Disagreement, Dissension, Division


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church, Middletown

August 18, 2019

Texts: Jeremiah 23:16-29; Luke 12:49-56

       Several years ago the New York Times carried a story about two brothers who were famously on opposite sides of the immigration debate. At that time one brother Steven Lonergan was mayor of Bogota, a small town in Bergen County with less than 9,000 inhabitants, and the other brother Bryan was an outspoken immigration advocate.

        The story focused on how the two brothers do not talk to each other except at their mother’s house on Thanksgiving and then they exchange only small pleasantries. They hold their views with such vehemence that other than Thanks-giving with momma, they do not speak. Needless to say, their mother is distraught over the anger they have not to mention the total lack of communication between the parties.

         Although we like Luke addresses may think of dissen-sion between generations, it is no less a division when dis-agreements lead to dissension between people within the same generation. And sometimes, it is even more painful because in our frame of thinking, it makes no sense. How-ever, if we look at millennials we see enormous dissension within that generation. Look at the battle between the picketers on any important social issue.

         Will Rogers used to say that he didn’t belong to an organized political party because he was a Democrat. The same can be said about the two denominational strands that make up our church. Baptists and Congregationalists have always been independent thinkers; that’s our charm, for lack of a better word. But it means that we are usually fussing about something. Disagreements shouldn’t necessarily lead to dissension and division as they often do. In fact, I think that disagreements can be fundamentally healthy for they chal-lenge us to reflect about who we are, our place in the uni-verse, and all that kind of stuff. How boring to be in a room––or a church––where everyone agrees with you!

        This morning’s reading from Jeremiah warns us about those false prophets who claim to speak in God’s name–– they are the ones who claim a corner on the truth, that God is in their pocket, that they and they alone hold the keys to the kingdom. Yes, yes, we say, and nod our heads; no one person or theology holds the keys to the kingdom. The Gospel reading is more disturbing because how can we re-concile the Jesus of this morning’s reading with our ideas of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. Doesn’t peace mean an end to disagreement, a resolution of dissension, and unity out of division?  

         Most of us have been taught that we must, in the old Yiddish expression, “make nice,” that we should be polite and not cause trouble. Maybe if this world were nice, one could argue that. But this world is not peaceful; it is full of war and division with horrors that are beyond our imagination. How is it possible to envision the Cambodian killing fields or a rebel group in Sierra Leone that amputated the arms of children as part of a political campaign? What kind of mind looks at truck bombs in the middle of busy markets killing scores of inno-cent people as a way to express anger at an occupying force?  

        Our world is scarred by these horrors and by many more, including systemic poverty and destruction of the environment. By using the imagery of division and dissension within the family, that unit most sacred to most of us, Jesus is saying that redemption can only come if those destructive and death filled systems are shattered and consumed by fire. Life cannot emerge or re-emerge without confrontation. Jesus has not come to shatter a nice world but to shatter the systems that destroy life.

        How do we reconcile this with the Prince of Peace we often sing about, especially at Christmas? We much prefer the images of the babe in the manger with beatific images of Mary and Joseph, shepherds and angels, and the rest of it. But if we look at Jesus from only that perspective, we are not being faithful to the Gospel he preached. Okay, we say, but what about turn the other cheek, give a person the coat as well as the cloak, and the rest?

         Confronting evil does not necessarily mean doing violence although often those who do evil will respond with violence; the violence they do is little more than an extension of the violence they practice every day. What was the differ-ence between the violence experienced by African Americans on a regular basis in the Old South and the violence done to the courageous people who sat at lunch counters in their nonviolent attempt to break down the old systemic violence?  

        Jesus is telling us what will happen when we confront the systemic violence of poverty and prejudice in our society. Deep disagreements will occur and they will lead to dissen-sion and division, to be sure. When those old Baptists chafed under the theological intolerance of the Puritan Congreg-ationalists and disagreed, there was dissension; and there was division. That’s how this part of New Jersey got settled. 

        The freedom to disagree was built into the very first charter of the unified colony of New Jersey. And, God knows, that within Old First, from the very beginning, there were disagreements. Some were theological, others political. Abel Morgan led his patriots while other Baptists supported the Crown during the War for Independence. And the disagree-ments didn’t end with the Peace of Paris. They continued into the Civil War, World Wars I and II, into the civil rights era, and beyond with arguments about what this body of Christ and other bodies of Christ needed to do to respond to the AIDS crisis. And disagreements continue down to this very day ranging from immigration policy to how to landscape the property. 

        Tackling the hard issues that face us requires discern-ment, the process of deciding where we take our stands and how. The stark words in this morning’s Gospel do not tell us to create conflict for conflict’s sake. Confrontation and conflict are often necessary to bring change because those in power, those who hold the cards will not give up their power or wealth or influence without a fight. 

         Look at the way in which certain groups in power have used certain kinds of laws to restrict voting rights. It took a Constitutional Amendment to eliminate the poll tax. Then the Yahoos of certain states used a so-called “literacy test” to determine whether people were able to have enough under-standing to be able to vote. Laughable but sad when county registrars were asking questions that they could barely read themselves. Those in power don’t give it up easily.

        Confronting power creates conflict. Jesus knew that. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer as he sat in his prison cell in 1944. He saw it in terms of fragments leading toward wholeness, of the breaking apart of the world because of a totally inhuman and inhumane war. “This very fragmentariness may point to a ful-fillment beyond the limits of human achievement.” He con-tinued in his letter: “The important thing today is that we should be able to discern from the fragment of our life how the whole was arranged and planned.” For as Paul wrote, we see in a glass darkly. 

        Confronting injustice creates conflict and leads to dissension and division; it is more than honest disagreement between people of good will, although there is that as well. The history of our faith and of our church has full of such conflict resulting from the disagreements we have had with each other. The question for us today is how we will proceed in the future as we disagree on questions and issues pro-found or ridiculous. The question is how we discern between the two in order to live the Gospel Jesus preached and died for. 

         Let us pray: Eternal God of our ancestors, give us wisdom and discernment; give us the grace to listen to others, to learn from our mistakes, and to live your Gospel in this world. Amen.