There’s a hymn we sing occasionally–They Cast Their Nets In Galilee. As a child, it struck me as incredibly dark and depressing. The text goes:
They cast their nets in Galilee
Just off the hills of brown
Such happy, simple fisherfolk
Before the Lord came down…
It goes on to detail how every nice fisherman ends up graphically martyred at the hands of the Romans, for a whole verse, while you sing to this lovely, lilting tune. How morbid! TeenMegan thought, Why in the world would we put this in the hymnal?!
Then I spent a summer living and working with Palestinian Christians, came home, was an emotional wreck, and heard the hymn again. “Oh my Lord, that is the most accurate description of the Christian life EVER”.
The final stanza says:
The peace of God,
it is no peace,
but strife closed in the sod.
Yet let us pray for but one thing–
the marvelous peace of God.
Here’s what I said on “strife closed in the sod” Sunday.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
August 18, 2019
Ordinary Time, Year C, Proper 15
Luke 12: 49-56
Occasionally, I like to imagine the chaos that would unfold if Jesus returned today. Particularly, I like to imagine the headache that would be involved in being Jesus’s PR advisor. Counseling him on how to shrink down his teachings for Twitter, how to hang out with the most select group of people, how to be popular and suave and make good appearances on the late-night-talk shows. And all the while, Jesus is relentlessly telling inscrutable parables, hanging out with illiterate smelly rowdy fishermen and mouthy women, and frustrating the heck out of everyone. (though—this would probably be a really great SNL sketch premise.)
This section of the gospel sounds very-unJesusy. It’s not the kindly Good Shepherd we’re used to—its the Jesus in the Temple and throwing over tables, and chastising the other Pharisees. This is the Jesus that it’s hard to book on the morning talk shows, because this Jesus clearly cannot stick to our beloved “both sides” narrative.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was kindled!” “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth! No, I tell you— I have not come to bring peace, but division!”
This Jesus will not get invited back to Anderson Cooper.
On the one hand, Jesus is explaining to the disciples here something that has happened. It is a descriptive statement, more than a proscriptive. For the disciples, yes—Jesus didn’t exactly make their lives more peaceful. He turned them upside down. He caused Peter and Andrew to abandon the family fishing business, and James and John to frustrate their mother when Jesus told her that greatness was not what she envisioned. Most of the disciples did not live long and happy lives—they were martyred at some point. Division was the natural result of what Jesus did. So, in one sense, he is describing what the disciples had already experienced, and what the early church that Luke was writing to had also experienced.
But also, Jesus is pointing to a deeper truth—one that we sometimes have trouble hearing in our “both sides” world. Sometimes, conflict is needed. Sometimes, conflict can bring us closer to God. That may seem counterintuitive, especially right now, when conflict is all around us, and it feels like people are yelling day and night. But I think Jesus is reminding us that pursuing God’s reign will stir up conflict, and that we shouldn’t fear that.
Because too often, especially as Church, we prioritize peace and calm over the Reign of God. We confuse the silence of no one objecting with the peace that passes all understanding that Jesus promises. But all too frequently, in this world, that sort of silence is made from people not being free to speak—and not from actual agreement. It is not the peace of justice, and it is not a peace we can be comfortable with.
But when we make it our goal—when we make our goal keeping everyone happy and comfortable and quiet, rather than pursuing justice, love, and mercy—those things that Jesus taught us, then we fall far short of the Kingdom, and we fall short of what God wants for us.
During the Civil War—every American Protestant denomination split in two in this country. At least in two. Over the issue of slavery. The debate over whether it was permissible in God’s sight to own another human being was so divisive that every church—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Moravian, you name it—had it out, fought long and hard, and ultimately, split apart. Except for us.
The Episcopal Church, alone of all the non-Catholic American churches, didn’t split. The Southern dioceses left, during succession, but they trickled back, and were readmitted as if nothing had happened. Each time General Convention tried to discuss the morality of slavery, the issue was tabled as too divisive, too painful. We had bishops who served as generals in the Confederate Army, after all.
The legacy of that today, is that we alone never made a statement against slavery as a church. We maintained our unity and our peace as a church, but that was bought by ignoring the humanity of our enslaved brothers and sisters, and our complicity in this sinful system. We bought peace through sin.
I don’t know if we would have stayed unified had we debated slavery. We have a much higher ecclesiology than other Protestant churches, so it’s difficult to say. And also, unity is a good unto itself as well—I don’t mean to pretend it’s not.
But I do know that when following Jesus, we cannot be afraid of conflict. We cannot build God’s kingdom upon oppression, and when we pursue the path of justice and true peace, conflict will naturally come with it. While Jesus commands us to love one another, that command means we have to all love one another, we have to will the flourishing of everyone.
That commitment will mean we have to pick sides—not red or blue, not Republican or Democrat, but the side of humanity versus the forces who would tear it down. The side of life versus the forces of death. The side of the weak versus the powerful. The side of the oppressed versus the oppressor. Neutrality, and sitting on the fence, does not bring about the kingdom. All it does is achieve silence, and call it peace.
If we want the peace that Christ promises, the peace that passes all understanding, the peace which the world cannot give—that was the other thing he said—then we have to be brave, and willing to rock the boat a bit. Choose sides. Brave conflict for the sake of the gospel. Because whenever we wade into the struggle, siding with the poor and the marginalized, the helpless and the victim, there we shall find the Jesus who caused so much conflict as to be put to death by an empire. There we shall find the God who became human so we would never be alone in our struggles. When we side with the powerless, there, we will find our peace, and there, we will find the Kingdom.