St. Paul’s Congregational Church, UCC
June 21, 2020, Proper 7A
Psalm 86; Matthew 10: 34 – 39
The overriding question in both of our scripture passages today is, “How do we work together with God for the coming of shalom?” The reality is, though, that often our choices block rather than empower the coming of God’s realm – what we say we want is not always what we do, is it. For lots of reasons. But the good news is this: God doesn’t give up on us and God can work through even our messes, to transform a situation if we are open to God’s presence. Our scriptures deal with times of adversity and the assurance that God is with us. And don’t we need to hear that today!
We are in a mess, aren’t we. The pandemic is no where near over – and that includes the COVID pandemic where cases are spiking again in many states, and the pandemic of racism, of violence which is far from over as well. It’s a time of continued anxiety, anger, fear, frustration – we’re tired of it. But we’re evolving into a new normal – we can’t go back – and that’s hard, painful, exhausting.
I’ve been part of several webinars this week sponsored by our denomination and conference as well as by the Poor People’s Campaign – hoping to learn something and to help discern what I can do, how I can help, as we move into this new normal. And I’ve never been more aware of not knowing what I don’t know! I confess, I didn’t know about Black Wall Street in Tulsa, I didn’t know about the Tulsa massacre…..sure I knew about the Emancipation Proclamation but never about the events of Juneteenth. My understanding is growing and for that I’m grateful.
So yesterday as I watched the Poor People’s Campaign video, the virtual March on Washington, the words of our gospel lesson kept ringing in my ears, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” I’ve always had trouble with this passage…never could figure out how to preach it - but today I’m find it a more positive challenge: it’s a description of what it’s like to be a disciple when the difficulties of discipleship threaten to overwhelm us, when we’re called to faithful witness – when we’re called to speak out, to take action.
I’m learning that my faith, our faith, is not a call to passivity! It is a call to be bold and fearless in the service of the one who stood unflinching before the rulers of his time. We do live in a culture today that displays great anger and hostility, don’t we. But our faithful response to that must be a willingness to confront the forces of evil – but to do so in the manner of Christ, demonstrating love in all of our actions. In the words of one of yesterday’s speakers, love is not a say word. Love is a do word.
We live in a culture that seems to subsist on anger – we are fed a steady diet of violence from television, movies, video games, our music, and lately so much violence, not just on the streets, but even and especially with our words. Imagine the Jesus we love walking the roads of Palestine packing a sword. Imagine Jesus walking our streets today, listening to the bystanders, the politicians, to all of us, actually. The expression, what would Jesus do, takes on a whole new meaning for us as disciples, doesn’t it – if we stop and ask the question at all.
You know, it is tempting to throw out some statistics here – prisons are overcrowded, violent crime is up – but honestly, the issue is not hardened criminals or violent offenders – it’s you and me. Are any of us immune from the effects of the angry words and images all over the media? Think about the words, “road rage” and how they play out every day. How all of us can get caught up in today’s culture of violence, of devaluing others, of a “me first” agenda – we’re not immune from all this at all, are we.
We people of faith aren’t immune from this ….the notion of “jihad” is a religious concept. In Christian circles, we call it “just war” and in the 2,000 year history of the church, people of faith have regularly justified nationalistic conflicts on religious grounds. Remember a few years ago when a great controversy arose about the hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers” – there were denominations who left it out of new hymnals in production at that time – it’s not in the New Century hymnal published in 1995, nor is in the Presbyterian hymnal of 1990.
But, even if we remove the imagery from hymnals it does remain woven into the fabric of scripture: the hard commands to wage war in Hebrew scripture, the gospel accounts of Jesus driving money changers from the Temple with whips and images and metaphors of the armor of God, the breastplate of righteousness and the shield of faith. These texts are a part of our biblical tradition – and so is the gospel reading with which we grapple this morning and every day.
It’s likely a reflection of the realities of another time and place – yes. But what we see is a scripture arguing with itself, as people of faith are likely to do – peace or sword? Christians continue to argue: wage war or not; capital punishment or not; pacifism and non-resistance or not. It’s not that any opinion can be squared with scripture, but we do know that single texts in the Bible can and have been used on opposing sides of so many issues.
Maybe all this helps us to recognize that the problem of violence is not a problem imposed on people of faith by our culture. We people of faith shape culture as much as others, and maybe the lack of clarity around all this comes from the fact that we don’t have a clear sense of what our faith demands of us. We have convictions, yes, but are they beliefs that come from our faith or out of our cultural environment. When are we called to a stance that is truly radical, do we have sufficient conviction to live it out? What does it mean to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?
Jesus said he came not to bring peace, but a sword. What was he talking about? First, though, we must point out what he was not talking about – not a text supporting a war effort – it’s more to do with sparking divisions within families – families we grow up in and families we are part of: like our church families.
Some years ago, a pastor wrote a letter to a young woman who had been raised in a congregation which he had served as minister. She had recently graduated from seminary, was serving her first congregation, and was about to observe her first celebration of the Week of the Ministry. His was a letter filled with advice of questionable value – she would pretty much have to make her own mistakes and find her own calling and style.
One thing he did recall writing was his sentiment that the church seemed to have an unquenchable capacity to spawn petty little fights. Someone’s feelings always seem to be hurt in the church. There always seems to be someone on the verge of leaving. Still, when he looked back on his ministry, he reflected, that he had not been a part of too many fights in the church, but maybe too few fights . . . or maybe more accurately, fights that had been too small.
Maybe this scripture passage is meant to remind us that the church is not called to retreat from the world, nor is the church called to cower in the face of the hostility exhibited in our culture. The church, and we are the church – the church is commissioned to be bold. That boldness may mean that, from time to time, it is called to do battle – on behalf of those who are oppressed, hungry, sick, marginalized, or in prison. We are called to have such a thirst for justice that it is simply not an option to remain on the sidelines while the large issues of our day are decided. The sword of which Jesus speaks is a metaphor for the passion which we are called to hold for God’s ways. And we are called to speak in love – not just to say the word love but to do the word love.
We may have to answer someday for the things we have done in our lives which broke the peace, but we may also have to answer for the times we allow the peace to be preserved at the cost of justice.
There may be no greater challenge to us in our journey of discipleship – both as individuals and as church – than to stand up for justice for all people – it can be dangerous, it can be unsettling, it can be terrifying – but our passages today also assure us of the strength God gives in times of adversity to all peoples. They remind us of God’s promises to all people. Those promises and that strength are given to each of us, friends – let us take our places and do our part in creating the beloved community, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Amen!