“The Right Time for a Sword: Shattering the Idolatry of Peace and Family”
Text: Matthew 10:24-39
In today’s Gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus assaults two of our favorite idols: peace and family. This is a difficult text. How can good, sacred things like peace and family become idols?
It helps to remember that idols always start out as appropriately revered phenomena. This is what makes us vulnerable to sin. We aren’t tempted to idolize disease, famine, or house fires. We make idols, instead, out of things like wealth—because there is obvious goodness in being able to feed ourselves and our loved ones. In the sin of idolatry, a line gets crossed. We put ourselves at the center of the equation, neglecting the rest of creation: our own peace and our own families matter most. Or, we decide that ungodly definitions of peace and family have more of a right to exist than we do—that, for example, our family is more important than our right to live without abuse. We choose a Roman Caesar’s peace over a Galilean peasant’s sword.
Before my dad became pastor of his own church we attended the United Methodist Church in my hometown. Our pastor then, Rev. Dr. Don Washburn, had a relationship with the Mohawk Nation living in the sovereign territory of Ganienkeh—near the Canadian border, two and a half hours north of us. The community there was formed in 1974, when traditionalist Mohawk reclaimed uninhabited land from New York State through a three-year armed siege. They sought to establish a place where they could live traditionally and self-sufficiently: sharing all things in common, free from the plagues of drug and alcohol addiction that had invaded reservation land, free to run their own schools so that their children could learn and resurrect their disappearing language. Most importantly, they sought to carve out a territory within their original lands that was sovereign—recognized and respected as an independent nation from the United States and beholden to no US governance, policing, funding, or taxation.
They won it. They won it through vigilance, sacrifice, and outsmarting their adversaries. Though they’ve had support from friends on the outside, the assault against them has been unceasing. In 1990, they were falsely accused of firing shots at a National Guard helicopter that flew over the territory. When the Mohawk insisted on being recognized as a foreign nation in the ensuing investigation, the FBI and state police seized the opportunity to surround the territory with an armed blockade. On Palm Sunday that year, Rev. Washburn announced mid-service that he had to leave immediately due to a life-and-death situation. He drove straight up the freeway to assist the Mohawk in drafting a proposal to the feds to ensure that any investigation would happen on sovereign terms, with full recognition of the Nation’s autonomy. The state agreed, and the eleven-day standoff came to an end. Three days later, in blatant disregard of the agreement, the FBI issued warrants for the arrests of fourteen members of the Nation. The Mohawk response was that the warrants of foreign governments were meaningless to them and that they would defend their community from invasion—with rifles, if necessary. It was indeed their defense of their sovereignty that kept the police out in the end. The FBI lurked around the perimeter for a while longer but, having no idea how many families lived on those 700 acres, chose not to risk going up against a resistance of unknown quantity. A twenty-one year old armed Mohawk guard at the entrance to the territory told The New York Times that week, “We make our gardens, we tend animals, we have a fish pond, we have a longhouse… That is all you need to know.”
About two years later, when my parents asked and I told them I was ready, I was baptized by Rev. Washburn. About six months after that, at the invitation of the Mohawk Nation, we travelled with him to Ganienkeh to listen to community members tell their history, to teach us how they lived off the land, and to build relationships. I was seven years old. I remember meeting children my age who were born and raised in the territory. Born free. Born sovereign. I remember I had a Barbie doll with me, that they hadn’t seen one before, and that they laughed a lot playing with it. They, on the other hand, had a waterfall. I hadn’t seen one of those before. And I thought I was in heaven when I stood beneath it. I remember hearing the grownups in our church group talk about the poverty they saw there and not understanding what they meant. The main thing I knew about poverty when I was seven was that it felt like humiliation and that you kept it hidden as best you could. I didn’t see humiliation in Ganienkeh. I didn’t see burning shame on anyone’s face the way I’d seen it creep up at home, or in my school, or at church.
I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
To raise up a generation of children born free and proud. To restore a people to themselves. That is worth defending with a sword.
About one year after our visit, Rev. Washburn was run out of our church. Too many parishioners had come to revile him for his work in defense of the Mohawk Nation. Once too often, he prioritized their life-and-death issues over our bake sales and routine hospital visits. He was putting other families before those in our parish. Surely that constituted neglect of his pastoral duties. Surely we were more deserving—it was our Sunday offerings that paid his salary. He was replaced by aging pastor who diligently attended every single potluck and hospital visit in the parish, someone who I remember as utterly boring and blatantly terrified of children—especially children who spoke up and asked questions. So go the wages of sin, for idolatry of one’s own kind of family.
So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Do not fear bullets and do not fear arrest and do not fear death. Fear and then resist together the hell of living in poverty. Resist together the hell of addiction wherein the rich and powerful keep us asleep and depressed instead of awake and enraged. Ganienkeh’s first generation of children born free in the territory are my age now. They are stepping into leadership there as I am in the church and, without question, they have accomplished far more. As I move toward ordination I remember my baptism. I remember the debt I owe the Mohawk Nation for teaching me, in my childhood, how free people live. We practice different religions. But I would never have understood Jesus’ call to us to make sacrifices for the liberation of all creation without the example of their courage.
Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.