This sermon was preached for Notting Hill Methodist Church on Sunday, June 21, 2020. We are still doing church on Zoom, which is still difficult for me and I cannot wait until we can do church in person again. But better to keep people safe!
I broached some difficult subjects in this sermon, and please keep in mind, as with all of my sermons, it was written for a particular people in a particular place in a particular time.
When I was taught about Jesus as a child, in a white middle-class suburb in the fairly rural state of Iowa, one of my biggest takeaways about Jesus was that he was nice. Jesus was nice and he wanted us all to be nice to each other and that was the biggest lesson we had to learn - how to be nice. Now, I went to a fairly liberal church so we were definitely taught that we must be nice to all people - regardless of color, class, race, or creed, and even, in a very progressive move for my white middle-class suburb in the mid-nineties, regardless of sexual orientation. But no matter what, the epitome of being a Christian was to be nice.
In the United States today there is even a cultural phenomenon known as “Iowa Nice” - the idea that people in the state of Iowa are generally friendly, agreeable, and trusting with each other and even with strangers. We take pride in being “Iowa Nice.”
As I grew up, however, and when I attended seminary, I began to read stories in the Bible and learn things about Jesus that seemed to contradict the idea of Jesus as just a really nice guy who wanted the rest of us to be nicer to each other. This week’s passage from the Gospel reading in Matthew is one of those stories.
How was I to reconcile my image of “Nice Jesus” with the Jesus who says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I came not to bring peace but the sword.” How do I reconcile an idea of a Jesus who calls us to be nice to family and friends with the Jesus who says, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
I don’t know about you, but to me, none of that sounds very nice.
I had to do some deconstruction of my faith, some decolonization of my previously held image of Jesus as a nice guy who just wants everyone to be nicer to each other. Because what Jesus brings, what Jesus wants from us, is so much more than that, it is so much deeper, and so much harder.
You see “nice” on the surface, can hide a lot of the not so nice going on underneath. While Iowa brags on one hand about being “Iowa Nice” and all the warm fuzziness that brings, on the other hand we elected to congress nine times a man named Steve King who is known throughout the country for his incredibly racist rhetoric and white nationalist affiliations.
For many of us “nice” has been used as a way to gloss over things we don’t want to confront or talk about. My culture growing up told me that it’s not “nice” to talk about things like politics, religion, or money. We should instead keep polite conversation to the mundane, the ordinary - the simple things that nice people talk about. But what a damaging way to live!
Not talking about politics leads to things like the election of a Steve King. Not talking about religion certainly goes against our great commission to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the world. And not talking about money has enabled society to keep pay disparities between men and women, between whites and minorities, so high in the workplace - if no one is talking about it maybe no one will notice and definitely no one will fight for change. After all, fighting isn’t very nice.
It was ingrained in me for a long time that the only way to keep the peace was to be nice. And of course peacekeeping is something we should be about as Christians, right? Jesus himself said earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, in his Sermon on the Mount - “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” So we keep the peace by being nice and never confronting any real issues because confrontation isn’t very nice or peaceful.
But then Jesus comes along later and says, “I came not to bring peace, but the sword.” Well, which is it Jesus? Are we supposed to work for peace or not?
I think what it comes down to is this - what is our definition of peace?
Too often in our world today “peace” is on the same level as “nice” - peace is not ruffling feathers, not making people uncomfortable, not asking hard questions or expecting people to do hard things. African-American author Austin Channing Brown wrote this: “I believe firmly that to practice love is to disrupt the status quo which is masquerading as peace.”
What a beautiful way to restate what Jesus said - to practice love is to disrupt the status quo which is masquerading as peace.
Because, truly, Jesus did not come to bring the kind of peace that masquerades as the status quo. He didn’t come to bring a peace that keeps those in power comfortable. We know that almost all of what Jesus did throughout his ministry was to make those in power incredibly uncomfortable, I highly doubt any Romans or Pharisees felt any semblance peace when Jesus was around. In fact, the authorities conspired to kill Jesus because they thought his death would “restore the peace.” If they could just get rid of that not very nice rabble rouser then things could return to normal, things could be peaceful again.
But woe to those in positions of power who cry “Peace, peace” when there is no peace, says the prophet Jeremiah, for the wrath of God will come upon you. Peace as a construct that keeps people in their place, that keeps systems of oppression running at full steam, that lets people turn a blind eye to the suffering of those around them is not peace. It is not justice.
The rallying cry of “No justice, no peace” originated in 1986 after the murder of Michael Griffith - a black man in America who was killed by a mob of white youth. It has been carried through the decades to many protests for racial justice in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and around the world. It was chanted at the protests surrounding the death of Joy Gardner at the hands of police in 1993, and in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that took 72 innocent lives in 2017. It has been written on signs and projected yet again as the murder of George Floyd has reverberated around the world.
