Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“The Great Divider”
Rev. Art Ritter
June 21, 2020
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
One of the 20th century prophets that I always admired was Clarence Jordan. Jordan, who died in 1969, left behind a legacy of achievement that continues today. He was a man of genuine faith, standing for his Christian principles in the face of serious opposition. But what I respected about his story was that he always seem to stand by his principles with a great sense of humor.
Jordan was an agricultural major at the University of Georgia and then a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he earned a PhD in New Testament. I first became aware of him when a mentor of mine in seminary would sometimes offer the weekly Scripture reading from Jordan’s folksy but amazingly accurate The Cotton Patch Gospels. Clarence Jordan’s crowning achievement was the founding of the racially integrated Koinonia Farms in Americus, Georgia in 1942. Koinonia Farms is a Christian agricultural community which raises crops to feed the hungry and is a place where people can go to work and serve and find hospitality. Koinonia Farms was actually the birthplace of a more well-known service project- Habitat for Humanity.
As you might imagine, Jordan’s racially integrated project was not well received in the mid-1940’s Georgia. When the farm tried to sell peanuts from a roadside stand, the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the stand. Stubbornly, Jordan put up another stand. It also got destroyed. Jordan, always with that courageous sense of humor then resorted to mail order ads saying, “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia.” When accused of having conversations with reputed Communist Myles Horton, Jordan wryly answered back, “I really have trouble with your logic. I don’t think my talking to Myles Horton makes me a Communist any more than talking to you right now makes me a jackass.”
There is an old Nordic saying about the Scandinavian people. It goes something like this: “It is the north wind that made the Vikings strong. Without the north wind, the Vikings would not have survived for so long.” The point of the saying is that if the Vikings would have lived in a much warmer and suitable climate, they never would have developed the strength and resilience needed for them to become a successful people. It was the north wind, the cold wind that made them stronger. British historian Arnold Toynbee once wrote, “It is the difficulties that lead to a flowering of a civilization. Any civilization which does not have difficulties or obstacles will not be a great civilization.”
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Perhaps Jesus never spoke more challenging words. Perhaps he never spoke more divisive words. We can wrap our arms about the sweet, innocent baby born in a manger. We can be motivated by his teachings about the nature of discipleship. We can be encouraged and inspired by his healings and his lifting up of the downtrodden. But here Jesus speaks some painfully challenging words that give us pause and make us think again. Following him will not bring peace, but a sword. We are not to cling to the loyalties of earthly relationships but give our life for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Our loyalty to Jesus may put us at odds with our parents, our family, and our friends. We are to remain firm in our commitment to Jesus and his mission, even when that commitment generates conflict for us. Jesus taught of us taking up a cross and losing our life for his sake. He urged us not to try and follow a middle of the road path of faith that makes us comfortable. In following him, there will be no compromise, no peaceful walk. Jesus called his disciples to be peacemakers but he told them and us that the very act of making peace and healing and restoring will threaten the foundation of cultural assumptions of power.
These words of Scripture this morning are words that perhaps I would rather not hear. These are words that challenge me rather than comfort me. These are words that prod me rather than offer me the promise of reward. These are words that promise division not unity. These are words that challenge instead of comfort. These are words that prod me rather than reward.
The teachings of Jesus are a bit frightening, perhaps in every age and time. But they seem to be especially challenging given the tests and trials of our own experience. Believing in Jesus is risky business. There is a cost involved. Our human relationships with family and friends will be altered. We will have to decide whether to point out the truth about our own sins and seek forgiveness and turn our behaviors around. We have to decide if we have the grace within us to forgive our wounds and move on with our hurts. We have to decide whether we point out the sins of our society or simply stay quiet, compromise, be agreeable and let someone else be responsible for the change. We will have to choose whether to proclaim that the Kingdom of God can happen right here and now or play it safe and continue to ignore the change that can end the mediocrity and sometimes tragedy of what is what is happening around us. As we consider the work of Jesus, we all have to decipher whether or not we will embrace the call that might divide or simply choose the urge to keep things calm and settled.
Jesus knew it would be hard. But he didn’t send his disciples out to proclaim his Kingdom without some kind of help, some kind of encouragement. They may have been hopelessly naïve about things but at least he gave them a bit of comfort and reassurance. Alyce McKenzie compares these reminders to the beads of a pearl necklace or a wrist bracelet. They are things we can feel wrapped around us and reminders we can count upon and trust even in the midst of every challenge of faith. He promised this. Everything will be known to you. Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered. God knows you well. Even the hairs on your head are counted. You are of more value than the many sparrows. If you acknowledge me before others, I will acknowledge you before God. Those who find their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it. Remember these things and trust in my presence. That is how you will get the job done.
Donald Miller, in his book Blue Like Jazz: Non-Religious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, writes, “The trouble with deep belief is that is costs something. And there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, and if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them. It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything. And it isn’t cool.”
Edward Markquart tells the account of Spanish essayist and philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset who was speaking about the French impressionist artist Paul Gauguin. Most of Gauguin’s admired works were produced in his early years. As time passed, Gauguin grew less creative and inspired and less productive in his work. He grew disillusioned and distant. He even attempted to take his own life by swallowing arsenic. Ortega y Gasset said of him, “His creative energies degenerated into hobbies.” What a terrible thing to say about someone: their passion turned into a mere hobby. But perhaps that is what Jesus was warning us about in the words of the gospel this morning. When our creativity and passion and courage leaves us, our faith is nothing more than a hobby. When we fear standing out from the crowd or are worried that our actions might cause division we have lost the spirit we need. When we think of our faith as something that will bring us a sweet life with no problems and there are no chances we have to take, then we will end up being much less of a follower of Christ than Jesus wishes.
Jesus’ passion was in bringing the Kingdom of God into being and serving it in ways that challenged the tradition and institutions and relationships of his day. In that regard, he was truly a divider. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” These are difficult words for us to hear. Perhaps he meant that he did not come to bring passiveness and contentment. Instead he brought a desire for peace that would move his followers to seek justice, healing, forgiveness, and mercy, for all of the world, and for all of God’s people. He came to open our eyes. And that is a challenging thing. That is a good and challenging thing for all followers of Christ.