Homily for Sunday, June 21 – “I Have Not Come to Bring Peace, but a Sword.”

Texts for June 21, Psalm 86: 1-13; Matthew 10:24-39

“Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth.” Many have repeated that line, but far fewer have meant it.

In 1935 an American religious leader named Howard Thurman led a “friendship delegation” to India and British Ceylon, what is now Sri Lanka. Thurman would have been 36 at the time. One day, after giving a talk at a law college, he was invited by the principal to have coffee. The two men drank their coffee in silence until the principal asked a question. He asked what Thurman was doing there. The principal knew the intention of the friendship delegation, but what he didn’t know was why Howard Thurman, a black man, would come there as a Christian.

The principal, who was Hindu, pointed out that slavers had referred to biblical passages as rationale for their trafficking in human bodies. He mentioned that a slave ship even bore the name “Jesus.” “I understand,” the principal said, “that even in church there is segregation.” So how can you come to me as a Christian and not expect me to see you as a traitor to all the dark skinned people of the world?

Howard Thurman would go on to be an important mentor to leaders in the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. and others.  But first, he had to answer that question. We might sum the question up this way: Is Christianity a force of justice or a force of oppression?

It’s a difficult question. History is not clear. Current events are not clear. The reality of churches today is not clear.

“Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth.” Many have repeated that line, but far fewer have meant it.

Here is what Howard Thurman recognized. He saw that Jesus himself was from an oppressed, occupied, and colonized people. Jesus was poor. Jesus had no political connections. Jesus represented a minority people whose back was pushed against the wall. Whatever Christians have claimed, however they have lived, the reality for Jesus was this: if a Roman soldier kicked him into a ditch, that soldier would have seen nothing special in Jesus, just one more poor, disempowered person shoved to the street without consequence.

The roots of the Christian faith are in the cry for divine justice that comes from that status. The problem is that Christians all through the ages have failed to take the faith of Jesus seriously.

Now, let us turn our attention to our reading from Matthew. This is a stern reading. It begins with Jesus telling his students that should they actually follow him they could expect to suffer as well. But don’t be afraid, Jesus says. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill both soul.” God notices when even a small bird dies. A little creature like that has value, but you have much more. Of course God notices you.

Then comes another challenging section. Jesus is speaking with hyperbole, as was common in his culture. He says something like this: Don’t think that I have come to make everything nice. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That is, the message of Jesus (and the praxis of Jesus) is disruptive. The status quo is disrupted. The assumptions of a culture are disrupted. The wisdom handed down by parents and grandparents is disrupted.

Here is Jesus’s special father’s day message: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Sometimes the things that we love most are the things that hold us back. We Mennonites have a rich spiritual heritage. But we also have churches that are shaped more by tradition and genealogy and subculture than anything Jesus would recognize. Sometimes the things we love most are the things that hold us back.

Jesus knew the Ten Commandments. He knew that honoring one’s parents (as we’re doing today) is on that list. My hunch is that Jesus’s Jewish background would have given him a deeper appreciation for his ancestors than what many of us possess.

Yet Jesus says you might have to hate your ancestors; you might have to hate your in-laws and the members of your household. He has come to bring a sword, not to make nice. That sword is the disruption of the status quo that harms. It is the disruption of cultural assumptions that harm. It is the disruption of wisdom passed down from our ancestors that carries harm they may not have anticipated. Jesus’s sword make the point that the good old days weren’t good for everyone.

Jesus does not come to make nice. Jesus does not come to keep our feelings and cultural assumptions intact. Instead, Jesus proclaims a strange paradox: those who want to truly live, must give up their lives, and those who give up their lives on account of the good news for the poor and the defenseless, will find life.

We would do well to have that message in our minds as we attend to the news. Let us not assume that our community of faith, that our way of life, or that the wisdom we have inherited is without blame and without fault.

“Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth.” Many have repeated that line, but far fewer have meant it.

God of wisdom and equity, teach us your ways, even if it calls into question some of what we love. Amen.

 

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