When they were adolescents, our sons used to tease me when I would try to impart some bit of wisdom to them. I seldom tried to talk to them at the same time about anything important because I knew that effort would be doomed to certain failure from the start. But even when I took the precaution of speaking to them separately, whoever I got to first would end up alerting his brother to what was up. If I talked to David first, when he heard me say, “Adam can I talk to you for a minute?” he’d say to Adam, “It’s sermon number 78.” Or if Adam got reeled in first he’d warn David, “It’s the AIDS lecture…again.” I don’t know whether they turned out to be such fine men because of or in spite of my efforts…I guess it was probably a bit of both.
We’re now in the third week of hearing the instructions Jesus gave to his disciples about what they might expect and how they should react when they went out to teach and preach and heal in his name. And I have to say that listening to this week after week is beginning to give me an appreciation for how my sons must have felt as recipients of my instructions and warnings. Enough already! But here we are and mother Church has said we need to pay attention to this stuff.
Part of the problem with hearing what Jesus is trying to communicate is that Matthew has chosen to lump all these sayings together, leading to a somewhat jumbled effect, for me at least. But another and I believe deeper part of the problem is that Jesus is saying things we just basically don’t want to hear, and he’s using language which makes us pretty uncomfortable. We don’t want to hear about swords instead of peace, about family discord, about giving up what we think we want to obtain what we really want.
The reality is that very few families I know about are free of conflict. We all make decisions and take actions which rub those nearest and dearest to us the wrong way. But I also have to say that I don’t know many families whose conflicts revolve around matters of faith. With our parents and children, our siblings and in-laws we are as careful as we are with everyone else we know not to “offend” with our religion. We’ve been taught that what people believe and how they express those beliefs is their business, not ours. And at some level I agree with that. Faith is not something we can coerce in others. But the problem is that we’ve taken that healthy unwillingness to force our beliefs on others to the point that we’re often reluctant to say and practice what we ourselves believe for fear of offending…or even just inconveniencing someone else.
The sword Jesus says he’s come to bring instead of peace is the conflict which inevitably arises when you and I are totally committed to God and unapologetic about the time and energy and decisions that commitment requires. Whenever you and I say yes to God there’re other things we must say no to. And we hate that. We hate saying to our house guests who choose not to accompany us to worship, “Here’s stuff for breakfast. Help yourself, and I’ll be back after Church.” We hate saying to our children, “You cannot be on a soccer team that practices or plays games on Sunday mornings.” We hate saying to a spouse, “I’m not willing to vacation during Holy Week and over Easter unless I can worship wherever we are.” Saying yes to God can lead to conflict with those we love about things which don’t, on the surface, seem that important. But they must be or I doubt Jesus would have invested the time and energy to warn his disciples the way we hear him doing this morning.
As always, what Jesus keeps hammering away at is putting things in proper perspective, arranging our loyalties and energy in ways that reflect the priority we give to God in our lives. Nowhere does he say, “Don’t love your father or mother or son or daughter.” He just says, “Love me more. And trust yourself to me. Don’t be so wedded to your aspirations and plans for becoming the person you think you want to be that you don’t allow me to transform you into the person you really want to be.” How many times have you or I relentlessly pursued some goal we were certain we wanted, obtained whatever it was and ended up feeling empty and disillusioned? As we move through our lives we must make decisions: relational, educational, career decisions, and we must act on those decisions. But the person of faith does so knowing that God may have something different in mind, and is willing to be interrupted and redirected as God sees fit.
And one last word about those we are sent to, the ones God is counting on you or me particularly to share the good news with, the ones we are so afraid of being rejected or ridiculed by if we are open about our faith. Jesus is pretty clear in what we hear today that those who are open and receptive and responsive to those whom he sends to them, even in something so simple as offering a cup of cold water, those people will be rewarded. If we neglect to share the gospel, we may protect ourselves from rejection and ridicule, but we will also deny the ones to whom we are sent their promised reward. They cannot be rewarded for what they never received. They cannot receive what they’ve never been offered.
Discipleship is a demanding way of life. Jesus doesn’t try to sugar-coat it. Yet discipleship, with all its demands and dangers, is the only way to true peace. A word of wisdom about this from a Jesuit named Anthony de Mello. He said:
is found only
I really believe that peace that passes all understanding which you and I so long to have and to live within can only come through saying yes to God.