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The "Battle Hymn" of the Gospel

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Aug 14

Text: Luke 12: 49-56

I wonder how much of the Olympics you’ve all been watching. I’ve been watching way too much of it, but I’ve mostly been loving every minute. It’s been something of a soul cleanser, an antidote to many of the other headlines we’ve been reading. Louisa Thomas wrote an online piece in the New Yorker this week called, “The UNBELIEVABLE, AMAZING, ASTONISHING American Dominance at the Olympics.” It was mostly a commentary on the media’s overuse of hyperbole in their coverage, but she had a line that I found particularly compelling. She wrote: “The tension between competition and dominance, and humility and ruthlessness, is characteristic of any Olympics. But it seems particularly high this year. We want rivalries and we want undisputed greats. We want selflessness and we want feuds.”

After a table tennis competition this week, I watched an immediate reaction from one male winner. Before even considering celebrating, he went straight for his opponent and put his arm around the guy with a look of such sincere compassion that it seemed he was almost sorry he beat him! I got a huge lump in my throat just watching it— and it was table tennis!

And what about that women’s Gymnastics team? Did you see how Gabby Douglas, last year’s Women’s Gymnastics All-Around Gold Medalist, was edged out of competing in this year’s event by her two teammates, Aly Raisman and Simone Biles? What I want to know is who on Earth created the rules that gymnasts have to compete against their own teammates to quality for individual events at the same time that they are competing as a team against other countries? Of that remarkable team of five U.S. gymnasts, only two could advance. United as they were in the team competition, they were also divided against each other, two against three.

What a grueling endeavor. And yet what an opportunity for an “unbelievable, amazing, astonishing” grace to shine through, often as much through the character of those who advanced and won, as through those who did not. Gabby Douglas took the disappointment like the champ she already is, celebrating with admirable pride for her teammates. Meanwhile, just this morning, the New York Times sent an article to my inbox with the headline ‘When the Consolation is Better than Gold,” detailing similar stories of grace and consolation on the US women’s swim team.

Somehow, in our passage for today as well, there is an unbelievable grace shining through, yet it’s not as easy to see. It’s not in the form of the consolation or compassion that we would expect from Jesus, but from some astonishingly harsh and divisive words. “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you, but rather division.” In Matthew’s version it’s even more stark. Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword!” Where’s the grace in that, we might wonder?

“From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three!” Fathers against sons, mother against daughters, mother-in-laws against daughter-in-laws! Its like pitching teammate against teammate. Worse, it’s exactly what Jesus says: it’s dividing children from their parents. Talk about ruthless! Though, I must confess, as a parent of two teens, I find some consolation here. There is already plenty of tense drama and division between the parents and often-uppity teens in our household. Throw in the fact that our kids spend half their time at their dad’s house and there’s not only division, but triangulation and quadrangulation and whatever else! It’s some relief to hear Jesus name that household tension is real! And yet, Jesus says he comes to bring this tension and turmoil to our households! What’s going on here? There’s a cognitive dissonance upon hearing this from Jesus, isn’t there? We want the selflessness we've come to expect from Jesus, but apparently we’re supposed to want feuds as well! There’s a humility in acknowledging that conflict exists even in the healthiest of families, but there’s an undeniable tone of ruthlessness in his words! To top it off, he yells at his listeners! ‘You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the weather but you don’t have a clue about how to interpret the present time?’ The passage is among the most confounding in scripture.

My first impression was simple. Clearly, Jesus forgot to eat his Wheaties that morning. He’s in a foul mood. Maybe he’s hungry! Maybe he’s hangry, both hungry and angry. Whatever the case, and more deeply, he’s clearly feeling some fierce and fiery sense of urgency.

Stepping back from our shock at his uncharacteristic behavior, I think we can get our heads and hearts around where he’s coming from. Bear in mind, he was not speaking to 21st century American culture, immersed as we are in so-called family values, literate as we are in family systems theory, with family counseling and a million Facebook posts about the Do’s and Don’ts of parenting! The gospel is clear. Jesus didn't really care that much about family relations. When Jesus’ own family draws near to him in chapter 8, he rebukes them and says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear my word and do it.” Take that Jim Dobson and his so called Christian organization called Focus on the Family that supports “traditional” family values and opposes abortion, divorce; LGBT rights, particularly LGBT adoption and same-sex marriage.

No, Jesus took a longer and broader view. He knew that in first century Palestine, the family was, as Richard Carlon has underscored, a ‘microcosm of social reality,’ that the ‘household was a key building block of society.’ Also, note that the divisions Jesus calls for aren’t separating sisters from brothers, nor men from women. They are always generational divisions. The New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan puts Jesus’s “attack on the family” (his words) this way:

"The attack is on the Mediterranean family’s axis of power, which sets father and mother over son, daughter and daughter-in-law. The family is society in miniature, the place where we first and most deeply learn how to love and be loved, hate and be hated, help and be helped, abuse and be abused. It is not just a center of domestic serenity; since it involves power, it invites the abuse of power, and it is at that precise point that Jesus attacks it. Jesus’s ideal group, [his ideal structure of society] is contrary to Mediterranean and indeed most human familial reality. It’s an open one equally accessible to all under God! It is the Kingdom of God, and it negates that terrible abuse of power that is power’s dark specter and lethal shadow!” ¹

Whoa! Now we are getting somewhere! Setting aside the fact that Jesus is seeing through virtually every conflict I have with my teenagers (of course, it’s always about power!), the passage is not really about family dynamics, per se. It is far more a call to let God’s truth upset the abuse of power and privilege at every level of society, from family to community to local government to entire empires! Apparently, tension and division and conflict, and especially those that upset and overturn the status quo, are what Jesus is calling for here, not as a long term goal, but as a necessary step on the way from the world as it is to the world as it should be!

