Sunday, June 21, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (gospel reading and sermon start around 21:41)
It was an exciting week at the parsonage this past week. The water heater had to be replaced after we discovered that it had sprung a leak. Not good. But, in the process of getting it fixed, I did get to spend some quality time with our dear brother in Christ, Rick Fendrick.
Rick is a storyteller, and he likes to joke that it’s dangerous to tell stories to pastors, because you never know when one of your stories will turn up as a sermon illustration. And, well, Rick is not wrong about that, lol. (Rick is a member of my congregation and I asked his permission before sharing this story)
I kept thinking about one of Rick’s stories as I was reading through our texts for this week. He was telling me once about how one of his collarbones is actually shorter than the other one – and that if you feel along the length of the shorter collarbone, you’ll come across a hard lump of bone sticking out. He explained that when he was younger, he broke his clavicle as he was playing basketball with some friends.
The clavicle can be a tricky bone to heal, since you obviously can’t put a cast on it like you could with a broken arm or a broken leg. And Rick’s collarbone ended up not healing correctly. Instead of the pieces of bone lining up end to end and knitting themselves back together that way, they overlapped slightly, which is what created the knot of bone you can still feel there to this day.
Rick said it doesn’t really hurt all that much, but he can feel it when the weather changes. And because his collarbone is shorter, it means his shoulder is shorter on that side; so whenever he wears overalls or suspenders or whatever, you’ll usually see him sporting a bungee cable across his chest to keep the straps from falling down.
Of course, there is a way to fix a bone that has healed incorrectly. And you probably know what it is. The bone actually has to be re-broken. It has to be re-broken and re-set and allowed to re-heal in the right position. Now, I am lucky enough never to have actually broken a bone (despite my best efforts), but my brother broke his leg when he was about seven years old, and I still remember the sound of him screaming.
Breaking a bone is often excruciatingly painful. And so I have a hard time imagining going to the doctor and having them come at you with, like, a hammer or whatever, going like, “Ok, now just hold still!” I mean, I’m sure that’s not actually how it happens. (Renee, our resident doctor, is probably listening to this and just rolling her eyes right now.) But still, when you go to the doctor with some kind of injury, you generally expect comfort; you expect a relief from pain. You don’t usually expect your doctor to be the one breaking your bones!
It’s a reversal of expectations – much like our gospel reading for this morning. This text from Matthew is probably one of the most difficult passages in the gospels – or, really, in all of scripture – for us to read. It follows right on the heels of our gospel reading from last Sunday. Jesus is still giving his disciples instructions before he sends them out into the mission field. He is trying to communicate to them the nature of this ministry that they’re doing together; and he’s trying to prepare them for the challenges that they will face.
Like we read last week, he tells them, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Jesus knows that even though the message of the kingdom is good news, it will still be divisive. People will push back and even persecute his followers.
Still, even knowing this, it is unsettling and surprising to hear Jesus say: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This is not the nice, friendly, cuddly Jesus that most of us expect to encounter when we open up the scriptures. I mean, for Pete’s sake, we call Jesus the Prince of Peace! Hearing him say that he has not come to bring peace is probably a little bit like hearing your doctor say that they need to break your bones.
The truth is that the peace that Jesus has come to bring does not necessarily look like peace as we might understand it.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. writes about peace in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which I have quoted before. He sets up a distinction between different kinds of peace that I think is really helpful for understanding this better. In the letter, Dr. King expresses his frustration with “the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
True peace is not just the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice. To take it back to our broken bone image, we can think of negative peace like a bone that has healed badly. On the surface, things look fine – and if you ignore it and don’t go any deeper, it’s easy to think that everything is hunky-dory. But once you start poking around beneath the surface, you soon discover that all is not well.
In contrast to this, working for positive peace can be like delving down into old wounds that have never healed properly and re-breaking that bone so that there can finally be true healing. It can be a very painful process – but it is the only way to true peace.
This is the kind of healing, the kind of peace, that people are fighting for in our country right now. The legacy of discrimination, of racism, of slavery and Jim Crow and mass incarceration is a national wound that has never healed properly; and for millions of people in this country, it has never healed at all. And I know – I know – how intensely uncomfortable it is to even hear someone say the word “racism” – I know – but that intense discomfort actually shows us just how deep this wound goes. I mean, just take a moment and notice that tension in your body. Can you feel it?
We carry this wound too. And right now, the Holy Spirit is stirring us all up – like a burning fire shut up in our bones – the Spirit is pressing us gently (and sometimes not so gently) to help us find the places where it hurts the most. We will never truly heal – our nation will never truly heal – until we stop ignoring the hurt and start facing the pain of this wound. We will never truly heal until we stop settling for a negative peace instead of working together for a positive one.
This is hard work; it’s humbling work. And, frankly, it sucks that we have to do it. It’s not fair that the burden of this work has fallen on us. Of course, it’s much less fair to the people who are hurting the most. But still, this wound is not a wound that we inflicted. It’s not our fault that racism exists. It’s not our fault that we inherited the world that we inherited. We can’t be held accountable for the world that previous generations handed on to us. But we will be held accountable for the world that we pass on to the generations that come after us.
And so it’s not enough to try to avoid tension; it’s not enough just to try to be nice people who don’t rock the boat. We are called to act. We are called to take up our cross and follow. This is what the Nebraska Synod and the broader ELCA are trying to mobilize the church to do right now. Many of you have probably seen the message that Bishop Brian sent out last week. He is inviting each of us – challenging each of us – to do one thing to work toward reconciliation and healing. That one thing might be educating ourselves by watching a documentary or reading a book, or it might be donating to a bail fund or engaging people in hard conversations. The synod has put out several resources to help people figure this out, and I am also happy to help connect people with these resources. There are lots of things that we can be doing.
And afterall, Paul reminds us in our second reading from Romans that we have been freed from sin so that we will not go on living in it. Paul writes to the Romans that grace isn’t meant to be an exuse to keep on sinning without even trying to live better. Christ died so that we might be raised to new life. And so we are called to die to ourselves – to die to our resistance to hearing our neighbors, to die to our avoidance of their pain – in order that we may live to God.
And you know what? We will probably fail. We won’t get it perfect – God knows I don’t. But that’s where grace comes in. Each day we get a chance to try again – through grace. And even when we fail, God finds a way to work through us, to work through our efforts. Each day is a fresh opportunity to join in the work of healing – the work of peace – without fear of condemnation.
My dear friends in Christ, we have lived for long enough with this pain and discomfort. It’s time to go see the doctor. It’s time for us to start doing the hard work of building peace. It’s time for the true healing to begin.