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Following, is the text for this morning’s sermon:
Rev. Sarah Buteux
June 21, 2020
“Not Peace, but a Sword”
Making Sense of the Hard Sayings of Jesus.
In her interview with Brene Brown this past week, Austin Channing Brown talked about how, in growing up in both the black church and the the world of white evangelicalism, she was exposed to two different kinds of Jesus.
“I learned the hard way,” she said, “I learned the hard way that there is a deep difference between the Jesus that black folks worship and the Jesus that white Christians worship.”
“Tell me the difference,” said Brene.
“The Jesus that black folks worship,” said Austin, “doesn’t ask questions like, ‘but does the gospel really have anything to do with race and justice?’
Black Jesus doesn’t hesitate to say black lives matter.
Black Jesus stands for the oppressed…cares about those who are most marginalized. And not just cares, Brene, sits with…lives with…fights for…is angered by the mistreatment of… protests with…
While white Jesus, is primarily interested in self and money and capitalism and in how much power can I get, how much power can I hoard? It’s all about self and it’s all about the preservation of self, of ego mostly, power mostly, yeah…a deep desire to wield power …power over others…”1
Those words are not easy to hear, but the longer I sat with them, the more I realized there was a lot of truth in what she had to say. Her words came flooding back to me as I read and re-read these words from Matthew.
Now, I have to say, I’ve never particularly liked this passage. Especially verses 32 & 33.
Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.
In the mouth of the white evangelical Jesus I was raised to worship, these words always sounded like a threat. A threat I was safe from, of course, because I’d already accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior, but a threat all the same.
I mean, I didn’t have to fear the God who could destroy people in body and soul. I’d already taken up the cross, by which I mean, I’d already said the right prayers and confessed the right things, so I knew Jesus would not deny me before the throne of God and I’d be ok. I was saved.
All I had to fear was the people in this life who didn’t believe in Jesus the way I did, the people who would persecute Christians like me for being different and try to take away our religious freedoms. But even if things got really bad for those of us who were true believers, God would get them in the end and we’d all go to heaven.
So really our job was just to persevere, keep up with our morning quiet time, do well in school, get a good job, marry a person of likeminded faith, buy a slightly nicer house than our parents, hopefully have a few kids, and someday retire to Boca.
In my early years I was totally blind to anything in the scriptures that might be a challenge to contemporary forms of injustice. I was completely deaf to Jesus’ invitation to reform the world, as if all his words about slaves and masters, demons and discord, the cross and the sword were simply metaphors rather than the reflection of a broken reality.
I really thought his life and death was all about our personal salvation and everything else was just gravy. It took me years of de-programing to learn that is not the gospel.
Matthew, of course, is perfectly clear on this, as are Mark and Luke. John was clear on other things, but as for the synoptic gospels: the good news Jesus came preaching – the good news he is sending his disciples forth to proclaim in this very chapter – was, is, and will always be: “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”
That was his message of good news. Jesus sends the twelve forth to declare that the kingdom is as close as our willingness to live it into being, that the way the world has always been is not the way it will always be.
A new day is coming, the day of the Lord: a day when the poor will be filled and the rich sent away empty, a day of release for those held captive and recovery of sight for those who have become blind, a day when the proud will be scattered and the mighty pulled down from their thrones, that the lowly might be lifted up and the whole world order be remade anew.
All of which is good news if you’re a slave, good news if you’re poor, good news if you find yourself on the underside, the outside, the wrong side of history. But, let’s be honest, not such good news if you’re rich. Not such good news if you’re powerful. Not such good news if you are someone who benefits more than most from the status quo.
Which may be why a lot of Christians, especially white middle class American Christians, would rather focus on believing things about Jesus rather than actually following in the way of Jesus.
And yes, I know those are fighting words. Jesus does too. He knows there are plenty of people who have a stake in keeping the world exactly as it is no matter what it costs people on the underside, the outside, the wrong side …and Jesus knows that those folks are not going to yield their privilege lightly.
He knows that such people will not look kindly on those who disturb their peace.
They’re not going to want to hear that the lives of those on the margins matter.
They’re not going to want to hear that no human being is illegal or that health care is a human right.
Jesus knows, they’re not going to want to hear any of it, because such ideas are deeply threatening in a system that privileges some over others, the few over the many, whites more than black, straights more than queers, the rich over the poor.
But these are the values that beat at the heart of Jesus’ gospel…a gospel designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Jesus – the justice loving Jesus Austin placed her faith in years ago and the one I have gradually come to know – did not see power and privilege as something to be shored up and hoarded, but as blessings to be poured out and shared.
Which is why he never asked people for proof of insurance before healing them, for their credit rating before he invested in them, or for their papers before he welcomed them into the kingdom of God.
