I think if you were to ask people what they hope to get out of their faith practice in the short run, many of them might say peace or serenity. There is a certain comfort in worshiping with our brothers and sisters.
The Bible gives us a lot of encouragement along these lines. The prophet Isaiah said that the Messiah would be known as the “Prince of PEACE” (Isaiah 9:6). When Jesus was born, the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth PEACE among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:14). Jesus greeted his disciples by saying, “PEACE be with you” (Luke 24:36; John 20:19).
Today’s reading is not about peace, though. Jesus says “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” This is a scary thought. We come to church looking for peace and find division. What is up with that? “Does it preach?” is another question.
I was reading an article about strategic planning not too long ago, and The co-founder of and former CEO of Southwest Airlines was quoted. Herb Kelleher said “We have a strategic plan for you. It is called doing things.” This was intended as humor, but really he has a point. On some level, all planning is strategic. Some people really do plan to do nothing. This CEO was planning to do things.
So for the sake of my sermon today, consider the most simple of plans. You work someplace, and you decide to do things. I claim that this plan alone is enough to cause stress and create division. Let me explain.
People are comfortable where they are. They don’t want to be challenged. You start talking change, and they start looking for the exit. I am not kidding here. We have all seen this on some level. Episcopalians famously hate two things – the way things are and change.
When I was at Culver Military Academy, I can tell you that we did some things. We had a series of initiatives. We changed the schedule, the grading system, and the the start time for classes.
There are folks who look at change and see it as an indictment of what we used to do. This really misses the point. Something that worked perfectly well in 1986 may not be the best practice of 2016. You keep things if they work and continue to get the job done, but at some point most of us get new cars or computers because they work better or they are better suited to the work we are doing.
I can tell you that some teachers complained about the number of changes and the relentless quality of these change. It caused stress and division. Members of the Math Dept. would favor one textbook series over another. If all you wanted was peace, you might get peace with baggage. I want to talk about that baggage.
After the last General Convention, we stopped using lesser Feasts and Fasts. This was the somewhat modern calendar of saints that was a little controversial. Today is Sunday and so the Feast of Our Lord would be celebrated anyway, but if August 14 fell on another day, Lesser Feasts and Fasts would have had us remembering Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Daniels was a seminarian who went to Alabama in 1965 to work with Civil Rights. He pushed a girl out of the way of a shotgun blast and was killed himself. The collect for his day reads:
O God of justice and compassion, who put down the proud and the Mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one: who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
The words that have stuck with me were the “make no peace with oppression.” I think sometimes we make peace with ugly things in the name of peace. We need to be committed to doing what is right, and sometimes this means conflict and division.
Now I would like to point out that it is Jesus who brings this division. Your neighbor in the cube farm where you work who likes to stir things up may be bringing division, but that is not what we are talking about. We are talking about pushing the envelope to do what is right. We are talking about doing the right thing even if it is hard and makes someone unhappy. The division is not the point, but it is a consequence, and it may be a cost of doing the Lord’s business.
Today’s reading from Hebrews talks about Moses leading the people of Israel through the Red Sea as if on dry land. Let’s think about that story and some of the conflict there. Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go, and God brought ten plagues on Egypt. The Israelites left Egypt, walked through the Red Sea, and the Egyptian soldiers who tried to pursue drowned. So you are thinking “Whoa that is a lot of conflict!”
But wait, that is not all. The Israelites had lots of conflict with Moses, their leader too. When they found the Red Sea at their front and the Egyptians at their rear, they asked Moses: “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:12)
They complained at Marah because the water was bitter (Exodus 15:22-27). Then they complained about being hungry (Exodus 16:3). God sweetened the water at Marah and gave them manna to eat. And then the Amalekites attacked.
You would think that when God decided to save the Israelites, he would also make it easy for them. But He didn’t. He did not make it easy.
Here is the important part. It is the takeaway. God did save the Israelites. He didn’t make it easy for them, but he did save them. They got to the Promised Land. It took awhile, and they had a bumpy journey getting there but they got there.
I mention that because, in our Gospel lesson today, Jesus says:
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.”
I see a parallel between the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness and our journey through life. Even walking with Christ, we often fail to find the peace that we’re looking for. Our journey, too, is often long and bumpy, and sometimes it is really tough.
But wait – there is Good News. That news is that Christ has saved us. Like the Israelites, we are headed for the Promised Land – the kingdom of God.
My takeaways are these:
God loves us and has saved us. Even when things are tough, God has a plan for us.
Working for the Kingdom may cause stress and conflict. We have to do what is right and resist “making peace with oppression.”
We are not called to go looking for it, but conflict happens if we are “doing things.”
I have said these words in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Sermon preached by Fr. Tom at St. Thomas Episcopal – Plymouth
August 14, 2016 Thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost – Proper 15
Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18