Sunday, August 18, 2013

Egypt and the narrow path

Text: Luke 12 49-56 (division, not peace)

Politics and religion don't mix, we are told.

I agree with this statement in some ways even though it is often said as a criticism of liberal churches like the United Church. My perception is that the religious right violates this rule more than the left. When a religious movement seeks to use the power of the state to enforce morality it often seems to be a right-wing one, whether of the Christian Right or the Islamic, Jewish, or Hindu Right.

Today, I focus on the current deadly crisis in Egypt, which illustrates the damage that occurs when religious extremists use the power of the state.

By Friday of this week, I had a sermon written for today, which I liked OK. It connected today's Gospel reading about family divisions to memories of childhood vacations and went on to discuss conflict within families and the church. But yesterday, I scrapped that sermon in favour of this one about Egypt. Not only am I upset about the unfolding conflict in Egypt; I also see a link between the news there and today's Gospel reading on divisions.

Preaching about current events has pluses and minuses. Far-off events might not feel relevant to our life here in Borderlands; and if the news is still unfolding, one could easily misread the situation. On the other hand, current events such as those this week in Egypt can effect on our life as a church even if they are occurring on the other side of the world.

On March 8, 2009 when I was finishing my second year of training to become a minister, I preached a sermon in my field placement site in east-end Toronto. The Fall and Winter of 2008-09 had seen the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, so I decided to preach about that crisis. A year later, I felt a little foolish when I read that March 9, 2009 represented the lowest point in the New York Stock Exchange. The markets have been on a strong upswing pretty much since the day I preached that sermon.

In a similar fashion, it may be that today's terrible events in Egypt  -- mass demonstrations, an army coup, and a bloody crackdown in which hundreds of civilians  have died -- are now behind us. Perhaps civil war in Egypt will not come to pass. Nevertheless, here is my sermon. I begin with our Gospel text.

In today's reading, Jesus notes that he is under great stress. His journey to Jerusalem is nearing its end, and he knows that he will undergo arrest and execution there -- what he calls his baptism by fire.

Then Jesus says something that might surprise us. "Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!"

But isn't peace what Jesus is all about? In the first chapter of Luke, Zechariah tells Mary that her son will "guide our feet into the way of peace." On the first Christmas night, angels announce Jesus' birth to shepherds by singing "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!" (Luke 2) In his farewell speech to his disciples on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus says "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you." (John 14)

Why, then, does the Prince of Peace say that he has come not to bring peace, but division? Is it just the stress he is under? Or is he pointing to something more fundamental? Perhaps the road to peace is so rocky that it might sometimes divide "father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother"?

Jesus began his ministry in Galilee by dividing a family. Mark writes, "[Jesus] saw James the son of Zeb'edee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zeb'edee in the boat with the hired servants, and followed him." (Mark 1:20-21). Mark does not say how the father Zeb'edee felt at this turn of events.

Jesus' disciples make up a chosen family of friends who love one another in their work of healing and teaching and on the road to Jerusalem. But like any family, the disciples of Jesus experience a lot of conflict, both within and without.

They squabble about who is the greatest among them. They misunderstand almost everything that Jesus is trying to teach or accomplish. In the final crisis of Jesus' arrest and crucifixion, one of the disciples, Judas, betrays Jesus, one of them, Peter, denies him, and all but his women followers flee in fear.

Among the wider Jewish family, Jesus clashes with many of its religious leaders who criticize Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, for not following Kosher rules, and for eating with so-called sinners.

The sharpest clash comes in Jerusalem when Jesus clears the Temple of money-changers. After that, the religious elite work to deliver Jesus over to the Romans. They are trying to preserve religious customs by collaborating with the Roman oppressors.

I see three main groups in the Israel of Jesus' time all of whom are trying to be faithful to God. The first group want to keep peace with Rome by collaborating with it. The second are zealots who want to overthrow Rome by force.  The third group is represented by Jesus. He wants neither to collaborate with Rome nor take up the sword against it. Instead, he confronts the injustice of Rome with non-violent resistance.

