A sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 15C/Lectionary 20C]
When Jesus is born, still a baby in Bethlehem, lying in the manger, the first thing said about him comes on the tongues of angels around the shepherds quaking in out in the fields. It’s nowhere near Christmas right now, but I bet most of us could say those words by heart: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” From the very beginning of Jesus’ life, there is this expectation that peace is coming to earth.
Then, when Jesus is a grown adult he demonstrates the peace of God’s kingdom by casting out demons and restoring people who have been marred by disease and social stigma. At one point he looks at his assembled group of followers and sends them out into the villages and towns to announce the good news of the kingdom of God on his behalf. He tells them to carry nothing but a word of peace. They are to enter each house that receives them and say, “Peace be with you.” All indications, you see, are that Jesus’ presence and Jesus’ message are all about peace. I’ve seen a bumper-sticker before that probably boils it all down a little too much, but it said, “No Jesus, No Peace; Know Jesus, Know Peace.”
So it’s understandable if we’re a little confused this morning when Jesus himself says he’s not here to bring peace. “No, I tell you,” he says, “I came to bring division!” Of course, we’re probably thinking we have enough of that, Jesus. We have plenty of division already! Why are you bringing more? Look at our government systems! We have just two political parties but it’s almost impossible for them to work together. Look at our culture! Far-right and far-left activists facing off in Oregon this weekend. The immigration debate rages on, even bringing churches and denominations into the fray. Last weekend our own denomination declared itself a “sanctuary church body” and church leaders I know have been arguing all week about what that actually means. Division. And right here in Virginia we’re divided over things like racism and white supremacy and gun violence and what we’re going to name our public schools, just to name a few. They pit neighbor against neighbor and school board against school system. We’re a mess, Jesus. I don’t know what you’re talking about but I don’t think we could use any more division. Could we interest you in maybe leading us in round of “Kum-Bah-Yah”?
My guess is that this is one of those Bible stories which reveals a side of Jesus we’re not accustomed to. This story never gets chosen for one of the days of Vacation Bible School. He seems very irritated, fired up. In fact, he even talks about coming to bring fire to the earth. It’s Jesus with a flame-thrower, Jesus with a blow-torch. It’s not firefighter Jesus, here to save, but fire-starter Jesus, here to burn. In fact, when the gospel-writer Matthew tells this same story, the word “division” is replaced by “sword” and we get this startling image of Jesus with >shing< a weapon!
I was just reading this week a gripping article written about a reformed ISIS fighter and how he is trying to re-integrate himself back into society in his native Kosovo now that the Islamic State is defeated. The journalist who wrote the story had the rare opportunity to sit down with this young gentleman over a period of several months. What emerged from these interviews is the story of a man living in abject poverty in a destitute, war-torn country, few options for a future, who at a very young and impressionable age became receptive to the teachings of fiery Muslim preachers, mostly on-line, who were convinced that they could bring about the caliphate. The caliphate is an Islamic political and religious entity (kind of like the Vatican City) that some followers of Islam desire to be established somewhere in the world. At one time these factions were rather successful at recruiting disenchanted Muslims, mostly young men, from all over the world to go to Syria to fight and essentially establish a kingdom.
As we know now, it didn’t go so well, but for a while ISIS fighters were greatly feared and the enthusiasm with which they got people to fight with them was impressive. They could convince them that a better reality was coming about, and all they needed to do was take up arms and make it happen. In the article I read, the gentleman reveals how his decision to go to Syria and fight cut him off from his family and friends back in Kosovo. The fellow fighters become his new community, his new family, and they even refer to each other as “brothers.”
Jesus almost sounds like one of these ISIS recruiters here, to be honest, drumming up a revolution. He is urging his followers to realize that the kingdom he has come to establish is not just something of the distant future, not just something we experience in heaven. God wants it to be established now, in the present, in the lives of people like you and me. He wants this vision of God’s justice to catch on, like a fire, and spread everywhere it goes, burning off anything that stands in its way. So often we tend to think of fires as destructive, but they are also creative. Fires burn off ore to leave a pure gemstone. Brushfires burn off old dead undergrowth to allow new life to spring forth.
