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Date Posted: August 20, 2019

Oh, Merciful Sword

This is another one of those Sundays when it is not easy to be a preacher, pastor, or priest.  I keep reminding myself—and I would remind you—that we do not choose our texts on Sundays in The Episcopal Church.  As I consider that these texts were assigned, in rotation, for this Sunday decades ago, I see only two options: one, this is purely random and bears no significance at all, or two, perhaps, just perhaps, the Spirit is at work and God’s unimaginable vision has laid wisdom alongside our circumstance to foster transformation. Give us eyes to see your hand at work in the world around us we dare to say in a while during our Eucharistic Prayer.  I put my bucket down with the living and transforming Spirit of Christ.

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

father against son
and son against father,

mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,

mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

I have come to bring the sword…

       How to interpret the present time… I don’t know about you, but today’s Gospel makes me pause breathing.  This year, something just hits a bit too close to home, and I’m thinking that is a good thing, because we need to pay attention.

At the Wednesday noon service, we look ahead at the coming Sunday’s Gospel.  After reading it, we sit in silence for five minutes then we share what we felt, where we imagine the Spirit leading us.  I cannot tell you how much I appreciate those conversations.

This week, I asked the group, “As we look at this text, how do you understand the nature of the division that Jesus is speaking about?”  What is the quality of this “division” we hear Jesus say that he is bringing?

One person shared with the group the image of God being a “jealous God,” wanting “no other gods to be placed before.” This is true, but we don’t like to hear it.  Never have.

Another person shared that the call of Christ on our lives demands that all our other loyalties take their place behind our loyalty to Christ—all other loyalties.  And that, given human nature and our tendency to grasp onto tribes and power, with our arrogance, greed and pride, when we listen to that call we will find ourselves at odds with others who continue to grasp for power.  We will experience division.

So, yes, Jesus is clearly saying, “the message I am bringing—bearing within my own being—is going to question your long-standing assumptions on who is worthy and what is worthy, and you are going to experience discomfort.”

I wrestled with this text for the past two weeks, sitting with it on two flights to Baltimore and back early this week, lying awake in bed, struggling.  On Friday, after spending the morning at Ignatius House with dear friends and contemplative leaders from around Atlanta and then Saturday morning at a service ordaining a new priest, I was finally honest with where the root of my struggle lies: I realized I was afraid to share with you how I really felt—and more than that, what I truly feel the Spirit is saying to the church through these texts—because of money.  Like I said last week, I am vividly aware that we are drawing near to Stewardship season, and if I am just bare bones honest with you, I realized that the root of my struggle is that I don’t want to upset anyone so much that they pull their funds from the church and lessen their pledges that keep our shared ministries developing.  It happens.  I get caught up in success and accomplishment as much as the next sinner, and I am ashamed to tell you that I feel that pinch. But in our consumer society, there is such pressure.

I realize that a large part of what the church does is to “comfort the afflicted,” as we say, to offer hope and peace and a healing salve to those who are suffering both in the parish and in the wider community, but is it truly peace and hope that we are offering if I avoid speaking to the deeper dynamics of our shared suffering?  Is it truly wholeness or what Dietrich Bonhoeffer rightly called “cheap grace?”  Can you trust me to sit with you and encourage you not to live out of your own fears if I don’t name out the manipulation of fears by those in positions of power?

I am taking the risk to stand before you again and claim that what we are experiencing as a country—and around the world right now—in terms of our preoccupation with greed, with the acceptance of lies, with the treatment of minorities and women, and with the obsession with manipulating fear is wrong and has no grounding in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I remember speaking at a point when the Keystone pipeline was planning to go through sacred tribal lands, in an earlier administration.  I remember speaking when we were going to war, risking the lives of innocent children, in an earlier administration.  I remember giving a sermon once ten years ago only to be confronted on the steps of St. Benedict’s Church and called a communist.  It hurts. I get it. But then there’s Jesus:

Do you think I have come to bring peace?  I have come to bring a sword.

There will be division.

Here’s a vulnerable story from my own life: I remember vividly being raised in a small town steeped in racism: separate neighborhoods, shallow and polite engagements with people of color, gross assumptions about worth and dignity and perceived intelligence, and blatant characterizations by some in my family.  I remember hearing so many stories about black people, the Mexicans who really began moving in Southern Arkansas in the 1990s, and the Catholics who were just too weird to even engage.  Heck, even the Methodists weren’t spared from the shallow judgmental epithets that flowed so easily from my “elders’” mouths.

