University Church of St. Mary the Virgin
Not peace but a sword. I thought shalom was the name of the game. Yet here Jesus says he’s come to set one person up against another, and he tells his followers they’re going to find enemies among their closest relatives. He gives the clear sense that taking up your cross brings division. If we read history carefully, it’s clear that the toughest strife is almost always between siblings and near relatives, albeit often unacknowledged ones: Cain and Abel, Israel and Judah, Palestine and Israel – even Oxford and Cambridge. We’re familiar with sibling rivalry, for human love only rarely partakes of divine abundance, and by the time we’re grown, most of us know something about love’s scarcity and about abandonment.
Much of the world’s division is grounded in that kind of competitive behavior, born of fear and a sense of scarcity. Yet even that word rivalry insists that competitors come from one source or river. We are all born of the same stuff – abundant living water, cosmic stardust, and divine breath – how can we possibly seek to vaunt our superiority or greater deserts? Much of the human-caused suffering in this world is born of denying the equal claim of sibling neighbors, indeed turning them into others, who are supposedly undeserving of notice, regard, food, shelter, dignity, or love, whether God’s love or ours. Human beings have turned the conceit of otherness into a diabolical art form in the multiplicities of prejudice, racism, discrimination, ethnocentrism, xenophobia… and it is common to all societies.
I was at the Presbyterians’ General Assembly in the U.S. last week. We heard an address about a particular kind of defined otherness – the disregard for women that results in violence against them. Sikh and Muslim leaders, both women, spoke of their own experience of violence and the urgent need for all people of faith to confront the issue publicly. They both noted how seldom we hear about it from pulpits. All forms of negatively defined otherness are rooted in denying the image of God in another – and are therefore intrinsically unfaithful. We’ve heard the word repeatedly: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
The wars and conflicts in Sudan, Congo, Central Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan, and southeast Asia have roots in the same kind of rivalry, insisting that ‘I and my kind are the only worthy creatures in this neighborhood, and we are entitled to use any possible methods to get you out of our way.’ The urge to purge societies of others is often a tool in the hands of political and religious zealots. We see it in schools and neighborhoods here and across the world, as well as within families, governments, and even the church.
So when Jesus insists that we can’t be his disciples unless we pick up our cross, even though it will become a sword of division, he’s challenging us to enter into the conflict and confront it. He demonstrates by turning the tables in the Temple courts – a powerful and prophetic indictment of irreligion. Yet he still would have us reject violence, for violence denies life; faithfulness seeks to increase its abundance.
Consider the community Matthew is writing to, where Jew and Jew, some followers of Jesus, are trying to sort out their differences. Walk into the midst of coffee hour there, and you’ll find plenty of pain and chaos and objectification. Nobody has quite sorted out yet what the way forward is going to be – the future is murky and misty. This community of St. Mary’s has certainly had similar chapters in its own history – the burning of Cranmer and Latimer and Ridley is a lively and extreme example. Mist and fog might seem preferable to fire.
We wrestle with divisions over identity and faithfulness continually, at all levels from the intimacy of family to global politics. What constitutes otherness that is beyond the pale? Adult children wrestle with the ethics of caring for parents who can no longer speak for themselves. Will it be ‘all possible heroic measures’ – or ‘comfort care only’? There is no easy and direct conclusion about what is essential and what is not. Societies try to legislate boundaries on acceptable behavior, with sometimes absurd results. Schools in the U.S. have expelled 5 year olds for biting their cookies into the shape of guns, while their parents or teachers can easily buy AK-47s.
What about the Middle East? What is the most life-giving way to end the violence? What is the responsibility of surrounding nations and peoples in the face of mounting carnage and inhumane brutality? Both this nation and mine have faced that question before, never easily. We responded differently when it was Hitler’s genocide in Europe than when it was happening in Rwanda – and still we grieve and doubt the timeliness and intensity of our responses.
This Church continues to struggle over how to honor the equal dignity of women. My province has muddled through conversations about the equal dignity of all human beings, of whatever color, race, age, gender, or sexual orientation. The decisions made have caused division, and that division is born of the cross. God’s justice may be perfect, but ours is not. Taking up our cross to follow Jesus means being willing to enter into the imperfection of our created nature, faithfully, expecting that God will work resurrection anyway.
Yet there are varied ways of taking up that cross. We can use it as a weapon, imposing our decision and will on others, or we can take it up in vulnerability, knowing that it may be used on us. I would submit that the latter is the more Christly road.
The rivalry of siblings can be engaged as an opportunity to discover unique gifts in the other, or as an attempt to extinguish difference. We can jump to judgment or we can come to a conclusion with humble confidence, open to the ongoing creativity of God’s spirit. That’s what Jesus challenges us to do: don’t keep your position hidden away, proclaim it from the housetops; don’t be afraid of challenge, for dying is not the worst thing that can happen to you; consider the source of your life – and trust that source, for it is deeper and more lasting than your blood relatives or seductive, so-called ‘friends.’
The sword of division, the cost of the cross, is elsewhere spoken as, “I set before you life and death; choose life.” Life is costly, and although it may cost all we have, the alternative is ultimately empty. Choose life, in fear and trembling if need be. Choose life abundant, for the other – who is neighbor and image of God. Choose life – love your enemies, give them food and water, and thereby heap burning coals on their heads. Choose life, in love, and discover some Pentecost fire on your own head. Choose life for the sake of the other, and discover that self-obsession evaporates in the heat of that fiery love.
The martyrs of Oxford chose life. The world still needs living candles of witness, who choose the expanded ambit of God’s love expressed in human form. Will you be such a burning witness?