August 14, 2016, I Am My Brother’s Keeper – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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Last week, we watched the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. It was an extravagant show: fireworks and incredible costumes, with music and a whole pageant commemorating the history of Brazil. But it was the Olympic Games, so of course the climactic event, the real opening ceremony, was the running of the torch to light the Olympic fire. The torch, that had traveled months and months from Greece, finally reached Rio on the night of August 5th, and the whole world watched as the last torch-bearer ran the length of the huge stadium to light the Olympic cauldron that signaled the official opening of the Olympic games.
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
Jesus had come to inaugurate something much more earthshaking than the Olympic Games – he was talking about the birth of a new Creation, a new Society – a new kingdom.
But then follows one of those Bible passages that are particularly uncomfortable to listen to. We like to read stories like the one about the storm at sea, where “Jesus rebuked the waves and the sea was calm”. We like to read about the Good Samaritan and the forgiving Father. We like to read where Jesus taught us: “Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.” We like to hear about peace. We like being reassured. But today’s reading seems less than peaceful. Jesus says, “Do you think I have come to bring peace? No! I have come to bring division! Father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Taking it at face value, it doesn’t seem like a very appealing way of gathering followers; it’s not at all what we expect from a God who tells us he is the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep. “I have come to bring division” seems like a pretty terrible campaign slogan for the kingdom of heaven.
It’s important to understand first of all what Jesus was saying to the people who were standing there in the Judean sunshine listening to him on that very day. His words were urgent; he was getting closer every day to Jerusalem and the days of his arrest and Passion and crucifixion. You can hear the urgency in his voice, “Why don’t you know how to interpret the present time?”
Jesus knew that after his death, the wrath of both the Roman Empire, and the Jewish establishment would come down hard on his followers.
To the Romans, Christians were dangerous radicals because they were considered atheists, refusing to acknowledge the divinity of the Roman gods, and, even worse, refusing to worship Caesar himself, who claimed to be a god.
To the Jewish leaders, Christians were blasphemers and idol-worshipers, both sins worthy of death, because they worshiped a mere human being, Jesus of Nazareth, rather than the one true God of Israel.
When persecution came, which it did within a few decades, anyone who committed themselves to be a follower of Jesus Christ was an outcast of society on all sides, someone to be routed out, and exposed even by those closest to them. The mother, or father, or daughter or son of a Christian might well consider it their civic duty, and their religious duty, to turn them in to the authorities – otherwise, they would risk being associated with the “Jesus sect” themselves, and end up in prison or worse. So Jesus was issuing a warning – that discipleship was a serious, all-or-nothing commitment.
But even more basically, Jesus was telling the people around him that citizenship in the new society he was bringing to earth called for loyalty that superseded all the loyalties of worldly society; not just political loyalties or religious loyalties, but the deepest human bonds of blood and family. And he was telling them that the time was approaching when each man or woman would have to commit to citizenship, either in the world, with its natural bonds of patriotism and family loyalties, or to the kingdom of heaven. There would be no sitting on the fence. Jesus said; “I have come to bring division, even down to the absolute most unbreakable human bonds of father and son, mother and daughter.”
And that’s where this teaching of Jesus’s hits home to us. Because we who have confessed our faith in Jesus, have already opted into citizenship in the kingdom of heaven. But we have a lot to learn about what that means, and it is maybe a little harder to understand the urgency of our choice when we live so comfortably far from persecution or danger.
What that division doesn’t mean is that those of us who have children or grandchildren or brothers or sisters or friends or acquaintances who are not believers should love them or care for them any less because we follow Jesus and they don’t. All we have to do to be sure that that is true, is to see how our Lord behaves towards those people think of as “outsiders”. His love and mercy were unfailing towards those who betrayed and mocked and tortured him. He was unfailingly gracious to people everyone considered unworthy – women, Samaritans, tax collectors, prostitutes, children, lepers. Citizens of the kingdom of heaven, following in the footsteps of our Lord, have a call to love more, not less, especially to love anyone who is considered an outcast. Jesus did not bring division so that we would wall ourselves off from people who think or believe differently from us.
The purpose of the division, I believe, is this: to sever the bonds of loyalty and love that the world reserves exclusively for those natural ties of kindred and country, in order to set us free to extend that love and loyalty to all those who belong to our king – and that would be everyone. So, within the kingdom of heaven, that fierce love and protectiveness I feel naturally and intensely for my children and grandchildren and good friends, is being cut loose in order to embrace every child.
There was a time when Jesus was teaching such a huge mob of people that his family became worried about him. When they showed up, someone went to let Jesus know: “Your mother and your brothers are here.” But Jesus looked around at his disciples and said, “These are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” It wasn’t that he no longer loved and cared for his own family. But the ties of the kingdom meant that his loyalties were no longer restricted by the world’s categories. His love was bigger than family ties.
Here’s an example from our lives here at St. Philip’s: it is one of the joys of being a parent to provide good food for our children. Remember, we read recently that Jesus said, “Which one of you, if your child ask for bread, would give him a stone?” It is literally in our DNA to care for our kids. But yesterday in our parish hall, we hosted a food distribution for children in our community – all told, with the distributions here, and in Norfolk and Raymondville, we helped to feed 82 children in all. The food came from the Norwood churches and some kind local businesses, coming together to feed kids who are “ours” in a broader sense, in a kingdom sense. It is still a very small thing. But that’s how the fire of the kingdom of heaven grows and spreads.
I have to admit that I’m certainly not “there” yet. I am so often ingrown and protective of the people I love. I am absolutely fierce when anyone does any harm to my children. My natural maternal instincts are definitely alive and well. I am pretty confident that everyone in this room is fully functional when it comes to our natural loyalties. It is our basic human instinct to huddle together in our little clans and shut out everyone who looks or thinks or talks differently. But that makes it all the more urgent for us to listen when Jesus tells us that he came to bring division; because he came to break up the natural clannishness that is at the heart of so much evil – from ISIS and the KKK, to the rejection of refugees and immigrants, to bitterness and resentment among neighbors in our own community – and even within the church itself.
Jesus came to bring division within our little circle of home and country, because as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, and resident aliens in this world, our loyalties and responsibilities are no longer limited to our little circle. The truth is, we are our brother’s keeper. That’s why Jesus’ words are crucial for us today, because he lived and died and rose among us to set our hearts free to love and care, not for our own, but for his own.