What a downer! Wow! Not peace, but a sword. I’ve come to set father against son. Didn’t we just celebrate Father’s Day?
But before we get too “down,” we’d better remind ourselves that with a lot of Bible passages, especially isolated ones, we should look at the context before our startled reactions get the better of us. In this instance we need to remember two things. One -- Christ and his followers expected the end to come soon, possibly in their generation. Two -- with Christ comes a New Covenant, a new religious emphasis.
Let’s look at that second idea first. For centuries the Jews had followed the Law in varying degrees of intensity, and religious practice was a way of life and a family affair. Father and mother and children celebrated the Sabbath and festivals in the home according to age-old customs. Imagine what it must have felt like when Chaim junior began spouting ideas about this Jesus and stopped taking part in the traditional Sabbath worship. Refused to accompany his father and brothers to the synagogue. Maybe even wouldn’t follow the strict dietary laws. That could set many families to quarreling. Probably fathers disowned sons, and sons willingly left, glad to be free of a family too blind to see the truth.
Husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law, fathers and daughters (think of Fiddler on the Roof, where Tevye’s daughters want to marry outside the faith). The possibilities for conflict were many, and the issues were fundamental.
Maybe that’s why Jesus chooses the concept of bringing a sword – because the conflict was going to be critical – a matter of spiritual life and death.
The New Covenant represents a shift in values. Before, the most sacred social institution was the family. The Fifth Commandment enjoins God’s people to love, honor, and help their parents and family. Now Jesus is redefining family. It’s no longer one’s parents, siblings, and offspring; it’s no longer those who share the same address. Family means those who follow the same Lord. This new family means leaving behind the only lives they know -- even their birth families if necessary -- to find a new life with Christ.
For most people leaving one’s family and joining another is not done easily. It can be an emotionally violent act, and the image of a sword severing family ties is an apt one. Even children who escape abusive families have a tough time.
Back in the late 60’s and early 70’s I was involved in the state’s foster care program. One young boy touched me more deeply than the rest that we took in. He was an 11-year-old whose step-father beat him. They were a poor family, and the children had very few clothes. He had almost no underwear and only one school outfit. So if he got the clothes dirty while playing, the man beat him. When he wet the bed, and therefore his underwear ( he had no pajamas), the man beat him. And his weapon was a lead pipe. When DSHS found out what was happening, a social worker took the boy when he was at school. I’m sure in RJ’s eyes he was being kidnapped. He was so frightened that the social worker also took his older sister so that he wouldn’t feel alone. The sister stayed with us for only a week. As soon as RJ was settled in, she got to return to her family and school.
It might not surprise you to learn that soon after she left I discovered that my Pendleton skirt –my reversible Pendleton skirt! -- its matching sweater, some bracelets, and ALL my pajamas were gone.
RJ stayed with us for almost three weeks. He was sweet and artistic and cooperative and a habitual thief – which is a story for another time. He ate bushels of fresh fruit and drank gallons of milk -- real luxuries for him. We borrowed a bicycle and taught him to ride, and since we lived on a hill with unpaved roads, he crashed continually, but he grinned all the time. I think he was proud of the bandages on his skinned knees and elbows. We enrolled him in school and the teachers loved him.
However, we had another, older foster child at that same time. He was so awful that we didn’t think it fair to expose RJ to him. And it wouldn’t have been fair to dump the older boy in order to keep RJ, with whom we had fallen in love. So they found him a home on a farm with not only a bicycle, but smooth level places to ride it. And horses. And love and plenty of wholesome food. Sound like heaven?
The first chance RJ got, he cooperated with his mother and step-father, who had been allowed visiting privileges, and ran away and the family left the state. And that’s all I know. But his story illustrates so well the strength of family ties. He went back to poverty and violent beatings rather than leave his family. He refused to be set against his mother and his abusive step-father.
Jesus comes saying that he would set family members against one another. “You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother . . . . ; and a man will find his enemies under his own roof. No one is worthy of me who cares more for father or mother than for me; no one is worthy of me who cares more for son or daughter. . .“ [Matthew 10:34-37].
That’s a pretty radical concept at first glance. But we need to look at what Jesus does not say. He doesn’t say that we should not care for our sons and daughters and fathers and mothers. What he does say is that we are not worthy of Him if we care more for our parents and our children than we do for God.
And that’s the key, of course. Priorities. Our first responsibility, our first loyalty, our first love, belongs to God. (I think I said last time I was up here that love is about relationship.) If that relationship is right, then our relationships with our families have a good chance of being right also. It’s not automatic, to be sure. We have to be conscious of it and work at it.
