A Sermon Reflecting on the 221st General Assembly
Sermon preached Sunday, June 22, 2014 at Ogelthorpe Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA
Sermon Text: Matthew 10:24-39
My friends, I bring you greetings from the 221st meeting of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Presbyterians from across the country gathered in Detroit for the last eight days to do the business of the church. We had, as I’m sure you can guess, committee meetings. We worshiped and celebrated communion together. We shared in fellowship. We came together, from near and far, to try to discern the will of God for the PC(USA). And at the end of our time together, whether we were happy about the results or not, we worshiped again.
I arrived home about 10 PM last night, exhausted. It’s an intense week, to say the least. My job as a student assistant involved dealing with IT issues and assisting the Office of the General Assembly with whatever they needed, which often required me to arrive early and stay late. Most days lasted upwards of 16 hours.
There were many tears shed this week. Some of them, I’ll admit, were my own, but most of them came from supporters on all sides of issues. There were tears of joy, tears of grief, tears of exhaustion, and tears of gratitude. Even though this is the “business” of the church, I want to be clear that what is done at the General Assembly is deeply spiritual work, and faithful Christians from across the ideological spectrum often break into song and prayer together. They reach out to one another, grieved by their separation, but firm in the belief that they are proclaiming the Gospel to the best of their abilities.
I cannot tell you who is on the right side of God in our debates. I can tell you who I believe is on the right side, but I’m not sure how helpful that would be.
I cannot tell you who is on the right side of God in our debates. I can tell you who I believe is on the right side, but I’m not sure how helpful that would be. You see, it’s not only about right and wrong. These are good, faithful people working their tails off to the glory of God, and that is to be celebrated. In the end, no matter how “right” we are, we all fall short, and we must remember that when we begin to talk about those other people who are “wrong.”
In our text for today, Jesus has just finished talking to his followers about discipleship. Then he tells them this: “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”
What Kind of Sword?
Honestly, I don’t know what to do with this text. I’ve looked at it over and over, read commentary after commentary, prayed, written, done all the things a preacher is supposed to do while writing a sermon. But I just keep coming back to this one phrase. It is so entirely contrary to everything I have ever been told about Jesus. After all, Jesus is the one who brought us a new commandment. In John 13:34 Jesus says: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” These words here don’t even sound like the same Jesus!
But I’ve kept reading, and I’ve kept scouring the commentaries for some context that might offer some word of comfort. I found context, all right. I’ll leave it to you to decide about the comfort part.
It’s important to remember that the book of Matthew is written to a group of Jewish Christians. Let’s stop and think about what that means. Many of us will be familiar with how the Gospels have often been read to portray the Pharisees as the “bad guys.” Of course they weren’t really bad guys, they were religious leaders practicing their specific form of strict adherence to the Torah, the Law God had revealed to the Jewish people. Genuine religious people engaging in genuine religious practices.
Jesus himself wasn’t trying to portray the Pharisees as “the bad guys,” but his ministry often violated their interpretation of the Law. The Pharisees were charged with upholding this Law that had guided their religious practice and relationship with God for centuries. Yet clearly, Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Law could appear to be complete disregard for that Law, and as such posed a significant threat to their approach.
The Jewish Christians of Matthew’s community still practiced Jewish traditions and considered themselves Jews. And of course they were, ethnically, nationally, geographically – everything about them Jewish. But they were also followers of Jesus. That meant they didn’t interact with the Law the way they once did. Which, of course, did not win them any points with the Pharisees and many other religious leaders in their communities.
They were following the one they knew as Christ at the risk of everything.
I’m sorry to tell you this, but, contrary to what you might hear on TV, Jesus’ values are not “family values.”
And what does Jesus tell them? He says, “Don’t worry; I am with you, but I’m not here to make your life easy.” Gee thanks, Jesus. That was super comforting…
To put it differently, these Jewish Christians are wandering in the desert. They are in exile. They have been rejected by their society and are now meeting in secret in order to preserve their lives and the lives of their families.
But Jesus tells them not to do that. Jesus tells them that being a disciple means being willing to give up even their families.
They were following Christ at the risk of everything.
And that, I believe, is what the PC(USA) is doing today. We may not be meeting in secret (it definitely was NOT a secret that two thousand of us were in town) and we may not be fearing for our lives because of our religion, but our family is being tested because of our will to be followers of Christ Jesus.
Swords in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
Four years ago, at the 219th General Assembly in Minneapolis, an amendment was passed to ordain our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters. The issue of LGBTQ ordination has been a divisive one from the beginning and has spawned a new Presbyterian denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO). That one amendment to our polity contributed to significant splits in our church.
