Worship services are live on Facebook every Sunday at 10 AM PDT.
Music used for this service:
“Adoramus te Jesu Christe”
Words and music: Jacques Berthier, Taizé Community.
Voices United 401 “Worship the Lord”
Words: Fred Kaan 1972 © 1974 Hope Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Music: © 1976 Ron Klusmeier
Voices United 588 “Many are the Lightbeams”
Words: Cyprian of Carthage. English Translation: © 1983, 1995 Estate of David Lewis, c/o Mary Swale, Summerfield, Lancaster LA2 7AH, England.
Music: © 1974 Olle Widestrand, Kälkbäcksg. 1, S-554 46 Jönköping, Sweden. Arrangement: © 1995 Len F. Lythgoe, 10-4100 Salish Dr., Vancouver, BC V6M 3M2
Voices United 960 “The Lord’s Prayer”
Adapted from a chant by R. Langdon. Public domain.
Voices United 680 “Isaiah the Prophet Has Written of Old”
Words: Joy F. Patterson © 1982 The Hymn Society. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Hope Publishing Company.
Music: American folk melody from William Walker’s Southern Harmony. Harmony: © 1986 G.I.A. Publications, Inc.
“Go Now in Peace, Never Be Afraid”
Words: Don Besig and Nancy Price, 1988.
Music: Don Besig 1988. Words and Music – ©1988 Shawnee Press.
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE, License # A-734863. All rights reserved.
our hearts are restless wanderers,
longing for peace in a way beyond our understanding.
In all our searching, be our guide,
set our feet on a path of truth and love,
in service to the needs of our brothers and sisters,
in love for our neighbour as deep as your love for us.
In looking for your face,
may we see it in those in need.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you in the power of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
This is part four of a sermon series I’m doing to confront the idea that the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, only shows a God of vengeance and judgement, and that the New Testament, the gospel story, only shows a God of love and peace; taking stories from the Old Testament that are comforting, and taking stories from the New Testament that are challenging and upsetting. God is in both of those, and has something to say to us through both the comfort and the challenge.
And one of those challenging passages is here, where Jesus says, “I have come not to bring peace, but division, to set families against each other.” Why would Jesus want to tear families apart? It erases our image of laid-back hippie Jesus, who would probably sing John Lennon songs and preach “understanding, man” if he were around today. An image of Jesus that liberal white people love and will defend fiercely, but not the image of Jesus we have in the gospel here.
And no, I’m not going to let up on the theme of racial justice. I don’t care that the news cycle is starting to move on; nothing has fundamentally changed in our society and so we’re just going to be doing this all over again the next time a cop kills a black man, so God still has something to say about this.
In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led a non-violent protest of sit-ins and marches in Birmingham Alabama. The city of Birmingham forbade protests of any kind, so King along with other leaders of the protests, was arrested.
In response, a number of white clergy from Birmingham, mostly from what would now be called progressive mainline churches as well as progressive Jewish synagogues, wrote an open letter in the city paper, titled “A Call for Unity.”
“We agree rather with certain local [black] leadership which has called for honest and open negotiation of racial issues in our area. And we believe this kind of facing of issues can best be accomplished by citizens of our own metropolitan area white and [black], meeting with their knowledge and experience of the local situation. All of us need to face that responsibility and find proper channels for its accomplishment.
“Just as we formerly pointed out that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political tradition.” We also point out that such actions as incite to hatred and violence, however technically peaceful those actions may be, have not contributed to the resolution of our local problems. We do not believe that these days of new hope are days when extreme measures are justified in Birmingham.
“We commend the community as a whole and the local news media and law enforcement officials in particular, on the calm manner in which these demonstrations have been handled. We urge the public to continue to show restraint should the demonstrations continue, and the law enforcement officials to remain calm and continue to protect our city from violence.”
—“A Call for Unity”
Doesn’t this sound like something that we would say today? I swear I’ve seen a hundred United Church statements that look just like it. “We agree with the goals of the movement, but we can’t support violence or law-breaking.” “Let’s talk about these issues, have some sort of dialogue. Talk. Compromise.” “Don’t hate anyone, not even racists. Love your enemy.” A desire to lessen conflict, to believe that tension is always just a result of misunderstanding. That we should all focus on peace, love, and understanding.
In response, King wrote an open letter in prison, and published it as soon as he was bailed out, a now famous letter called “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
“I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the [black person’s] great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the [black person] to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
—MLK Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
We—and by “we,” I mean white people—have developed a mythology around Rev. Dr. King and people like him, like Ghandi, that says it was only through peaceful protest and being “nobler than the oppressors” that their movements succeeded. Eventually, the stony hearts of the white American racist and the British imperialist were broken by seeing the peaceful displays. Therefore, any movement for justice should strive to be as peaceful as possible, not disruptive, not angry, not confrontational. It wasn’t the economic boycotts that disrupted the British cotton industry or the Birmingham public transit and made the oppression of imperialism or segregation too costly to continue; no it was just being peaceful.
