13 Pentecost Proper 15: Jr 23:23-29; Ps 82; Hb 11:29-12:2; Lk 12:49-56
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, August 14, 2016
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Last year Dan Price, CEO and founder of Seattle’s Gravity Payments, a credit card processing company came under fire for his decision to set a minimum salary of $70,000 for his 120 employees. He chose this amount because emotional well-being is affected by financial stress and research showed that $70,000 makes an enormous difference in that well-being. He also credits the decision, in part, to his religious up-bringing. At the same time he made this announcement, he cut his own multi-million dollar paycheck to $70,000 saying that when everyone had reached the minimum, he expected to increase his salary as well as those who deserved to make more. The backlash and divisiveness where much greater than he expected. Some employees quit for a variety of reasons”from not feeling as if they were worth that much to being frustrated that less skilled workers were also receiving pay raises.
Gravity lost business for a variety of reasons from concerns that employees would make too much money and not want to work to accusations that Dan was at best a socialist and at worst a communist. Dan has been accused by others of pulling a publicity stunt or exercising political aspirations. Even his brother has taken him to court and sued him.
Dan and his ideas about income inequality have caused lots of division. I am struck by the type of divisiveness that Dan’s idea caused and the belief that Dan’s actions would negatively impact other’s around him regardless if they worked for him or did business with him. Dan acted from a place of grace, yet he did not usher in a new age of peace and unity. Instead he brought discord and division.
Jesus tells us that he did not come to bring peace to the earth, but instead division. He then goes on to describe a divided household. Its not a feel-good Gospel to say the least. Instead, the Gospel reading this morning feels frantic and angry. I like the Jesus that comforts us and promises us peace not the hammer-Jesus that breaks a rock in pieces like Jeremiah describes. But I recognize that to even begin to glimpse the fullness of God, I must expand my own preconceived ideas and beliefs surrounding his incarnation.
I want the divine presence on earth to be something that would magnetize one”drawing a person to Jesus because you would feel comfort and security in his presence. But this is not the story of the Scriptures. Sure some people drop everything and go, follow Jesus. But plenty of other people see Jesus’s actions of healing on the Sabbath or eating with tax collectors and prostitutes as rebellious and unlawful, spreading divisive words amongst the people concerning him. Sure, it sounds good to save the weak and the poor, defend the humble and needy, but those actions become a threat to the status quo and end up causing division not unity. As humans, we like the status quo, it gives us a sense of security, false as it may be. But Jesus is always challenging the status quo and thus those who benefit from it”mainly the well off and the powerful. Of course, Jesus is going to be divisive.
Luke’s Gospel, more than any of the others, is tuned in to the needs of the poor and marginalized. His understanding of Jesus is well surmised in Mary’s song to Elizabeth. Before he is even born, Mary describes Jesus as one who will cast down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, he will fill the hungry and send the rich away empty. Basically, Jesus will disturb the status quo and Luke is consistent in reminding us that this is foundational to the ministry of Jesus.
But I think that there is something more than just being rebellious or disruptive going on here in the Divine made incarnate. I think there is more to this cause of division than simply challenging the status quo. I think Jesus is trying to tell us that the consequences of grace are often played out through division. Think about the parable of the Prodigal Son. The father’s actions of grace, though they afford the younger son some sense of peace and re-unification, bring division to the relationship between the older son and his father and will, most likely, cause division between the brothers.
Or consider the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. They all get paid the same”the first crack at fixing income inequality”regardless of whether they worked all day or one hour, resulting in worker disputes and divisiveness. The actions of the father, the actions of the landowner are not met with universal approval, instead the act of grace each participates in is met not with peace but division and disgruntlement.
I’m not sure why the experience of grace can further the divisions we hold onto in this world. But, I’ve seen that happen time and again throughout my life. I saw it in Selma in the racial injustice and inequality that continues to plague that city and our nation. I saw it in our conversations over same sex marriage in this church, our diocese, even at General Convention. I see it in political systems that would defend or deny the value of others in support of their own agenda or at least to win their party seat. The amazing thing about this pattern of grace and division is not that once we have worked through our divisions”be it racism, same sex marriage or the next President of the United States”will we experience grace. No, we do the hard work of struggling through our divisions because we have experienced grace. It is in the experience of Christ’s presence, the teaching, preaching, and hearing of the Good News that brings us to a place of commitment and discipleship. To begin to know Jesus fully, to follow him and his teachings is to embrace a life of division. It is to make decisions and act in ways that will not be popular in this world because they will challenge the status quo.
I’m not sure that Dan Price meant to cause the backlash and division he did last year. I’m not sure he even meant to challenge the status quo. I think he was acting in an intentional and thoughtful manner that would be the best for his business over the long term. But it was an action grounded in the beliefs and teachings he had been exposed to as a Christian growing up in a Christian household and attending a Christian college. Who knows whether or not he will succeed. In a recent interview he admitted it had been a tough year. He has significantly reduced his lifestyle and had to work through broken relationships. But he has seen some success. His accounts have grown and his employees are happier. Grace gives us the courage and faith to do the hard work God calls us to do in this world. And I think it is this hard work that Jesus is alluding too when he tells us he is not bringing peace but division because he brings us grace.
Jesus is not soft on his followers. He is demanding and direct. But we can handle it because we have experienced grace and that grace has strengthened us for the divisions that lie ahead.