What’s the job description?
One of the things we were going to do shortly after I came to Good Shepherd was work on my job description. Since I’m here on a half-time basis, we knew we needed to talk about what parts of our ministry here are the biggest priorities for the pastor’s attention. But then we went into lock-down. Although, it’s probably good we didn’t have time to get to that job description because we’d have to change it anyway. Who knew that Zoom technology and creating worship – and everything else – on line was going to be a thing?!
But there are some parts of a pastor’s job description that are just a given. Like preaching – which has often been described as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. And there’s no doubt that this gospel reading today is definitely afflictive. Yes, there’s comfort in there, too. But seriously, who keeps listening after “Don’t suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword”?
This text is why pastors, if they’re smart, go on vacation this week and avoid having to preach on it. I mean, here we have a version of Jesus that is glaringly inconsistent with what we’re used to. Is this the same Jesus we sing about at Christmas as the ‘Prince of Peace’? The same Rabbi Jesus who taught about the unconditional love of God and the inclusivity of God’s realm? Who prayed in his farewell prayer: “that they may all be one”? Who is this Jesus who says, “Do you think I’m here to bring peace? No, just the opposite; I’ve come to bring division”? This just doesn’t track.
It Never Was About That Kind of Peace
Although, if we know our gospel stories, we know the ministry of Jesus really has never been peaceful, as in keeping the peace at any price. Remember the story of Jesus’ first act of public proclamation, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah: “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” That was all well and good, very inspiring. But after declaring what was, in effect, his mission statement, Jesus follows up with a biting criticism of the religious community. At which point, the crowd turns on him and tries to throw him off a cliff.
Even so, this text today is unsettling. And frankly, with the divisions we see in our country right now, it doesn’t seem very helpful. Although we should have had an inkling of this. In last week’s gospel we read that Jesus sent out the original disciples to proclaim that the realm of heaven had come near. And I said we’re probably in for a bumpy summer, in this season of growth in discipleship, since some of these teachings of Jesus will be very challenging to us – as they were meant to be. They are meant to be ingested and allowed to seep totally into our bodies, minds, and spirits as we ponder what it means to live in and proclaim that the realm of God is here.
I also said that the transformation that such a process brings is one that is internal – our own spiritual awareness as beloved – and external. our actions in the world to proclaim the Beloved Community. Now today we find out that there could be a cost for doing any of that. “Do not suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I’ve come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law. One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household.”
Who wants to be a . . . disciple?
Do you know the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” I guess it’s still on, but it’s not the wildly popular version that was on primetime TV as many as four nights a week. I don’t need to go into the details of the game; the title makes it obvious. The hoped-for outcome is to literally become a millionaire. Who wouldn’t want to do that?
For some reason this show popped into my head when I was reading over the gospel last week. When Jesus encounters Simon and Andrew and then James and John and calls out to them, I imagine him saying –in his best Regis Philbin impression – “Who wants to be a disciple?”. Those first twelve obviously said that they did. But I started to wonder if Jesus had also approached others, who after hearing what the job and some of the consequences of discipleship would be, replied, “Who would want to do that?”
But here we are. We’ve obviously said yes to the call to follow Jesus. Why else are we here? But I’m sure we have questions about our job description, especially when it’s something as difficult to understand as the “not peace but a sword” business.
The first thing we need to do is understand the Jewishness of Jesus.
If we dig just a little into Jesus’ Jewish roots, we get a much better understanding of what he’s talking about. His listeners and Matthew’s readers would have gotten it right away, but we modern readers have been clueless. Episcopal bishop and prolific author John Shelby Spong wrote a book about just this. It’s got a mouthful of a title, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy: A Journey into a New Christianity through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel, but what he’s done is explain how events in the life of Jesus would have been understood by the people of his day, how Jewish culture, symbols, and storytelling tradition permeate the Christian tradition, too.
He doesn’t use today’s Matthew text as an example, but I consulted The Annotated Jewish New Testament. And lo and behold, there it was: a reference to a section of the Talmud, which is a compilation of the writings of historic rabbis expounding on the meaning of the Hebrew Bible – and within it, a reference to one of the Old Testament prophets. Here’s part of what Rabbi Eliezer the Great had to say:
In the period preceding the coming of the messiah,
insolence will increase and the cost of living will go up greatly;
vines will yield fruit, but wine will be expensive; the government will turn to heresy,
and there will be no one to rebuke. The wisdom of the learned will rot,
fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be lacking.
Then he quotes the prophet Micah:
For son spurns father, daughter rises up against mother,
daughter-in-law against mother-in-law;
a man’s own household are his enemies.
Sound familiar? Rabbi Eliezer then concludes:
Upon whom shall we depend? Upon our father who is in heaven.
Believe it or not, these writings were meant to bring hope to a beleaguered people. Micah lived at the same time as the prophet Isaiah, when the Assyrian empire threatened and consequently invaded the nation of Judah. 150 years later, in the time of the prophet Jeremiah, Micah was reworked to address the Babylonian invasion and exile. And now Jesus brings them to bear in his time, with Judah under the heel of the Roman empire.