Instead, Jesus resisted the ways of any institution – be it religious or socio or political – that thrived on dividing people between insiders and outsiders, the haves and the have-nots, citizens and non-citizens; any institution that privileged some by dehumanizing others.
Which brings me to the cross. The cross white Jesus taught me to cling to, but black Jesus shows us how to carry. Jesus’ call to take up the cross at the end of this passage is so subversive in part because citizens of the Roman Empire were exempt from crucifixion. 2
Crucifixion was not something Roman citizens had to fear. Everyone else was terrified of it, but a Roman citizen could fall asleep, go for run, even break the law, knowing that if worse came to worse, at least they’d never be crucified. The cross was reserved for others, for foreigners and thieves, insurrectionists and enemies of the state. The cross, in the hands of the state, was the ultimate tool of segregation.
To take up one’s cross, then, and stand with the crucified, was to side with the most marginalized people of all… people with no rights and no recourse. It was a call “to identify with those who resist the empire’s control, who contest its version of reality, and who are vulnerable to its reprisals.” 3
When Jesus asks us to take up our cross he is asking us to take a stand with those on the outside, the underside, the wrong side, and render ourselves as vulnerable as society has already rendered them.
And let’s be honest, no one likes to be vulnerable. Not back then. Not right now.
“This is the good news,” according to Peter Gomes, “that was bad news to many in Jesus’ time, so much so, that at the beginning of his preaching they nearly killed him, and at the end of his ministry they succeeded.” 4 It is the sort of good news you can agree with in theory, but God help you on the day you decide to put it into practice. And God help you even more on the day your children decide to do so.
“This gospel is not a salve;” says Thomas G. Long, but “a sword that pares away all that is not aligned to the kingdom.” A double edged sword, to paraphrase Barbara Brown Taylor, with the power to set free or divide.
Jesus said as much. He did not under-estimate the risk for himself or his followers. He understood the cost, especially to families whose number one objective is to protect one another. He knew his way would be neither safe nor easy. Changing the world never is…which is why the majority of us have resisted it for so long.
So where is the good news in all this, for you and for me? Where is the good news in this passage so full of danger and division, cost and consequence?
Where is the good news for the children separated from their parents right now at our borders or worse, thanks to the virus, for the little ones being deported apart from their families and sent back alone? 5
Where is the good news for the family of Natasha McKenna 6, Aiana Stanley-Jones 7, or Brianna Taylor 8, just to name a few… just a few of the black women whose killers have yet to be charged, whose killers are still in uniform?
Where is the good news for transgender patients whose protections against discrimination were erased this week by the department of Health and Human services? Erased in the middle of a pandemic, erased on the anniversary of the Pulse club massacre, erased in the middle of Pride month?! 9
Where is the good new for them?
Where is the good news in a world where you can legally get away with treating people who don’t look like you or sound like you or experience life the way you do, like they are not really people at all simply because you have more power than they do?
Sometimes I wish I didn’t know, but I do.
I’ll tell you where the good news is.
It’s right here, where it has always been, hovering in that space between Jesus and those who would be his disciples. It’s right here, right now, in this space between us. The good news, God willing, is reverberating deep within your own heart and mine, even now, for you my friends are the light of the world.
The kingdom of God isn’t some magical place you get to go to when you die. It’s not the prize at the bottom of the cereal box of life. The kingdom, said Jesus, is within you, right now, just begging to be unleashed on a world that can and will change when you and I do.
The good news is that God has not given up on us yet but is still speaking, calling us softly and tenderly not up to some altar to get saved but out to the margins – the outside, the underside, the wrong side – to save the world.
Jesus is still calling us, through these words, to leverage whatever privilege we possess on behalf of those who have even less, challenging us to lay claim to our power the better to use it, spend it, lay it down and release it for the sake of others.
Jesus’s gospel is not a call to arms, but a call to action. The good news is not a threat but a promise, the promise that if we acknowledge Jesus, hear what he is really saying and follow him to those places we were warned not to go the better to love those people we were told not to love, we need have no fear. We need have no fear because he will find us there, stand with us and hold us close. So close that nothing, not in heaven or on the earth, could ever compel him to let us go.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. “Brené with Austin Channing Brown on I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” https://thisten.co/pssjv/RfgQk9zwqxRlKkeXRTGi0QNxJaAKU299Wq6309VL
3.“Matthew and the Margins” Warren Carter p. 343
9. Roger Severino, the director of the departments Civil Rights office dismissed the timing as mere coincidence and the decision as nothing more than “housekeeping.” The federal government is simply “updating our books to reflect the legal reality” that sex discrimination language does not explicitly refer to the legal status of transgender people,” he said. He calls it “housekeeping” knowing full well that what his department is really doing is sweeping a terribly vulnerable group of people aside like they don’t even exist.