This week’s Gospel lesson is a tough one. It contains very strong statements and is not a favorite among Bible passages. The lectionary commentary I use states that,
If one were to list ten of the hardest sayings in the Gospels, the first portion of the selection for [this week] would undoubtedly be on the list. The statements that Jesus came to bring fire, a distressful baptism, and division, even among families, are hardly welcome words for any congregation. We are happier with Jesus as a peacemaker than as a home breaker.
The Gospel lesson, though, isn’t the only tough one this week – all of the lectionary readings for this week are tough. Psalm 80 presents God as a vineyard owner and Israel as his vine that he has lovingly planted and tended. But God, the vineyard owner, decided to break down the walls that surround the vineyard so that those who pass by can pluck its fruit, and the wild boar can ravage it, and all the animals of the field can feed on it. The vine has been burned with fire and cut down.
The passage from Isaiah (5:1-7) continues the metaphor of God as a vineyard owner who lovingly planted and tended his vines. But the grapes that were produced were not good. They were wild grapes. The vineyard owner – God – can’t make the wonderful wine he was going to make from his crop because the crop is no good. And so, he is going to remove its hedge so that it will be devoured. He is going to break down its wall so that it will be trampled down. He is going to make it a waste.
The passage from the letter to the Hebrews talks about martyrs, those who were tortured, imprisoned, and killed because they would not deny their faith. They were flogged, stoned to death, sawn in two, stabbed, and exiled.
Clearly, this is not a warm and fuzzy week of Bible readings. It is an in-your-face, challenging week of Bible readings. But that’s okay. We should be challenged on occasion. Complacency is not the mark of a faithful Christian.
The life of faith requires an inner attitude of humility coupled with outward service: faith as attitude and action, founded on and grounded in the belief that the Kingdom of God is at hand and will one day be in hand. We live now in the between-time, the time between the first coming of Jesus and the second coming of Jesus, the time when the kingdom of God is here already, but not yet here fully. This is a time marked by struggle and conflict. The kingdom of God is present, but it’s mixed in with the kingdom of the world, and that creates struggle and conflict.
Think about the spiritual giants from the 20th Century who helped establish pockets of the kingdom of God through their faithful actions:
- Mahatma Ghandi, who led the movement to establish independence in India;
- Rosa Parks, who helped establish civil rights in America;
- Nelson Mandela, whose witness led to a more just society in South Africa;
- Mother Teresa, who fed the hungry and sheltered the homeless in Calcutta
How did those pockets of the kingdom of God get established? Through polite tea parties and social niceties? No. They were established through struggle and conflict:
- Gandhi fasted until he was near death so that the violence in India would cease;
- Rosa Parks was arrested and jailed when she wouldn’t move to the back of the bus;
- Nelson Mandela served close to 30 years in prison for his politics;
- and Mother Teresa lived in the poorest, most dangerous part of Calcutta so that she could minister to “the least of these.”
After Jesus was born, he was presented to God in the Temple according to Jewish law. Simeon, a righteous and devout man, entered the temple guided by the Holy Spirit. He took Jesus in his arms and said to Mary,
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Lk 2:34)
Jesus was “destined for the falling and rising of many . . . and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Simeon knew that this was God’s Messiah, and that the very presence of God’s Messiah would bring about a crisis, a division among people in terms of how they would respond to him. Jesus would be an in-your-face guy. He would speak and act the truth even though it would cause struggle and conflict. He would be the guy at the party that would sober the guests and bring the room to silence by his declarations of truth.
Yet, before Jesus was born, Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth and the father of John the Baptist, prophesied that Jesus would “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk 1:79). When Jesus was born, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace” (Lk 2:14). When Jesus healed people, he told them to “go in peace” (Lk 8:48). And, when Jesus sent out the seventy disciples, he commissioned them to preach peace (Lk 10:5-6). Clearly, the presence of Jesus is connected to peace. And yet, here, in the Gospel passage for today, Jesus states that he has come not to bring peace, but division. What do we make of this discrepancy between the peace that Jesus would bring and the division that Jesus would bring?
The explanation lies in what we have already discussed, in the “already, but not yet” time in which we live. Peace is the sign of the kingdom of God, but the kingdom is not yet here in its fullness. In this between-time, the path to peace is often strewn with struggle and conflict. Our Messiah, the one we call Lord and Savior, the one who inaugurated the Kingdom of God, died a shameful and painful death on a cross after being beaten and mocked. Peace is not instant and trouble-free. It is hard-fought and hard-won, through blood, sweat, and tears.
