Not Peace, But Division
My mother tells the story of when she was the leader of a women’s circle group from church that met at our home. At one point an older woman named Mayella joined the group. Mayella also had very poor eyesight. After the first meeting, Mayella was talking about the circle meeting with her daughter, who was also in the group.
“I can’t understand Mrs. Strommen and that one member of the group,” Mayella said.
“Why is that?” her daughter asked.
“Well, Mrs. Strommen kept asking questions of everyone except that one person. She never said anything. She just sat there. I just don’t know why Mrs. Strommen never tried to include her.”
Mayella’s daughter was confused because she couldn’t recall anyone being left out. So, she asked who this silent person was. So, Mayella described that she was right in front of the picture window in between Eunice and Elsie.
Suddenly the daughter realized there was a very good reason this woman was silent and never called upon to speak: she was a statue. A statue of a little boy that was resting on a table that put the statue’s head about eye level. The statue appeared to be a part of the group but just never spoke up.
Our Gospel lesson today is a powerful statement on the need to speak up, to bear witness with our words and our actions to the Kingdom of God. You know, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” from the Lord’s Prayer. Indeed, in Matthew, Jesus says, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” What was private at first must not remain so.
Now, failure to speak up may make us more agreeable and less controversial – kind of like the statue that says nothing and provokes no one. But that’s not why we’re on this earth! We’re here to make a difference in the world around us. And yet, when we view Christian faith as merely a private matter to be kept under the radar, well, it would be better if we were a statue. At least a statue has an excuse for not speaking!
Challenging words for today. Then these words from Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
Sounds like a political discussion at Thanksgiving, doesn’t it?
OK, but this is Father’s Day. What kind of message is this for Father’s Day?? I have come to set a man against his father? I have come not bring peace, but a sword?
What is going on in this text? Forget about taking on dad, what about the sword bit? Wasn’t Jesus a pacifist? The sword here is not a call to violence, but division. And division is not permission to be violent, but a call to separate, to show another way. But doing so can bring out the worst in others and even provoke violence in them. Just look at Jesus. The presence of light in the world can be quite disruptive to those who like to live in the dark.
Rick Brand, a preacher and writer, tells of his college fraternity days in the 60’s when there was one of his frat brothers who did not drink beer or alcohol, while his brothers regularly did to excess. Brand writes about him, “As far as I know, I never heard him make a big deal about it. He never tried to make any of the parties alcohol free. He never made fun of the drunken escapades of the brothers. He was willing to be the designated driver for anyone who asked him. But there was just something about this sober, non-drinking presence in the midst of those alcohol flowing parties that just bothered the brothers something fierce. They bullied him, teased him, tormented him, tried to put alcohol in his drinks and called him names. The presence of a sober person in the midst of their drinking caused hostility and conflict.”
Now, Brand is not saying, nor am I, that the kingdom of God doesn’t have alcohol. It’s just that his frat brother who didn’t drink was probably closer to the will of God than the ones who drank to excess – and he paid for it! Jesus says the kingdom of God comes to bring the blessings of God, but it always comes first with division, conflict, controversy.
But even so, aren’t we about unity, we Christians? Ultimately, yes. Penultimately, no. Let’s step back and observe one of the biggest plot points of the book of Matthew: namely, that God, in the person of Jesus, is pitching an alternative kingdom to the human race; an alternative to the kingdom – or kingdoms – that prevail in this world. And God’s kingdom is quite a bit different. So, to claim allegiance to the kingdom of God through Jesus Christ is to place one inevitably on a collision course with the kingdom of this world or nation that we’ll call the “empire,” a kingdom that sometimes is profoundly broken. This means faith is not merely a private affair where we receive our little “get into heaven free” card. It means faith compels you to bear public witness to a counter proposal of how things can be, and in the fullness of time, according to God’s promise, will be.
For instance, the ruling culture of America has long said that certain people are expendable – as a people, they don’t matter – or not very much, anyway. Just think of groups that have been marginalized, like immigrants at various times, homeless people, gay and lesbian folks. The courts struggle with the status of these people, too, as they decide what kind of kingdom do we live in? This week, two Supreme Court decisions suggested that LGBTQ folks are not as expendable as some employers might like, and that young immigrants who were born here maybe, just maybe, are worth nurturing, and including in our kingdom. But this creates divisions, doesn’t it?
And, speaking of division, we are all mindful at this time of Black Lives Matter, the celebration of Juneteenth, and coming to grips with a national legacy that has treated slaves and their descendants as expendable or of less worth. But it’s been so easy to be silent as a statue about such things. We may read that there are more black Americans in prison than in college and shrug our shoulders: “Not my problem.” Well, it is our problem if we align with the Kingdom of God, because we’re all in this together. We all contribute to making the world what it is today, just as we all contribute to what it could be.
In God’s kingdom, those considered expendable in one kingdom are worth dying for to the God who made them, and we are called to bear witness to that, to re-establish the God-given worth of a people or class of people. When that happens, power and resources get redistributed. And this is a threat to the empire. Say what you will about the current protests and global awareness of mistreatment of people of color, at the root of this is the insistence that the empire is preferential about whose lives matter, and that an alternative kingdom must be cultivated – where everyone matters and is treated fairly and given more chances to succeed. This has always been a central message of the prophets and Jesus. And now many people of different races are standing with those who have been neglected and they are bearing witness to an alternative kingdom where they matter. This is a profoundly theological moment, actually!
And when we take this kingdom of God stuff seriously, we may experience tensions with those closest to us. Maybe even dear old dad. But the message is clear: our allegiance to God and God’s kingdom transcends all allegiances in this life.
I have been extremely fortunate in my life to have had a dad who regularly bore witness to the alternative kingdom of God, where healing, restoration and forgiveness are valued, where expendable people are treated with dignity and worth. As a child in the 1960’s in then “lily white” Richfield, my dad invited a black family over to dinner. I remember thinking that this just wasn’t something that I ever saw in Richfield with my friends or their families. It was an alternative kingdom.
And dad and mom would invite neighbors over for dinner who were going through divorce or had suffered tragedy. Didn’t necessarily know them that well, but that’s what neighbors in the kingdom of God do! It redefines who your friends are.
I close with an excerpt from the classic story, Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. A moment of feeling divided and having to decide which worldview he honors. Huck is in a “tight place,” as the Twain puts it. He’s hiding a runaway slave named Jim, who is Huck’s friend. That seems like the right thing to do. But in the kingdom of his southern world at that time, there is a powerful social norm that hiding a runaway slave means you’re going to hell. As Twain tells it, “Under the burden of this weighty crisis, Huck pauses. Then he says to himself, ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell,’ and he tears up the letter to miss Watson.”
In the final verse of our Gospel lesson today, Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Huck was willing to lose his life to this world – go to hell, as it were – in order to find his life. This is what followers of Jesus do. They lose their lives for one kingdom in order to find it for another. A kingdom where people like Jim, a runaway slave, matter as much as plantation owners. Where free black folk finding prosperity and happiness in Tulsa in 1921 are not obliterated because the empire can’t stand to see them succeed.
What is your witness to God’s kingdom? Do you ever cause division because you follow Jesus?