It’s official: as of yesterday, it is summertime. You know, when the living is supposed to be easy. That may – or may not – be true in your world, but certainly here there is nothing easy about today’s gospel. Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother, and when that happens, remember this: if you love your family more than you love me, then you are not worthy of me.” No, nothing easy about this. What is going on here?
Here is the context of what Jesus is saying. He has just sent his disciples out on their own. It would not have been an easy mission. There was hostility and skepticism about him and his followers. It seemed to many that he thumbed his nose at the religious establishment. He broke the rules. He hung out with the wrong kind of people and now he had gathered up a whole bunch of others who were doing the same things. They went in the power of his love and that power enabled them to do the kinds of things he did.
But he wants them to know that it will not always be this way. They will not always have success; they will not always find a welcome. If they are looking for a life of peace and ease, this will not be it. The sword that he talks of will slice through their lives, cutting out the old ways like a surgeon cuts out a cancer, even if those old ways include love and loyalty, people to whom they have grown attached. If they want to follow him, Jesus seems to say, they have to choose. They cannot follow him if their heart is divided, if their love is parceled out, a little over here for family and friends, a little over here for God. They have to decide. That is perhaps why Jesus speaks of bringing a sword. In the Greek of the day, the word we translate as “decide,” krinos, means to cut through, to separate. The sword Jesus brings is the sword of decision.
On its face, at least, the decision-making is simple, isn’t it? Just cut out loving and desiring anything that is not God. Simple to say, but it seems impossible to do. It runs counter to almost everything we have been taught to believe, doesn’t it? Certainly that bit about honor your father and mother. But we’ve also been taught to believe that we can have it all, that there are infinite possibilities and we don’t need to make any difficult choices.
It is easy in a place like this to feel entitled to that kind of freedom. But I wonder if it really is freedom. I see a lot of people who are pretty frantic with the effort of trying to have it all:
Trying to have a brilliant career and a close and loving family;
Trying to get ahead at work by putting in long hours and also maintaining a social life and an active network of friends and volunteering for worthy causes;
Trying to have all the latest gadgets and toys even if it means maxing out the credit cards;
Trying to be active in Dwight Hall, participate in a singing group, play a sport and make Phi Beta Kappa.
It doesn’t sound like freedom, does it? And Jesus’ words cut through the accumulated obligations of our lives and it is as though he says to us: none of that stuff really matters anyway. All the things you think are important are nothing. The only thing that matters is loving me. You just have to decide.
And if this was hard for his first disciples, when he stood before them, spoke with them face to face, taught them, touched them and ate with them, how much more difficult is it for a world who has not seen him in 2000 years. Plus, our lives are infinitely more complex than theirs, filled with distractions, debts, duties, to-do lists a mile long. How do we get our arms around what Jesus is telling us? How do we embrace this hard saying? Don’t get excited; I’m not going to tell you anything that will make it any easier, but I am going to try to open up a bit of the meaning of this teaching.
Do you recall Jesus being confronted by the Pharisees (Matthew 22:34-40)? They were seeking to test him and catch him in a public blasphemy that they could use to discredit his ministry and demoralize his followers. They came to him and asked him which was the greatest commandment? It was a trick question because there are many great commandments. Even if you narrowed them down, you’d probably still count at least ten. But Jesus took all of those ancient instructions and summed them up like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul. This,” he said, “is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is just like it. Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” In other words, all love begins with the love of God. That is to be first and foremost. But this kind of love is not disembodied. The true and wholehearted love of God is always grounded in the context of this world. If we do not love those whom we have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen (1 John 4:19-21)? How can we love one another if we do not love our own self? And how can we truly love our self if we do not love others?
So how do we go about this, doing as Jesus teaches, loving God with our all of our heart?
Well, for one thing, we seek the strength of community. On Sunday, you know, you can stay home and read your bible, Google a sermon, and hum a hymn all by yourself, but it isn’t the same as coming here and being together, is it? We need each other. Dietrich Bonheoffer said “I need my brother to speak the word of Christ to me, because the Christ in my brother is stronger than the Christ in me.” Being a Christian is not something we can do solo. To be Christian is to be part of the body of Christ. And it is in the body, the church, with each other, that we find the strength to love as Jesus loved.
And that kind of love, loving God with a whole heart, means that we take seriously our own calling. Every Christian has one. We are all called to ministry – not just those who go to seminary and become pastors. You may not know what your calling is but God does. Have you ever heard about the practice of sealed orders? As a way of protecting the integrity and safety of a voyage, a ship’s captain would receive an envelope that was not to be opened until the ship was at sea. When the contents were revealed, then the captain would have instructions for the journey. Some people believe that each one of us has our own sealed orders, holy orders from God, and the work of our lives is to discover what they are, to come to the place where the instructions for our own journey are revealed. That revelation is the result of discernment -- prayer and listening and faithfulness. It is finding out what God means us to do, who God means us to be. It is understanding the ministry to which God would have us give our heart, our whole heart.
And, finally, in order to love as God loves, we must honor our origins. I think it is easy to forget that humankind was created in the image of God. When we remember and honor that, we start to know what it is to be Christ-like. As Paul put it: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited…” (Philippians 2:3-6).
And what exactly would it mean to have the same mind in us that was in Christ, to live out the imago Dei that is in each of us? It would mean learning to love the world as God loves. God watches over those who are so numerous as to be almost invisible, those who are lowly and worthless in the eyes of the world. God’s eye is on the sparrow, on the least and the last and the lost. And if we are to love God, then our eyes must be opened to see the preciousness of everyone, not just those who are near and dear to us. There is to be no hierarchy of love, no division within our hearts. Is this easy? No. So we come here to be together, we pray and listen for our own calling, and we remember that we are the reflection of God’s love in the world.
And we take heart in this: the God who watches over the sparrow is always watching over us, in love and tenderness and mercy and grace -- whole-heartedly watching.
And we are called to do the same: to keep our eyes on God so that we can see the world – the whole world –with the radical, inclusive love that comes forth from an undivided heart.
May it be so. Amen.
(c) Martha C. Highsmith