Pentecost 3: We are the Sword
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
This is a bit of a troubling verse, isn’t it?
Is this the Jesus who breathed on his disciples after the resurrection and said: “Peace be with you”? Is this the Jesus who instructed his disciples to go from town to town saying: “peace be upon this house”? Where is the Christ about whom the angels sang to the shepherds on Christmas Eve: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace”?
What does Jesus mean by this? Surely, he is not advocating violence. I do not believe that violence is ever called for by any reading of scripture. But we find ourselves, at this moment, in a battle for the soul of this nation, the soul that was desperately compromised the moment European colonists set foot on this land and claimed it as if God had given it. This is not about politics; it’s about how God calls us to engage with the world God made.
“Do not think I have come to bring peace; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
As early as the fourth century, in a homily on the Gospel of Matthew, St. John Chrysostom wrote that: “This more than anything is peace: when the cancer is cut away. Only with such radical surgery is it possible for heaven to be reunited to earth.”
Only with radical surgery is heaven reunited with earth.
In other words, the sword is about peace, but it is about real peace, the peace of God.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t use the image of a sword, but says simply, “I have come not to bring peace but to bring division.” The sword divides those who pick up the cross to follow Jesus from those who don’t. As scalpel, the sword perhaps cuts away whatever obstructs God’s dream of beloved community: whether that is selfishness, injustice, racism, denial, or hatred. Unlike some surgery, this work of cutting away is not quick or easy. In this country we have been at it for centuries and still the cancer of racial violence spreads.
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
In the 2004 presidential campaign I recall some conversation about God’s role in our common life. One campaign said: “God is on our side.” The other said: “We want to be on God’s side.”
The sword asks: whose side are you on? To be on God’s side is to be on the side of the oppressed, the hungry, and the downtrodden. We know this from all of scripture. To be on God’s side is to be the church of the Magnificat, full of praise for a God who lifts up the lowly and puts the powerful in their place. To be on God’s side is to seek out the marginalized and excluded and bring them to the center. (Even when they leave trash in our parking lot.) To be on God’s side is to be honest about the inequality that persists in our country as the direct and indirect result of slavery, and to look for ways to free those who are still oppressed.
What if we are the sword? What if white Christians—and I know that not all of you watching this fit into that demographic, so I hope you’ll forgive me—what if the work of white people in the established churches of this country is to cut away attitudes and practices that are not on the side of the oppressed and marginalized? What if the work of dismantling white supremacy belongs to those of us who might still feel that this is not our fight? This is the first step in this work: realize that even if we say we are not racist, racism is our problem. Even when we know our hearts are in the right place, there is more work to do.
What if we are the sword? What if well-meaning white Christians, whose hearts are broken over and over again by racial violence, what if we are the sword?
It is hard for those of us who were raised to be nice and nurturing, keep everyone happy, and not talk about difficult subjects—it is hard for us to hear Jesus’ words about a sword, and even harder to think of ourselves as that sword.
No one likes division, and yet I suspect many of us are already living divided lives. So what do we do about this? How do we find the peace that unites earth to heaven? It is this peace which I believe Jesus is all about, this peace which is the Kingdom of God and the Beloved Community. We’re a long way from there, and it is just within our reach.
So what do we do? Here’s the point where a preacher like me is in danger of crossing that fine line from preaching into meddling. But people ask each other all the time: What can we do? How do we act? There are some really concrete things we can do, this week or even today:
- Give Black Americans the kind of preferential treatment most white people get without even noticing.
- Shop at black-owned stores and restaurants, including on-line. Lists are everywhere.
- Catch up on Black TV shows. Better yet, download the Toni Morrison movie, “The Pieces I am.”
- Then read some of her books. She was revolutionary when she first started writing because she was an American novelist who wasn’t writing for white readers!
- Read other books by Black authors. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction…
- If you can, stand with us on Wednesdays at 4:30. This is a powerful experience for many reasons. Being out there, you realize that we’re part of a civil rights movement, not a moment, but a movement.
- Find out what people in your neighborhood are doing to confront systemic racism. I bet they’ll be happy for you to join them. A lot of the work that needs to be done can be done without leaving your house.
- And, of course, pray. Prayer is always essential. Pray that none of us might ever think that prayer is the only thing we can do. Pray for the strength and wisdom to be the church of the Magnificat, the church working for God’s dream of beloved community.
We are always on a journey toward peace. It is a long journey, even longer than the pandemic. (Even longer than this sermon.) Like this long season of Coronatide, there are ways that we do this peace journey alone, and ways that we can do it together. Please pray for one another, for our ongoing journey, that we might find our voices and raise them on the side of justice and hope. Pray that we can be the sword.
 This might be as good a definition of “politics” as any.
 This is why Ibram X. Kendi writes so extensively about the difference between being not racist and being anti-racist.
 The New York Times Best-Seller List contains an unprecedented number of Black authors writing on race. That’s as good a place to start as any. I have a friend who several years ago decided to only read books by authors of color. Why not?