I once made a Cursillo where a few of the participants were daughters of Episcopal priests. Their stories were more bad than good. They told of neglect. Father was never there when the children felt he should be. Father’s (this was before many women priests) – Father’s priorities were pastoral care – to the exclusion of family care. The expectations Father had for his own children were highly idealistic and essentially unattainable. When Father was home, he was so exhausted from Church work that he didn’t want to be disturbed. It was a great lesson for us mothers who were getting involved in ministry.
No place in this Gospel does Jesus tell us to neglect our families. He just makes it very clear that God comes first. It seems to me that followers of Christ by definition put God first, and the rest will follow.
I think that’s where the sword comes in. The enemies under our own roof, if the enemy is poorly set priorities, need to be driven out. Does that mean driving out our daughter-in-law? Our father? Of course not. I know at coffee hour I sometimes whine about things in our three-generation home. I’m thinking I need to use that sword to slash away some dysfunctional priorities and make room for what God would have us do. And that does mean dealing with conflicts. In this case, maybe the sword would be more a constructive tool than a destructive weapon. Like slashing away underbrush with a machete to clear space for planting.
However, brandishing that sword doesn’t always work. About 40 years back I lived in a small town where there was a preacher who was really good at recruiting women. (Not sleazily, by the way.) Two of those recruits I knew well. In at least those instances, the women got so involved in the church and in trying to get their husbands involved, that divorce resulted. In their determination to follow Christ, they lost sight of patience and compassion. One of the women divorced her hard-drinking husband when he wouldn’t change his ways and go to church with her. She ended up marrying again – to another hard-drinking man who wouldn’t go to church. And so it was with the other woman as well. And they both ended up pulling away from church and from Christ.
Driving out our spouses and family members is not the answer. So, what is the sword for? Picture yourself in a challenging situation.
In that rural area our neighbor had for years leased our fields for his cattle. One year we decided to end the lease and harvest our hay for sale instead of having the cattle eat it right out of the field. But the neighbor didn’t keep his fences mended and his cattle didn’t understand anything about leases. They just knew where to come for a good green salad. I chased them out of our front yard countless times. One day I saw that they had gotten into the back field, so I grabbed a machete (as close to a sword as I had) and marched to the back forty (forty-six) to confront those (%#@*%#) cattle. When I shooshed them toward home, most of them were willing to turn and saunter back the way they had come. But one mother with a calf marched to a different drummer, and she would not follow the others. In fact, she wouldn’t budge. She faced me, feet firmly planted. Behind me was a sludgy, mucky slough. In front of me, a mad momma cow, and my only weapons were my stubbornness and the machete. She must have figured that she was a match for a machete and a dumb woman, so she charged. I knew that if worse came to worse, I could jump into the slough sludge, so I stood my ground. When she got close enough (and how I judged that, I don’t remember), I waved that machete with all the confidence of a Sylvester Stallone with a machine gun, and I roared at that cow in terms I felt she would understand. Without breaking her stride, she swung around and headed toward home with junior at her heels. I don’t think I would have attacked her with the machete. If push had come to shove, I probably would have jumped into the slough. But that machete was my sword. It gave me the confidence I needed to confront the situation and clear the cows out.
Our sword doesn’t need to be a machete or any other tangible weapon. It can be the strength we derive from the faith God blesses us with. It’s the strength we need to set good priorities and stick with them.
Back to the Gospel lesson – Obviously the “end” didn’t come in the lifetime of the Gospel writer. The image of the sword suggests an urgency that we don’t sense today. Most of us concede that the end probably won’t come in our time either. You don’t find Episcopalians giving away their worldly goods and sitting on roof tops waiting for it to happen. Our expectation is that the end is somewhere off in the future; that gives us the opportunity to deal patiently with our family members. We don’t need to use a real sword to force them to our point of view, or to march them to church, or to sever our ties with them, but we do need the sword of our faith, our strength to grit our mental teeth and continue to love them.
Maybe the idea of bringing a sword instead of peace isn’t such a bad one. Peace can feel easy, effortless, lazy. The sword implies struggle and effort. Think back to your school years – even if you are just going into the sixth grade. Is it possible that the teacher you remember as the best one is the one who made you work the hardest and learn the most? It’s rarely the one who let you be lazy and sloppy.
At the end of the day, don’t you find it satisfying to realize that you’ve worked hard and accomplished something? Finished cleaning out the garage? Cooked and served a meal for the homeless? Listened patiently to Aunt Gertrude as she went on – and on – and on – about her mostly imaginary troubles for 45 long minutes – the 45 minutes you could have been using to finish reading the last two chapters of your novel?
This sermon might have gotten a little long. But I really wanted to talk about the sword. I wanted to explore the context in which Jesus uses it. I wanted to see how it can help us set our own priorities. To be honest, there were several other stories I wanted to share, but I had visions of swords rising up from the congregation saying, “Cut her off!” Sometimes we need to choose not a sword, but peace.