Disturbing the Peace

Sermon delivered June 22, 2008 at Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, SC By: Candace Chellew

Readings: Psalm 86: 1-12 Matthew 10: 24-39

Is there anyone who Ever remembers changing their mind from The paint on a sign? Is there anyone who really recalls Ever breaking rank at all For something someone yelled real loud one time Everyone believes In how they think it ought to be Everyone believes And they’re not going easily

I don’t like going home for the holidays. A fight always breaks out about politics or religion – or politics in religion – or religion in politics.

Last Thanksgiving, my sister told me that the Muslims are secretly plotting to take over the United States and make all women wear burkas.

“You know,” she told me, “they don’t like your kind.”

I laughed and said, “Most Christians don’t like my kind either.”

“But the Muslims will kill you,” she said.

“Most Christians would like to as well,” I countered.

“That’s not in my Bible,” she retorted.

“Check Leviticus,” I told her.

“That’s the Old Testament,” she said testily. Apparently, death sentences for gays and lesbians don’t apply anymore – but the condemnation does. Go figure.

I told her I was more afraid of my own government than I was some Muslim boogie man toting a burka with my name on it. I told her that the government would rather she be afraid of some Muslim in a cave somewhere in Afghanistan so she won’t notice when they shred the Constitution, tap her phone lines, read her email and go through her luggage at the airport. I’m more frightened of $6 a gallon gas than I am some faceless religious threat.

The conversation didn’t end with hugs and smiles: those type of conversations never do.

Everyone believes In how they think it ought to be Everyone believes And they’re not going easily

Jesus reminds me of my sister in today’s passage. He says something that I find so offensive and over the top – I find I want to argue with him.

“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.”

Suddenly, I don’t know who this Jesus guy is anymore. Isn’t this the guy who talked about love? Isn’t this the guy who said something like “blessed are the peacemakers”? Now he’s talking about bringing a sword and not peace – setting family member against family member? Who is this guy? I’m not sure I want to follow this Jesus.

It’s interesting to note that the lectionary for the Roman Catholic Church this week ends at verse 33. They don’t even venture into these hard words from the so-called “Prince of Peace.”

But, we won’t shy away from them today – we’ll look at them head on. When we begin to grapple with the passage we can see the truth in it. When we look around our world, we begin to understand that Jesus’ time upon this earth – short though it was – has become the source of much belief – and in becoming a source of belief – it has become a source of strife.

Jesus’ words play out in my own family; sister against sister – arguing from different places of belief about Jesus – about religion and God. Both set in their beliefs – ready to defend them to the death. Jesus knew that beliefs about him and his ministry would bring discord and strife – not peace but a sword.

Belief is a beautiful armor But makes for the heaviest sword Like punching under water You never can hit who you’re trying for Some need the exhibition And some have to know they tried It’s the chemical weapon For the war that’s raging on inside Everyone believes From emptiness to everything Everyone believes And no one’s going quietly

At the risk of making this sermon all about my sister, let me tell you one more story. I visited her house several years ago over another Thanksgiving. In the guest room I noticed five or so copies of the Book of Mormon. Understand, now, my sister believes that those who adhere to the beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are members of a cult who are certainly bound for hell. This is her firm belief. So, I asked her why she had so many copies of their holy scriptures.

She told me when she lived out in Arizona she frequented a book store that gave out free copies of the Book of Mormon with a purchase over a set amount. She had already collected five or more copies, so she apparently bought books there a lot. I asked her why she had so many copies and she replied, “That’s one less they have to give out to other people.”

I laughed and said, “You know, with the advent of the printing press, they’ll just make more.”

But, she was unmoved. In her mind, she knew she had tried – she had made stand for her beliefs, by hopefully depriving someone of a copy of the Book of Mormon and their subsequent descent into hell if they converted to that religion.

My sister isn’t quite as in-your-face as the anti-gay protestors we see each year at the pride parade, holding their signs condemning us to hell and yelling about how God hates us and anyone who supports our full integration into church and society.

Their belief is a beautiful armor – but makes for a heavy sword that they will swing at anyone they think might disagree with them or hold a different belief. How toxic it is to fashion our beliefs into armor – to poison ourselves with the chemical weapon of unbending dogma and doctrine.

They yell and scream – but whose minds do they change? Do they think we’ll just step outside the march and join their line – convinced by their hateful signs and harsh screaming?

Everyone believes In how they think it ought to be Everyone believes And they’re not going easily

Jesus’ words in our gospel passage today are scary to us. We’re peace loving people and we don’t like it when the man we call the Prince of Peace is talking about bringing a sword – bringing division and strife into the world. But, if we can get past our initial shock at Jesus’ words and step back and try to see the big picture, the words begin to make sense.

Jesus was familiar with division – he caused a lot of it in his short ministry. He did all manner of upsetting things. He was all about disturbing the peace. He upended the money changer’s tables in the temple. You can bet that didn’t bring anyone a feeling of peace. He healed on the Sabbath – a direct violation of Hebrew law. You know that didn’t create peaceful feelings among religious leaders. He even took their scriptures and reinterpreted them. Where the law was clear that any offense meant an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, Jesus instead talked about loving those who offended us. He told us to go the extra mile for those who force us to do things against our will. He told us to give our coats to those who sought to rob us and to settle disputes before anyone filed a lawsuit. These are not actions that bring about peace. These are actions that bring about outrage.

What Jesus is calling us to do is be outrageous – to challenge the status quo of our world. If we truly follow Jesus’ example, we will be disturbing the peace too. There’s a war going on, but here is the paradox – we are living in a time of peace simply because we have made peace with this war. It’s going on and no one is trying to stop it. We protest it. Some of our leaders say it should be over, but no one as done anything to ensure its end. We’ve made peace with war.

This is a false peace and if we are to truly be like Christ, we must challenge the beliefs that bring about false peace. Martin Luther King Jr. disturbed the peace of racism. Those outrageous drag queens at the Stonewall Inn in New York disturbed the peace of homophobia. Gandhi disturbed the peace of war and oppression.

Jesus calls us to disturb the peace. We all believe it’s a shame that people are poor, or homeless, or without health insurance or a decent wage – yet we’re at peace with those things unless we’re willing to disturb the peace and work to do something about it. Not just to help the poor and homeless, but to dare to ask why we even have poor and homeless in a world that is overflowing with enough for everyone – yet horded by a few. We can believe it’s bad and something ought to be done but unless we’re willing to disturb the peace …

We’re never gonna win the world We’re never gonna stop the war We’re never gonna beat this If belief is what we’re fighting for

If we’re not fighting for belief, then what are we supposed to be fighting for? In an interview with NPR, John Mayer, who wrote this song, said it’s about “the chemistry of belief and how futile it is to replace one belief with another. The only way we can change a belief is internally.” So, what John Mayer – and Jesus – is telling us is that we can’t just change how with think – we must change how we live.

Jesus gives us clear instructions on how we should live in this world – we are to love God with all our heart, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves. It’s fair to ask at this point if love isn’t just another belief – and it’s true – love is just another thing that we believe in. I know plenty of people who say they believe in love but won’t lift a finger to help another person in need. But, Jesus calls us to go deeper than just believe in love – we are called to embody love.

A couple of years ago, Wanda and I came upon an accident in Camden that had just happened. The police had not arrived yet, but it was clear those involved were seriously injured. One of the women hurt in the accident was lying in the middle of the road, screaming in pain. Wanda immediately stopped the car and ran toward the woman. When she got there she tried to calm the woman and make her as comfortable as possible until help could arrive. She held her hand and tried to talk with her about where she was hurting. You know what she didn’t do? She didn’t ask the woman about her beliefs. She didn’t ask the woman if she was a Democrat or a Republican, anti- or pro-abortion, anti- or pro-gay, anti- or pro-immigration. She didn’t ask if she believed that Jesus was her personal savior or whether Jesus literally rose from the dead. No, she just saw another human being in need of help and she helped. She embodied love for another human being in need.

This kind of embodied love isn’t the only example we have in this congregation. Joy and Carol are working hard to help resettle two Burmese refugees. They’ve spent their own money, their own time and their own embodied love making sure these women find a home and jobs and a better life here in Columbia. They have spent time with them and gotten to know them. What they haven’t done is quizzed them on their beliefs or tried to push their own beliefs on them. They simply saw people in need, and they helped. They embodied love. They understand Jesus calls us to a new way of “being” – not a new way of believing.

To embody this love ourselves we have to begin to see everyone in the world as someone wounded by the side of the road in need of help. We have to be willing to stop asking, “What do you believe?” and instead ask, “What do you need?” We are all in need of each other’s help, each other’s compassion, each other’s embodied love.

This kind of love is radical. It disturbs the peace. It destroys the divisions we want to maintain – the kind of divisions over beliefs that lead to war, strife and mistrust. As the great theologian of the 1960s, Jimi Hendrix, once said, “When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” I think Jesus would agree and until we learn that …

We’re never gonna win the world We’re never gonna stop the war We’re never gonna beat this If belief is what we’re fighting for

I can honestly tell you that preachers don’t know what to do with this hard saying of Jesus. As proof, one of the pastor resources I consulted said, “Not every Sunday has to be uplifting for your congregation.” I completely disagree. While Jesus’ saying here is difficult to hear – and even more difficult to live – I find much uplifting about this passage. Jesus tells us we’re precious to God – more precious than a sparrow. In fact, God knows us so intimately that every hair on our head is counted. Some may have higher numbers than others, but God knows us that deeply and God loves us that deeply.

It is this steadfast love of God that the Psalmist sings about and prays that God helps them embody: Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; Give me an undivided heart to revere your name. We, like the psalmist, must pray for God to teach us her ways so that we may walk in truth with an undivided heart that revere’s the name of God. We’re not praying for belief, or even for our beliefs to win out in the world. We’re praying for a heart strong enough to disturb the peace of the status quo and bring about God’s peace.

Sing this last part with me:

We’re never gonna win the world We’re never gonna stop the war We’re never gonna beat this If belief is what we’re fighting for