All of these prophets, including Jesus in one of his roles, lived in a time of upheaval. Their descriptions of doom and gloom were often more descriptive of what was already happening than prophesies of things to come. Remember that ‘prophet’, as it’s used in the Bible, doesn’t mean a predictor of the future (other than reading the signs of the times), but someone who calls the people back into right relationship with God. And if ‘disciple’ is a tough job description, think about the poor prophet. We read Jeremiah’s lament, as he tried to convey his message only to be mocked and ignored. Yet he ends by saying, “Sing to God, praise to God, who has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the corrupt!”
And think of Isaiah, who begins right off in Chapter 1 with doom and gloom:
Oh, what are a sinful nation you are! A people weighed down with injustice! You’re a gang of thugs, corrupt children who abandoned and despised me and turned your backs on me! Why do you invite more punishment? Why do you persist in more rebellion? You have a massive head wound, your heart is completely diseased; there is nothing healthy in you, from the top of your head to the sole of your foot.
But then later comes forth with:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare God’s way, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground will become level, and the rough places a plain. Then God’s glory will be revealed, and all people will see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.’
Finally . . . comforting the afflicted
All of this has been the long way around to get to the ‘comfort the afflicted’ part of these teachings of Jesus. It’s clear from all of this that there is comfort and reassurance to be found in the midst of affliction. Jesus rightly gives full disclosure on what following him would mean.
Sometimes proclaiming the realm of heaven – that is, life right here and now – won’t be popular. For example, a couple of years ago, the Lutheran Church of the Reformation in Washington DC, put on their sign for Trinity Sunday, which was also Pride Sunday: “Thank the Holy Trinity for God’s Whole Diverse Creation – Happy and Blessed Pride!!! That got them onto the “Exposing the ELCA” website which says the congregation and the sign are shameful, tragic, and an apostasy (a renunciation of our Christian belief).
No peace, but a sword. Get used to it.
Then there’s Pastor Lenny Duncan’s book, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US, which includes the chapter: “Jesus Was Divisive.” In an interview, he criticizes congregations pushing to open churches before it’s safe: “The most compassionate action right now is intentional social distancing. That’s what Jesus would be telling us to do if we were gathering.”
I learned of a church that planned to reopen today (not in this area) in spite of the fact that their pastor has a medical condition that puts her at risk. It made me wonder about the decision-making process of that congregation, if anyone had stood up for the safety of the pastor – and other vulnerable members of the church. We’re called to lose our lives for the sake of the gospel but I don’t think this is what Jesus had in mind.
I can’t repeat all the language, but Lenny Duncan calls (let’s say) baloney on the idea of Christian unity, where people will set aside the agenda of God in the name of Christian niceness. And he says,
If we are dividing what is life-giving from what is empire,
if we are dividing what is of God from what isn’t,
if we are dividing what is love from what is hate,
then we are walking the path of our Savior.
In order to find your life, you must lose it.
It really comes down to how we define peace. If it’s going along to get along, that’s not true peace. Jesus ends this portion of his teaching with the enigmatic saying:
You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose their life for my sake will find it.
That might seem to make no sense, but the truth is when you give yourself over to the ways of God, it might feel like you are losing your life – your autonomy, your independence. But in reality, you’re gaining your life – a real, true, fulfilled life of being in unity with all of creation, of heaven and earth. And the work you do in the world will flow from this divine, unified presence.
So yes, the way of discipleship may often be challenging. If you’re looking for a nice, comfortable religion, where you can sit back and relax – this isn’t it. If you’re looking for a church that will provide you with spiritual nurture but won’t ask for your help in creating a better world – this isn’t it. If you think that being a Christian means you’ll always be happy and peaceful and contented and never have any more problems – nope. No more difficulties – nope. Maybe even disagreement – yep. Maybe even real peacemaking – yep.
The old saying of the purpose of preaching the gospel is clichéd but true: that it is ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’ And sometimes we’re both at the same time. We will sometimes feel afflicted. But we can always find the comfort that God offers us. Jesus told us about it when he taught that the realm of heaven has come near and it’s among us. It’s within you and me and all of us together.
Don’t be afraid!
Being a follower of Jesus is serious business. Thankfully, God takes us seriously and is with us in all our endeavors. We can be comforted in many ways by this. And we need to rely on that comfort as we go about the work of discipleship. Jesus said:
Don’t let anyone intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed;
nothing is hidden that won’t be made known. Don’t be afraid of anything –
you are more valuable than an entire flock of sparrows.
You are God’s beloved. You are part of the Beloved Community. You have lost your life in the water of baptism and risen to new a life of discipleship. Don’t be afraid.
“A student is not superior to the teacher, nor a servant above the master. The student should be glad simply to become like the teacher, the servant like the master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of the household!
“Don’t let people intimidate you. Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, and nothing is hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in darkness, speak in the light. What you hear in private, proclaim from the housetops.
“Do not fear those who can deprive the body of life but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Are not the sparrows sold for pennies? Yet not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Abba’s knowledge. As for you, every hair of your head has been counted. So don’t be afraid of anything – you are worth more value than an entire flock of sparrows.
“Whoever acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Abba in heaven. Whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before God in heaven.
“Do not suppose that I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to turn a son against his father, a daughter against her mother, in-law against in-law.
“One’s enemies will be the members of one’s own household. Those who love father or mother, daughter or son more than me are not worthy of me. Those who will not take up the cross – following in my footsteps – are not worthy of me. You who have found your life will lose it, and you who lose their life for my sake will find it.”