Sermon based on Matthew 10: 24-39
Even if we do not know their names or gender, many of us recognize barely 17 years old and the fact that one did a lot of heavy breathing just thinking about the other, the person they were crazy about. One had a driver's license now, and would drive by the house after school, hoping the “gorgeous one” would be outside -- available, even if only for a few moments. If they were, the new driver would pull over and say “Hi,” and nonchalantly pretend that they had just happened to be in the neighborhood.
Well, one day the driver finally came up with the courage, and resolved to ask the gorgeous one out. The driver had been out on dates before, but this was something new because now they had a sign of maturity --- a driver's license! This was a whole new phase of life where one got to say cool things like “What time shall I pick you up?” Of all the text messages and calls they had made in their life, this was the most momentous question one was making.
The driver doesn't remember at all what the other said or asked the gorgeous one to do, but the driver never forget the response. Four little words: “Let's just be friends.” Four words that were like daggers in the heart. Four words that many hate more than perhaps any other four words in the English language when desire and romance is on the line: “Let's just be friends.”
The polite rejection may feel like a big, neutered, stuffed animal --- a kind of real-life Barney the Dinosaur. Cute, maybe, but kind of sad. The ultimate irony is that once those words are spoken in a relationship, it becomes a challenge to “just be friends.” Most of us have enough fears and self-doubts that we don't need friends who remind us we're not quite good enough for something deeper.
I don’t know about you, as dating is no longer part of my life experience since I met my wife over 30 years ago, but I can still remember the struggle where it seemed that doubt handicapped, led to a variety of social afflictions as one of my greatest fears was romantic rejection.
Today, in a loving relationship, my fears are about different issues and I involve higher stakes. At that time, romantic rejection seemed like a life ending event, but now I have deeper fears --- like the fears Jesus was addressing in today's gospel. Jesus knew that his followers would have to face division and persecution that would be terrifying: They would be hated, tried, beaten, betrayed by loved ones, even executed.
But what about our fears not based on faith: our families disintegrating and we're helpless to stop it. Our fear of losing our jobs, of being “downsized” or of simply not making enough to make ends meet. What about our fears of being robbed, of someone taking away things we have worked so hard for. And then we have the fear of sickness, of cancer or dementia. And what about the fear of death, our own or that of a loved one.
Though there may be good reasons to fear rejection and loss, in the end today's gospel is telling us our fears whether real or imagined, whether lived in faith or doubt, are ultimately not much more harmful to us than a 17-year-old's experience of romantic rejection. Jesus is challenging us because faith is more than reminding us to “Let us just be friends.”
With maturity, I believe we begin to recognize that whatever we are afraid of, at the root of these fears is the fear of loss. Every fear we have is grounded in the knowledge that we have something or someone to lose. I can lose the job, the family, the house, my money, my records in a computer crash, my freedom, my fatherhood, my health --- life itself. It is all at stake. Rejection and loss are the basis of our fears. It is into this that Jesus speaks and what that might mean for our lives as disciples.
First, it is important to remember Matthew was writing around AD 80-85, which means that this is post-war. Matthew is writing following the devastation of the Roman-Jewish War of AD 66-70 when blood ran in the streets of Jerusalem and the Temple was destroyed. During and after the war, significant numbers of Jewish Palestinian residents were refugees and fled across the Roman empire to escape the siege. Into these refugee communities, Pharisees took the lead in organizing and settling these war-time refugees. With the Temple now destroyed, the local synagogue and rabbis became the focal point of Jewish life.
It is into this besides displacement that Paul's mission to the gentiles was also having a discernible impact on fledgling Christianity for there were more, more gentile Christians. Those of us in the 21st century we forget how threatening this must have felt to some. Jewish Christianity was steadily losing ground within the larger Christian movement. The split between Jews and followers of Jesus had reached a tipping point at this point in the first century, and tensions between the --- now --- two groups had grown difficult. Fear and anxiety was high.
