The downside of this #sermondump is that the summer was so filled with news events that influenced the sermons, that a few of them make less sense when lifted out of context.
Take, for example, this sermon. I wrote it in the midst of the healthcare debate, as the Senate had just voted to open debate on repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act, and it looked like the uninsured rate would again skyrocket, along with premium costs. (This didn’t end up happening, praise God. Though it looks like they’re about to try again and 2017 has been crazy, so who even knows? Perhaps we’ll all end up going to specialist zombie doctors before the reconciliation period ends on September 30.)
The larger point, however, still stands. The idea that you can absent yourself from ‘politics’ or ‘divisiveness’ is, to a very large extent, a function of privilege and power. When you aren’t ‘divisive’, that doesn’t imply you aren’t taking a stance; it just means you’re taking a silent stance in support of the status-quo. That, too, is political.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
June 25, 2017
Ordinary Time, Proper 7
So, WHY does the gospel produce such division?
There are readings after which it is difficult, if not impossible, to respond with “Thanks be to God!” Usually, they are the ones where a prophet is pronouncing imminent doom on the chosen people, or something horrible has happened, or Jesus has just told that one parable about the dishonest steward who comes out ahead. These aren’t really stories we feel like affirming in the moment with much gratitude, you know?
And depending on how you feel this week has gone in the world, this might not be a gospel reading you want to affirm either. Families being torn apart, communities turning on one another, Jesus’ message producing division and not harmony–none of this is particularly comforting, and at the close of a week where comfort has been hard to come by, expressing gratitude for this particular reading might be a tad difficult.
Jesus is telling his disciples that life isn’t going to be easy–that the good news they have to deliver to the world will not produce the rapturous applause they expect, but will produce divisions, betrayal and hardship. If they’ve called him the devil, then they’re going to call you the same.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth–I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and on and on.”
This isn’t the sort of thing you can inscribe in a Hallmark card. “Deepest sympathies on your tough time. Sorry you lost your family member. Remember, Jesus they were probably going to turn on you anyway.”
The pressing question this raises is why? Why would all this be happening? Why should the gospel–which, is literally good news–be greeted with anything other than joy? Why, instead, is Jesus giving out dire warnings about what’s going to happen?
And to be clear, I don’t think that this passage is some sort of apocalyptic prophecy of some specific round of Christian persecution. Matthew’s community was undergoing several rounds of Roman oppression, so this was, in a sense, more of a description of current events than a proscription of what was to come. So that would partially answer the ‘why?’ question–The Romans don’t like Christians because they seem disloyal to Rome, which placed a lot of stock on people seeing Caesar as a god. Because Christians (also Jews) didn’t, they were tantamount to traitors. And presto–lots of bad stuff ends up happening.
So while there’s a level of specificity to its context here, there’s also a timeless element. Because there is also a sense in which the gospel of Christ is also not popular now. There is a sense in which it again causes divisions. Remember what Jesus told the disciples to do last Sunday, as he sent them out: When you go, take nothing with you, rely on the kindness of strangers. In every town that welcomes you, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and announce that the kingdom of God has come near. You received without payment, so give without payment.
That sounds awesome–very exciting, everyone on board, right? But transpose this to America. What do you think would happen if the disciples were to wander into St. Luke’s hospital, and announce that those doctors need to start healing the sick without payment, because this was the Kingdom of God, and God wanted everyone to have life and life abundant?
What do you think would happen if they were to wander into the Senate and say that same thing as this healthcare bill is on the floor? What do you think would happen?
Here’s the thing–it’s not that these hypothetical doctors at St. Luke’s are evil, and I don’t even think the Senate is evil (though I would have told you differently on Thursday.). We know they’re not. But we have a system, we have a way of life, that we really can’t exempt ourselves from. And here comes Jesus, with his demands and pie in the sky thinking, and Jesus asks us to do radical things that threaten our system. And whenever you question a system, that’s how you get those divisions.
The problem we struggle with is that we have no perfect choices when we follow Christ, and we never do. There is no choice that we can make, when we follow Christ that will deliver us to a life free of struggle and pain, a life free of trying to find the least-bad compromise. As humans, this is what we have.
We err, though, when we pretend that by not making a choice, we can avoid the struggle. That by ignoring the dilemma we can avoid all the mess. Christ calls us to follow him, and part of that means making choices, even if both options are less than great.
Stan and I were talking about his trip to Greece, and he was telling me about this game the Roman soldiers used to play as recruits. It was called the Basilisk game, and the winner would get everything he wanted for 3-4 days: food, better bedding, anything. On the third day, he was killed in front of his regiment. The idea was to illustrate to the soldiers that they had no purpose but to kill, no worth outside of fighting.
This is part of the context that Matthew writes his gospel–to a group of Gentile converts some of whom would have been former soldiers. They didn’t have many good choices either–they too were products of a really awful system. Maybe they didn’t try to profit off the sick and the poor, but they definitely had death panels. Christ still called them to pick up their cross and follow.
We don’t get a perfect world–we get this one. We make choices to follow Christ in this world, and we have to decide what that means in this broken, mixed up, traumatized world. In our world, in our place, when we proclaim the gospel, even with our imperfect choices, it will cause turmoil. It will cause struggle. Other Christians may make different imperfect choices–so we talk about that. But we still have to choose.
What is clear is that we have to figure out what the gospel means for us, for our time and place, and we have to act on it. Even in a broken world, with bad choices, Christ still calls us to take up our cross and follow, in the hopes that together, we can mend it all into wholeness.