Luke 12:49 “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress 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.” (NRSV)
Yesterday we went back to church for the Saturday afternoon service, after taking most of the summer off. And as soon as the gospel reading flashed on the screen at the front of the sanctuary — Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! — I thought, oh boy, I’d sure hate to preach on that one! Sure enough, when it came time for the sermon, Pastor Mary asked if we knew anyone like that, who brings division. My reaction was immediate: Trump! Normally I like it when sermons get interactive. It reminds me of my old teaching style. And I like to chime in when I feel like I’ve got something to offer.
But this time I figured I’d better keep my mouth shut.
Not that President Trump hasn’t been sowing division lately. He’s been picking at scabs that divide people of different faith traditions on issues like immigration in the US and, most recently, religious animosity in Israel and the Occupied Territories. But I figured he’s done enough damage already without my bringing him up and sidetracking a Saturday afternoon worship service. Anyway, the sermon went on to other things including the “great cloud of witnesses” who persevered by faith in the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews. I forgot about Trump, too, but I was left with the question — what do we do when our faith calls us to action on a divisive issue? And how, if there are people of good will on both sides of an issue, do we know who’s in the right? What if both sides are in the right? And just how do we know what’s right, anyway?
Lectio divina and discernment
So I had plenty to mull over after church Saturday. And I’ve needed to mull it over, anyway. As it happens, worship services aren’t the only thing I’ve been too preoccupied to keep up lately. I’ve been exploring a couple of meditation techniques this year, but I’ve pretty much let them slide, too, over the summer. And it’s high time for me to pick them up again. One is lectio divina (sacred reading), a monastic technique that consists of reading scripture and — well, mulling it over.
Fr. James Martin, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, boils it down to a four-word mnemonic — Read, Think, Pray and Act. He illustrates it with the example of Jesus’ teaching in the temple at Nazareth, but the same steps work with any passage of scripture. The emphasis on action, even simple action like checking a fusebox, he suggests elsewhere, is typically Jesuit. He continues:
Now that you’ve read the story of Jesus in the temple, have asked yourself what God is saying, and have spoken to God about your reaction, it’s time to do something. Perhaps you resolve to be more courageous in standing up for the oppressed.
So, taking Fr. Martin’s steps one by one:
Read. Well, we did that in church Saturday afternoon, and I’ve quoted it above. But there’s another passage in the pericope. It picks up at Luke 12:54 — 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? A useful commentary on Luther Seminary’s workingpastor.org website notes that in the first passage — “I came to bring fire to the earth …” — Jesus addresses the disciples; in the second, “the crowds” in Galilee. But that doesn’t affect the message I take away from either.
Either way, the questions are the same ones I had in church yesterday. How do I interpret the present time? What am I called to do? What if it turns out to be divisive? Can you ever speak truth to power without being divisive? How do you know what’s true?
Think. Other guides to lectio divina, including one on the Springfield Dominican Sisters’ website that I like, call this step reflection: “Reflect on that word or phrase, repeating it in your mind over and over.” Fr. Martin, expanding on his example of Jesus’ preaching in Nazareth, suggests we ask ourselves, “are there situations or places where you feel called to be prophetic, even in the face of rejection?”
Odd. That’s the same question I was asking yesterday in my back pew at Peace Lutheran.
Or maybe it’s not so odd.
I’m reminded of Dominic Crossan’s hypothesis, which makes more sense to me than most others about the historical Jesus, that Jesus was essentially a first-century Jewish peasant revolutionary who proclaimed a new way of living under occupation by a hostile secular empire. Close enough, as far as I’m concerned, for government work.
Or, to update it a little — close enough for petitioning the government for redress of grievances. Especially grievances brought about by government policies and procedures that go against my beliefs.
Pray. Mostly, I have a hard time with prayer. But not this time. Fr. Martin suggests we ask oursevles, “What do I want to say to God about the text?” Well, I want to ask God how I know when I’m right about the truth I want to speak to power. And how to balance my call to speak truth to power with my commandment to love my neighbor, especially my neighbor who might not always agree with me about political issues. Luckily, I’ve got a template for that. It’s the 11th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous, which says we:
“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood [God], praying only for knowledge of [God’s] will for us and the power to carry that out.”
Pretty rigorous, I think. It’s easier to say than to do, but I think it’s kept me from confusing my will with God’s on more occasions that I care to admit. Another good way to put it: Pray for discernment.
Wait a minute — praying for what?
Isn’t “discernment” talking about vocations? Going into the ministry? Short answer: Well, yes, often. But not always. The Rev. Dr. Google says it simply involves “spiritual guidance and understanding,” and the Right Rev. Wikipedia says it’s “the process of determining God‘s desire in a situation or for one’s life or identifying the true nature of a thing.” But I like best what the Rev. Matthew Best, a pastor in Pennsylvania, says on his blog Laced Up Lutheran — discernment is “a nice theological term that essentially means spiritual direction, understanding, or what’s God up to now?”
Mulling it over, in other words.
Always a good idea. And the 11th Step is always a good reminder, too.
AA has another 11th Step prayer that I like. (Actually, AA has several others, like these from a chapter in Green Bay). But this one, in the “12 and 12” (a book called Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions) is the prayer attributed to St. Francis that begins, “Lord, make me a channel of thy peace …” (others say “instrument of thy peace”) and ends with this:
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to
comfort than to be comforted–to understand,
than to be understood–to love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds. It is by
forgiving that one is forgiven. It is by dying that
one awakens to eternal life.
Act. In this case, I think “Act” and “Pray” go together. I’ve been active in a couple of “resistance” groups on social media since shortly after President Trump took office in 2017. I haven’t thought of it as a religious calling, frankly, although I have shared stories from reputable outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post and Fr. Martin’s America magazine, that have a religious bent to them.
Stories, for example, highlighting people like the Jewish demonstrators protesting inhumane conditions in ICE detention center, Catholic relief efforts and the Rev. William Barber’s interfaith movement. I wouldn’t claim it’s a calling, but I think I’m in a position to remind secular progressives, many of whom have quite given up on organized religion, that there are still people of faith who actively oppose the way Trump undermines American values and institutions. But I could do it more intentionally without being sanctimonious about it.
Again, St. Francis’ 11th Step prayer points to a useful perspective: “… that where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness–that where there is discord, I may bring harmony.” That I can do. At least try. It’s not so much a brand-new revelation, but Saturday’s pericope was a good — and timely — reminder.