This is the Sunday of “difficult” Bible readings. Each one disturbs our usual mood with which we gather for worship. Under normal circumstances, we tend to conceive of our Sunday liturgies as “celebrations”: a holy (i.e., “set apart”) experience of a “mini-Easter” each week that takes place in a specially decorated space, sporting elaborate vestments and altar coverings, glimmering vessels of precious metals, etc. We even use the verb “celebrate” when we talk about the priest’s function at the Eucharist. We expect to sing with joy, and to hear comforting prayers and energizing exhortations. But every once in a while, we get a Sunday when every reading seems to be hand-picked to shatter the fragile veneer of cheerfulness.
Jesus (Prince of Peace) “forgets” to turn the other cheek and says: "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.” And an Israelite prophet Jeremiah, offers his bitter reflection: “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me… the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long”; perhaps, to echo the psalmist: “It is for your sake that I have borne reproach… I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother's children”.
What an unwelcome intrusion are these words to us in the midst of our placid gatherings… but also perhaps, a helpful reminder that there is both a new freedom and a cost that is incurred in having faith in God. That there is a time to celebrate and a time to lament. That to live in the world without fully being part of the world, according to Jesus' instruction, is a tough balancing act.
The words we hear Jesus say in today’s disturbing Gospel passage might have been unconsciously shaped by the gospel writers’ exposure to centuries of written tradition, but the prophets and psalmists that preceded them by several centuries. Jesus here speaks to his Jewish disciples as he is sending them out to deliver his teachings -- a fuller interpretation of already ubiquitous scriptures -- first, to the people of their own nation. He predicted (note, predicted rather than intended) that some of these towns and villages will not welcome this new “Jewish sect”. He speaks from an experience with his own family, which according to the writer of the Gospel of Mark, at one point sought custody of him thinking that he was “out of his mind” (3:21), and because he has observed that on most occasions, the prophets are not welcomed in their own home towns.
Jesus predicted (not intended) that we will share something of this experience centuries later. For instance, many of my colleagues and I have been quite happily encouraged on our path to an ordained ministry by most members of our families. Still, we know all too well that, first, there will always be an element of our lives that we can never fully share even with the most sympathetic social circles; and second, that encountering a fair share of antipathy and misinterpretation is also unavoidable - both from fellow Christians and others in our incredibly diverse environment. The same is likely to apply to every family in our parish: spouses of different faiths, children who do not share the commitment to the particular expression of Christianity that their parents have, and even within the greater Anglican communion, a huge range of an understanding regarding who God is, who people are, how the Bible is to be interpreted, and etc., and etc. The matters of faith, Christian and otherwise, will always be personal, will always run deep, even when they do not result in outright persecution; most importantly, they will always need to be acknowledged.
Of course, Jesus never advocated for violence or imposing his teaching by force, but he did require a commitment. Jesus stopped Peter from using an actual sword to defend Jesus at his arrest, but he has warned his followers that the weight of the spiritual sword would be no less tangible. These are very real matters of living our lives as the followers of a particular expression of our particular faith, within the larger culture of our contemporary world. The world may mock, create obstacles, or devalue our human worth based on our faith; but, it might also surprise us with its appreciation of an honest expression of a personal, lived experience of a relationship with the Transcendent, with the unifying force of the universe of whose activity most humans catch a glimpse every now and again.
For example, most recently, as a chaplain at a secular girls’ school, I can speak to many instances when I have been deeply moved by the responses to my messages, received often when I expected them the least. It was definitely a wonderful privilege to “tell in the light” what God whispers “in the dark” -- that is, to share my own personal insights gleaned over private reflection and meditation on God’s word; thereby, making the dry doctrinal statements I heard from pulpits and classes over the time of my Christian formation accessible to others.
The year at the school was an opportunity for me to engage with a large, highly diverse secular community for the first time since I entered the seminary and exclusively church work about a decade ago. The experience has reinforced in me the conviction that I’ve always held strongly: that God had already known every one of us long before we arrived at the baptismal font; indeed, even before the moment of our conception. God works independently of all our ceremonies, theological systems, and moral choices. So, somewhere in the middle of our passage from the Gospel of Matthew today, we find a much-treasured verse: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father… So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
God has ascribed an infinite worth to every human being, born or yet to be born, strong or weak, healthy or dying, overtly Christian or otherwise. And this worth is based on that we have all been made by God, to be like God, and to be always with God – and that will never be taken away from any one of us, for God is greater than all the powers of the world (seen and unseen), and greater than all the things we have done wrong -- or right, for that matter.
Yes, it is a tough balancing act to treat our neighbors as though we really believe that they have been made in God’s image, even if they are the kind of people with whom we would never naturally form close relationships (and most people in our lives will likely always fall into this category). I commend those who gather to worship and practice their faith, week after week, however they perceive and interpret an invitation to it, and choose to live part of their lives out of our community, where we share a lot of common beliefs, and also have many differences. But in conclusion, let me just remind you of my earlier point: that the weight of God’s love for all human beings is much greater than the weight of all the swords we at times try to wield against one another. Thanks be to God.