The passage makes clear that Jesus has no interest in the status quo of any social reality of our construction that favors those who hold power and privilege at the expense of the vulnerable and the powerless! When it comes to such tensions, being conflict averse will only lead the truth underground. He doesn’t want to bring peace to an unjust society. In essence, Jesus is paving the way and joining the ranks of protesters around our country and world who cry “No justice! No peace!” What’s more, he seems to be saying that such protest and division, though it may seem overly polarizing, angry, and even ruthless in it’s ambition, can be a sign of the gospel truth breaking in and being revealed among us! Jesus marvels at the fact that his contemporaries can read the signs in the weather, but they can’t see the signs of God’s ‘unsettling judgment’ and truth being revealed in the midst of the ‘social disruptions that are caused by Jesus’s ministry!’² Consider that: social disruption as an inaugural sign of God’s justice and healing!

I wonder how many of you were here at the end of June for our somewhat impromptu hymn sing. Instead of a sermon, I invited people to call out their favorite hymns. We sung the first two verses of whatever selections! One of the most surprising and moving choices came from someone I didn’t know. When I brought the mic to her, she named: The Battle Hymn of the Republic!

Though the music had been a familiar camp meeting song and Civil War fight song, Julia Ward Howe elevated it with new lyrics and a new title in 1862, and that’s what is in our hymnal today, hymn number 536. I feel like the Battle Hymn captures some of what I’m trying to convey in my reading of our passage of Luke!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

If the thought of Jesus wielding a sword is still too much dissonance, check out the next verse:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

There are a few practices I’ve been trying to cultivate this summer to keep my soul centered amidst the social and political turmoil in our world. Take your pick of subject matter, domestic or international - the increase in terrorist attacks or mass shootings, the brutality of bad cops— who, bear in mind, are suffering a triple threat of unchecked authority, untreated trauma and uncontrolled fear— the unconscionably widening income gap, and the list goes on! For that matter, consider whatever personal or familial toil you may going through that can only be exacerbated by our current events! Here’s a simple and even alliterative way to describe how I’ve been coping lately.

Step back. Step in. Step up.

First, step back! Stepping back in my mind allows me to take the long view! Remember the words of prophets and of the psalmists and of Jesus. Remember that God’s presence has shown through moments of great national dis-ease and turmoil! Take the Civil War, for example, and God’s truth marching on through those dismal yet totally necessary days in our history. And yet, how much unfinished business in it’s aftermath. Right now, step back and ask, where is God’s grace shining through in this moment, or that ungodly headline, or even that inspiring story from Rio or elsewhere? Can we see our national turmoil, can we see whatever personal or familial division, as a kind of revealing? And as a rupture whose purpose it is to wake us up and shake us up?! Stepping back may also involve recognizing our human limitations, our needs for rest and Sabbath in order to keep whatever movement and march sustainable!

Second, step in. Step in means to not fear the inevitable tensions that arise in moments of conflict. Step in means to step towards the conflict, and the messiness, towards conversations with those who are different from you. Risk sounding stupid, ignorant, even racist if only to have a conversation from which you can grow. As people of relative privilege, we can’t afford not to step in to, and own up to, and do our part to clean up the mess that we have inherited and either accidentally or purposefully carried on! Ignoring it, wishing it will resolve on it’s own, will make the wound fester. As the Japanese novelist Joy Kogawa has noted: “Denial is gangrene!” We are seeing the gangrenous effects of the denial of our nation’s history of slavery. The truth of our nation’s historic treatment of black lives is now recorded on videos of police shootings. God’s truth is being revealed and God’s love is marching on in protest! If you find yourself recoiling from this reality, then take it to God in prayer and be open to an unsettling of the status quo in your soul! However we can, we need to step in, with love and openness to our growth and transformation, which leads me to the last practice.

Step up! Step up means, plainly, to show up! Show up at a Black Lives Matter protest, a Mother’s Day Walk for Peace or Resist the Pipeline rally! If your body is aging and you can’t join the marches for God’s truth that are happening all around us find some other way of making your voice heard – letters to the editors, signs in your windows or on your lawns. And, if you are someone who looks like me, a cisgender, straight, white, Christian, man, and a big guy at that, be mindful about how much space you take up when you do step up. Step up, to be sure, but be willing to step aside if need be to make room for other voices to lead the march and to lead the signing of whatever battle hymn!

Did you know that Martin Luther King's last public words, uttered in a speech in Memphis the night before his assassination, were quoting those first lyrics of the Battle Hymn: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” What if, through all of the ruthless polarization our country is experiencing, through all of the division, black lives and police lives, red states and blue states, left and right, republican and democrat, what if through it all, our eyes too are seeing the glory of God’s truth that is marching on, and that amazing, unbelievable, astonishing grace and glory of God that is still shining through?

I’m not saying I know exactly how to interpret these present times. There is despair to be sure, but there is also grace-filled inspiration all around us, and not just in Rio! There is great good news breaking through all this turmoil!

Step back for the long-view, which our scriptures can help provide, and be sure you step back to rest enough when you need to! Step in to the conflict where you feel called, with love and prayerful connection to God’s abiding spirit! And by all means step up, with friends you trust, with leaders you believe in, and with this community of faith, as we continue to discern and choose our battles and we, too, join the march for God’s justice and peace. Amen.

1) John Dominic Crossan, in Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Harper Collins. San Francisco, 1994. Page 60.

2) I’m indebted to Richard P. Carlson for this formulation. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost, edited by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, page 358.

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