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. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Matthew 10:26-36, NRSV
I use a GPS app called waze that not only routes you where you want to go, it helps you avoid traffic jams and obstacles like construction and road closures. It looks like a video game, with cute little avatars for you and the other drivers around you and every now and then, a piece of candy appears on your screen, and when you drive over that spot on your map, you get bonus points. The bonus points don’t do much, except enable you to turn your avatar into a ninja, which is much cooler. I was obsessed with this app when I used to have to commute to Orange County. It sort of sugarcoats the often painful experience of LA driving and makes it seem more fun.
Jesus, however, certainly does not sugarcoat anything in this Gospel. He says everyone will be against you, and by the very nature of your following me, it will split your families apart. But don’t worry, when you get to heaven I’ll put in a good word for you! Gee, thanks for doing me a solid, Jesus. In my last post, I talked about us not liking Jesus’ authoritative side, but this is even worse, this is his downright belligerent side. In fact, he’s so aggressive, he almost sounds like one of us, like a 21st century American.
Not since the Civil War…
Americans are fighting each other more than at any other point in our lifetimes. According to a recent Stanford study, you would have to go all the way back to the Civil War to find a time when this country was so divided. Our bias against whichever political party is not our own has, for the first time, grown larger than our racial bias (historically, what most polarizes us). Ergo, whites and blacks with the Republican party have a more negative view against Democrats in general than against people of other races as long as they’re Republican, and the same goes for Democrats. So in America today, we get it when Jesus talks about one’s foes being members of one’s household, or if not in your house, then at work or next door or the next legislative district over. Almost everywhere we look, we see foes.
And Jesus seems to throw gasoline on that fire, saying “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” That doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know who loves the peacemakers and told his disciples to put away their swords when the soldiers come for him. That dissonance means we have to look at this text carefully in light of Jesus’ other teachings. It is in no way a justification for war or violence as it is sometimes used. The word translated as “bring,” (as in bringing peace or a sword), ballo, is better translated as “toss” or “cast.” There’s a sense of randomness or carelessness to it, like, “I haven’t come to scatter peace around, so if you’re interested in following my way, don’t think you’re going to have an easy, peaceful life. The road is going to be strewn with swords, with difficulties, dangers, traffic jams, not with candy and bonus points.”
Jesus goes on, as I mentioned, to talk about family members set against one another and households fighting, warning us that it’s not just the foes out there, those awful Democrats or Republicans you can’t escape on social media, it’s the people around your Thanksgiving table. Even people you thought you knew and loved may become your enemies when you try to stand with Jesus and do the right thing. This is a warning, and in some ways, despite his caustic tone, a note of sympathy to us from Jesus: “Yeah, I know it’s hard to follow my way, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that it’s easy.”
Peace without accountability
The news recently seems to be full of multiple examples (without even mentioning our current administration!) of people who don’t want to follow the hard path, who want that careless, easy peace and not be held accountable for their actions. There was Russian President Putin, denying interfering with our electoral process despite ample proof that he did. There were the psychologists who designed systems of torture at Guantanamo Bay not wanting to be held liable for the damage they did to often innocent victims. There was Cardinal George Pell, trusted advisor to the pope, not wanting to be held accountable for covering up decades of horrible child abuse in Australia. He wants the power and prestige that go with his position, but none of the accountability. These are all people who have tossed swords of corruption or even violence down into the paths of others, yet they want peace for themselves. But Jesus says, whoever denies me before others, I will deny before my Father. Those are hard words, but words that should hearten us when faced with the egregiously unjust actions of others, words that promise justice.
Jesus, the Good
Shepherd GPS App
More words of justice we should be heartened by is when Jesus says “nothing will be covered up that will not be uncovered and nothing secret that will not be known.” That doesn’t only refer to bad things, like the examples I just gave you, the things done by evildoers, but also good things. The good things in our hearts about wanting people to be treated equally, wanting everyone to succeed and be happy. Those warm feelings will be brought out into the light despite our often poor words that get us into trouble. Our good motives will be seen and we will be judged for that instead of which side of the political spectrum we identify with. All our painfully divided families that Jesus sees and understands will someday be reconciled.
Following Jesus does not offer us careless peace, but hard-fought peace, the kind that comes from knowing you’ve kept your integrity despite the swords life tosses into your path. Life is a journey, but it is not just a journey for yourself alone. We are all on the roads together, and sometimes we get into traffic jams, whether it’s the traffic of our interpersonal relationships, or the scandals and corruption in our institutions, Jesus, like a good GPS app, guides us in the ways of righteousness, and tells us to not be afraid. Despite the mistreatment and even abuse many of us face from those in power, we have value, and even the least of us, you, and yes, even a sinner like me, are known in heaven.
Based on sermon preached at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and Sophia Alternative Worship, Los Angeles, June 25, 2017