During the second world war, my mother and her sister were part of a home-front program called the ‘government girls.’ These were hundreds of young ladies who lived in and around Washington, DC and travelled into the canyon of buildings to help keep a number of governmental offices going, while the men were away at war. My mother actually received a commendation for her work and she was very proud of it.
Prouder yet, however, was the fact that she made a friend.
In her office, part of this gaggle of women, was a single Black girl. She had the same kind of duties as everyone else. Like everyone else, she was young and single. And, like everyone else, she was deeply committed to doing her part for the war effort, to advance the success of the United States during the war. But she was black. (“Colored” as it was known then in polite company).
As my mother told the story, she was moved because the girl was pretty much alone, kept to herself, doing her work. My mother had the audacity to speak to her, and then befriend her. Other office mates scolded her in disbelief: “I bet you would even eat with her!” one sneered. Of course she did, and more.
If the story ended there it would be another example of the many unconventional friends my mother had during her life. But there’s more to it. You see, my grandfather, her father, was an out-and-out bigot. Very much a product of the South. “Make those people sit at the back of the bus,” kind of racist. Proud of it.
When word got to him of my mother’s new friend, well you can imagine the result. This was not allowed, not in this family! So my mom, with all the bravado of a teenager, told him off, and threatened to leave home. They battled it out and eventually, he relented, though he didn’t change his mind.
Her plight seems tailor-made to illustrate Jesus’ sayings today about what following him really means. This is part two of the commissioning of the disciples, where he goes to great lengths to tell us just how difficult discipleship is, and what the consequences will be.
Channeling the words of the prophet Micah, Jesus says emphatically:
“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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’m sure that’s how my mother and grandfather felt about each other over this: a house divided. How is it that Jesus seems to advocate for this? He doesn’t. He’s just warning us that this is the price of peace. For peace, true peace, isn’t one that accommodates denial or dishonesty or bigotry disguised as courtesy. It is one that takes seriously issues like suffering and inequality, exploitation and abuse, marginalization and repression, as obstacles to overcome in order to achieve it.
Do not forget that he himself lived under something called ‘Pax Romana’ a period of relative political stability in which the Roman Empire is established, grows wealthy and expands. As we know, that type of ‘peace’ came at a price, too. Some were paying more than others for it.
The kind of peace that Jesus brings is a deep, life-changing peace that doesn’t hesitate to stand up to authority, it isn’t afraid to break in order to mend, and cut in order to heal. It is peace that is difficult to get to, but ultimately worth it. It is a real oxymoron: sometimes real peace is worth fighting for.
That’s what he’s warning us about. The real battle begins within.
“Consider the fact that Jesus forced choices from just about everyone he met… No one met him without feeling compelled to change. He consistently brought people to the point of crisis, tension, movement, or transformation. He consistently led people to decisions their families and communities didn’t understand.” Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus 6/21/2020
My father walked into the war-at-home that my mother and grandfather were engaged in. Here he is, dark, exotic looking, from another country, with a thick accent. Ah, but he was studying to become a man of the cloth. Apparently, that my grandfather could respect! My father didn’t fit the neatly carved out place where my grandfather put all of those other people who were beneath him. He still couldn’t abide my mother’s Black friend, but the mexican boyfriend somehow wasn’t quite so offensive.
But you can see, can’t you, that his world is beginning to crumble. Those long-held beliefs that propped up his home empire weren’t built to last.
Today’s gospel compels us to continue with that dismantling –if we want real peace. It asks us to risk moving beyond comfortable, soft, sentimental Christianity, and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship. “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Discipleship in the work of peace asks tough questions because we easily conflate the good news with good citizenship; good behavior with conformity; just following orders as an excuse for violence or intimidation; not causing trouble for acceptance of behaviors that are actually contrary to the gospel.
And so we must wrestle with all that stands in its way.
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart,” we read in Hebrews (4:12). “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
A sword that pierces the heart.
I think that’s what happened. By the time he died, my grandfather was a changed man. Not only did he welcome all sorts of people into his home, he actually broke bread with a Black pastor he befriended –or befriended him, I’m not sure which. It couldn’t have been easy to let go of those things that made him who he was, to live with the loss of respectability, to have the courage or the humility to admit his errors. I can only imagine what that must have been like, to lay down the weapons of prejudice, arrogance of distrust and disdain, to pick up his cross and become a man of peace.
We are still in that place where some are paying more for our peace than others. The peace that Jesus calls us to is costly, but well worth the price of our contempt. May we be willing to bear that cross. May we be willing to be a part of a whole new family.
In Jesus’ name.