Divided Loyalties

A sermon given by Rev. Dr. Peter A. Luckey on Sunday, June 25, 2017

So I want you to hear Jesus’s words again, the words he said to his disciples. The words he said: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace. I’ve come to bring a sword. I have come to put man against his father. I have come to put the daughter against her mother. And whoever loves my mother and father more than me is not worthy of me.” Really? Seriously? Jesus? You’re asking us to preach this to the congregation today, to the congregation listening on the radio? Are you teaching us to hate our families? Are you encouraging us to pit ourselves against one another? Every Sunday we gather here and we say the words of the Plymouth Covenant, “In the love of truth and in the spirit of Jesus, but how is this the spirit of Jesus? The spirit of Jesus is to love one another, not pit ourselves against one another.

So how do we handle this lesson, this text? You perhaps heard the phrase, “You cherry pick scripture.” That’s a cliché, but what it means is that you take the scriptures that you like and you ignore or dismiss the ones that you don’t like. And maybe what the preacher does is cherry pick the sermons that he or she is going to preach and the scripture that he or she doesn’t want to preach on and you hand it over to the Associate Pastor. I should have given this to Eleanor!

How do we make sense of this text?  Before we’re ready to dispense it, before we’re ready to say how could Jesus have said this, let’s be reminded that there are people, Christians, that we know and love throughout the centuries, who indeed have sacrificed their lives and their family relationships for the sake of the Gospel. Let us think about what we can learn from them before we just ignore this text.

In 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, there was a bus boycott. It was the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. At that time in the South, as many of you know, if you were Black you had to sit in the back of the bus. Imagine the indignity of always having to sit in the back of the bus because of the color of your skin. There’s a movie that came out in 1990 called “The Long Walk Home.” The movie tells the story of the people that were involved in the bus boycott. Some of those people had to walk so far from their job to their home because they didn’t have other transportation. For some of those folks the churches they attended were divided, not just the churches but their own families. Can you imagine participating in the boycott and then walking miles home from work, only to be greeted with coldness and stares at the front door. This has happened and continues to happen. Be mindful of many of our gay lesbian transgendered friends who finally have come to the place of recognizing they are beloved of God and celebrate that, wanting to shout that out to the world, and yet their own families have not welcomed them in their new faith.

Think about young people, thinking about the career they’re going to choose or the pressure they’ve received from their parents, the aspirations that mom and dad have placed upon them to achieve a high, lucrative high status career. For somewhere along the line they heard a call from Jesus to go and serve the least of these, and they turned their back on the high career and did something like join the Peace Corps. But now the family dinner table conversation isn’t the same, the laughter, the jokes are gone and there’s a pall that hangs over the family life. We all know people that have made difficult decisions where they have experienced themselves being pitted against their fathers or their mothers. It’s a lowly place to be, which is why the text that Megan read this morning from the Hebrew scriptures is so pertinent and relevant. The text from Jeremiah, you remember, he didn’t want to be God’s spokesperson. He didn’t want this job, but he took this job, and when he spoke of God’s truth he was ostracized and banished from the community. It was painful for him and lonely for him. And here we listen to the text this morning. Jeremiah’s complaining to God, saying God had become a laughing stock all day long. Everyone mocks me. Jesus says, “I come not to bring peace on earth but have come to bring a sword.” That’s what he’s talking about.

So let’s just look at this text for a minute and let’s look at it in terms of what it meant two thousand years ago to the first community that heard it. That’s the community, Matthew’s community, early Christians. For them family was everything. It was your economic livelihood. Can you imagine separating from your family, especially in those days, a long time ago? But many of those early Christians did separate from their family, suffered that loss. You see, Matthew was writing to a community that is under intense opposition, an incredible pressure, economic, social, political, religious pressure. This is a community of people that many were Jews and now they’re Christians. This is a community that’s receiving the oppression of the Roman Empire all around them. They are besieged on every side, so they know something about what this text means. And it may have been when they heard these words from Jesus they found some comfort because they said, “Look, Jesus understands what we’re going through, what we’re facing.” Jesus had to face the same thing, didn’t he? It gave them strength and courage when they were being paralyzed by fear.

