A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on August 14, 2022 (Proper 15, Year C)
It’s been said that these years of pandemic living have been greatly revealing. They have revealed deep cultural, political, and racial division within our society. They have revealed deep division between and among those who call themselves Christians. They have revealed deep division between and among family members and friends who watch different news programs.
And so at first glance, Jesus’ words this morning seem to only be adding fuel to the tinderbox of our lives. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” It’s hard not to hear that and think, ‘It’s okay, Jesus, we already have plenty of division to go around. You really don’t need to bring any more, thank you very much. When it comes to division, we’re good.’ So these are hard words to hear.
And as deeply divided as we are, it’s important to remember that Jesus’ initial hearers had no lack of division in their own lives as well. They didn’t have cable news and social media, but they did have conditions which led to a divided society: oppression, persecution, leaders preying on vulnerable populations. There were wars and slavery, famine and abuse. In other words, the whole economic and political landscape wasn’t much different than what we experience here in America, and where you sat on the issues of the day depended upon your own status and place in society.
To hear Jesus talk about bringing even more division into an already divided society must have raised some eyebrows back then, just as it does for us. You’d think people would be hoping for more of a unifier, a healer, someone who would bridge the gap of division, rather than encouraging more division.
But let’s look at this. It’s true that we sometimes hold up unity as a kingdom value. In church meetings we strive for consensus, at Thanksgiving dinner we agree to disagree in order to keep the peace, with certain friends religion and politics are topics to be avoided. Sometimes our fear of division causes us to concede a point or sugarcoat hard truths. Sometimes unity is not the path of Jesus.
Here’s an example. During the Civil War, many Protestant denominations split over the question of slavery. That’s why you’ve got Southern Baptists and Northern Baptists, for instance. The Episcopal Church didn’t split over the question and stayed united. Now, at one level, that’s great. There was no division — I mean, there was division with Episcopalians fighting on both sides. But there was no split, no schism. And you could argue that there should have been. That if the church boldly stood up for the Biblical vision of equality and justice, it would have and perhaps should have split. So unity was maintained, but at a high moral cost. The late Harold Lewis, a priest and chronicler of the black experience in the Episcopal Church once referred to the church at this time in its history as a non-prophet organization. That’s p-r-o-p-h-e-t. I’m not saying it would have ultimately been better for the church if it split, if there was a northern branch and a southern one. But sometimes unity does not serve the gospel. And sometimes division does.
So what exactly is this division that Jesus brings? Well, you’ll be glad to know that it has nothing to do with how you vote or what cable news show you watch. And he’s not encouraging even more division in our lives. He’s not telling us to shun those who disagree with us. But he is acknowledging that love — radical, life-giving, life-transforming love — isn’t always well received. Sometimes people recoil in the face of love.
The reality is that few things are more divisive than love and grace and forgiveness in the face of oppression and anger and fear. Jesus’ message of divine love can cause division because it holds up a mirror to all the places where love is not being pursued with reckless abandon. It’s why preaching peace when people are hungry for war causes division; it’s why preaching acceptance when people are determined to hate causes division. Jesus offers unity in love but the message isn’t always received. It’s not always an easy path but we are encouraged, as Paul writes, to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” We must persevere in preaching love to the world even when it causes more division than unity. At least in the short term.
During the late 1970s, a group of women in Argentina started a non-violent protest in the capital plaza to highlight the brutality of the military regime. Known as the Mothers of the Disappeared, they were mothers of those who had been tortured and killed by death squads at the direction of the country’s dictator. They would gather and hold up placards with the words of Scripture, offering a message of love in the face of violent oppression. While they were driven out, they played a major role in highlighting the abuses taking place in their country. This is the kind of division that Jesus brings, a division of love.
So, the gospel is a gospel of peace, but preaching it and living it doesn’t always bring peace. Again, unconditional love and the grace of forgiveness are divisive for those who don’t embrace such values. When you stand up for justice there will always be people who want to tear you down. Ask the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Ask Martin Luther King. Ask the Mothers of the Disappeared. There is a cost to living out a gospel life in the world. And when you live a life dedicated to Jesus’ way of love, you will at times be reviled for it. People will wonder why you waste your time going to church. Or why you won’t just let it go when someone makes a racist joke. Or why you give your money to causes they don’t think will make a difference. And suddenly, your living a gospel life brings, if not full-on division, at least tension with others in your lives. Friends or family members, neighbors or colleagues. This is the cost of discipleship, the cost of baptism. And we all pay it, if we follow the way of Jesus, if we “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” But it is division rooted in love. Division that demands justice. Division that transforms lives.