King differentiates between negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice. Because he knew that even non-violent protests, like the one he was leading, would never be “peaceful” enough for the tastes of the white moderates who wrote that letter. They would always break some law or rule, written or unwritten, of “civil” discourse and “peaceful” conflict. The power structure is only ever okay with opposition if it is thoroughly and completely ineffectual, so any effectual movements will get labelled “uncivil.”
“I have not come to bring peace, but a division,” says Jesus. How can Jesus say this? He was to be called the Prince of Peace. He is our model for loving our enemies, for never lifting a hand in violence, for turning the other cheek. “What Would Jesus Do,” we ask, and we say that he would talk, not fight. After all, God loves us all equally, so he must love the racist as much as the black person, right?
But, as King points out, and as Jesus points out, we mistake the absence of tension for the presence of justice.
But we don’t want that, at least if the status quo benefits us. We who are privileged just want things to go back to the way they were: before COVID, before demonstrations, before we knew about things like residential schools. “It’s in the past, get over it,” we say, while our first nations brothers and sisters still feel the effects of colonialism; they live where there is no clean water, generation trauma reflects itself in suicide and addiction. But we don’t feel that, so it’s almost as if it wasn’t there before the people who are oppressed started pointing it out to us, and so we become resentful, because now we feel the tension of unrest intruding on our comfortable lives.
People who aren’t privileged also feel the tension of unrest; it isn’t like a person of colour doesn’t feel anxiety and the fear when they turn on the news, at least for people I’ve talked to. But they don’t want things to go back to the way they were; they want things to change. God doesn’t want things to go back to the way they were; that is why she gives us Jesus, who does not bring peace, at least in the way we understand it.
Peace is not the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice. This is what Jesus means when he says, “My peace give you.” It is why the church says, “The peace of Christ surpasses all understanding,” because we’re so used to the negative peace that we have difficulty understanding the positive.
We have a relationship with God. That relationship is mediated and expressed through our relationship with each other, especially with those who are vulnerable and marginalized. “Whatever you did or did not do to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did to me.”
And our relationship with God can be measured by many of the same standards as our human relationships.
A healthy relationship, between romantic partners, or really any healthy relationship, is not one where there is no conflict or there are no arguments. It’s ridiculous to think that’s what a healthy relationship looks like; it means that one person is just silently avoiding discussing their concerns. It means that one person has the power to impose opinions, worldview, behaviour, etc. on the other without question.
A genuinely healthy relationship is one where there is conflict, maybe even a lot of it, but where we can feel safe and respected to be able to work through it. One where there is the presence of justice, between partners.
A tension between people of colour, who just want to be seen as human, and racists, who deny the humanity and image of God in their brothers and sisters, is not one that can be resolved “peacefully.” A tension between LGB people who want to love who they love and homophobes who say that love is “intrinsically disordered,” is not one that can be brought to a compromise. A tension between trans people who want to be recognized for who they are and transphobes who call them mentally ill is not one that can be “civilly discussed.” In these cases, who does Jesus side with? God is always, always on the side of the oppressed.
Jesus, and everything he represents, will always be a cause for division. The very idea of justice will be a cause for division, as long as there is commitment to injustice. Jesus will divide, neighbour from neighbour, father from son, mother from daughter.
And this, people, means we have to realize that sometimes we have been on the wrong side from God. We, who are privileged, hate the idea of being seen as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, etc. It’s why you’ll see white people get more angry with a black person who calls them racist than with themselves or other white people for actually being racist, how the word “racist” is somehow as bad or worse to white people than the n-word.
But what we must realize is that, through all the cause for division, it is because God wants peace. Because she wants reconciliation between peoples, between father and son, mother and daughter. But things have to change; reconciliation is not possible while the racist continues to be racist. God speaks through the conflict.
When a person of colour calls me out for something racially insensitive, when a woman calls me out for something sexist, when a trans person calls me out for something transphobic, what is important for me to realize is that it is an act of love; they want me to change. They love me so much they’re willing to risk the traumatic arguments, the defensive response of “I’m not racist; you’re just being overly sensitive,” the anger and maybe even the loss of relationship, because they want me to change for the better; they’re willing to go through that pain for me. Sometimes, that is truly what love for your enemy looks like: a desire for the enemy to change, and a willingness to go through the pain of conflict.
Like Jesus was willing to go through all that pain for us, to redeem us.
God is love, the apostle John tells us, and anyone who loves is from God. We cannot accept a negative love—which is obsequious, avoids conflict—instead of a positive love—which seeks justice with all its heart, even to the point of risking relationship. Our call as Christians is not to be mediators, nor to try and smooth things out, but rather to stand with the oppressed, which fully bear the image of God. Amen.