August 2019

The Way of Peace Incites Violence

11th Sunday after Pentecost, August 25, 2019
Isaiah 58:9b-14, Luke 13:10-17
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas

Jesus did not start a new denomination. He started a movement to reform Judaism; a movement that would later be known as The Way, and then a denomination, separate of Judaism, known as Christianity. But he himself lived and died a Jew, practicing and upholding rituals and maintaining a bond of community with the religious tradition to which he belonged. Despite its challenging features and difficult personalities, he preferred to initiate change as a devoted insider rather than as an impatient outsider.

His unwavering mission was to open the hearts and minds of his followers to the presence of God within and among them; and to the awareness of truth as a realization of their intimate relation and responsibility to God, humanity and the world in which they lived. “You shall know the truth,” he said, “and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

One of the controversies he caused within his faith tradition involved the Sabbath during which Jews were to rest and devote themselves solely to worshiping God. No work was to be done. In healing the disabled woman, Jesus challenged this belief, facing much resistance as a result. However, his devotion to his faith tradition, and his vision of what it could be as an embodiment of God’s presence provides a wonderful lesson that change of any sort within established institutions and traditions does not come without stress and hardship.

Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice;” to which Pilate replied, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38) This probing question was one for which Jesus offered answers not through powerful lobbies and privileged priesthoods that felt entitled to speak for everyone else, but rather through those often ignored by the powerful and privileged, such as the disabled woman who found no rest on the Sabbath until Jesus saw her and healed her.

An unavoidable feature of every meaningful and loving relationship is that sometimes it requires the painful sharing of unpleasant truths, hearing things we don’t wish to hear and making difficult adjustments for the sake of those we love. This is why the one we regard as the Prince of Peace disturbs us when he says, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51)

The path of peace God beckons us to follow invites all, including followers, voices and perspectives with whom many refuse to associate. God’s path of peace will, therefore, incite division and violence. God’s truth will entice many of us to declare it a lie and distort it as something sinful and repulsive because it goes against tradition and compels us to think and act in ways for which we have not been conditioned.

Former Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, in a recent National Public Radio interview with reporter Mary Louise Kelly, said that his party concluded after the 2012 elections that it had to appeal to a more racially and ethnically diverse segment of America, but then left that decision behind to follow the narrowly focused agenda of the far right. (July 15, 2019) This agenda represented an outspoken segment of the population that was afraid of the perspectives and policies that a more racially and ethnically diverse America would bring to the legislative, leadership and decision-making process of our democracy.

The resistance Jesus encountered in the synagogue for acknowledging the disabled woman, who could not find sabbath rest until her affliction was healed, is no different from individuals within sacred or secular settings that acknowledge the afflictions and presence of those who have too long been ignored and denied by the rest of us to preserve our comforts, conditions and traditions. Against such threats to our way of life we will draw lines in the sand, post signs and build walls that announce no trespassing, not in my backyard, not in my neighborhood, not in my country.

“You shall know the truth,” Jesus said, “and the truth will set you free.” This truth is an awareness of our intimate relation and responsibility to God, humanity and the world in which we live. And this awareness is intended to foster a sense of peace in appreciation of our ties and dependency to all of God’s creation.

Yet by the very nature of its unconditional inclusion, it is a divine truth and spiritual peace that incites violence from those who would prefer to see creation as a jungle in which the physically strong survive and the physically disabled perish; and who opposes the truth of God who determines strength not by your outward physical appearances, but by the conviction of your soul.

I was recently invited to facilitate a series of conversations that would ultimately lead to the creation of a bipartisan Social Equity Caucus of state representatives and senators, the purpose of which is to develop a progressive political, social, economic and ecological vision for Vermont representing as key contributors voices and groups that have often been suppressed and marginalized.

The divine truth we seek to embody in our faith communities may also be sought in our secular lives, since both encompass the realm and reality of God. And only when we reconcile the union of both in our lives will we experience a wholeness and “peace that passes all understanding,” (Philippians 4:7) and a truth that sets us free.

“I am the bread of life,” said Jesus. “Those who come to me will never hunger. Those who believe in me will never thirst…and anyone who comes to me I will never turn away.” (John 6:35-36). Amen.