Well, if you were here last Sunday, you know we were talking about the Kingdom of Heaven, and how it's not a place up in the clouds that you go to after you die. But how it is something we can experience right here and now. Jesus said, ‘The kingdom of heaven is here and now. It is at hand. It is with us and within us.’
Now, I know that is a very difficult concept to wrap your minds around. But I heard a story this week that might help clarify it somewhat. It's a fable. It's about a wise man who sits at the gate of the entrance to a city.
A traveler one day approaches the gates and says to the wise man, what are the people in your city like? And the wise man answers the traveler with a question, as many wise people do?
The wise man says, ‘Well, what were the people in your last city like?’ And the traveler says, ‘Oh, they were horrible people that were so mean, and rude and cruel and so self-centered.’
And the wise man said, ‘Well, that's how you'll find the people in this city’.
A short while later, another traveler comes, approaches the gates and asked the wise man the same question, “What are the people like in this city?’ The Wise man said, ‘Well, what were the people in your last city like?’
And the traveler says, ‘Oh, they were amazing. They were the best people, who were so kind and compassionate and loving’. And the Wiseman said, ‘Well, that's how you'll find the people in this city.’
I love that story. Because it demonstrates that the kingdom of heaven is a mindset. It's, it's a way of being, it's a state of mind, a state of consciousness.
Now in the Talmud, the ancient Jewish scripture that Jesus would have known and studied, there is a line that says, “We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.” We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are. It's about our state of mind, how we see the world.
Now, those of us who look for the good, it's not that we are looking at the world with blinders on or with rose-colored glasses, that we're not aware, or we're not paying attention to the hardships and the injustices of the world. What it means is that we have a hope, a vision, a belief of what the world could be. And during our time here, we're working towards that, towards that vision.
Jesus, of course, was a man of great vision. And his vision was the kingdom of heaven on earth. That's the world he wanted us to work toward. But he understood that that vision, in order for it to become manifest, in order for it to become a reality, there would have to be division.
That's why the name of my homily this morning is Vision, and Di-vision. Because as Jesus said, in today's Gospel – I know it was kind of shocking –”You think I came to bring peace? I didn't come to bring peace, I came to bring division.” And that's shocking for us to hear.
But Jesus was a divisive figure. We know that in his lifetime, yes, there were people who followed Jesus, who thought he was a peacemaker. But most of the people thought he was a troublemaker. And yes, there were people who thought he was the Messiah. But most people thought that he was a radical bleeding heart. If you remember when Jesus was arrested, his followers were few. There were great crowds though, shouting, “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” Because Jesus was a divisive figure. I’ve told you before, Jesus wasn't killed because he was a nice guy, just going around preaching a nice message. He was killed because what he was saying was threatening. He was calling for a new world order. So he said he wanted to set the world on fire, calling for a New World Order. He said, a world in which the last are going to be first, a world in which we're going to welcome the stranger and the foreigner, a world in which the hungry are going to be fed and the sick are going to be cared for, and where the marginalized and the oppressed, they're going to be set free.
And that, of course, was a threat. People didn't want to hear that. They wanted to maintain the status quo, so they needed to silence him.
And that has happened throughout the history of our world. truth tellers are often silenced. They're called divisive. Jesus was a truth teller. He understood that when we tell the truth, there is going to be division. It is part of the process. And the reason there's division is because, as we know, a lot of people don't want to hear truth.
They don't want to believe truth.
And that's why we're seeing 2,000 years later. We're living at a time when people believe, conspiracy theories. They believe things that aren't true.
But Thank heavens, for the truth tellers. Now, just in the past five or six years, we've seen so much truth telling in our nation, it's something to be very hopeful about. So for example, just in the past few years, 1,000s of women have come forward to speak truth. During the Me Too, and Time’s Up movements. They're shining a light on the harassment and abuse that they have experienced.
We also see that in our churches, hundreds of people in recent years have come forward to speak the truth about the abuse they received at the hands of the church.
And we're also seeing truth telling in our young people, our young people who have grown up with school shootings, and with climate change, they're coming out and they're leading this movement, to shine the light on gun violence and on the harm that we are doing to our planet.
And then, of course, we have seen in the past few years, 1,000s of people across this country taking to the streets, to shine the light of truth on systemic racism. This truth telling is necessary. If we're going to build the kingdom, if we're going to build the kingdom of heaven here on earth, we've got to do this truth telling.
