Divisions and Peace

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on August 18, 2016, at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco.
Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you but rather division.”

Is Jesus talking about American politics. rally

He said, “From now on five in one household will be divided three against two and two against three; father against son and son against father. Mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother in law against daughter-in-law and daughter in law against mother in law.”

We should always be trying to make connections between the Gospel and the world around us.

I have always liked the story of the nineteenth century evangelist who was upset by the latest in women’s hair style and went around preaching sermons on the text: “topknot come down.”
But finally someone asked him where to find that text in the Bible and he told them it was Mark 13:15. So they looked it up and, sure enough, it said “In that day, let him who is on the house
top not come down . . .”

I’ve told that story more than once because it’s the perfect illustration of how not to apply the Gospel to the world around us. So is this morning’s gospel about American politics? Yes and No.

Jesus said, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in a household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

So If we are being faithful and take the Bible literally we need divided families; right? And if your family isn’t divided that way, maybe it’s evidence that God Is not at work In your family.

But then you have to look at last week’s gospel that said, “Do not fear, little flock; It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. . .” So God will give us the kingdom and divide our families? Is this good news? But then why did Jesus also say, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you,” and why did St. Paul write, “Be at peace among yourselves? (l Th. 5:3)

If today Jesus says he came to bring division, not peace, why did the angels proclaim “Peace on earth” at his birth and why did he tell the disciples that peace was his parting gift?

Thomas Jefferson, you know, went through the Bible and chose the passages he liked and cut the rest and produced a Bible with no problems. It’s very tempting sometimes to do that; to read only our favorite passages and skip the parts we don’t understand or don’t like. And I would certainly skip this morning’s passage.

But Luke gives us a picture of Jesus moving slowly toward Jerusalem preaching a gospel of peace and well aware that the very attractiveness of that gospel was leading some to conspire against him. The bigger the crowds he drew, the more threatening his presence was to some. The more people listened to his words of peace, the more likely it was that there would be conflict. And the awareness of that danger had led his own mother and brothers and sisters to try to get him to stop and led him to say, in effect, that they were no longer his family.  The peace he proclaimed divided his own family and certainly divided others.Palm Sunday

What did James’ and John’s parents think when their sons put down the nets and went off following this new preacher? What happened when Jesus sat down to speak of peace in the home of Mary and Martha and one listened and the other complained?  There was a message of peace but again and again that message produced conflict.

Now, Jesus knew that, of course, and had to be honest enough to tell his disciples, “I’m bringing conflict, not peace.” And how realistic would we be if we were to proclaim a gospel without problems and without conflict?

When Anglican bishops got together a few years ago the news was all focused on matters of sexuality and the conflicts between the bishops. But suppose bishops had come together from California and Texas and Rwanda and Pakistan and the Middle East and had no differences at all, found themselves in perfect agreement on everything. Wouldn’t you wonder what they’d been smoking?

They say that when the first general conference of bishops was held in Nicaea back in 325 to try to agree on what became the Nicene Creed they were so badly divided that they actually threw bricks at each other.

Well, why not? They had been persecuted for their faith; how could they not be angry to find that other bishops were not on the same page? And that was in the “good old days” when the church was still young and filled with the Spirit and deeply faithful. Maybe it’s a sign of unfaithfulness when we have a conference and come away saying everything is just fine. Maybe we don’t care as much as we should about things that matter.

Jesus was heading for Jerusalem. He could have stayed in Galilee and tried to avoid the crowds and the conflict but he headed straight for Jerusalem and he knew what the consequences would be and he tried to prepare the disciples for it. Faithfulness meant death. But that faithfulness would also bring peace and a unity beyond what any avoiding of conflict could ever have done.  What except that divisive gospel could possibly have planted churches in every continent and in every racial group and every language and enabled us to say one Creed and work together on common projects?

At the so-called United Nations the bottom line is always “What’s in it for us?” When the United States fails to pay its dues to the UN it’s because some members of Congress ask that same question: “What’s in it for us?” I’ve known Vestry members to question our share of the diocesan budget because they don’t see what we get in return. But that’s the wrong question. This church and every Episcopal church sends money off to help others we will never meet or see and who can never possibly help us except by their prayers because it’s a way we have of taking our part in the work and mission of the church. And, yes, maybe the United Nations doesn’t do much for us but it does quite a lot for others and isn’t that what Jesus commanded?

It’s because Jesus faced the conflict and died for us that there is a world wide church working and praying for a peace beyond what the United Nations will ever be able to create.  And it may well be because of that church and those prayers that the world has not destroyed itself over the last seventy years.

What could have been harder for Jesus to face than the dividing of his own family? But his goal was far greater and could endure the immediate division for the sake of the greater peace.  And I would imagine that every one of us faces that same conflict in some form or other sooner or later. lf we live with others in a household we will not all have the same agenda and there will be times when our sense of faithfulness will cause conflict: “How come you have to go to that meeting, that service; seems like you care more about the church than about me or the rest of us.” There will be times when someone we care about is going to want to read the paper rather than go with us to one more service or meeting. And it may be that only by facing that conflict will we gain the inner serenity that will enable us to keep the greater unity and lasting peace.

l’ve always liked the blunt realism with which Saint Paul wrote to the Romans: “If it is possible,” he wrote, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone.” “If it is possible . . . so far as it depends on you . . .” There will be times when it isn’t possible and there’s nothing we can do except remain faithful and say our prayers and do what God calls us to do. And it may cause conflict and that may have to be faced. But the peace we might gain by avoiding the issue is no real Peace and will rob us of the strength and inner peace we need to overcome the immediate conflict and receive the lasting gift of God’s peace.

Now let me be very specific. I suggested the text was straight out of this year’s election. Yes.
Read today’s New York Times and you will find an article about the increase in teen-age bullying of Muslims given permission by Donald Trump and that sounds like more conflict.  But you will also find the story of a Baptist congregation in Georgia that rallied around a local Muslim convenience store owner. “Let’s shower our neighbor with love,” said the Baptist pastor and the congregation did, going out of their way to patronize the store and support its owner.

So, yes, there are new divisions but also I think a clarification of values that’s surprising.  When I was growing up there were annual attempts in Congress to make lynching a federal crime. I think you would have trouble finding a politician anywhere in the south who would take that stand today. So, yes, there is division – but the divisions are different than they used to be  and they give evidence of a deeper commitment to a wider and more inclusive peace and what used to be three against two – is now more like nine against one. The standards move – and I think they move toward greater understanding and unity.

Last week we came to church and heard reassurance: “Fear not . . .” This week it’s the same message in a different form: Yes, fear not, but there will be conflict. We can’t change the world without stirring things up but an unchanged world is bad news for everyone. So, yes, there will be conflict – don’t be surprised and don’t be afraid. There’s no way to the kingdom except by way of the cross but we know it’s the way to the kingdom and the way we need to go because Jesus faced it and conquered it and brought us the peace that not only lies ahead but can be here already filling and changing human hearts.

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