Sermon for 3 Pentecost, 6/21/20: Dissension in the Ranks

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Ps. 86:1-10; Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39

 

“I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” Matt. 10:34b

 

In one of the authorized contemporary forms of our Eucharistic Liturgy, the Presider at Mass recites the following words:  Lord God of our Fathers; God of Abraham…and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ: Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.  Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.  (BCP p. 372)

These are the words [that] we hear at the most sacred and solemn moment in our liturgy when the Presider petitions God on our behalf to send the Holy Spirit to transform, for our comfort and strength, ordinary bread and ordinary wine to become the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  With them, we are reminded that though we come in peace and seek comfort at the altar, our existence as people of faith does not end at the altar.  These words of consecration expand, in my mind, and make perhaps more palatable the words spoken by Jesus as recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew.  Hear them again.  Jesus said: “I have come not to bring peace, but the sword.”  [As I read these words , they] leapt out at me as if in boldface because, on the surface, they appear to contradict or blemish the image of Jesus of Nazareth [that] we have stored away and call forth from time to time in our mind’s eye.

We must ask ourselves, however, the question: Whence comes this disconnect, if there be one, between the comforting title given Jesus as Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6) and the words [that] confront us today, June 2020, when we come seeking relief from a deadly virus, as well as [a] means to address centuries of systemic racism?  Where is our Savior, our Prince of Peace?  Why do we hear that he comes not to bring peace, but rather the sword?  Did not the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 2:4) say that we shall turn our swords into ploughshares, into life-giving instruments?

Because I belong to that group identified as “the clergy,” I acknowledge that at some time or other we clergy have fallen prey to the temptation to paint for God’s people an artist’s halo around the face of Jesus of Nazareth.  That halo is a sign [that signifies that our Prince of Peace is the Messiah, the Sent One of God, just as the clerical collar identifies us as servants of peace].  Biblical record verifies our assumption.  The problem, of course, is that that halo implies a docile, conflict-avoiding Messiah, seated in resplendent robes and with hand raised in blessing, incapable of speaking a harsh word or hurting a sparrow.

Consider for a moment what we know from Biblical evidence.  [Through innumerable pronouncements of the ancient prophets who attempted to corral errant Biblical Hebrews and redirect their attention and allegiance to God; a statement of the 12-year old Jesus who found himself disputing with the learned men at the Temple while his parent returned home (Lk. 2:41f.); his rejection of offers by the devil after 40 days of fasting in the wilderness (Lk. 4:1f.); his final words from the cross (“It is finished.” John 18:30), Jesus makes clear what his goal, his mission as the Messiah, is: To bring God’s reign of Peace to the world, a reign that would challenge the status quo.  As God’s Messiah, he does not once deviate from that mission.  The question is: have we, clergy and laity alike, perhaps hijacked or rerouted his mission in order to satisfy our own aims?  Have we, for sake of our own ease, refused to allow Jesus to grow beyond his innocent, vulnerable infant state in Bethlehem’s manger, reinforced by the artist’s halo?

Jesus said: “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.”  These words [that] grabbed my attention must be understood in context.  First, they were not spoken in anger or to arouse fear.  In the jargon of our day, I suggest that Jesus wanted for his disciples to have heard and understood clearly “the fine print” of their commitment to his mission.  His mission is to establish God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven.

I call to remembrance that portion of Matthew’s gospel read last Sunday, which immediately precedes today’s reading.  Jesus had gathered the twelve who would become his disciples and who ultimately would be called friends.  Should those disciples, whom we met by name, choose to make common cause with him, they needed to be prepared for the turbulence, hostility, rejection and possible eventual threat to their physical person.  They needed to know what lay ahead.  They needed to know that the truth [that] he would proclaim to the people would cause disruptions in the closest of human units, the family.

For millennia, probably ingrained in our DNA, i.e., in our psychological makeup, the family is the one unit to which we turn in thought, even when we may be physically removed, geographically remote.  There should be “no space between members of the family,” to paraphrase a colloquialism [that] we use in German.  And how often are we reminded of this expectation in familial relationships when we hear the words of Christ, “as my father and I are one”?  And although we tend to think of a house or [apartment] as home, in fact, if pushed, if given serious thought, we acknowledge [that] home is where the family is, wherever and whoever that family may be.  Regrettably, children of our homeless sisters and brothers lack a house and experience that absence greatly.  However, they are at home if they are with their principal caregiver.  And we have witnessed wrenching scenes on TV [that] have shown separation of children from their parent at detention or immigrant holding centers.