Unfortunately, none of these camps succeed in bringing peace or justice.  Despite their best efforts, the collaborators, cannot keep the people quiet and several rebellions break out in that period all of which are crushed. In the Year 70, the Romans win a three-year war against the Jewish people, kills 10s of thousands, and burn the Temple to the ground.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem and confronts religious and political elites with non-violence, he is arrested and executed. The Gospels tell of his resurrection and of the growth of the Jesus' movement afterwards, but a just peace is not achieved.

Egypt today shows some of the same trends. For thousands of years, Egypt was ruled from the outside. Its colonial rulers include ancient Greece, Rome -- both when it was pagan and after it became Christian -- Arabs, Turks, France during the time of Napoleon, and finally Britain during the late 19th and early 20th Century.

Since independence almost 100 years ago, Egypt has struggled to find its footing in a region torn apart by outside interference. In the face of deep problems, many nationalist and Islamic movements have grown. It has endured long periods of military rule. Two and half years ago, a popular revolution brought hope to Egypt.

In free elections in 2012, a conservative religious party, the Muslim Brotherhood, gained power. Once in power, they lost much of their support both because of their heavy-handed religious policies and continuing economic decline.

This June, huge demonstrations opposed the Muslim Brotherhood President, Mohamed Morsi. One was estimated to include more than 15 million people.

Like the protestors, I disliked the Muslim Brotherhood government -- not because it was Islamic, but because of its conservative interpretation of Islam and it use of state power to impose its morality on the nation.

Under popular pressure, the Egyptian military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood and arrested President Morsi in early July. In turn, Muslim Brotherhood supporters staged a six-week long protest, which was met this week with deadly force in which hundreds of civilians have been killed.

The death toll in Egypt is terrible, although it pales next to the death tolls in the civil war in Syria of the last two years (almost 100,000) or in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decades, which number in the millions.

The crisis in Egypt shows how mixing politics and religion can lead to disaster. The Muslim Brotherhood want to regain power to impose conservative social policies on Egypt. More moderate Muslims, along with the 10% of Egyptians who are Christian, prefer the separation between religion and the state that has developed in Western countries over the last 400 years.

In the West, many parts of the church still try to use the state to impose so-called Christian morality. In the 1990s, this current was represented in Canada by The Reform Party. In the United States at present, it exists in the Republican Party. Call them the Christian Brotherhood, if you want.

In the face of such currents, Jesus' words about division come to my mind. By neither collaborating with the Empire nor seeking to re-establish the Kingdom of Israel by force, Jesus shows us a middle way. It is a narrow path that seeks peace with justice, and that promises healing to all.

Jesus stood up to both conservative religious leaders and to Empire, although he did not immediately overcome them. What his stand accomplished was to rescue the faith of his fathers. Most importantly, his stand allowed the God who is Love to live within us after the pain and death of his crucifixion.

Dividing from both collaborators and violent rebels does not bring immediate peace or justice. It means trying to live life in the light of Christ's resurrection. It also helps us to try to restore the dignity of religion in the face of popular disgust with both Christianity and Islam when right-wing groups try to legislate medieval morality.

When Christians, Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists seek to use state power to impose conservative morality, we should stand against them even if this means family division within church, mosque or temple. Likewise, when so-called moderates use the power of the military to put down the conservatives, we should stand against them as well.

I pray that tolerant and non-violent currents grow in troubled Christian-majority and Muslim -majority countries and that extremists who want to use the power of the state to impose conservative religious policies become more marginal.

I pray that the deadly attacks by the Egyptian army against the deposed Muslim Brotherhood will stop and that negotiations will head off a civil war.

In the days and weeks ahead, two wings of Egyptian society will continue to struggle for control of the state. May a third current grow, one that pursues the narrow path of non-violent resistance to injustice and upholds the sacred values of life, equality and love.

This narrow path is the Way of Jesus. While it may not lead to immediate peace with justice, it helps us stay awake to God's Love amid all the hatred, prejudice, and violence of this life.

When we risk family divisions in the church or mosque by standing up for our values, we can never be sure that we are right. But we can always be sure that we are in the presence of God in Christ who walks with us on our tough road.

Our earthly families will not always be united. But we know that the whole human family is united in the depths and heights of God's Love.

Thanks be to God.


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