Unveiling Community, Pastor Fred Kinsey
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled,” said Jesus! "From now on five in one household will be divided… father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law.”
Strong language from Jesus! Grating to our ears, even! We are much more likely to respond and subscribe to Jesus’ words of, “love your neighbor,” and “Peace be with you,” than to this description of “divisions,” being created among us.
One tool that’s helped me in understanding it better is to understand that this reading is in the genre of apocalyptic language, like in the book of Revelation. Apocalyptic is about the travail of changing times, announcing the end of an era, and the imminent birth of a new one. And how the birth pangs will entail divisions in family and society. Apocalyptic is by nature metaphorical and allegorical. But, instead of my explaining it to you, let me tell you a story about family.
The family is a family that by all appearances was happy and well adjusted. They got along, taking vacations together and celebrating every holiday at each other’s homes. They loved these regular reunions, and greeted each other with hugs and kisses, with love and affection. The mom and dad had four kids, and eight grand-children, and 3 great-grandchildren. When the father died suddenly of a heart attack, however, something happened. With grace, charm and craftiness, he had held together the family relationships that were strained and difficult. No one had really noticed how he had worked behind the scenes in his quiet but strong way. But now that he was gone, things began to unravel in surprising ways.
It turned out that, mother and the daughter-in-law, Sandra, were so similar it was scary. They agreed on most everything, whether it was meal planning and recipes right down to how to make pancakes from scratch, or who should host the next holiday gathering. Most of all they agreed the family was happy and everything should remain the same. Together they were a mighty force. It was if they were the same person! But consequently, the dynamics between mother and her oldest daughter, Tammy, suffered. She was left out as never before, and it created a division between mother and daughter. They fought at the Christmas dinner for the first time since Tammy was a teen-ager, and after that, she stopped coming to the family gatherings all together.
When her sister, Ruth, abruptly dropped out of the family gatherings too, Tammy, called her up to talk. Tammy started out by telling Ruth she should continue to go to the family gatherings, that she shouldn’t let this rift between her and their mom hold Ruth back from being part of the family. But that’s when it came out! Ruth had felt ostracized for some time already. It turned out that Ruth had been sexually abused by an uncle back in high school, and when Ruth had told her mother about what her brother did, the mother didn’t believe her, and Ruth had kept that secret all these years.
But in that encounter between sisters, sharing their ostracism, which couldn’t be acknowledged within the happy family proper, they became sisters in a new way, at a deeper more profound level of trust and understanding. They were tied together, not just as blood relatives, but as friends who had been through an ordeal, and had come out safely on the other side. They had revealed their scars to each other, tattoos of suffering, that made them more vulnerable and authentic to one another.
Last week, when the North Park group I was with arrived in the evening of the rural and remote UP, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, for the course called “Zombie Apocalypse,” the stars were shining brightly. You could even see the Milky Way. It was the height of the Perseus meteor shower, and we were easily able to see them streak across the sky, coming in one’s and two’s every few minutes or so, directly over-head. It was an awesome and eerie spectacle! And you can see why shooting stars are one of the signs of the coming Apocalypse in the gospels, along with earthquakes, and wars, and rumors of war.
The literal meaning of Apocalypse is, “to pull back the curtain,” an unveiling, or revealing before the end-times. Apocalyptic literature always arises out of times of crises, and it unveils both the beast of oppression, as well as the source of life that will bring us through the ordeal. It points us to a deeper truth, and strengthens the foundation of life-giving community, here and now.
The book of Revelation was written at the height of Rome’s persecution of Christians, and the vision of redemption is a renewal of the society they lived in. Not an escape, but the New Jerusalem would come down to earth, and the new age, divinely ordained, would soon come.
The apocalyptic signs – division in families, wars, racial discrimination, etc. – are the ‘push-back’ of the powers that are offended by this unveiling and threatened by the kingdom and realm of God, ushered in. But by the revelation, the unveiling of our scars and abuse, our hidden power plays we perpetrate on each other, unjust society is ‘outed’ for all to see. The façade of smoothly running families and institutions, either covers up these wounds, or is complicit in veiling greater injustice on the scapegoated victims of society – or both! Divisions arise, or come to light, as never before.
“Jesus 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. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, 'There will be scorching heat'; and it happens. 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?”
If Jesus came to give us a new understanding of family and society, then we must learn to read the signs of the times. We must stop the hypocrisy of the insider-outsider games we play and look around us at the whole human family that surrounds us. How do we read the signs of our times? How do we read our current politics and economics? Do they help us to reach out to the oppressed and suffering? Or do they help us to ignore those who suffer…? to write them off as outsiders and monsters who must somehow deserve their fate? Are we striving after a false peace at the expense of those we have exploited and demonized?
Jesus, who referred to himself as a prophet, one that would be rejected and killed in Jerusalem – in a long line of martyred prophets – also brings the promise of the kingdom of God, a new community, that will be based not just on blood relatives, but on the New Jerusalem, coming down to us. He enacted it in Palestine in his open table-fellowship meals, as he toured around from town to town, ‘eating even with tax-collectors and sinners,’ and anyone who shared his agenda of loving your enemy, and, your neighbor as yourself. It was a clear and resonant metaphor of the Messianic banquet, which we continue to celebrate here in this gathering every week, in solidarity with many other communities, and which we enact in so many other ways out in the world the rest of the week.
Jesus, our brother, offers us the formation of a new family and society. These are the ones who see and understand the apocalyptic revealing of this ‘never ending circle of violence’ we do to one another, and we refuse to participate any longer. But far from dropping out of society, Jesus invites us all to the Messianic banquet of holy communion, integrating and transforming religion and blood-family ties, where all are welcome to live in the new eon, the realm of God already gifted to us.
Like a shooting star burning through the sky, ‘Apocalypse’ reveals both beauty and dangerous vulnerability. But the signs of the times are clear. The world, a new and just, a peaceful and safe, realm, is here being made anew.