But friends, I believe it is too simple to view the ECO and other Presbyterians with whom we disagree as ‘Pharisees,’ or even to claim that either side is wrong. Though painful and deeply sad, our disagreements are not entirely destructive. We are all doing discipleship. We are following Christ at the risk of everything, even the destruction of our church family. It gives me hope, and great joy, to know that our love of Christ is greater than our love of anything else. So much so that in order to be faithful followers, we are finding ourselves divided.
There will, undoubtedly, be more churches and individuals leaving the PC(USA) this year. The issues that divided us ranged from clergy being allowed to marry same-sex couples, to divestment from fossil fuel companies and companies that profit from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, to our official position on drones, guns, and the death penalty. These are hot topics, and we considered them all. Faithfully and prayerfully, we considered them. Votes were cast, tears were shed, cheers were heard, songs were sung, hugs were given and received, communion was taken.
So now here we are, standing on the edge of a new reality, one which sees the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) alongside the ECO Presbyterians and others, returning to our own Foundations of Presbyterian Polity: “The Church is to be a community of faith, entrusting itself to God alone, even at the risk of losing its life.” (Book of Order F-1.0301)
We are divided as followers of Christ.
The Kingdom and the Sword
This, believe it or not, is kingdom-seeking. This determination to discern the will of God and God alone, and “let the chips fall where they may.” If we find ourselves divided as a people, let it be because we are truly following the Christ we confess as Lord. Because “the demands of the prince of true peace may very well feel like a sword cutting through lesser loyalties and making quick work of our flabby, commonsense morality.”
Jesus knew, when he instructed his disciples, that the work he was preparing them for would be dangerous. Discipleship is costly. This violent imagery about how Jesus is a sword come divide family members from one another, well, it didn’t end up being that far off from what was to come. And like the disciples, we today cannot say that we didn’t know, because we did. We were told that we would be risking everything if we were to be followers of Christ. And yet here we are, risking everything.
My mind wanders to a point later in Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” This different kind of ‘sword’ that Jesus brings means risking everything. We may very well perish.
I’m sorry to tell you this, but, contrary to what you might hear on TV, Jesus’ values are not “family values.” Jesus’ values are kingdom values. It’s hard for us to comprehend what that means, because his teachings have become so commonplace for us. But for a lot of what the Gospels record Jesus saying, when you stop and read it, really read it, it is nothing less than radical. We can maybe start to imagine why the authorities wanted him dead.
This different kind of ‘sword’ that Jesus brings means risking everything. We may very well perish.
I want badly for our church family to be in unity with one another, but more than that, I want to follow Jesus. I want to be a disciple. I want to be radical. I fail most of the time.
My fiancé Matt and I would really like to move west when we get married. Among other things, we want to be close to my sister, who is having our first niece or nephew in November. Our great desire is to be near our family, to do ministry where we can be comfortable and where our kids can all grow up together. We know ministry won’t be easy, but it’ll be better if we’re close to family, right?
How’s that for risking everything to seek the kingdom? I told you most days I fail.
I overheard a similar story at General Assembly this week. A woman prayed for God to send her west so she could be with her family. As she put it, “God heard ‘west’ and sent her to West Jersey.”
This prospect terrifies me. I can’t stand the thought of being so far from my family. I don’t want my kids to grow up without knowing their cousins. I think of when Julie, my sister, sat down next to one of our cousins at a family gathering a few years ago and he said, “Who are you?” I don’t want that for my family. But the thing is, Jesus’ values are not family values. My dreams of San Francisco and Matt’s dreams of Portland may not be where God sends us.
All this for a Church whose Savior brings a sword of division? All this for a Church that may ultimately perish?
We are following Christ at the risk of everything, even the destruction of our church family. It gives me hope, and great joy, to know that our love of Christ is greater than our love of anything else. So much so that in order to be faithful followers, we are finding ourselves divided.
The Gospel shakes up values. The Gospel rearranges priorities. The Gospel reorients goals.
But I trust that when Jesus tells me not to fear, I shouldn’t. Okay, I mostly trust that. It’s what he says though. Three times in this passage, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” He promises that, despite the hardships of discipleship, God goes with us.
So I implore you to pray, to discern the will of God. And at the risk of everything, follow. Amen.
 Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16).
AUTHOR BIO: Bethany Benz is entering her final year as an MDiv student at Columbia Theological Seminary. She is a major polity geek, attending GA for the sixth time in 2014, but for the first time as a Student Assistant