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On Monday evenings, I’ve been leading the service of Compline. Compline is traditionally the final prayer office of the day before going to bed. And the short Bible readings appointed for it are intended to be calming assurances of God’s love and protection as the night sets in.
And so we often read words from Jesus like:
“Come to me, all whose work is hard, whose load is heavy, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28); or
“Peace is my parting gift to you … set your troubled hearts at rest, and banish your fears.” (John 14:27)
Words like these also seem especially good and helpful in times of anxiety, stress and division. Indeed, it would be nice if that’s all Jesus ever said, and that we didn’t also hear words like we find in today’s Gospel reading, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.” And these words are part of a whole series of things that Jesus says that point out how difficult life will be not just for Jesus, but for his followers. For us.
These troubling words of Jesus come up in all four Gospels. And multiple sayings like this come up every year in our lectionary. And without fail, every time I have to read or preach on words like these, I think: “Really Jesus? We’ve got plenty of stress, conflict and division in the world right now. We don’t really need any more of it!”
I feel that way double right now. Probably you do, too. I mean, we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. The pandemic has caused economic suffering throughout the world and the highest rate of unemployment in our country since the Great Depression. Racial discrimination and injustice have been manifesting themselves over and over again. And oh yeah, did you notice that we have a national election coming in less than 5 months?
Really, we have enough things to cause us stress, anxiety and division. We really don’t need Jesus to help give us any more. This is the way I always feel when I hear these words of Jesus.
And yet, that’s precisely how Jesus’ first disciples probably felt as well. They, also, were living in a world in which they were already full up with stress, anxiety and division. Even a casual reading of the Gospels shows us again and again that there were constant fights over politics (what do we do about the Romans…?); race (do the Gentiles get included or not…?); and religion (so, what really does it mean to honor the sabbath…?)
Jesus and his disciples were already engaged in all of these divisive debates. It just came with the territory of living in Judea in the first century, whether or not you were a follower of Jesus. You could try to stick your head in the sand and ignore these issues, but it didn’t make them go away. And they wouldn’t go away, because they were important issues that everybody needed to deal with.
And I think that’s why Jesus said stuff like he says in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus is pointing to the fact that people get wrapped around the axle about things that are important, and that have meaning in their lives.
And Jesus begins by pointing out that he has come to make God’s presence a living reality in the lives of the disciples and in the life of the world. That’s a great thing! But in fact, it caused division in families: “Who is this Jesus? Is he really who he says he is? You mean you left your job and are following this guy around? Wait a minute, this religion stuff is fine as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the really important stuff! What you mean what Jesus has done in your life is more important than what I think is supposed to be important?”
But Jesus called his disciples to take his presence in their lives seriously. He promised them that God’s movement in their lives really was more important than all the other stuff. And for full-disclosure, he told them that like all important things, following him could be divisive, even within their own families. And so Jesus called them to care about following him, because what he was doing and where he was leading them mattered.
And that’s the thing: if something’s not important, I don’t really care. But I DO care about stuff that matters, and so do you. My health, and the health of my neighbors matters. Whether we have jobs matters. How we treat and get along with each other in our society matters. And what direction our country is going in matters.
We don’t always agree on how to deal with what matters. But if it matters to all of us, it can cause tension in figuring out how to move forward. And often, it’s more than tension. It can cause stress, and anxiety and division.
But I also think that Jesus is doing more here than just stating the obvious – that important things, including him, will cause division. Instead, for as hard as these words are, he’s also showing us a path forward in how to live as his disciples in spite of the stress, the conflict and the division.
In a sense, these words of Jesus challenge us to see, in the midst of conflict and division, an opportunity to:
- Focus on what’s really important – after all, the reason anything “brings a sword” is because it’s important; Jesus called his first disciples, and he calls us, to consider what’s important in our lives and that includes asking if God’s presence and call in our lives really matter to us…; and that includes using a stressful moment like the pandemic to reflect on what’s really important now that we’re having opportunities to start to resume “normal”…; what should resume? What shouldn’t? What should change? Is Jesus asking me to reassess what’s really worth my time and effort and priorities…? Each of us probably have different answers, and not everybody will think those answers are right. But focusing on what’s important, and asking the question of what really matters, is part of following Jesus…
- Change how we speak with one another and to one another – Jesus points out that his disciples should expect people will call them names (after all, they called Jesus the devil!) But it’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t instruct them to devise snappier comebacks, or call their opponents “double devils”. Instead, Jesus calls them to talk to people about his love and presence in the world. And the point of that speaking isn’t to show others that they’re stupid or wrong, but to help people experience Jesus…; And that means that Jesus also calls us to speak with one another in ways that help others experience God’s presence and love. And often, that means speaking in ways that seek to find solutions instead of winning the fight; and we Americans are terrible at this (we almost always divide up quickly according to handy catch-phrases…; but also saying nothing can divide us into camps, too!) But sometimes, part of following Jesus means figuring out and modeling a different way of speaking and of listening…
- Live differently into a new reality – Jesus, after all, wasn’t simply calling his first disciples to come along for the ride. He was calling them to live into the new reality of his Resurrection, which transformed their hearts, their minds and their actions for the rest of their lives. It’s hard to adapt to new things and new situations, but it’s often the case that stress and conflict (like Jesus’ death and Resurrection) make it clear that a new day has come and we need to live differently. That certainly seems to be the case with the way we’re going to live as a faith community moving forward – we’re learning that we can’t just go back to the way things were … (and I confess that 6 months ago, I wouldn’t have been the one to get up here and say that things like streaming worship were imperative for the future – but the things we’ve been shown through this stressful time have convinced me that, just as Jesus called his first disciples to a new way of living, Jesus is doing that now for us. And often, most importantly, following Jesus means being willing to live into new realities …)
In the final analysis, there is no way to avoid situations of conflict, stress and anxiety. One situation may subside, but you can be sure another will come along shortly to take its place! They come with life, with or without Jesus’ words. Following Jesus doesn’t exempt us from the conflicts and divisions of life.
But following Jesus does give us a way forward, and a new way to live through the conflicts of life. And while it’s still hard, following Jesus is a way of living which trusts that God is with us even and especially in the midst of the conflict. Following Jesus is a way of living which makes us into people who can bring about positive change instead of just people who choose up sides. And most of all, following Jesus is a way of living that gives us confidence to keep adapting, because no matter what conflict we face, we know that God’s promise of love and life will win out in the end.