The challenge of the time in which we live is to maintain the vision of peace that Jesus brought us amidst the struggle and conflict that is present on the way to that peace. It is that vision of peace that guides and empowers us as we fight the good fight for peace. Because it is a vision of peace that guides and empowers us, the fight we fight is not a violent fight, but a peaceful fight. You can’t get to peace through violence. The struggle and the conflict are not instruments of the fight, but by-products of the fight. If we speak and act truthfully, those who do not see or love the truth, or who oppose the truth, may get violent. But we are not to be violent.
Let’s look at our examples again as an illustration of what I mean:
- Gandhi, as he was fighting for an independent India, was never violent toward others. Others, however, responded to his stance for truth with violence, and he had to bear the brunt of it, even to the point of being assassinated.
- Rosa Parks did not oppose segregation with violence. Instead, she peacefully took a stance by sitting in the white section of the bus. Others, however, responded to her stance for truth with violence, and she had to bear the brunt of it through arrest and imprisonment.
- Nelson Mandela was not violent when he preached his politics. Others, however, responded to his stance for truth with violence, and he had to bear the brunt of it with decades in jail.
- Mother Teresa did not carry a gun with her as she went about the poor and dangerous part of Calcutta ministering to the needy. She carried only love and supplies to feed, clothe, and house those in need. There was violence surrounding her, however, and she had to bear the brunt of her stance for truth by being vulnerable in the face of violence.
Of course, these examples are spiritual giants, people who have done such incredible things for peace that their names will go down in history. We can’t all be spiritual giants in the way that Mahatma, Rosa, Nelson, and Teresa have been. But we can be spiritual giants in our own way, in our own place, right here in Connecticut, in our own cities, towns, and neighborhoods. The scripture passages for this week tell us that God wants us to do the right thing: He wants us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him” (Micah 6:8).
Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God will look different in different situations. In order to know what those things look like in any particular instance, we have to study an issue, pray about a situation, and talk things over with our brothers and sisters in Christ. But, when we figure out what we are to do, we need to do it, regardless of the struggle and conflict it entails.
Where in your city, town or neighborhood is there a wrong that needs to be righted, an injustice that needs to be undone, a service that needs to be rendered? Do you fear the conflict and struggle that may ensue if you speak out or take action? You are not alone. I don't know anyone who craves conflict and delights in struggle. Yet, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we are asked to participate in the ministry he began all those years ago and, sometimes, that participation involves struggle and conflict, whether we like it or not.
While I was a pastor in Stonington, CT, in the early 2000s, the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ledyard had been working toward peace between the American Indians and the other people who live in the area. There had been a lot of animosity between the two groups due to issues surrounding the casinos. Because the pastor was trying to create peace between the two groups, trying to work toward reconciliation, she was the target of tremendous anger. Both sides couldn't understand why she would fraternize with the other side. She even feared for her son’s safety while he was at school. And yet, because of her faith, she felt compelled to take a stand for peace. She felt compelled to stand in the chasm created by hostility and anger and resentment, and be the bridge that might bring the two sides together.
There are, also, small ways we can do the right thing. For example, my husband, Brian, and I had a neighbor who lived behind us when we were living in New Haven as students, about 20 years ago. She used to come to the fence to talk to me when I was in the yard gardening or playing with our dogs. The house next door to us was being sold, and, one day, an Asian family came to look at it while the neighbor who lived behind us was talking to me through the fence. When she saw that there were Asian people looking at the house, she made a disparaging comment about them, based on the fact that they were Asian. She was clearly prejudiced. It was an opportunity for me to stand up for the people she was disparaging. But, I said nothing. I didn’t know her very well and I didn’t want to alienate her – I didn’t want conflict. I thought to myself, “If she was someone I knew better I would say something, but I don’t know her well enough to confront her.” I missed an opportunity to do the right thing. It wasn’t a big opportunity – no country would be freed, no unjust law would be changed, no starving person would be fed – but, still, it was an opportunity to do the right thing, and I let it pass for fear of struggle and conflict. Don’t I wish I could see her now, and proudly introduce her to my Asian children?!
The path to peace is often strewn with struggle and conflict. Yet there is no other path to walk if we walk with Jesus. There is no other path to walk if we let Jesus and his vision of peace guide us. The spiritual we are about to sing says,
“Guide my feet while I run this race. Hold my hand while I run this race. Stand by me while I run this race. I’m Your child while I run this race. Search my heart while I run this race. Guide my feet while I run this race . . . for I don’t want to run this race in vain.”
Jesus will guide us. Jesus will hold our hands. Jesus will stand by us. We will be God’s children. Our hearts will be searched and made clean. Be assured, we will not run the race in vain. The peace of God, which passes all understanding, awaits us, if only we have faith. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, August 14, 2016, the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost..
Cousar, Gaventa, McCann, and Newsome. Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV – Year C. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994, 476.
 Quote adapted from Cousar, Gaventa, McCann, and Newsome, 477.