Not Peace But a Sword
 — Rev. Dawn Christenson

June 25, 2017

I will pick up our Be the Church series next week. This week, as I looked at the lectionary, I thought this Gospel reading was quite fitting to augment some of what Phil has already covered.

I found today’s Gospel passage to be troublesome…especially the part about pitting children against parents, creating great conflict in the home. Does anyone else find that troubling? Just what does it mean?

Think about it, most of Jesus’ ministry is built on love and compassion. In fact, if we were to summarize all of the Gospels in a nutshell, we could do it with one word – LOVE. Yet, Jesus says here: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace…but a sword.” This doesn’t make sense. When Jesus was arrested, he told Peter to put down his sword because ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’. Jesus was and is the embodiment of radical love and boundless compassion. So how do we make sense of this?

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, 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.” Seriously? What happened to “honor your father and mother”? What happened to “love others as I have loved you”?

Perhaps we need to take a step back and look at the Hebrew Bible. After all, Jesus is echoing the Prophet Micah here. In Micah’s oracle, he brings forth God’s indictment of the people of Israel. Why? – because once again, God’s people were unfaithful. Earlier (Mic.6:8), he tells the people explicitly what is required of them. “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good: and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” So is Jesus merely alluding to Micah as a way of getting the attention of the people of his time? Is he reminding them of Israel’s unfaithfulness and the repercussions of that? Is this his way of saying: ‘life’s about choices people’? ‘Choose wisely. Straighten up, ‘else your family ties will be cut to bits!’

I find it interesting that his calling for domestic conflict is sandwiched between words of comfort and encouragement. Don’t worry. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from [the Creator]. And even the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” And following his message of conflict he said: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Therein is the love of God. Regardless, we are worthy of God’s love. Even the small seemingly insignificant creatures of the earth are valued and loved by God. And that love is irrevocable. So, why slap us in the face with domestic conflict?

There must be something deeper here. Perhaps Jesus is really not speaking of biological family at all. Later in Matthew Chapter 12, Jesus speaks of ‘true family’. While his biological family waited outside to see him, he said, “Whoever does the will of [God] is my brother and sister and mother.” You see, Jesus’ [and thereby God’s] family is all of humanity. And as God’s family members we are to ‘love kindness and walk humbly with God’. So, where does conflict fit in this picture?

Micah said first that we are “to do justice”. Doing justice work often fans the flames of conflict. It’s unpopular to stand up, speak out, resist and fight on behalf of the powerless and voiceless. Those in power push back, sometimes violently, to retain their illegitimate power and control over others. The powerful seek and hold that power through greed and the bullying and oppression of others. To do justice flies in the face of that by speaking truth to power and dismantling it. And by the way, to keep silent is to be complicit in the injustice whatever it may be.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace … but a sword.” That’s a battle cry folks to do what is just. Yes, pursuit of justice is often unpopular and creates conflict. Conflict goes with the territory. And it’s part of being the Church, especially in the United Church of Christ.

Today marks the 60th Anniversary of the UCC. Following the words from John 17:21 “That they may all be one”, and after decades of negotiations Congregational, Evangelical and Reformed traditions joined into a united and uniting denomination: the United Church of Christ. Our collective justice heritage is rich and deep, especially when it comes to civil rights. And that heritage predates our birth as a denomination. Here are a few snapshots of the heritage forged by our fore-bearers:

  • 1839, helped free the slaves of the Amistad
  • 1846, formed first integrated anti-slavery society
  • 1853, ordained the first woman pastor (Rev. Antionette Brown)
  • 1957, UCC was born, breaking the cycle of protestant division that began 400 years earlier with the Reformation.
  • 60’s & 70’s, active in the Civil Rights Movement; incl. raising and paying > $1 million in bail for the Wilmington Ten
  • 1972, ordained 1st openly gay pastor (Rev. Wm. Johnson)
  • 1976, elected 1st African American UCC President (Rev. Joseph Evans)
  • 2005, passed General Synod Resolution supporting marriage equality

God is still speaking through the UCC. Have you looked at our “Be the Church” banner recently? It is filled from top to bottom with justice issues. And the items in that list do not fall exclusively to UCC clergy or Church leadership. Each of us needs to raise our prophetic voices in opposition to policies and actions that threaten humanity, Creation and whoever constitutes the “least of these”. We are in this together, as Christians with our brothers and sisters of other denominations and faith traditions, bound by a higher call.

First on our banner’s list is “Protect the Environment”. It is deeply, ecologically interconnected with the rest. Now, it’s no secret that our Nation’s leadership has pulled us out of the Paris Accords and threatens to dismantle the EPA. This is not a political battle – it is one of survival. If we are to Be the Church, we need to make our voices heard, to protect God’s Creation. We are its Stewards! If we don’t, we cannot care for the poor or share earthly resources. There won’t be resources to share. There will be scarcity rather than abundance. It’s happening already. And scarcity of food and safe drinking water is felt first and most by the poor. Many in our Nation and around the globe are and will die from starvation, dehydration and disease because of it – humans and animals alike. WHO we are protecting and caring for by protecting the environment are the poor & “least of these”.

Okay, so some of us are reluctant prophets. I understand. I have yet to put my life on the line for a just cause, like many of my classmates and colleagues did to protect sacred Native American land, at Standing Rock for example. No, not everyone can or will participate in protests like Standing Rock or a March on Selma. Yet we can still do our part. How? – by contacting our legislators and by supporting the committed members of the National Parks Service, DNR, and EPA who can directly help us protect our environment and resources. Or from the comfort of our homes we can engage in social media. Social media is a powerful tool to be used to educate, persuade and change hearts and minds.

The very least we should do is ensure that our carbon footprints are reduced, by conserving energy, reducing waste and recycling. No matter what we do we will likely meet opposition. We may be laughed at, scoffed at, rejected or even bullied. I’m teased at work all the time for trying to recycle. Yet, I am setting the example, stirring-the-pot and keeping the pressure on; and it’s beginning to influence others to do likewise.

We, in the UCC, know what it means to fight for the powerless and voiceless, while caring for the poor and outcasts. We know what it means to “do justice”, rejecting racism and all of the other “-isms” imposed by the privileged and powerful in society. Yes, we offer forgiveness, but we do not and cannot forget the tainted path of human history. We must remember! Our knowledge of the past empowers us to fight for the future of humanity, the earth and all of God’s creatures. And if you want to talk about remembrance, then let us remember the One and only Redeemer and Savior, Jesus the Christ who said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace…but a sword.”

If we are to Be the Church and follow in Jesus’ footsteps, then we must pursue justice wherever injustice exists. Afraid? Don’t be. Remember you are worth more than many sparrows and even they are worth much in God’s eyes. Friends, Jesus calls us and he walks with us in our quest.

Thanks be to God. Amen.