For those of us who are comfortable with the status quo - myself too often included - the cry of “No Justice, No Peace” can at first seem vaguely threatening. If we allow ourselves to be too reactionary - too scared of losing our comfortable positions in life - the chant seems as if people are saying “if you don’t give us what we want, we will take away your peace” - which seems to insinuate violence and all manner of horrible things.
But as I listen more to the stories of those who champion this cry - “No Justice, No Peace” - it becomes clear that this is not, in fact, a threat, but a simple statement of fact.
Without justice there is no peace. Period.
Perhaps we can pretend there is that “nice” level of peace - the kind where we sweep difficulties under the rug and pretend they don’t exist even when those “difficulties” are real people with real lives and real pain that we are causing with our commitment to ignorance. We can be “Iowa Nice” and have a “peace” that really just consists of us ignoring anyone’s story that doesn’t conform with our own.
But that’s not what Jesus calls us to do.
This passage from Matthew is sometimes known as the “Missionary Discourse.” At the beginning Jesus is commissioning his disciples, and by extension, us, to go out into the world and to proclaim his Gospel - he warns them that they will be like sheep among wolves - this task will not be easy and they will not always be welcomed. After all, those who want to disrupt the peace of the status quo - whether in Jesus’ day or today, are not usually looked upon favorably.
Three times in this passage Jesus tells them, “Do not be afraid.” He assures them that he is with them, that they will not be alone even when they face angry mobs who flog them and threaten to kill them for the message they bring. Even when they march in the streets and they are met with police in riot gear wielding rubber bullets and tear gas, they shall not fear for God is with them.
Further on Jesus tells them, “For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” The veil of peace that covers all sorts of systemic sin and evil will be pulled aside and we will have to reckon with who we really are. We will be made to see that “No Justice, No Peace” is not a political rallying cry, but a Biblical one.
Without justice there will never be peace.
This idea of bringing to light that which has been done in secret is playing out in our world today. The murder of George Floyd at the hands of police has woken up people who were previously asleep to the injustice and racism that runs rampant in the United States and around the world. I have been amazed at the way the movement has continued here in the UK, because I can assure you that in my experience it never works the other way around - most Americans have little awareness of what happens in other countries, let alone enough awareness for it to spark a social movement.
Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement and enough people finally paying attention (the movement started in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin), real change is happening, I hope. Here in the UK I have heard many statements that convey something like “the UK is not innocent.” Here there might not be the same number of murders at the hands of police but racism is real and rampant nonetheless.
In 2016, actor Will Smith was quoted as saying, “Racism is not getting worse, it’s getting filmed.” What has been covered up will be uncovered - what has been secret will become known. Our peace will be disrupted because there has never truly been peace where justice has been denied.
“No justice, no peace.”
“I came not to bring peace, but the sword.”
I like to think that Jesus means the sword of justice, the sword that will bring the powerful down from their thrones as Mary sang in the Magnificat, the sword that will topple statues of deeply flawed people, the sword that will rip the veil from our eyes. This sword, Jesus promises us, means that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
In the Romans passage from today, Paul reminds us that we must die to sin in order that we might live in Christ Jesus. He was echoing Christ who said that “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” This sword Jesus brings makes sure that those who are willing to lose their lives will find it, while those who cling to their lives and their power in this world shall lose them.
To those in power, to those comfortable with the status quo, any disruption of that supposed peace will always look and feel like violence, even if it’s not. Even if it’s just a people rising up to demand what God has promised, justice, and true peace.
“No justice, no peace.”
When we go into the world demanding justice, reminding those in power that there is no peace without it, there are those with whom our relationships will be strained and even severed. Jesus warned his disciples of this - that son would be turned against father, a daughter against her mother - that our foes would be members of our own household. There will be those we know who want to cry “Peace, peace” when there is no peace.
I personally have seen far too many people I know denouncing the destruction of property, caring far more about statues being torn down than about tearing down the structures of white supremacy that put those statues up in the first place. They tend to care more about a peace that looks like a return to the status quo than a peace that looks like justice and change.
“No justice, no peace.”
The way forward is long and hard. I don’t claim to be an expert in how we will bring about justice, rather I aim to be an ally and a leader who seeks to amplify voices other than my own.
But I do know this. The message Jesus gave his disciples so long ago rings true for us today - when we go forth - to demand justice that can bring about a true peace - God is with us, and Jesus marches by our side.
We might not come off as very nice, but we will be a little more like Jesus. And that, is what being a Christian is truly all about.