party having to put up with less-than-stellar behavior. It’s an invitation for growth and reconciliation; and an acknowledgement, as in this morning’s scripture, that it is okay to keep some distance between you and a person or you and an organization if being closer would create unhealthy conflict.

The other kind of helpful division we’re going to talk about is the one Jesus described in this morning’s Gospel reading. Sometimes Christians use this passage to encourage those who are struggling with rejection over their embrace of Jesus in a family or culture where their belief is considered ridiculous, backward, or even dangerous. But I want to consider a different interpretation today.

I’m an amateur (aspiring?) minimalist, as my spouse can attest; I’m notorious for asking when the last time a neglected shirt was worn or an outdated tool was used and urging the owner to donate it. As part of my aspiration, I read and watch my fair share of minimalist blogs and YouTube videos, and I have definitely seen all of Marie Kondo’s Netflix show Tidying Up. In all my research, as we might call it, I’d say the number one question about minimalism is what to do if you are the lone minimalist in your household. Variations include “How do you get a maximalist spouse on board?” (my answer: pray) and “How on earth do you get children or teenagers to embrace minimalism?” (Also pray.)

(The real answer to both of these, by the way, is not to secretly cull the overflow in the toy room while the kids are at school or to bag up your spouse’s old t-shirt collection in the dead of night; better to simply model minimalism in your own life and with your own personal possessions and hope those you live with eventually see the benefits and catch on.)

The reason this is such a hot topic is because it is hard to be the stand-alone adherent to a radical approach or perspective. It can feel like an uphill climb to be the only person practicing composting or eating vegan in your home; it can be difficult to be the one person at work who refuses to answer email after office hours or to be the one family who homeschools or who declines to sign up for a million after school activities. It can feel lonely to be the only teenager in your group who doesn’t vape or drink or send risky selfies; it’s easy to be ostracized and made to feel less-than or like you’re a troublemaker for doing things differently.

As I mentioned before, being a Christian can still earn you this kind of ostracism in some settings. Just ask the first person in a long line of atheists to attend church regularly or the first person from a lackluster family of Protestants to convert to a devout Catholicism.

But today I’m actually less interested in how believing in Jesus might set us apart and more interested in how following Jesus might set us apart. What happens when we take some of Jesus’ most radical, controversial teachings and actually decide to live them?

Imagine selling all (or even half, as Jesus suggested elsewhere) your personal possessions and assets and giving the proceeds to a non-profit that serves the poor. Really, close your eyes and imagine the reaction of your best friend over coffee or the look on your spouse’s face when you walk in the door. Suddenly Jesus’ words about “bring[ing] fire to the earth” and “not peace but division” don’t seem so out there, do they?

Or, even more sobering, imagine deciding to forgive the person who murdered a family member, to commit yourself to trying to love that person; imagine how it might utterly divide your family, “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother.” Imagine if you began to visit that person in prison or to correspond with them in an effort to live by Jesus’ admonition to love your enemy; dissenting relatives might never speak to you again.

Christians have a long history of confronting such division in the face of their convictions to follow Jesus. St. Francis gave up his inheritance to live and preach amongst the poor, enraging his cloth merchant father who had expected him to take over the family business. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., angered other leaders in the nascent civil rights movement when he argued for the key principle non-violence, while his public opposition to military intervention and war spending at the expense of poor people at home and abroad was soon followed by his assassination. Catholic Sister Helen Prejean continues to face criticism, some of it virulent, for her opposition to the death penalty and her accompaniment of the condemned as portrayed in the movie Dead Man Walking. The Amish community who forgave the man who murdered five of their little girls and injured five more, one severely disabled for life, while they studied in a one room schoolhouse received awe and accolades, yes, but also some severe criticism for so quickly and unconditionally exonerating a child killer. Wendell Berry, the agrarian poet laureate and advocate for creation care and Christian pacifism, famously made headlines and sparked debate when he replied to an invitation to give Harvard’s commencement speech with a note that said, simply, “The point is to stay home.” 

Our own commitments may not be so dramatic or lived out on such a public stage; but they may still cause us strife as we do our best to live into what we believe God is calling us to do. 

You may never have thought of it this way before, but where would you be willing to cause division – taking an unpopular stance that may create bewilderment or even conflict – to follow Jesus? Would it be in caring for creation? In forgiving someone unforgivable? In calling for justice at work or at school? In modeling for your family habits of countercultural rest, or of unflappable kindness, or of nonsensical generosity?

Where might it be for Park Avenue? How might our commitment to something radical, something truly divisive, help us stand up and stand out as we strive to answer God’s call for our congregation? Become a sanctuary church for immigrants? Become energy neutral or zero waste? Give away half our budget for mission and justice?

I think we so often imagine following Jesus as a path of peace and contentment – not that everything in our lives will go smoothly, necessarily, but that our choice to draw closer to God will be at least one thing in an uncertain world that is guaranteed not to create more strife for us. We forget that often, Jesus calls his followers to difficult and controversial ways of being, remaking a world in need of redemption not just through water but through fire. 

Yet in a deeply important way, Jesus’ peace is what underlies even the most difficult paths. When through study, prayer, and discernment we become convicted that God is calling us to something that may create division, suddenly the choice becomes clear, and the controversy pales beside the groundedness of knowing that this is where God wants us. 

In this morning’s Hebrew reading, a few verses later, Laban adds an addendum about the Mizpah division:

See this heap and see the pillar, which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm.”

The boundary was intended to keep them from harming one another, but didn’t actually restrict them from crossing it to do good. The boundary let good in even as it kept harm out. 

Similarly, taking a divinely divisive position in our personal lives or the life of our congregation may set us apart in unpleasant ways; but it will also allow those who feel similarly to be drawn in by the beacon of flame we brandish as we follow a Jesus who came for a baptism of fire, who calls us to division that ultimately brings peace. Amen.