Last week I learned that someone I know is getting a divorce. The determining issue was a difference in opinion over vaccinations. He is in favour. She is not. They might have been able to find a way forward if they were just making decisions about themselves but it was the disagreements about their son that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Caught in the middle of his parent’s push and pull they just couldn’t agree whether to vaccinate him or not. Thankfully he was old enough to voice his own opinion and his parents dutifully obliged. Unfortunately, the irreparable damage to the relationship was already done. I am certain theirs is not the only family that has been torn about by this pandemic.
Today’s scripture reading is a challenging one to say the least. We all like the Jesus who gathers the children on his knee, who gladly bears our burdens and speaks to us of love of self and love of neighbour. We can even bring ourselves to tolerate the Jesus who instructs us to love our enemies, as hard as that can be at times. But this Jesus who comes wielding a sword of division, pitting one member of a family against another is not the Jesus we have come to know and love.
And yet in so many ways, this is this Jesus who is characterizing the way our pandemic is playing out right now. Here at Mount Seymour United we have consistently supported our chief public health officer Dr. Henry, obediently following the orders she spells out for us each step of the way. In other places however, our Christian cousins twice removed (the ones we never got along with at the family reunion) have been gathering for worship when we were ordered not to and praying to Jesus for his protection believing he will shield them from Covid 19 better than any vaccination or mask.
The whole situation makes me think of the great divisions that have split the church into hundreds if not thousands of smaller denominations over the centuries. Catholics and Protestants, Evangelicals, Mainliners and more. Even our own beloved “united” church has embedded in its history a split between the Presbyterians who became part of us at union and those who didn’t.
As we gather on this Sunday before Remembrance Day, the way that divisions between families of nations can become violent and deadly is very present in our hearts and minds. While we are talking about divisions, we might also to want remember that when the call to arms was issued in our own nation many years ago there were those Christians who subscribed to a just war theory and went off to fight the enemy and those who became conscientious objectors and stayed home.
So when the writer of Matthew’s gospel puts a sword in Jesus’ hand and has him deliver his message about the way the gospel can cause a split right down the middle of the family dining room table, he’s speaking a truth that cuts very close to the bone.
It might be helpful for us to know that the context of Matthew’s gospel is one in which his mostly Jewish audience had split from their siblings in the synagogue believing that Jesus was the Messiah. When in the verses surrounding today’s reading Jesus is calling his disciples to go out and share the Good News of his message, he knows they are going to encounter resistance and hostility. So in today’s passage he’s acknowledging that what he is calling them to do is going to cause divisions. Maybe you are someone who comes from a family that has been divided over religious views so perhaps you understand this better than many of us.
If we return our gaze to our own denomination, the United Church of Canada we don’t have to look far to see the way that decisions made by the church throughout its’ history have been divisive: the ordination of Women; the right to die with dignity; our stance on abortion and of course the biggest divider of all, the decision to ordain openly declared homosexuals.
With so much division woven through our history how can we say with any certainty what Jesus would or would not do in a pandemic? Well there might not be a definitive answer but perhaps we can find some clues in today’s reading.
One of the things I found myself wondering this week as I reflected on this challenging passage from Matthew’s Gospel was the kind of peace Jesus was referring to when he said he came to bring a sword not peace. The Roman Empire which as I mentioned last week was in tight control of 1st Century Palestine. The era of this time in history when the Romans were in power is commonly known as the era of Pax Romana which literally means Roman Peace. The roughly 200 year timespan of Roman history in which Roman imperialism, hegemonial power and expansion flourished was a time in which “peace” was maintained through violent and oppressive means. It was a peace that silenced its’ opposition. It was a peace that ultimately tried to silence Jesus and his message of a different kind of peace. And it was a peace that came at the expense of the “other” at the expense of women and widows, the frail and the fragile.
Our scripture reading today ends with words about the costliness of discipleship, the costliness of following the Jesus way. Jesus says that those who find their life will lose it, they will willingly offer it up. And those who lose their life for his sake will find it. He’s talking about a way of walking in the world in which we give of ourselves and pay the cost for our own giving. We don’t live our lives at the expense of others.
So one of the measuring sticks we might use to determine what Jesus would do in this pandemic would be to ask ourselves if what we are doing is costing us something or are we asking the frail and the fragile to pay the price for our activity. And then we might ask ourselves are we so committed to what we are doing that we are willing to go so far as to let it fracture a relationship that matters to us, as difficult as that may be.
I already said that I’m not sure if any of us can ever give a definitive answer to the question what Jesus would do in a pandemic. Would he be vaccinated or not? Would he have told us to open our doors and keep worshipping together back in March of 2020 or not? Would he wear a mask or not? The good thing about that is that it keeps us humble, open and curious, talking and listening and discussing with one another and never taking our corner on the truth as final. The good thing about not knowing for certain what Jesus would do is that even in the midst of our divisions it keeps us aware of our common humanity.
So, I am not going to end this sermon by giving you the definitive answer to the question what would Jesus do in a pandemic but I will say this. I spent a good portion of this week at Lions Gate Hospital. As I watched health care professional after health care professional, doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, OT’s, dieticians and more, leaning over the frail and broken body of my elderly mother what I saw on their faces was the face of love, the face of the living Christ made manifest. I saw a costly, self-giving love. And every one of those faces was masked and every one of those health care professionals was vaccinated.
The last thing I will say is this a family divided is still a family and we must treat each other as such and perhaps that is the most important thing for us to remember on this Sunday closest to the day we honour those who paid the greatest price of all for the sake of freedom and the sake of a costly peace.