But no matter the fire or its intensity, no matter the urgency with which Jesus speaks, Jesus never gets people fired up to take others’ lives. Jesus never ignites people to violence. That is a distinguishing factor of his kingdom. The fire Jesus comes to bring is one of love, one of intense self-giving, not hatred. In fact, he says he has a baptism with which he will be baptized, and what stress he is under until it is completed. When we hear Jesus talk about God’s reign of justice and mercy and lovingkindness, we must remember that he is on his way to Jerusalem where he will die on the cross. When we hear Jesus talk of suffering, of dying, we must remember that Jesus first suffers himself. He leads the way, he himself submitting to that purifying fire of love for the sake of all of us. That’s at the heart of the division he comes to bring.
God’s merciful love in Jesus comes to divide us from anything that holds us back from living in God’s justice. God’s mighty forgiveness in Jesus comes to separate his followers from forces that take us away from him. It’s no accident that all of our baptismal liturgies begin with a series of renunciations. We stand by the font with the couple and their child and ask, “Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?”
“I renounce them.”
“Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?”
“Yes, I want to be divided from them. Even when they’re still within me.”
In Jesus’ day, family relationships dominated every other kind of loyalty and community bond there was. One resource I heard this week pointed out that these specific relationships he mentions this morning would have been primarily family relationships of duty rather than affection. For example, if you were a son, your duty to your father dictated much of your identity in society, much of your actions and direction in life, regardless how much that might have gone against your own well-being or your own values. The kingdom that Jesus brings challenges those bonds and in some cases will cause a rift.
Early on in the history of Christian faith many women followers of Christ disrupted their family’s intentions for them by refusing to become a bride, a token, in negotiations for marriage. Responding to Jesus’ message for them meant a kind of dignity in society where they were viewed not simply by how big their dowry was or whether they could bear children. They were regarded as full individuals with gifts that could be put to use in Christ’s service even if they didn’t have or desire a family.
When we hear the call to follow, we realize there are relationships in our lives that may need to be re-examined. When we are inspired by God’s ways in Jesus, we come to understand there are priorities we have set that will need to be rearranged. When we respond to Jesus amazing grace, we own up to the fact that there are other allegiances we have pledged which need to be recast in the light of the cross. And the thing about peace? We realize we so often confuse real peace—the peace Jesus intends to bring—with just maintaining the status quo, keeping things peaceable.
We may be a bit taken aback by a fired up Jesus who comes to bring division, but, in fact, it is terribly good news that Jesus comes to divide us from the things that hinder the full arrival of his kingdom. If, for example, I could be divided from my gut instinct to consider every moral or legal matter through a political party’s platform I would be a much freer person for the sake of the gospel. If I could be released from worrying how a certain decision of faith might be received among my peers I would live a more abundant life for God. If I could be separated from wondering how every opportunity to give and serve might affect my “bottom line” I would be a much more generous and richer person. There is a baptism with which we have been baptized. It has claimed every part of our lives for the kingdom which never ends. Thank God for the people who have gone before us who have staked their claim for that kingdom, whose decisions of faith may not have been popular but that revealed in time the grace of God.
As many of you know, I was close to my grandmother who died about four weeks ago. One of the brightest starts in my “cloud of witnesses,” we called her Mimi, and Mimi loved nothing more than to be with her family. I imagine like many of your grandmothers our Mimi prioritized family time over just about everything else. All of my grandparents were that way. I’ve been so blessed. We grew up attending worship every Sunday with Mimi and my grandfather, celebrating holidays together, and she and my grandfather made many sacrifices to take the whole family on trips together just so we could spend time together, strengthen our bonds.
So you can imagine my shock when we were visiting last December when she told us in blunt terms that she had thrown our Christmas card in the trash can immediately after she got it. It would be my second-to-last conversation with her. “I can’t believe,” she said, “that you put your family photo on your Christmas card. Christmas is for sending greetings of Jesus, not about you.”
“Well, Mimi,” I responded in defense, “we like people sending us Christmas cards with their family photo on them because then we cut them out and post them on our fridge to look at all year long.”
She shook her head, unconvinced, and quite honestly, rather fired up. “Then tell them to send you a photo separately. When you put your own photo on a Christmas card, you elevate yourself above Christ. And that’s wrong.”
I gave up with my arguing because, at 94, she was not going to be persuaded. And perhaps she didn’t need to be. This was a matter of division to her—grandmother against grandson. Division—righteous, good division that rearranged priorities, and who was I to argue with someone who had so purely and genuinely formed not only my faith but also my devotion to family?
It remains to be seen what Melinda and I will put on our Christmas card this year. Sadly, she won’t receive one, but you can believe I will stop and think twice about what it looks like and what I’m proclaiming. It might even have to say, “Glory to God in the highest, and PEACE to God’s people on earth.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.