Emmanuel Episcopal Church
This week’s readings posed some big sermon-writing challenges for me. Not because I didn’t have enough ideas. But because I had too many. Family, naturally, given the content ofthis week’s readings, was the theme that kept presenting itself, and, as anyone who has a family knows, that’s no small subject.
So, with no promise that I’ll arrive at a definitive conclusion, I want to start small. Explore, just a little bit, the meaning of “a sword” the primary metaphorical vehicle Jesus uses in this week’s Gospel. (and it is that, Jesus is not talking about sowing war and violence)
In Matthew, our text this week, he says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
So, I ask myself, what do I know about swords? Actual swords.
Well, more than you might think. My grandfather had a collection of them mounted on his study wall. They were family heirlooms, ceremonial weapons from his many forebears who served in the military. They were always destined to be the inheritance of my uncle, and then my brother. Already, we see these objects as signifying something, personally at least, of division. They were for boys. Men. And they had to do with war.
I also remember these swords for their beauty. Many of them bore special insignias and engravings having to do with the service of the person who owned it. They were personal. Told a personal story. It would be taboo to use someone else’s sword, my grandfather explained.
I think, too, of my little brother, who I was lucky enough to get to spend some time with this week, and the wooden sword my grandfather made for him so he could better pretend to be a knight.
So, those are my primary associations. Maybe it’s telling, given this week’s Genesis and Gospel readings that they have to do with family. That they are divisive even from the outset—to the extent that they signify something about status (only officers carried swords), and about gender (only men carried or inherited them). And of course, about power. [They are symbols of action.] What a symbol for Jesus to choose in commissioning disciples who would follow him in his ministry.
A sword is also a weapon to be wielded intimately. Think of fencing, or a cinematic sword fights. It’s like a dance. The dueling swords-people read one another’s movements, are sensitive to every twitch and tick. Any false move could be fatal. They look one another in the eye. They thrust, they hit flesh. The can feel the blade sink into their opponent’s body if it is a fight to the death. Much different from the kind of dueling people like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr engaged in—with pistols, whose range prevented those facing-off from having to look one another in the eye.
This strikes me as an important aspect of the symbolic register of the sword. It’s intimacy. The proximity it requires of the fighting parties.
In Jesus’s time, as is even more true now, there were lots of ways of disposing of one’s foes. We see Jesus killed in one of the most publicly humiliating ways, on the cross—in a manner by which the ones doing the killing—the government, which in our time also claims the power of life and death, and the crowds—could turn aside and “wash their hands” of the death, or gather in a perverse mob and and gawk at the “criminal” in his humiliation. Still, almost no one had to touch him. The personhood—the flesh and blood embodiment—of the victim was displaced. Jesus was all about the body.
I apologize for the vividness of these images. Probably gruesome imagery was not what you were expecting. But, prepare yourselves, here’s just one other sword related anecdote (one drawn from contemporary pop-culture). In one of the first moments of the television series Game of Thrones, the patriarch of House Stark, one of the “good guys” of the show & books, chops off the head of a traitor he has condemned to death with his own sword. He explains to his gathered sons that this is an essential piece of the honor and tradition of their family: that the person doing the killing, the person with power, the Lord & judge, must be the one who deals the fatal blow. It’s his (they were all men) burden to bear. He must stand behind his choice to take a life, and feel, physically, the weight and challenge of that.
What is all this saying to us, helping us understand about Jesus’s message to us and to the disciples he was speaking to? Well, in Luke, Jesus’s words are translated more literally, “I have not come to bring peace, but division.” In Matthew, we have a sword. His teachings, the revitalized sensitivity to the sanctity of human life—including suffering and injustice—those teachings, living by them, will be swordlike, divisive. Divisive not to bodies, but to relationships. We as Christians, wield our faith and all the ethical responsibility that entails, like a sword. Again, not as a way of provoking conflict for conflict’s sake. Not as a way of pridefully touting our religiosity or being militaristic. But as a way of demonstrating our ethical responsibility, even when that causes strife within our closest relationships.
Jesus teaches us to use the divisive “sword” of loving our neighbor as ourselves. Treating our neighbor as a creature as infinitely complicated and worthy of love as we are. And learning how we, personally given our unique gifts and proclivities, can best use this tool, and be prepared to use it, not to sow division where it is not necessary, but to stand up to words, practices, systems, that we can hear God telling us, and Jesus showing us, are wrong. We see the backroom dealings of senators, conspiring to make health care even less affordable, further penalizing the poor and sick. And we stand with Jesus. We see someone being interrogated by the police. We pull out our smartphone and film the interaction. We stand with Jesus.