But as we see, it leads to division. And living at a time of division is not fun. It's not easy. We see in our churches right now, there are several Christian denominations in America today, who are being divided. They're being pulled apart. Because of the acceptance of LGBTQ people in their churches. They're being divided over that issue.
And many of you, you've experienced division in your life, with your family members and friends. Just as Jesus said, in today's Gospel, there's going to be division among families, you have family members, some of you who no longer speak with you, they've severed ties with you, because you spoke the truth to them.
Now you could have chosen to do the opposite. As we heard, in our words of integration and guidance this morning, you could have kept silence. We know for example, as he says, that maybe grandpa believes conspiracy theories.But I don't want to say anything to grandpa, because I want to keep the peace in the family. Or you know that your boss or your co-workers, they say misogynistic and racist and homophobic things, but you keep silent about it because, well, I don't want to make waves in the workplace. I just want to keep the peace. I want everything for everybody to be nice. Well, the writer, Naomi Shulman, recently wrote about this in an essay, and she said this, she said, “Nice people, made the best Nazis.”
She said my mom grew up next to them. They got along. They refuse to make waves. And they looked the other way. When things got ugly, they focused on happier things than politics. They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren't nice people? The resistors and Ellie Roselle, the Nobel Prize winning writer who survived the concentration camps said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor. Never the oppressed. Silence, encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. That is what I think Jesus was trying to say in today's Gospel reading. He's trying to say that if we are to build the kingdom, set the world on fire, we are going to need to speak truth. We can't remain silent. We must take a stand, we must take sides.
And I know that that's confusing for many Christians, because they think Jesus was a nice guy who was bringing people together. But Jesus was speaking truth. That's why they killed him. Jesus understood that division is part of the process of creating this new world, this vision, this dream that we have for what the world could be.
It's part of the process.
And we are to be a part of that process. As difficult as it is. Now, we have seen just in our lifetime, so many justice movements. And if you notice, they always caused division when there was integration, and when there was, say, the civil rights movement. If you remember, Dr. Martin Luther King, was called a divisive figure. I mean, nowadays, yes, we celebrate him and people view him as a saintly figure. But during his lifetime, he was referred to as a divider as a troublemaker. But during that time, in our history, there was division.
During women's liberation, there was division.
During the fight for marriage equality, there was division in our country, there's still division in our churches about it.
But look what happened because of those justice movements. More and more people in our country are now afforded more liberties and rights and the right to be who they are and live how they want to live. We're living in a more just and inclusive world, even though it was a time of division for us.
Now, Bishop Desmond Tutu said, “Peace, without justice is an impossibility.” We cannot create this kingdom, this world of peace, unless there's justice. Unless we hold people to justice. We are called as followers of the way of Jesus to do as he did. We are called to bring about that kingdom.
It will not be easy. And maybe we won't see it in our lifetimes.
The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth, the dream that Martin Luther King had, we may not see that manifest in our lifetime. But it's our calling as Christians to continue to work to hold that vision, and that hope. To bring that about. That's what we're called to do.
And so my friends, may we, the people of Douglas UCC, continue to be people who follow the way of Jesus, to speak our truth, to be instruments of peace in the world, so that we can set the world on fire and bring about the kingdom of heaven here on earth. A just world for all people.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
by Rev. William Bausch
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division, so that even families will be divided among themselves.” Strange words from the Prince of Peace! The fact is, the title “Prince of Peace” never implied that Jesus was harmless. The fact is truth-telling peace would always come at a price, because it would mean we have to give up our habitual participation in the conspiracy of silences we maintain, silences we justify by saying, “Well, we want to keep the peace. We don’t want to cause division. We don’t want to rock the boat.” But, for example, somewhere along the line the family has to stop pretending that Mom’s drinking is not really a problem; the community has to stop pretending that it doesn’t harbor racism; and the nation has to stop pretending that its economy is not based on the oppression of certain groups. The fact is, we are known as much for our silences as for our actions, for our efforts at peace as well as for the truth that divides and challenges. As an old proverb goes, “The candle says to the darkness, ‘I beg to differ.’” Our Christian lives should be a candle – “Let your light shine in the darkness,” Jesus said – and if the darkness is offended, so be it. Setting the earth on fire is a skill Christians have to acquire.
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