The time my gay cousin came to visit and, although he was raised his entire life down the street, was treated as some kind of weird stranger. It made me ashamed. Pick a category of “other” and some in my family seemed to have a ready script about why there was something wrong with them. Labeling someone else and having some denigrating comment at hand seemed to make us feel more in control.  That’s the point, isn’t it, if we’re honest: that we think this hate and judgment takes the edge off our own fear and sense of insecurity, that it gives us some sense of belonging?  But belonging to what, exactly?

This went on until one day I had to stand in front of my grandfather and tell him to his face that he was wrong, that his assumptions about other people were wrong, that his beliefs about the worth and dignity of other people were wrong, and that I wasn’t going to carry that forward in my life.

How could we read these stories in Sunday School about the Good Samaritan, about Jesus loving outside of the boundaries of his own culture, about the call to care for the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the stranger, and the sick and then act this way toward people on the other six days of the week?  How could we sing of God’s love and then neglect to cultivate it so badly?

There will be division, indeed.

What does it mean when Jesus says he has come to bring the sword?  Well, here’s where I am with that today: I think the sword Jesus brings is the merciful blade that will separate us from the illusion of separation. I pray that Jesus will wield a blade that will shave the hatred off our hearts that has accumulated like barnacles, weighing down our souls and choking the life out of us, these accretions of power, our own sense of control.

Jesus’ sword is a merciful sword that cuts away at our grasping for power, our obsession with ourselves, our willingness to turn a blind eye toward manipulation and fear-mongering and denigration and oppression—just as long as the economy is doing well.  How dare we?

How dare we put the words “In God we trust” on our money when it is, so often, the money itself we worship?  We should just be honest and put the word “this” in there and call it a day: “In this god we trust.”

(To return to two earlier reflections):

In the School for Christian Practice, we explore how a core piece of our spiritual practice is to ask ourselves what drives us to the shallow spaces where we rest into the complacency of our fears, our prejudices, our judgments, and our categories rather than consent to the expansive love of God that we encounter in Jesus.

It is the temperament of the Spirit to expand into ever-widening spaces of divine love. It is the temperament of an unchecked human ego to question this and emphasize restriction for the sake of control and power. (“Keep awake, therefore” as we heard in last week’s Gospel).

The Spirit’s tendency for expansive compassion meets the human’s tendency for egoic constriction–and invites it out of its self-obsession. (“Come, follow me” Jesus says).

This exchange, this holy space, is the ground of our spiritual transformation, and it is the essence of what we mean when we say we desire to “grow into the fullness of Christ” (as we said together in last week’s baptism).

Never despair. Don’t do that. Keep your eyes, ears, heart, mind, and bodies open to this constant invitation of the Spirit. And live your life grounded in this desire for transformation.

Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only and not for strength.

Don’t despair.  The truth is that we know this dynamic that we are facing as a country far too well.  We have a long history of “others” whom have been targeted for rejection: Chinese banned; Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholics rejected; Jews so mistreated; Japanese in internment camps; Mexicans and other Latino men and women; African Americans enslaved and then restricted; and lest we forget the indigenous Native Americans who must still be shocked to see predominantly white people yell out who is and who is not welcome on this land.

We know this story all to well—and don’t despair because we also know the hope that is possible!  The antidote to the poison in our culture is the compassionate love embodied in Jesus Christ that crosses all boundaries.  This is a fierce love that wields a merciful sword to slice away hatred and fear.  Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body and one spirit.

But make no mistake, this fierce love will question the shallow, cheap grace that we see in some corners of this Americanized Christianism, my friends.

As we close, I invite you to close your eyes and hear this blessing, commonly known as a “Franciscan blessing,” that does indeed capture so much of what St. Francis understood about the compassionate love of Christ—indeed the truth of our practice of faith, my friends.

May God bless you with discomfort
At easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships
So that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger
At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with tears
To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
Turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness
To believe that you can make a difference in the world
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done
To bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 15, Year C
Luke 12:49-56
August 18, 2019
The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost