Scripture Reading Matthew 10:32-39 (NRSV)
32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 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; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
This is one of those passages that has most of us going, “Wait, what? A sword? Jesus, where’s the love?” I mean, Jesus’ whole ministry is about telling everyone to love one another, and he gives really specific instructions as to how to do that. And then he says, “I’m not a peace bringer. No, I am bringing a sword. If you do what I say, you will be at odds with everyone, even your own family.” For just a minute, I can see the disciples - especially Simon the Zealot, who had been part of a violent revolutionary movement before joining Jesus - saying, “Alright, Yeah! This is the Messiah we’ve been expecting. Let’s go get those Romans!” For a minute there it sounds like that turn-the-other-cheek, love-your-enemy Jesus who has had them completely confused up to this point has all of a sudden become the militant descendent of David that everyone has been expecting for oh, so very long. “Yes, Jesus! Hold that thought! I need to go get my sword!”
And yet, as we all know, Jesus wasn’t talking about a violent revolution against the political reality of his time. He was talking about radical resistance to the way things were. He was talking about standing up for the ways of God instead of sitting still for the ways of humanity. He was talking about being willing to tell everyone where they were going wrong with their practice of religion, and dealing with the fall-out.
In Matthew 5, right after preaching the Beatitudes, Jesus tells those assembled that if they are on their way to the Temple with an offering or a sacrifice, and they have been having an argument with another person, their sacrifice will be unacceptable to God unless they reconcile their differences with that other person first. “Wait, what? It’s more important to make up with that rotten person who did me wrong than to take my offering to the Temple? But they did me wrong! They need to make up with me!” No, not really. Your actions are all that you have any control over. You have to make the effort to reconcile. God will deal with the other person.
And right after that, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Love your enemies? Wait. What about revenge? Aren’t we supposed to get revenge when someone does us wrong? No. That’s a ways-of-the-world thing, not a ways-of-God thing. Forgive, so that you may also be forgiven. He said, “if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” Hmmm. OK, Jesus. I get it. What’s the point of being a follower of Jesus if I act just like everybody else?
Then he goes on to tell the assembled listeners not to pray out loud in front of everyone so they will admire your piety, and don’t give money where everyone can see you so they can admire your generosity, and don’t work at becoming wealthy so that everyone can look up to you and so that you can have all the stuff that everyone else wants All of these instructions fly in the face of what is normal. All of these instructions will lead anyone following them into conflict with pretty much everybody around them. They are also really hard to follow.
Consider one of the people we know of who did follow these instructions. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a non-violent revolution in order to gain civil rights for African Americans. He took that whole “turn the other cheek, love your enemy” thing seriously, and although his resistance to the ways of the world got him killed, it also succeeded in bringing change. In laws, only, not in hearts. Hearts take longer.
I want to tell you that it is really difficult not to react when violence is offered. Back in the early 1970’s I participated in some non-violent anti-war demonstrations. We would gather in a park, listen to some speeches, then stand in a huge circle, link arms, and sing folk songs. Most of the time no one really bothered us, but a few times there were folks who violently disagreed with us. One time some of them threw rocks. It’s not easy to stand there singing songs while someone is throwing rocks at you. It’s even harder not call them names, or to pick up the rocks and throw them back - or at least, it was for me. But that’s what Jesus expects of us. That we will stand peacefully for what we believe to be the right, and not engage in the violent rhetoric and violent acts that come so much easier to humans. That we will be like Dr. King, and stand up to the powers that oppose the ways of the Lord.
So, what’s with the whole sword thing, then? Jesus didn’t really mean that we should take out swords and use violence against oppression, or those who oppose us. You will remember that when Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, “51 Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:51-52). No, Jesus meant that when we stand up for the ways of the Lord, there will be many who oppose us. We won’t just be able to say, “Love one another,” and watch the world change. Because when we say, “Love one another,” we aren’t talking about simply being sweetness and light to everyone. We are talking about standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. We are talking about speaking out when we see injustice, even if it means others will be angered by our stand and our words. We are talking about paying attention to what is going on around us, and responding on the side of love. We are talking about being counter-cultural in our time, just as Jesus was counter-cultural in his time.
Jesus warned everyone listening that it would not easy to be his follower. It would not be easy to do as God wants us to do. It’s easier just to be human, to give into our normal human desires. It’s easier to just do what everyone else is doing. We even have sayings that tell us things like, “Don’t rock the boat,” and “You can’t fight City Hall.” Well, sometimes boats need rocking, when they need to have their course changed. And you can fight City Hall. You have to rock the boat if it’s going in the wrong direction, and you have to fight City Hall when it isn’t taking care of it’s citizens.
It’s not easy to be a Christian. Oh, it’s easy enough to come to church and worship on Sunday mornings, and attend events, and give some money, and donate time and talents. What’s hard is living differently from the expectations of the world around us. What’s hard is to struggle with doing the right thing, especially when that right thing just seems counter-intuitive. What’s hard is to be counter-cultural, to stand up against the tide and speak for those who have no voice or whose voices are discounted.
For example, some of us struggle with the reality of privilege. We struggle with trying to recognize when our whiteness, or gender, or sexual orientation, is gaining us some advantage over others who are not white or not male or not cis-gender or not straight. The difficulty is that we can’t always tell when privilege is at work. Usually someone else has to point it out to us. I learned a lot about it when I was married to a Native American. If we went into a government office, for example, the clerks almost always spoke to me, as if he wasn’t even there. Even a trip to Walmart was different when I went by myself than when he was with me. The worst case, though, was in a Disciples congregation in another state. When we went together we were welcomed, and invited for coffee, and told to come back. When he went back alone, they literally turned their backs on him. That was a blatant case of racism, obviously, but it is also an example of privilege, of how my whiteness made a difference in how we were treated.
It’s hard to be an ally, because as a white, cis-gender, Christian woman I don’t have the right to speak for my sisters and brothers who are not white and cis-gender and Christian - a mistake way too many of us make. I want to, make no mistake. I want to speak up for my friends who are persons of color, or Muslim, or Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and so on. But my reality, my life experience is not theirs. I cannot speak for them. I do, however, have an obligation to support them in any way that I can. And even just that can bring out those swords Jesus was talking about. That can bring opposition even from within the Church, even within our own denomination, and in my case, it has brought anger and rejection from within my own family.
My brothers and sisters, Jesus calls us to follow him, to live as he lived, to speak against oppression and for justice. Jesus asks for nothing less than everything we are - our lives, our talents and gifts, our hearts, and our souls. Let us go from this place re-dedicated to doing God’s work, and to following God’s commandments, to love God with all of our beings, and to love one another, as we also are loved.