Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Not Peace but Division": 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle C)

   Today’s gospel reading contains what is, in my opinion, some of the most confusing and challenging words the Lord Jesus has ever said. He says, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division”.   He doesn’t stop there though, he makes sure we understand that this division is not just a simple disagreement between friends. He promises it to be the cause of the most painful kind of division—division within families, between parents and their children!
    When we hear these words we have to ask: How can the “Prince of Peace” — the man who taught us that “When someone slaps you in the face offer the other cheek” — talk like this? Are we not supposed to live in peace and love everybody? How can Jesus say he came to destroy peace in the world?  Is this being nice? Is this being loving? How can we reconcile these two ideas? 
    Well if we really look at what Jesus is saying, we see that He is not saying “if you are my disciples go out and burn the world down! Cause division and discord! Make it your goal to destroy the fabric of society- which is the family”.  He is really talking about how his message is going to be received by the world, how it will challenge and change the lives of those who are willing to embrace it, and how those who surround His disciples will react.
         His message of love and peace is a message of true love and true peace which is diametrically opposed by the message of fake love and fake peace we experience in the world. This message is so radical, so unlike anything the world can accept that it will make us, his disciples, an object of persecution and division even within our own families!
   Now as scandalous as this talk about fire and division is, we should not be surprised by it. We just have to look at how Jesus's message was received by the people of his time.

   The baptism in which he will be baptized, the cross, is not exclusive to him. This is the destiny of all prophets of the Lord. We don’t have to look farther than the way poor Jeremiah is treated in the first reading. Those who stand for the truth can only expect to be marginalized and persecuted. Which begs the question: Why? Why would anyone disagree with the message of the gospel?
    I really have no time to go over all the reasons why this is but I can say this: Jesus's message is very dangerous. It is dangerous because it completely ignores our own interests for the sake of loving others. But who are the others? My friends? My family?
   Let me give you a couple of examples:
   By Jesus's command, we are obligated to pray for and love our enemies. This means pray for the neighbor that you have had problems with, the bully at school, the person at work whom you cannot stand… But it also means the criminals, the terrorists and, yes, even the followers of the other presidential candidate regardless of whom I am voting for.
    By Jesus's command, we are obligated to help the needy, regardless of who they are or where they come from. That means help the weird old guy living alone in my street but also the Mexican or Syrian immigrants we might encounter in our daily lives; if they are part of our communities and they need our help we are obligated to help them in any way we can.
   By Jesus's command, we are obligated to pray for police officers and for the people protesting against them. Now this is just a small sample of what we have to pray for, I have not even mentioned abortion, same sex marriage, the death penalty, and many others.
   I do not have to tell you that none of these are the types of topics you would want to bring into polite conversations, in fact these are the types of topics that we avoid when we are at family reunions. These are the topics we do not want to discuss with anyone, because they will stir up strong feelings in everyone!
   My brothers and sisters, I am the first one to admit that I myself struggle with this radical love that is the message of the Gospel. I know that with my own weak human faculties I can not love in the way Jesus requires me to love others. Luckily we have grace, which is the divine love of God, which manifests in our lives in many ways. In today's second reading, we hear of one source of this grace, which is what the Letter to the Hebrews calls  “the great cloud of witnesses”  which surrounds us. These are the ones who persevered in running the race and kept their eyes fixed on Jesus the leader and perfecter of our faith. They can help us by their life examples and by their prayers for us. We are not alone in the struggle of living the Gospel. We can ask for their help and intersessions.
  In the last 6 minutes or so, I have said a lot. I’m sure I have stirred up a lot of strong feelings in this sacred hall. I (or Father Mike) might even get some emails for this! This is what the Lord is talking about when he says that he has come to cause division. But we become divided only when we do not accept that, confronted with these words of the Gospel, we are all challenged, we all fall short of what Jesus expects from his disciples.
  May the great cloud of witnesses pray for us and for all of those who struggle with loving like the Lord Jesus expects us to love. Amen