A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on June 25, 2017 (Proper 7A)
If you were a child of the ’70’s, ’80’s, or 90’s you probably grew up listening to Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 Countdown. It would come on pop radio stations all across the country every weekend. I’m not sure what the exact formula used to calculate the order was — something to do with record sales and radio airplay — but that only added to the mystery as the suspense built before the grand announcement of the “Number One Song in the Land.”
Kasem had a distinct voice — kind of classic 1950’s DJ — tinged with over-the-top enthusiasm. As if he himself couldn’t wait for the great reveal of the week’s most popular song. I also discovered a mind-blowing fact this week: Casey Kasem was the voice behind Shaggy on Scooby Do.
But I mention Casey Kasem and his wonderfully alliterative name and America’s fascination with lists because I started wondering about Jesus’ greatest hits. I’m not sure which of his quotes would make the top 40 but surely the list would include such popular statements as, “Blessed are the peacemakers” and “Love your enemies” and “I am the way and the truth and the life” and maybe “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The list goes on and on. Or, put another way, the hits just keep on coming.
But what you won’t find among the top 40, is a quote we hear this morning: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Wait, what?! What happened to the “love your neighbor as yourself” thing? Or “turn the other cheek?”
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That is definitely not on the list. And it’s something that, quite frankly, I really wish Jesus hadn’t said. Because as a preacher, it puts me in a bit of a pickle. I could just ignore it, of course, and hope no one noticed. I could divert your attention by talking about something completely different. Like Scooby Do.
But that’s a cop out. We can’t tune out the more challenging parts of Scripture and only deal with the parts we like; we have to lean into them. So let’s take a closer look at this passage. It’s a pretty tough one all the way around. Not only do we hear the line about this peacemaker bringing a sword, but we also hear an interesting approach to family relationships.
Jesus says in no uncertain terms, “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.” That doesn’t sound like what politicians and evangelicals had in mind when the term “family values” became a political buzzword in the 1990’s — around the same time as Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” was topping the charts. I might add.
But perhaps what troubles me most about this passage, and the quote at its heart, is the truth embedded within it. We want Jesus to be the Jesus of stained glass and Footprints in the Sand. We want him to be our sweet shepherd who bucks us up when we’re feeling blue and comforts us in our affliction. And he is that. But when we ignore the fact that life is difficult, that evil has the potential to ensnare us, that we need this Jesus who comes bearing a sword, we end up selling our faith short.
We end up domesticating our faith into something nice and precious but fail to recognize it for what it really is and must be: something life-giving and transformative. The sword Jesus wields with his presence in our lives isn’t a weapon of destruction. It’s not used to smite anyone or beat people into submission.
I mean, we already know what Jesus does with actual swords — he beats them into plowshares. He turns implements of violence into instruments of peace. The sword Jesus wields is not a sword that kills but rather a metaphorical sword that divides justice from injustice, faith from fear, love from hate. And in so doing, relationships based on anything but the love of God can be overturned in an instant.
So this sword isn’t used as a weapon but as an edge of hard truth. This sword Jesus bears is not turned on people, it’s not rattled to evoke fear or threaten; but it is used as an exacto knife to cut out falsehood and hypocrisy, to slice away injustice. It is a sword of truth that can and does convict us and pierce our hearts when we fall away from God or ignore the least of these in our midst.
This sword of truth is not used lightly but deliberately and reverently and with intentionality. And it sometimes wreaks havoc in our relationships and in our everyday lives. Following Jesus, following the truth is not for the faint of heart. It leads to conflict. Conflict with a cause, conflict with a purpose, but the Christian life is not about being conflict averse or avoidant. It is about standing up for what is fair and right and noble and true, regardless of the consequences. The thing is, truth telling comes with a price. Jesus came into the world to reveal the truth and paid for it with his life.
Loving Jesus and following Jesus can put you at odds with those closest to you. And that’s hard. Others may not want to hear your views on faith or justice. Consciously or not, they may want to keep the marginalized in society subjugated. And you can’t let that go. You have to speak up, even when it’s hard. Even when it strains relationships within your own circles.
When the truth gets told — the hard truth — not the sugar-coated version, powerful forces often rise up against it and seek to destroy it. Yes, this is precisely what led to the crucifixion. But it’s also what led to the assassination of Martin Luther King. To the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela. To the character assassination of Anita Hill. To the murder of Harvey Milk. To the silencing of so many who work for racial, economic, and environmental justice.
When the truth confronts the evils of racism and sexism and homophobia and anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, and anything else that diminishes or devalues God’s creation, powerful forces are unleashed and it takes strength and courage and a warrior-for-justice mentality to drive them out.
That’s what Jesus is talking about. And he offers us a challenge: Do we as individuals and as a church speak or stay silent? Do we speak hard truths even if it will ruffle some feathers or do we go along to get along? Do we take up this sword in the form of a cross to follow Jesus or do we leave it be for fear of offending sensibilities? These are the hard questions that come with the territory Jesus beckons us into.
Casey Kasem’s signature sign-off was, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.” I don’t exactly know what that means but it does sound aspirational. Keep reaching. We don’t live in a perfect world. But we can do our part by raising our voices and speaking the truth even in the face of difficult situations. By picking up what may well at times be a heavy cross and continuing to follow Jesus. Day after day after day.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2017