Do You Think I Have Come to Bring Peace?
I preached this sermon a year ago today for the Commemoration of Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Considering recent events—we are still living this story—it seems appropriate to uplift his commemoration once more, and to share these words again. Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56.
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”
I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Just two weeks ago we were given a Gospel text in which a man came to Jesus and said “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus responded, “Who made me a divider? Who set me up as a judge and arbitrator over you?” He refused to take on the role. And I went on to preach about the ways that again and again we have made Jesus a divider, the ways we’ve used him to pit ourselves against each other, when he actually came not to divide, but to unite our hearts. But this week, today, we are given a very different, and much more difficult, Gospel text.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three, they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother…”
These words from the one we proclaim to be the Prince of Peace, the one who brought reconciliation through his cross, uniting Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. Is it possible that these words are a mistake? That they were added later to the Gospel account by those who didn’t really get Jesus’ message?
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
Today, August 14th, the Episcopal Church commemorates, as we do every year, the life—and the martyrdom—of Jonathan Myrick Daniels. Daniels was a young Episcopal seminarian who in March of 1965 answered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call that seminarians and clergy come to Selma, Alabama to take part in the now famous march to the state capital of Montgomery.
While he was there, Daniels and his friend Judith Upham became convinced that the Holy Spirit was calling them to stay and continue working for the cause of civil rights and integration, so they returned to the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts just long enough to obtain permission to spend the rest of the semester in Selma, where they would study on their own and return at the end of the term to take their exams.
Permission was granted, and Daniels moved in with a local black family named the Wests, and among other things began working to integrate the local Episcopal Church. He tutored children, helped locals poor folks apply for aid, and worked to register voters. At the end of the semester, he went to Massachusetts to take his exams, which he passed, and then he returned again to Selma.
On August 14th, 1965, Daniels joined a group of 29 protestors in picketing whites-only stores. They were arrested and most of them jailed for 6 days. They were released on August 20th. Daniels, with three of the other protestors—a white Roman Catholic priest , Fr. Richard Morrisroe, and two black women, Joyce Bailey and Ruby Sales—walked down the street to Varner’s Cash Store, one of the few local stores that would serve non-whites. They were met in front of the store by Tom Coleman, an engineer for the state highway department and unpaid special deputy. He was carrying a shotgun.
Coleman began threatening the group, and finally raised his shotgun on seventeen-year-old Ruby Sales. Daniels moved in front of her and pushed her to the ground, catching the full force of the blast. He was killed instantly. He was 26 years old.
Fr. Morrisroe grabbed Joyce Bailey and began to run. He was shot in the back, but survived. Coleman, the gunman, was acquitted of manslaughter charges by an all-white jury. He died in 1997 at the age of 86, never facing any further prosecution for the murder of Jonathan Daniels, or the attempted murders of the others. In so many ways, the situation has not changed, as people continue to get away with taking the lives of innocent black people in our country.
“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! […] Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three...”
When truth is introduced into an arena, it divides. You are forced to take a side and take a stand. Truth, or not truth? Justice, or injustice? “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” These words of Jesus are no mistake. They are not misremembered or tacked onto the Gospel after the fact.
So often what we imagine to be peace is really just a soulless settling for the status quo. But Christ came to bring fire to the earth. And fire burns. Fire destroys. Yes, that burning is ultimately for the sake of a deeper and lasting peace, but if it is to come on earth, we first have to pass through the fire, through the division. Systems have to be shaken up. Truth must be separated from untruth, justice from injustice. Every battle for civil rights and social justice is ultimately a Gospel battle, ultimately a part of the fire that Jesus came to cast on the earth.
The truth is that sometimes you have to escalate a situation before you can expect it to resolve or improve. I think in many ways we see that in our social and political landscape right now. And so Jesus came to sow division at one level in order that we might reap unity at a higher level. The division Jesus brings is never simply division for the sake of division. It is always division for the sake of truth, justice, and compassion.
A while back a friend of mine shared an article online titled The Revolution Will Not Be Polite: The Issue of Nice versus Good. It made an important distinction between “nice” and “good,” reminding us that what is “nice,” or, in light of today’s Gospel, what is “peaceful” is not always the same as what is “good” or “just.” Jesus was very often not nice. He called people hypocrites, broods of vipers, and whitewashed tombs filled with rot. He shined the bright light of truth into the darkness of our hearts. And so don’t confuse the Gospel with always being nice, polite, or peaceful.
The revolution for the rights of People of Color is not over. And that’s why movements like Black Lives Matter are so important. And movements like this are going to be divisive, and they should be divisive. Yes, all lives matter. But that’s often an excuse to avoid our discomfort with the fact that black lives are the ones at much greater risk. And if we are not shaken into seeing, nothing will ever change. Are oppressed people hurt and angry? Yeah. So those of us who are white are going to tell them to play nice or we won’t listen? That’s not how revolution works. Play nice and you won’t even be heard. Now I am not talking about, or justifying, violent revolution. But we might remember that Jesus did turn over tables and drive out the money-changers. Sometimes we have to be shocked into seeing.
That great Roman Catholic believer Thomas Merton wrote: “True faith is never merely a source of spiritual comfort. It may indeed bring peace, but before it does so it must involve us in struggle. A ‘faith’ that avoids this struggle is really a temptation against true faith.”
True faith is never merely a source of spiritual comfort. A ‘faith’ that avoids the struggle is really a temptation against true faith. Jonathan Myrick Daniels stands within our Episcopal heritage as a witness to true faith—the kind of faith that our church and our world desperately needs. A faith that did not avoid the struggle, a faith that knew the fire and division that Christ brings. In our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews we’re reminded of the great cloud of witnesses, of saints and martyrs, who suffered and struggled for this kind of faith. And so let us pray that the fire of our faith may join the great blaze that they with Christ have cast upon Earth.
Collect for Jonathan Myrick Daniels, Seminarian and Martyr, 1965:
O God of justice and compassion, you put down the proud and mighty from their place, and lift up the poor and the afflicted: We give you thanks for your faithful witness Jonathan Myrick Daniels, who, in the midst of injustice and violence, risked and gave his life for another; and we pray that we, following his example, may make no peace with oppression; through Jesus Christ the just one, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.