August 14, 2022, Sermon preached by Rev. Mary Lee Wile

Not peace, but division

My older sister is a lawyer; she began law school the year her youngest child entered preschool. When our grandfather asked why she wanted to go to law school, she answered, “I never want to lose another argument.” Back in high school, my sister was voted class flirt, but she also loved to argue. Me, I tend to be constitutionally conflict-avoidant, which meant that when my sister would get into lively teenage arguments with our parents at the dinner table, it sounded like fighting to me, and I would sometimes have to leave the table, unable to eat.

So when I first read today’s gospel lesson, you can imagine my initial reaction. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Really? This is the gospel I have to deal with on a summer Sunday?– But I didn’t get to leave the table this time; I had to stay there, to chew on and digest what Jesus meant when he said: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

So I chewed on a lot of commentary, and some poetry, and some other chapters in Luke.

At first I was convinced it would be a serious challenge to balance the Prince of Peace with the bringer of division, but going all the way back to the beginning of Luke’s gospel, I was reminded that shortly after the shepherds hear angels sing about “peace on earth,” we encounter old Simeon in the Temple, telling Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed…. And a sword will pierce your own soul, too.” Peace on earth, opposition, a sword to pierce his mother’s soul. As contradictory as they sound, I had to acknowledge that all are true.

We live in a time (I suspect most people have throughout history…) when to challenge the status quo is to invite division. And I realize that’s what Jesus is talking about. It’s what he does throughout his life. He’s not denying his own gospel of peace, but he’s telling his listeners that the cost of peace is justice. He refuses to accept the status quo, isn’t interested in maintaining “the way things are” or getting back to “the way things used to be.” Instead he urges his followers to focus on the wellbeing of their neighbors instead of sitting around arguing about the weather. One commentator says that Jesus in today’s passage “challenges us all to take off our blinders and at least see the injustice, the poverty, and the suffering that is so prevalent around us. Make no mistake. We are surrounded by hurting people. And the first step toward doing something about it is to take a long, hard look at their suffering by removing the blinders that keep us comfortable.”

 What Alan Brehm wrote here took me straight to Sacred Ground, the racial justice program that was designed precisely to remove those “blinders that keep us comfortable” so we can take that hard and holy look at the hurting people around us.

I know a lot of you are graduates of or participants in Sacred Ground; I’m on my 4th time through as a co-facilitator, and I’m continually saddened and shocked as I re-encounter the material, still working to remove my own blinders. Just this past week, Myrna and I sat with our current group as we acknowledged how the end of slavery led very quickly to the criminalization of Black bodies, when free Black men (as well as women and children) were arrested for minor offenses or trumped up charges and essentially sold to men who wanted free labor. This historical practice of arresting our Black siblings for offenses that a white person can commit with impunity helps explain the current mass incarceration of Black men. I re-learned that towns such as Westbrook, Biddeford, Orono, Brewer, and Presque Isle were “sundown towns” which forbade people of color to be within the town limits after sunset – they might work there, but were forbidden to live there. No wonder Maine is so white. I read Howard Thurman’s statement to the group that “There are few things more devastating than to have it burned into you that you do not count and that no provisions are made for the literal protection of your person,” to which our lone participant of color responded: “I live inside that narrative.”

And Jesus wept. Jesus still weeps for the cruelty and injustice of the world. Behind the passion in his words: “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” – behind those words is God’s desire for peace on the other side of conflict, for a peace that cannot come until we acknowledge damage and despair, until we seek justice, equity, and healing. A peace that passes understanding.

Only when we acknowledge the reality and reason for division can we join our Lord on the pathway to peace. Probably most of you have already encountered “Hymn for the Hurting,” a recent poem by Amanda Gorman, the young Black woman who was our first Youth Poet Laureate. In “Hymn for the Hurting” she names what I’ve been trying to say as she speaks for all her Black and Brown siblings:

Everything hurts, [she begins]
Our hearts shadowed and strange,
Minds made muddied and mute.
We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.
And yet none of it is new;
We knew it as home,
As horror,
As heritage.
Even our children
Cannot be children,
Cannot be.

Everything hurts.
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.

….May we not just grieve, but give:
May we not just ache, but act;
…May we choose our children over chaos.
May another innocent never be lost.

Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.

When I was 12 years old, I couldn’t even finish dinner in the midst of conflict, and I’m still more comfortable “keeping the peace,” but I’ve come to realize that doing so can be a form of escape, and that Jesus is right; Amanda Gorman is right. To reach the “peace that passes all understanding,” we first have to face into the fire. The blessing in all this is that we don’t go there alone – Jesus promises to go with us – which is a good and holy thing because it’s way outside my comfort zone, and I need all the help I can get to stay the course.