Jesus said in Luke 12:51: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
“Isn’t that just what you want to hear at Chautauqua?” said the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli. “Jesus isn’t messing around; there is no smooth talk here.”
She was preaching at the 9:15 a.m. Wednesday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “Disturbing the Peace,” and the Scripture readings were Isaiah 30:8-18 and Luke 12:49-56.
“These words sound familiar in a time we find ourselves so divided, with violence, exclusion and rancor in our public discourse and interpersonal relationships,” she said. “The last thing we expect to hear is that Jesus is a proponent of division and fiery destruction.”
For some scholars, the only way out of this dilemma is to say that Jesus did not say these words. But, she said, the problem is that “words like these are found in Matthew, Mark, Luke and the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas. So we need to pay attention, to sit with any discomfort and listen.”
As editor of the CEB Women’s Bible, Gaines-Cirelli sat and read through the Gospel of Luke and began to hear its story as a story. There were themes and details that emerged when she read it that way that did not appear when just reading little chunks.
The theme of disruption begins in Luke with the “Magnificat,” Mary’s song of praise to God. She says: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Simeon the prophet greets Mary, telling her that her baby son, “is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”
“In Chapter 4 of Luke, Jesus is run out of his hometown, and in Chapter 5 the religious rulers began to take issue with what he was saying, and by Chapter 6 they were looking for ways to accuse him and get rid of him,” Gaines-Cirelli said.
How can we call him the Prince of Peace, she asked. How does this vision of conflict, division and opposition fit with a faith of love, reconciliation and peace? Have we gotten it wrong?
“I don’t think we have gotten it wrong because love and peace are at the heart of the good news that Jesus embodies,” she said. “But there is an inherent conflict that following Jesus necessarily entails.”
There are some people who enjoy conflict for the sake of conflict, but most of us avoid conflict.
“The church is good at being conflict-averse, of taking the path of least resistance,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “We don’t take risks for fear of losing people, making them uncomfortable and angry. The church is good at smooth things as in ‘the way we’ve always done it.’ Following Jesus is about disrupting the way we have always done it.”
The lengths to which people and institutions go to keep the peace can be self-destructive. Conflict is painful, emotionally and physically. It means the loss of friends and family and can bring about changes to situations that were life-giving.
“Our tradition says blessed are the peacemakers, but it also says blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” she said. “The truth is that Jesus created conflict, not simply for the sake of conflict, but for righteousness’ sake.”
Jesus came to be the just ruler that Isaiah preached about; he did not come into a peaceful, whole and just world.
“Jesus came to disturb the injustice of an unjust world, to disrupt the things that are not resonant with the Kingdom of God, things like love, respect, compassion and equality for the sake of the other,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “This is not eye for an eye retributive justice, but restorative justice that is gracious but challenging for us.”
She quoted biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, who said, “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom and to return it to them.” In the kingdom of God, Gaines-Cirelli said, this is good news for those who had what belongs to them taken away.
“If we choose to follow Jesus, we will find ourselves in trouble,” she said. “We don’t go looking for trouble or stir the pot for no good reason. Jesus came to change what is wrong and we get into trouble to make things better. Conflict is the result, but we are stirring the pot to bring about change.”
Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, answered the question of why he was taking nonviolent direct action. He called it creative tension, and it caused a crisis for people so they could no longer ignore the issue of racism.
“This is what we are experiencing all over the country right now,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “People are marching to dramatize that police brutality and racism will no longer be ignored. Pride parades for LGBT justice dramatize that inequality will no longer be ignored. The parades and rallies in Washington, D.C., all disturb the peace for the sake of love and the cause of right.”
She acknowledged that the tension this has caused for people with family and friends might not necessarily be called creative, and she has heard some “pretty wild and painful stories about these relationships.”
When you have, in faith and humility, interpreted the tradition, “you choose where you stand and with whom. You create conflict for what is loving and just,” she said.
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is telling his listeners to put energy into discerning what matters and do accordingly.
“When people challenge you, or unfriend you on Facebook, or treat you like you are ridiculous or sinful because of where you stand, remember you are in good company,” she said. “As preacher William Sloane Coffin said, ‘Jesus knew that to love your enemies didn’t mean don’t make any.’ ”
Gaines-Cirelli described herself as a “pleaser.”
“I know what people want and expect, and I provide it,” she said. “That was my role in the family. I am the master of smooth talk, and I have an allergy to anger and rage. None of that prepared me for the work of disturbing the peace for the sake of God’s kingdom.”
What did prepare her was prayer, Scripture, living in God’s presence, and more prayer and more prayer and more prayer.
“I know that I walk humbly with Jesus, that the Spirit has my back and God holds me in love,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “That prepares me for the hard work of disappointing people and losing people from the congregation.”
She was asked to grow the church and found it a temptation to use “smooth talk,” but God prepared her to “do the hard thing, risking losing people I care about and making them angry.”
“I hate it!” she said. “I don’t want to do it!”
No one wants to do it, she said, but no one thinks that the world is as God would have it be. Things need to change and conflict will be required, but the good news is that conflict can make things more gentle so that the world stands with God.
“God will give us the grace to persevere, to stand on the side of justice, to find peace from truth-telling and sacrificial love,” she said. “God will grant us a reality better than the way we have always done it.”
“If we are willing,” she said. “If we are willing.”
The Rev. Susan McKee presided. Jim Babcock read the Scripture. Jim is the husband of Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education. His great-grandfather and grandfather accompanied former President Ulysses S. Grant on his visit to Chautauqua in 1876, and Jim stands proudly at attention when the Marine Corp Hymn is played at the Fourth of July concert. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Motet Choir in singing “If Ye Love Me,” by Philip Webley. The Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy and the Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund provide support for this week’s services.