As the Wednesday Bible study was wrapping up this week, I happened to run into Deacon Chester. The group studies the lessons for the upcoming Sunday, so on Wednesday they were reading the Gospel we just heard. Chester said to me: “Mike, you’re going to explain what Jesus means on Sunday, right?” I smiled and said, “I’m going to try my best Chester. Pray for me.”
Jesus asks the disciples today, “Do you think I have come to bring peace on the earth?” We could forgive the disciples for thinking “well, yes. Haven’t you heard the Christmas carols. Don’t the angels proclaim Peace on earth and goodwill to all?” Today Jesus says, “no! I have come not to bring peace but division.” You almost want to look at him and say, “we have enough division, thanks.” What about some peace?
Know Justice, Know Peace?
When I got here to St. Louis I had to significantly rework one of my standard sermons about peace. I worked previously as a priest in Washington, DC and there I became a bit of an activist. I participated pretty regularly in marches for causes I found important. There was a pretty popular chant at those marches, simple: “No Justice, No peace.” The longer version was “If we don’t get no justice, then you don’t get no peace.”
I used to riff on that chant “no justice, no peace” saying you can spell the words in a way that move you from threat to spiritual teaching. Change the spelling: “K-N-O-W justice, K-N-O-W peace.” If you want to know peace, you have to know justice. You see, but when I got to St. Louis, preaching that chant got more complicated.
Eight years ago this past week, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer, and I heard the third line of that chant. “No Justice: No Peace. No racist police.” I heard that chant up in Ferguson. I’ve heard the chant echoing off buildings in downtown St. Louis city and downtown Clayton. I’ve heard “No Justice: No Peace. No racist police” shouted here on Delmar in UCity. A simple spelling change doesn’t resolve that third line as easily. It’s been 8 years, and we’ve seen how hard it is to resolve the difficulties behind that third line.
Resolving Jesus words today is likewise complex. Jesus preached about God’s reign of justice and equity. Jesus says that for the Kingdom of God to come, a lot was going to have to burn down. A lot of the false peace for which his people have settled is going to have to burn away. Jesus came and turned over tables.
Jesus upset a status quo that had a specific name: the “Pax Romana”, the peace of Rome. This supposed “peace” was lived, for Jesus’ people, at the tip of a sword. Cruel men like the Herods and Pontius Pilate defined peace narrowly to their own benefit. They taxed the poor to pay for armies and palaces. They used threats to quote “keep the peace.”
There is a collect on page 260 of the Book of Common Prayer called the prayer “For Social Justice.” It begins like this:
“Almighty God, who created us in your image: Grant usPrayer for Social Justice- Book of Common Prayer page 260
grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace
with oppression.” Grant us to make no peace with oppression.
Dr. King once said, “peace is not the absence of conflict, it is the presence of justice.” We often pretend otherwise. We make peace with the construction of a wall on our Southern border. We pay, or put up with, security guards keeping outsiders from entering particular neighborhoods in their own city. We think if we can just keep certain so-called undesirables out of our space, if we can just keep violence outside our little territory, we will have peace. In the name of that limited vision of peace we often perpetuate injustice.
Our son Silas is just two months shy of four, and honestly we’re struggling a bit in our house with the question of toy guns. Silas knows that if he picks up a stick with a certain shape, his dada and his papa don’t want him to call it a gun. He also knows we like Star Wars, so he tends to say, “it’s a blaster.” The extra dimension of make-belief helps, sometimes. But it amazes me how many of the shows, even the kids shows, teach us conflict must be resolved using weapons. The idea that violence is necessary to bring about peace, that we forge peace with a gun, is deeply embedded in the stories around us. It’s hard to counter this violent vision of peace, even with my own kid.
When Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace” I think Jesus is saying, “the peace you think you know, the peace you have to maintain with violence. The so-called ‘peace of mind’ some folks buy when they purchase a gun, this is not the kind of peace God wants to give you.” If your peace has to be defended, it isn’t the peace of God. Peace that has to be defended is always and only temporary. Jesus came to uproot our limited visions of peace.
For centuries now, we have been trying to forge limited peace, just for the folks who look like, speak like, vote like, or worship like us. We are quickly learning separate is not equal, and separate is also not dependably peaceful. We live in a rapidly globalizing world, and our limited strategies for peace are breaking down faster than ever before. As we come up against the limits, Christians have a message to proclaim. It goes like this: if you want peace, work for justice. If you want peace in your world, humbly work for human rights abroad. It’s slow work. If you want peace closer to home, in your neighborhood, you better humbly work for equity in the school districts that surround you.
Humbly work for equity, for justice. Humility is key, and it’s not easily won in this world. I intentionally didn’t begin this sermon with an exhortation to inner peace. A lot of the Christian books I’ve read about peace-making include some version of the teaching, “if you want to build peace beyond yourself, you have to first build peace within yourself.” Sure the sentiment makes a nice bumpers sticker, but I know there are a lot of us who aren’t feeling particularly peaceful with the state of our world.
Jesus and anger?
I think sometimes we sell ourselves a vision of Christianity that tells us good Christians aren’t supposed to get angry. We’re supposed to find some sort of constant soft inner peace.
I recently listened to Dr. Barbara Holmes, a theologian and contemplative teacher I am coming to deeply admire, admit that she feels angry still about Trayvon Martin’s murder. She says she feels, as a professional Christian, like she is supposed to be over it, supposed to be reconciled, but she is not. She is the mother of Black children. She finds Jesus’ anger liberating.
The book of Hebrews calls Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Luke’s Gospel tells us: we follow a savior who at times wanted to burn it all down. Jesus had a capacity for righteous anger, anger at the state of the world, anger for the injustices faced by so many of God’s beloved.
Following Jesus does not require us to entirely suppress our anger. Following Jesus means we can learn not to suppress our lament, our joy, or our praise. Jesus expresses them all. Just a few verses further along in the Gospel Jesus will marvel that such a small thing as mustard seed can grow into such a great bush. Jesus’ parables sometimes make me think of the poet Mary Oliver, the combination of astute observation and wonder. Jesus considers the lilies, notices the birds of the air. Jesus gets angry at a fig tree which isn’t expressing its full self. Jesus’ anger is liberating because Jesus was still able to read the signs around him, the signs of joy as well as despair. He was still able to show up for work. Jesus was angry and he was still able to show love, to work for healing. Jesus’ anger is expressed alongside his capacity for awe and his words of hope. Jesus, we believe, was fully human and it can help our own humanness to pause and consider just how Jesus lives into his fullness.
Well, you can report to Chester, I’m not sure how much sense I’ve made of this lesson, but I will finish with this. Jesus did not come to reinforce our false sense of security. Even in his anger, in these verses I read a deep and beautiful vision for the justice, the equity, the love that is possible between humans. God longs for us to be deeply who we are and to treat one another as we were made to be treated. Jesus doesn’t want us to settle for a limited human vision of peace, a peace which is no peace for too many. Jesus wants nothing less for us than the peace of God, which passes all understanding.