If dissension were to come to pass among those who shared our lineage, those whom we have known from birth and whom we expect always to receive us into the fold [regardless] of mistakes or misgiving, to offer us succor, to share in our joys and our tribulations, what then might we expect of those who share our common humanity but [do not share] a direct lineage?  Jesus, fully aware of the significance of his mission on earth from the foundation of the world, knew that rejection was possible, probably inevitable, given the history of God’s chosen people to reject the commands of the Divine Creator.  The words of the prophets attest to that reality.

That reality was placed vividly before me last week in an unsolicited call from an acquaintance.  In a voice laden with distress, my caller recounted details of family turmoil related to current events.  Family members have ceased talking to each other.  An ever-widening divide is preventing conversations between siblings, some members show no compassion, others will not acknowledge, let alone discuss, current systemic racism or privilege granted them by birth and ethnic background. All were raised together, attended the same Sunday School, and were taught to love their neighbors.  Yet some seem content in their favored position, bestowed on them by accident of birth, content to ignore those who can barely feed their children because of systemic racism.

Admittedly, computers, satellite telephone service, twitter—all omnipresent in our lives 2020—were not a part of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  However, he could and did anticipate familial estrangement [that] my acquaintance shared with me.  The gospel of God’s Messiah is a simple one, one which God intended at Creation when, as the recitation in the book of Genesis describes, the writer instructs that ‘male and female he created them, in his image.’  That space, now evidenced within one very real family, is emblematic of human relations and thus pertinent to our collective thinking as people of faith.

The words of Jesus, here recorded, are not often enough heard due to our triennial lectionary calendar, but also because they fall within the season of the year when many are on holiday.  This year, 2020, we are worshipping via live-stream and not in-person.  Some have compared this novel way of maintaining community to viewing a television show, as it lacks the personal presence to which we are accustomed.  To hear words of Scripture read via live-stream may make those holy words seem less relevant, turning them into words [that] we can turn off as we do a TV show [when] we find it no longer of interest or when it no longer fits our image of what is required of all people of faith.  Our bishop calls us to remember our Christian mission: to show our love to our neighbor, and to resist the temptation to politicize our mission, even as dissent seeps into the fabric of family units.  As follower of Christ we cannot lay aside the commission given us to continue to build the kingdom of God on earth, even in painful moments.

My role as a friend, as well as a priest, was not to pontificate or to pretend that I had answers to any or all the questions [that] came to me over satellite.  But I could offer the comforting words of Holy Writ [that] might further explain the prediction, “the fine print” of Jesus.  Paul the lawyer, a learned Pharisee, reminds us that we, the followers of the Risen Christ, have essentially no other option than to speak up for and to act on behalf of the less fortunate, the ignored, those on the sidelines.  We should not expect to win a popularity contest; in fact, just the opposite.

To secure our own economic wellbeing on the backs of others, or to make peace with injustice of any kind—but especially of racial injustice that threatens the very fabric of our nation—that is against the commandment of God.  That is sin on exhibition, SIN writ large.  And sin is not the individual items often cited by those in authority.  Rather, sin is the space, the gulf, between God the Creator and ourselves.  Through our baptism—so Paul reminded his fellows then and us now—we have accepted the fine print.  It is our obligation to reject sin.  As a lawyer, Paul makes the case that whatever separates us from the love of God—that is the sin for which Jesus died.  And our love of God is reflected in our relationship with one another.

That question is put squarely before us in the First Letter of John:

So we know and believe the love God has for us.  God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him…If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.  And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also. (I John 4: 16-21)

In his letter to the Romans, Paul sets Jesus Christ before us as sufficient hope for our daily lives:

When he died, he died to sin, once for all, and that he lives, he lives to God.  In the same way you must regard yourselves as dead to sin and alive to God, in union with Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11)

Paul’s letter to the Romans reignites in us hope and assures us that we are all of value by virtue of being made in the image of God.  Notwithstanding opposition—whether suffered at the hands of [family members] or of agents charged with protecting the interests and welfare of all, not of a select few—the aim of our Creator to bring us into a place of harmony and peace is not diminished or destroyed.  To believe and to act otherwise is to grant opponents of God’s kingdom of peace a power [that] is not ours to grant nor theirs to claim.  Our charge as people of faith has not been revoked by our Creator.  And hence it is that we come to the altar, in the words of someone dear to me but now deceased, to get things right with God and leave the altar refreshed in the knowledge that God remains in charge.

As we continue our own marches, perhaps in person with protesters or in solidarity of thoughts and resources, as well as in our prayers with those who continue their search for a vaccine and cure that will allow our fellow beings to march with us in unity, let us be guided by the Prince of Peace as expressed in the prayer of the hymn “God of grace and God of glory” (Hymnal 594):

Cure thy children’s warring madness, bend our pride to thy control;
Shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things and poor in soul,
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal,
est we miss thy kingdom’s goal.

Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore;
let the gift of thy salvation be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore,
serving thee whom we adore.

AMEN

 

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