10th Sunday After Pentecost
10th SA Pentecost 10.22 “Division” Luke 12:49-53
Is Jesus a uniter or a divider? Yes! You know I always like to answer either/or questions with a “Yes!” I like it because conventional wisdom says that’s a wrong answer, but—with some either/or questions—it’s the only right answer. Paradox, as Luther wisely sees, is the shortest (though steepest) path to Truth.
But, this Sunday, you might want to argue with me about saying “Yes!” to the question whether Jesus is a uniter or divider. Because he says (quite plainly in our Gospel today!) that he came to cast fire on the earth, not to bring peace but rather division—even splitting the nuclear family (a big ethical no-no, among conservative moralists). And I’m not saying he’s not a divider. I’m just saying that the sort of division Jesus brings unleashes (like splitting the atom) a tremendous energy that acts as a strongly unifying field.
Some lesser examples of division that creates unity may help us see the point…
There was an ad I saw years ago for my distant British cousin’s little car company Aston Martin (OK. I have no evidence, besides his name, that Lionel Martin is any blood relation of mine. But then again, I have no evidence that he isn’t. I claim all the fun Martins as kin, as a general principle. When cousin Lionel lost his driver’s license in 1909 for reckless driving, and could no longer drive legally, he was forced to drive illegally for a couple years. And while the first 1915 Aston Martin was glorious, the company—founded on funds borrowed from family—quickly went bankrupt and he died in a bicycle crash at age 67, so he sounds like my kind of Martin 😉
Anyway, it’s a one page photo ad from the late 80’s. The sun has just set, and against a dark, purple sky you see a tiny little garage detached from a modest but tastefully updated 1920’s bungalow in the Hollywood Hills, I’m guessing. A single incandescent light casts a faint glow so you can just see the front of what looks like a mid 70’s Aston Martin Vantage (recognized only by the sharp-eyed from its distinctive silhouette). The minimal text reads: “Do you know the feeling of belonging that comes from owning a Saturn? Neither do we.” And below, “Aston Martin®”.
A simple but effective advertisement that well illustrates my point. Driving a vintage Aston Martin (like a certain fictional British Secret Service agent, sadly, now deceased, did 😉 divides you (spiritually?) from the mass of humanity. Old Astons are difficult and often temperamental machines that demand a lot of the driver, having an appeal that is difficult to explain to the uninitiated. But they also create an odd sort of brotherhood among those who do see the appeal. Division that creates unity; one example…
While we’re talking cars, another example of unity in division is R Gruppe, once described as “an exclusive, polarizing, quasi-underground, semi-famous car club founded in 1999 by 12 guys in SoCal who owned and modded pre-1974 911s to look funky, be sneaky quick for street racing, and generally to annoy their neighbors and Porsche purists”. Lionel Martin’s true, if distant, cousins… 😉
If you were lucky enough as a young man to have had a friend who’d inherited her dead uncle’s ’72 911 (and was foolish enough to let you drive it) you’ll know an early 911 is just a fairly super VW Super Beetle, with a maddeningly vague long-throw gearbox, floor hinged pedals brutal to heel/toe. Go into a corner a little hot, back out of the throttle abruptly, and, you’ll exit the road backwards, quickly. But those old 911’s are cool (and have become ridiculously expensive—precisely because they’re difficult to master dangerous fun—and those with a taste for that are divided from the normal, sensible drivers who prize safety and utility, but are united thereby with their crazy, distant, British, fool cousins.
Hemingway, another of that ilk, famously wrote: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” He was part of another (R-rated) group “The Lost Generation” divided by the horrors of war and a love of art from the sensible masses, yet united deeply with other misfits who seek difficult to master dangerous fun.
Donna Tartt well describes the lure of this divisive unity in her novel “The Goldfinch”:
“What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted—? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight towards a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster? Is Kitsey right? If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement, the New York Times™ and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or—like Boris—is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”
This is the fire Jesus came to cast, the spell he casts by word and sacrament on the initiated few (maybe even on you?) here and now. This fire will burn, burn, burn like a fabulous Roman candle exploding across the sky, and in the center you see the blue center-light pop and everyone goes “Ah”. But not everyone dives in with Boris, head first and laughing. Because the fire burns like hell, at first, and divides you from family and friends and all the blandly-held common virtues. It will make you a misfit and weirdo to the world. It comes at a price.
But, as Donna Tartt goes on to say, it reveals “A grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out. A self one does not want. A heart one cannot help.”
The world cannot understand such difficult to master dangerous fun. But it admires it, from a distance, sometimes. It’s why old Astons, 911s, Paris, and such like are ridiculously expensive these days. But, as Lewis says: the beauty was not in those things; it only came through them for those with eyes to see and hearts to burn.
If we’re talking numbers, the appeal of Jesus’ little Xn Club has always been small, like the admit rate of one of those high-tone, old colleges that maybe offered a portal into the fire a longtime ago but now have been ruined, I’d say, by poseurs—just like old Astons and early 911s and Paris maybe have been…
Only 7,000 (out of a million or so) were club members in Elijah’s day. But, unlike those other clubs mentioned, it is not an admissions committee or high prices snobbishly keeping aspirants out. It’s only the demanding and difficult nature of the dangerous fun that makes the masses shy away.
It’s the dying thing, to be blunt. Jesus says: if you want into his own R Gruppe, it means diving head first and laughing into the holy rage, the fire calling your name. It’ll be death for you before it’s life….
But the glory of it all! Let it not be lost on you. The difficult to master dangerous fun is all on offer now, for you, by Christ’s word and sacrament. Divided from the commonplace, we’re united with Christ, rather… gloriously. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.