Yesterday I preached for the first time at my new internship congregation. The text just happened to be super-challenging: Jesus as the cause of division instead of the Prince of Peace. Here’s the sermon:
August 18, 2013
Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be fruitful in your sight, O God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, Amen.
I thought this internship was going so well. We had a great first Sunday together, remember? There was a pig roast, and I did that hula you all liked so much. I went through the traditional intern hazing experience with rubber snakes hidden in my office and shrieking monkeys flying through the air—courtesy of Pr. Tom, and after that, I thought that we were good! And then, I go to write the very first sermon I will ever preach here. I open my bible to the prescribed text, and there it is. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” And I thought, “Oh, come on.”
There are so many other sides to Jesus that I’d rather have for a first sermon! Jesus the good shepherd, cuddling a wooly sheep. Jesus who opens his arms and says, “Let the little children come to me!” Jesus who stills the storm. But instead, I get Jesus, the incarnate Word of God that the prophet Jeremiah described to a T: the God who isn’t far off, in some heaven somewhere, but is standing in human skin uncomfortably close, with a word like fire, or a hammer that breaks a rock into pieces. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”
So no, this isn’t the side of Jesus I would have chosen…but isn’t it the truth. An unpleasant truth—the truth that while we know we should be a people of peace, we are actually, usually, a people divided. We are mothers-in-law who wish our daughter-in-law brought the kids to church. We are sons who think it’s time for the congregation to go in a new direction, and fathers who hate change. We are Lutherans who know far more about God’s will than that other church down the road. We are Christians who have been told by other Christians that because we ordain women, or homosexuals, or haven’t been born again, that we aren’t really saved.
And we wonder: what happened to that angelic chorus who sang at Jesus’ birth: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth among those whom God favors!” Jesus was right: as the church, we have division way more often than we have the peace God promised to God’s favored people.
It’s not that we don’t want peace. We want it desperately! It’s just that—I don’t know about you, but—I don’t know how to exist without sometimes being divided, without dissenting. It comes with having a conscience, and with living in a broken world. I mean, heck, we belong to a denomination founded on an act of dissension. When asked to recant his divisive doctrines, Martin Luther stood before a broken church, and said, “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
But still, there’s that angelic promise of peace to God’s favored people ringing in our ears. But instead of hearing it as a promise, we hear it as a condition of being God’s people.
So to fulfill that condition, we convince ourselves that peace is simply an absence of conflict—because that we can do…or at least feign. My vision of what this looks like comes from childhood memories of trying to choose a restaurant to go to with my grandma, the lovely Southern woman who raised my dad. My dad would ask, “Mom, where would you like to go to dinner?” And she’d say, “Oh, it doesn’t matter to me. Wherever you’d all like to go.” And so one of us would say, “How about Olive Garden?” And everyone would say, “Great!”—except for Grandma. So Dad would turn to her and say, “Does Olive Garden sound good to you?” And she’d say, “Whatever you’d like, dear.” And then there’d be this pause until someone else would say, “Well, how about Outback Steakhouse?” And we’d all look expectantly at Grandma. It would take about half an hour to choose a restaurant, and the whole time it wasn’t a discussion, it was a guessing game about what Grandma actually wanted. She would never tell us. She didn’t want to make things difficult.
Peace isn’t just an absence of conflict. It’s something more. It’s something like what the writer of Revelation envisioned when he described all of creation gathered around the throne of the Lamb, singing “blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever.” It’s something that Bishop Elizabeth Eaton touched upon when at this week’s churchwide assembly she said, “We don’t always agree with each other, but we agree upon the cross.”
Peace is something we glimpse when we are gathered together every Sunday at the communion table. All of us, with our different stories and opinions and beliefs, Christ reaches out and gathers around this single table to be fed with his body and blood. That, brothers and sisters, is a peace that surpasses all understanding.
I found myself thinking a lot about that TV show, “How I Met Your Mother” while I was trying to discern the heck the good news was in this week’s gospel. How many of you have seen this show? All right, the premise is that every episode is a story that one of the main characters is telling his kids that reveals a little bit more about, how he met their mother. The opening clip is always of two kids sitting on a couch with slightly glazed expressions, while a voiceover says something like, “I didn’t know it then, but that was the first time I would be in the same room as your mother.” And then the action of the show would unfold, with this main character in the center of it, always worried that he wasn’t going to meet someone he would marry, that he’d never have kids, that the things he wanted would never really pan out. And all the time, of course, we know that it does work out for him.
That’s sort of what it’s like to be a Christian. We live in a time of right now, and not yet as we wait for God’s kingdom. Like the guy in “How I Met Your Mother,” we worry about this peace that we want but don’t yet have, and we look around at all our divisions and breakups and wonder how God’s promises are ever going to be fulfilled. Like the people Jesus was talking to today, we aren’t always faithful in interpreting the signs to tell the story of how God is saving us all. But despite our doubts, we are always moving toward that reality, that faith, that peace that we hope for, but right now, only glimpse, as in a mirror dimly.
In this place of right now and not yet, maybe we can occupy the middle ground by remembering that Jesus calls us to love one another, not to agree with one another. Instead of hiding our conflicts, maybe we can talk about them with one foot in our bound consciences and the other in Christ-like love.
Here’s what that might look like. There is a young 20-something who gets up early every Sunday morning, kisses her sleeping husband, and drives an hour into rural West Virginia to make it to her church. This young woman, Alise, drives her van—covered in Human Rights Campaign and Obama stickers, into a parking lot full of conservative pickup trucks. She recognizes that she doesn’t fit in to the church—not into the political atmosphere, not into the age range, not even, sometimes, into the prevailing theology. But, she says, this church is her home.
The owner of a local bed and breakfast who brings in flowers every Sunday never fails to give me a hug. The Christian school teacher asks me how things are going with my book writing. The man who helps run the children’s archery program stops me to let me know that he’s praying for the women at Beginning of Life with me. The pastor’s wife calls me beautiful and the pastor always thanks me for being a part of the family.
I don’t fit in, she says, but I am loved.
I wonder if that ethos of love can come to define our church, more than either peace or division does. I wonder if our emphasis can shift from looking the same, believing the same, practicing the same, to admitting that we are all so totally different, but Christ died the same for all of us. I wonder if the strength we draw from that love can enable us to love each other so well that conflict doesn’t scare us anymore, because it’s just another episode that brings us one step closer to the time when Christ comes again, bringing in that reign of peace we’re so desperately thirsting for.
But no matter how many mistakes we make, when Christ comes again, in addition to the healing of the nations and the chorus of seraphs singing endless songs of praise, there will be a moment in the action where the angels fall silent while God is wiping the tears from our eyes, and we are together, and perfect, and beloved in God’s sight, and at peace: and God smiles at us and says, “And that, kids, is why I sent my beloved Son to save you all.”