Rev. Matthias Peterson-Brandt
August 18th, 2019
Isaiah 5:1-7 & Luke 12:49-56
Johnathan Edwards, famous congregationalist preacher in the 1700s, is perhaps most well-known for his vivid and horrifying sermon titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
I had to read this sermon as part of my American Lit class in high school. The image it paints is one of God holding each of us like a detestable spider over a fire by a thin spindle of thread. At any moment God could decide to cast us into the fiery abyss, but it is only by grace that God’s divine anger is stayed. It is an image as evocative for its imagery as it is appalling for its theology.
In fact, there are plenty of moments in the Bible where God is described as being angry as in Isaiah. Jesus too has some harsh words from time to time that don’t sound like the Jesus of “Jesus loves me this I know.” Many who identify as Christians who conceive of God’s anger in the way of Jonathan Edwards, even to this day. I want to ask how then, they understand Genesis 1 where all things God created are called good, including human beings.
But I also want to challenge the idea that God’s anger is of a retributive, torture and cruelty nature, as sometimes gets presented. At the same time, I don’t want to deny that God does get or feel angry sometimes. To reframe God’s anger as connected to love has been helpful to me. It can make us angry to see someone we love do something self-destructive, to see a nation we love living out its worst impulses, to feel hurt by people we love. This is not an anger that wishes to destroy, but rather because it is rooted in love, it is an anger that seeks to transform, or reform, help the beloved onto a healthier, more just, more whole way of being.
In the Isaiah passage, God is angry with a people—Israel—who cannot seem to act with justice no matter how God encourages them, nurtures them, sends prophets to remind and call them out. “I expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry.”
Jesus is channeling a similar prophetic voice speaking about a fire and affirming that he has come to create division, even among families. We who view Christianity as a source of unity, God as a reconciler, this is hard to square. Can’t we all just get along? And can’t we just agree to disagree?
In the words of James Baldwin: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”
Yes, God does bring about reconciliation of all things, all people, all creation. That reconciliation and unity, however, is never at the expense of fullness of life for some. There may be zero crime under a totalitarian police state, but is that “peace”?
The division that is inevitable when we are true in following Jesus is that we cannot abide the oppression of or violence towards others in word or in deed, particularly those who are historically oppressed or most vulnerable.
How many of you had contentious or “divisive” interactions with some of your family during the last election cycle?
It can be uncomfortable to call out a friend’s racist remark, or a relative’s repeat of a racist trope or stereotype they heard somewhere. It have sometimes asked myself, sighing, “is it really worth it to get into? I’m not going to change their mind, and they sure aren’t going to change mine. And it will only further divide us.”
And maybe all of that is true. Yet, still, Jesus calls us to
respond when we encounter such remarks. For one, we never know who else might
be watching or overhearing. What do our children or youth pick up on when we
let a racist remark slide? How does it contribute to a sense of safety or a
sense of danger for a person of color in the vicinity if they see someone stand
up to racism or backdown and let it stand?
Further, we cannot know what will happen inside the other person or inside we ourselves when we enter into conversations that feel risky or divisive. Perhaps it may be the seed that grows into change. In practicing standing up to racism we too grow stronger and more confident in that.
It could be as simple as asking “What do you mean by that?” when someone speaks a xenophobic or racist stereotype. A question that maybe they have never stopped to ask themselves. This is divisive. Jesus knew it would be. His ministry was divisive too—Pharisees and scribes and Romans and common people were divided on what to think. Is this man crazy, dangerous, evil, invasive, or a truth-teller, a wisdom-speaker, Son of God, miracle worker and compassionate teacher. Jesus created division too. But the division he created and the division he calls us to is a productive division.
I call it productive division because unity that exists where we don’t talk about difficult things is not real unity. It is a false calm with undealt-with turbulence beneath the surface. To go back to Baldwin once again: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
In the movie Remember the Titans we see a good image of what this looks like. Its 1971 and the plot hones in on the integration of a Tennessee high school, but particularly the football team. After a grueling two-week sleep away football camp, the white and black team mates have a strong bond. That gets sorely tested as they move back into the wider arena of high school. One evening after a game, a group of the football players are headed to hang out—black and white together. The white team captain—Gary Bertier is hollered at from a convertible as it pulls up. His girlfriend and some other friends ask him to come hang out with them. He counters that they are welcome to join the team in their evening plans. But Gary’s girlfriend and the car full of white high schoolers don’t want to hang out with “them.” So they drive off, and Gary stays. He chose a division in service to a future where the whole is possible. And indeed, at the end of the movie, Gary’s girlfriend comes up to Julius, the black star of the team, and shakes his hand.
Yes, this is a Disney movie; life’s story obviously does not always follow such well-crafted contours. It will be challenging, it may feel uncomfortable or hurt in those instances where we our stand for Jesus, our stand for justice causes friction. And still, the underlying point of the divisions that Jesus sometimes calls us to are the only way to eventual wholeness, shalom for all people, for all creation. We walk the path that Christ has walked before us, led forth in that same boldness of belief that all humanity can be made whole. Amen.