But what does it mean to us today? We do not live in a culture where we are the minority religion, at least not in the United States. Christians are minorities in other countries and some countries are being persecuted for their faith. But that said, it’s true that if you really want to follow Jesus, even in this culture, you really are going to be counter cultural. You’re going to put yourself at odds with people around you if you take the Gospel really seriously.

The message today—maybe not really quite the same as it was 2000 years ago—but the message today is how difficult the choice is, and notice Jesus does not make this an easy choice. It’s not a choice between should I teach Sunday School or should I sell crack cocaine? It’s not a choice between should I go on the service trip to South Dakota or should I go rob a bank? No! It’s a choice between two loyalties in our lives, and Jesus is asking you to choose. Make a choice. And making a choice about things that matter is the hardest thing for us to do. Sue Monk Kidd in her book, “The Secret Life of Bees,” writes. “The hardest thing on earth is to choose what matters.” We can’t have it both ways. We can’t limp along being good citizens of the culture, collecting our Rotary pins and claiming ourselves at the same time to be followers of Christ. If we say we’re followers of Christ, but nothing is ever asked of us, nor is anything ever demanded from us, then how can we say we really are following in the path of Christ? But as Brennan Manning says, “Jesus has no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.” Jesus says, “I have come not to bring peace but the sword.” What we need to hear this morning is if we really seriously believe in the Gospel, if we really believe we are to embody God’s radical love for the world, to bring about God’s reign in the world, in this world that is fraught with injustice and cruelty, we can’t make a compromise with the other desires of our hearts. We may not be able to have our cake and eat it too.

That’s how the people saw it that were involved in the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, those people that signed on for the boycott and risked the ridicule of their families and the scorn of the people around them and their church communities. They were willing to make that long walk to work because they knew in their heart of hearts that being forced to sit in the back of the bus any longer was an affront to human dignity, an affront to all that Jesus came and he lived and he died. “I have come not to bring peace but the sword.”

So why does the Gospel place before us such difficult dilemmas? Why must we be in agony over what it means to be faithful as Christians? It’s childish to say that God does this, or Jesus does this, just to make us squirm. That’s a childish response. But try on these two ideas: that is, if we’re going to be the change that we seek in the world, a world that we hope would be more just and more loving, it’s not going to happen if we don’t commit ourselves 100%. Half measures are not going to get the job done. Jesus went all the way. He gave his all. He’s asking us to do the same.

Listen to these words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who expressed great disappointment with white moderates during the Civil Rights era. These were folks that wanted to be good Christians and good citizens at the same time, and here’s what he said:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.

King is saying half measures are not going to get the job done. One reason has to do with the world and the way it is. But the other reason has to do with ourselves, for the truth is we don’t like to see how much fear dictates our lives and our choices, how timid we are, how stubborn we can be, because we want to hold on to all the options. We want to hold all our cards. We’re terrified to play them and make the wrong choice. And yet what the Gospel teaches us is that the choice is at the core of life. Choices must be made and the most important choices are the choices about things that matter, about things that God wants of us and wants from us. Choosing what matters, that’s what this sermon is all about.

And we celebrate this morning people that making choices for discipleship, Stephen Ministers that are willing to enter into the pain and agony of other people, to put their own comfort at some risk, to walk that journey with people in need. It’s not easy to do, my friends. People in our congregation are willing to walk the path of justice and risk relationships and even close friendships for that difficult work. It’s not easy work to do. It can cost you. But still the dilemma is placed before us to choose what matters, to choose to follow the path of Christ over against everything else. “I have not come to bring peace to the earth but the sword.”

Now let me say one last thing. Embedded in the demand from Jesus is a promise and the promise is this: when we give it all up for something that really matters, there’s sacrifice and there’s pain and there’s cost, but there’s also the discovery of a life that we never knew we had. We lose ourselves only to find ourselves a deeper truer self. And secondly, maybe add this: that when we live in Jesus’s way, when our lives are completely in concert with the life of Christ, we experience in ourselves a peace, a serenity that goes beyond all human understanding. When you do what you’re called to do, when you know you’re doing what God wants you to do, it is truly an Easter experience. Amen.

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