This knowledge, this faith, this swordsmanship, is not developed exactly the same in every hand. I move differently through the world as a Christian as someone else might. But if we listen to Christ, and take our responsibility as ethical, practicing Christians seriously, we all have access to this Christian tool.
Jesus also reminds us that the people closest to us, our family members, are the people who are most likely to be confused or alienated, by our faithful conviction, by our responsibility.
In Genesis, we see Sarah turn to someone else, to Abraham, in order to deal the “fatal” (though it does not turn out to be fatal) blow to a member of her household. Hagar is not a member of Sarah’s and Abraham’s family. Her status as slave is brought up again and again, even by God. The power-differential makes Sarah’s treatment of Hagar all the more reprehensible.
In the passage, we are told that Isaac has just been weaned. Sarah’s ire is stoked when she notices her newly independent son—that is, no longer dependent on her body for his nourishment, she is no longer the absolute center of his world—expanding his orbit to include Hagar, the mother of his brother. They are playing together. This gentle exchange, we have no reason to think it is anything other than friendly, sends Sarah off the rails. We could imagine another version of this story in which Sarah confronts Hagar herself. Or, better, in which she considers herself, her own position, before moving to throw out an innocent woman and child.
In our own times, perhaps we could imagine a subordinate at work, with whom we have some (even very large) bone to pick. I would hope that our ethical understanding would prevent us from acting rashly or with cowardice. Rather than having our subordinate fired because they seem like a threat, for example, we talk to them. Or, if we can’t talk to them about the reason for our jealousy, we turn, first, to ourselves, and try to understand how—through prayer, through confession—we might better be able to live peaceably, if not amicably, with that person. Because it is not their fault that we are angry. It is not their fault that we are jealous. It is a sign of how far we are from being in a right relationship with God that we can’t find it in ourselves to avoid back-stabbing. Which, yes, is something one can do with a sword. But not the usage, I think, Jesus intended for the symbolic sword he mentions.
Which brings me back to my original theme of family. I’ll share with you all that my family does not communicate particularly well. A big challenge in my relationship with them, has been to learn how to share my grief, my sadness, my experience, with them, rather than bottling it up. We’re not a family that speaks about emotions. If I am committed to loving them—and sometimes that love goes away, or becomes abstract rather than intimate—I have to learn how to talk. This is just the first step, my first step, in better learning to practice my own responsibility to those closest to me as a follower of Jesus.
In our lives beyond our families, it is also important that we discover, we practice, using the sword, the ethical sword, the sword of Christian responsibility, in our daily lives. It’s easy to becomes overwhelmed, in our day and age, but equally any day and age, by all the injustice that surrounds us. There are big, systemic injustices—poverty, racism, ableism—that we can find, also, in ourselves and a path to act against them.
And then, there are intimate encounters. We might be approached by a person who does not have a home. We might not know how to love that person, or what kind of “help” it’s right to offer. We are left feeling guilty. Or we are angry that our act of charity was not met with more gratitude. We fail at being empathetic people all the time. I do. I do not want to seem righteous here, because I’m not.
I, and we are troubled by our responsibilities as loving neighbors all the the more often when the stakes, and the choices, are right in front of us. They are right in front of us in our own families. They are right outside our doors in Baltimore, in this very neighborhood. I don’t have the solution. But part of my commitment as follower of Jesusis to continue preparing myself to better act as I can, when I can.
I’ll end on a slightly lighter, but equally important note. This week, I saw a poem one of my former colleagues—a wonderful poet named Kjerstin Kauffman—that had just been published online at Literary Matters.
This is a poem about peace—the concept that has been given short shrift this week.
This poem, however, acknowledges that peace is not a one-size fits all or readily available entity. Kjerstin’s poem talks about peace as a kind of preparation. She returns to an Edenic state of calm and is surprised by this peace, is surprised by the wholeness, even including her children close to her body (the loss Sarah was mourning), her own boundaries, a forgetfulness of time.
She wakes up and finds that she can see the world more clearly. “Why is my neighbor in exile here?” A reminder that not everyone gets to experience the peace she has been gifted. But, refreshed, “a grasping that held me is gone.”
The world is a place of possibility. A place in which we can, we can, we must, prepare ourselves constantly to act as we can, through the means we are given, our families, our gifts, our unique love, to bring ourselves closer to the ideal Christ imagined. He was the Prince of Peace, after all. The end game is never division, but a world, even a very distant one, that we allow ourselves to conceive of, where the sword Jesus brings is no longer necessary. Until then.
Thank you, Emmanuel, for showing me more how to be a part of a loving, responsible, occasionally sword-wielding community. Being a part of you, this body, has meant more to me than I can express. With love. Amen.