I love how this room comes alive on Sunday morning, how hundreds of people come through those doors. How they bring life to this great room; a room where we encounter the living God, join together as one body and where we find and share peace with one another. But truth be told, fewer people will come through those doors today than have come through those doors on any other day of this past week.
This room is open every day and during this past week anywhere from 264-388 people came into this room each and every day. Some marvel at the windows, others point and look at the organ, still more check out the hand carved and unique finials at the end of the pews or discover the whimsical creatures that are cast in stone around this place. But as I spent time down here this week, I noticed that a great number simply sit and pray.
One of the ministries that this church provides is this box. People who come into this room leave behind their prayer requests, their celebrations and their concerns, in this box. In one week recently we received 134 prayer requests. Some of those requests prayed for world peace or for the environment or for the Pope. But most of the prayers were for family and friends, for healing of body and relationship, for blessing and strength. There are joys and tragedies that are lifted up to God in this box. Each and every prayer that is left here is taken out of this box and prayed for. Some are incorporated into the Pastoral Prayer on Sundays while the rest are prayed for individually by someone here at Old South.
One such prayer request has stuck with me. It said simply this: “I pray for all of God’s dreams to come true.” A simple, faithful and straightforward prayer that contains within it a fascinating question—what exactly are God’s dreams?
Desmond Tutu has an idea. He writes that the dreams of God are full of amazing transformations. God’s dreams include the transformation of the ugliness, squalor and poverty of this world into laughter joy and peace. God’s dreams include the transformation of war and hostility, greed and disharmony into justice and goodness, compassion and love, caring and sharing. It is a powerful and grand dream. But even more importantly, Tutu claims that these transformations will take place because each of us will come to know we are part of a family. We will come to know that we are truly, deeply and completely part of a family—God’s family. At the core of God’s dream for each of us, for the whole world—is family.
And that is why this passage from Luke is so difficult, so challenging. Here in this passage we encounter an impatient Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who says this: “Do you think I have come to bring Peace to the Earth? No I tell you, but rather division.” He talks about fathers against sons, daughters against mothers, and mothers-in-law against daughters-in-law. This passage does not sound very much like those dreams of God Desmond Tutu describes. It is to say the least unsettling. This text has no simple answers, but within it is truth and that makes it Good News.
Jesus is, after all, a truth teller. By this point in his ministry, as Luke describes it, Jesus has seen first-hand the kind of conflict that can come when truth is proclaimed, even the beautiful truth of God’s dreams. He has seen how God’s own people have reacted to the truth. Many have listened and believed—we know of the crowds that followed him. But he has also been kicked out of both his hometown and the synagogue simply for speaking and teaching the truth.
The first truth of this difficult passage is that Jesus is not prescribing conflict, instead he is just describing the reality of our world; that those who seek to be part of God’s dream will be confronted by those who see such a dream as threatening. Breaking down barriers is dangerous and contentious work. As Jesus headed toward Jerusalem and what he knew awaited him there, he knew all too well how contentious and dangerous truth telling can be.
While today we in the United Church of Christ and here at Old South celebrate our legacy of being a progressive tradition and cherish the radical welcome that we believe God calls us to extend, we should remember as our most recent President and General Minister John Thomas observed, “There has never been a time in our life as a church when conflict has been absent from our life.”
The congregational churches that are our forebears were formed out of a group of dissenters. This very congregation was born as a result of conflict over who could receive baptism. Twenty-eight members of what was then First Church in Boston left that congregation to form this one; to follow what they saw as the call of Christ; to break down barriers.
And sometimes when one barrier went down new ones were discovered on the other side. When a congregational church called Antoinette Brown as the first woman pastor in North America fellow congregational churches and even the church-controlled Boston newspaper derided and mocked them. When the General Assembly of the UCC, voted to affirm LGBT people both as pastors and in marriage equality, there were repercussions, the family was divided three against two.
Conflict is part of our faithful journey, but it is not the destination, it is not God’s ultimate dream for us.
A second and equally important truth in this passage is that Jesus talks about family, not because his mission is to destroy it, but because of how important family is. Family can be a source of great support and life. Faithful earthly families are forerunners of the kind of family God dreams for us. For instance, we think nothing about going out of our way to care for those who are family. In a healthy family we direct our attention and our resources to those who need it most, not those who produce the most. In family we know there is going to be disagreement and conflict. The measure of a good family is not whether or not we fight (because we all do), but instead how we handle disagreement. How we are able to disagree and still love one another, disagree and still seek the greater good of one another. Within family we are called to love and care and sacrifice for those that we may not even like so much. It is a sacred way of living … as family.
In fact family is the model that we live by here in this church; a family where Christ is at our head and where we are called to not just set an open door, but to get out there and encourage people to come on through. The truth that we are all part of God’s family is something we take seriously here; it is one of the things that many of us love about this place. We are learning how to more fully welcome all of God’s beloved children into this place. We try our best to never forget that in God’s family there are no outsiders—all have been made to be insiders.
This way of living has led to disagreement and even conflict within this church family. We are a diverse lot after all with different theological, political, and biblical understandings. It has and continues to place us in conflict with our brothers and sisters in Christ beyond the walls of this great room as well.
And while that is difficult, that is not the problem—here in this passage Christ tells us that conflict will be part of the journey. But the larger story of not only Luke’s Gospel, in fact all scripture reminds us that conflict is not our destination, it is not in God’s dream for us. Throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus repeatedly calls us to seek peace and reconciliation. Conflict is only descriptive of our life. It is not the prescription for what we are called to be.
When we hear these words of Jesus we also need to remember that Jesus blessed those he healed with peace; he told the disciples to bring peace with them on their travels; he greeted his followers after his resurrection by wishing them peace. At his birth, he was proclaimed by the prophet Simeon to be the one who would guide the way of the people into peace.
Here at Old South, we have been led by the spirit to encounter God’s dream of family in an egalitarian and welcoming way. We understand our mission through the lens of an open door. We find our progressive stand rooted firmly in Scripture and based in the Spirit of God moving in our midst. We need neither apologize for our approach nor concede its beauty and wisdom.
Yet we also know that conflict that is not addressed can solidify into distrust, alienation, separation. We must be mindful not to let barriers form; not to let our wonderful welcome of others somehow ironically wall us off from part of our Christian family—because after all Jesus’ mission was to break down, not build barriers. We must be mindful that the Constitution of the United Church of Christ proclaims that all who believe in and seek to follow Christ are kindred … family … even if they disagree with us.
Like our text for today the challenge of reconciliation has no simple answers. Engaging those who see and experience their faith differently will undoubtedly bring about difference and conflict. But then again, our history here is full of times where courageous stances have resulted in conflict within and beyond these walls. And each time in our 341 year history we have found the path to reconciliation and found ourselves stronger as a result.
This text calls us to listen to Christ’s call and remember what we have learned about family: to cherish those with whom we are in conflict, to go out of our way to love them as family, to welcome them to the table, and to set that open door so that they too might stroll through those doors, come into this great room, experience the kind of God we have come to know and the kind of family we believe God calls us to be. For here in this great room we have the chance together to find peace and share it every day.
This is a passage that reminds us of the challenge of living toward the dream of God. It calls us the see the reality of what is so that we can be part of building what might be. So that we can come to more fully understand the huge dreams that God has for us—a dream where we live in laughter, joy, justice, sharing and peace with the entire family; for that is the kind of family God dreams about.