“‘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. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So, do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’”
The disciples of Jesus are encouraged not to fear three times in five verses. This is a message for people under siege. This movement cannot be stopped, Jesus tells them. Do not be afraid of the Romans, but do be afraid of evil because evil has the power to destroy both body and “life.” The one who can “destroy both body and life” --- the devil if you will ---means that the struggle over fear is fundamentally spiritual. Yes, they were enduring political and social oppression. Yes, they were under the boot of Rome. These earthly powers behavior was evil. Yet, shockingly, Jesus’s response provides a different image --- but not of “left behind” violence. Instead, Jesus turns to the sparrow; odd to us relatively affluent urban dwellers. It wasn’t until I lived in Japan did I came to understand what it meant when “sparrows are two for a penny.” It was when I saw a sparrow barbecued on a stick and understood that Jesus was referring to the cheapest edible birds. At the time of Jesus, two sparrows could be bought for less than one-tenth of a drachma, or one-sixteenth of a denarius, almost nothing to us. Yet, “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Jesus was reminding the disciples that evil may be rampant around us yet, God cared as deeply for us as some of the least expensive food reserved for the poorest of poor.
From a sparrow, we move to a sword. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth: I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This is coupled with the words that indicates that all who confess that they are followers of this Jesus, Jesus will likewise confess to God that we are his. In this confession, Matthew ratchets up the tension a notch from the parallel story in Luke. In Luke, Jesus said this will bring “division.” Matthew adds color and force by referring not to “division” but to “a sword,” and, moreover, a sword that is about ready to strike.
Matthew is not indicating that Jesus is advocating violence, for Jesus is a bringer of peace and non-violent action, and his disciples are to be “peacemakers.” Rather, what is surprising is that Jesus offers no palliative care for this situation and the fear it produces. Indeed, Jesus makes it worse. Faith has come to cut, sever, split the ties between a man and woman, between children and parents.
This is startling for us who are often swayed by Christian fundamentalists. Because Jesus was never much on “family values.” One's earthly family is not particularly important Jesus will go on to say in chapter 12, because one's true family is the community of Jesus.
So, what fears is Jesus really getting at regarding family? The message of Jesus is about being formed by the future rather than the past; Our fear of the future over the comfort of the past. The kingdom of heaven is coming, a kingdom in which all relationships will be equal, not hierarchical, racial, gender specific or based on genes. Traditional power relationships and how they are formed will be upended, Jesus is reminding us, including that of families. Instead, “The first shall be last, and the last first.”
To be dominated by one's family, is to be dominated by the past. For example, earlier in Matthew we heard of someone who had said he wanted to bury a father before following Jesus. To which, Jesus responded, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Jesus would not let people be dominated by their past. They are to step out from the former --- its “bondage.” To love one's family “more than me” is to be in love with the past, the “old wineskins” not the future, the “new wine.”
We could go on but Jesus is inspiring the disciples, and Matthew the community, that despite our many fears, followers can continue to expound the way of Jesus, and follow it but not shy away from the repercussions.
More broadly speaking taking up the cross means living according to the way taught by Jesus, the master, no matter one's conditions or circumstances. For our time today, following Jesus may not mean being executed on a cross but it is more than “let us be friends.” It may mean trying to live as a Christian in the context of wealth and privilege. That is scary for imagine what the world would be like with a Christ-body assembly that was unafraid of losing and not tied to the past. I recently read a blog titled “Christians: You Are Upset About the Wrong Things” by Darrell Lackey that put it this way in a variety of questions. For example, he wrote: “If you become upset at the grocery store when you see someone pay for their food with vouchers or food stamps, but you are less upset with the institutional and cultural structures that often create the very need for such help: You are upset about the wrong things.” And another, “If you become upset when hearing that gay marriage is legal or that a transgender person may use the same public restroom as you, but are less upset regarding the hate, violence, and discrimination directed toward such people, often leading to suicide: You are upset about the wrong things.”
As you can see in just those two examples, Lackey is asking us that in this world filled with the evils of sickness, violence, loneliness and oppression, we can be understandably afraid of many things but is it the right things?
The good news is that, in our fears, Jesus pronounces the very words that free us, “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” From Jesus, these are words of affirmation, promise and challenge --- the promise of Christ's victory over death, that our fears need not have a hold on us. But a challenge in that it is not the image of a benevolent male figure watching us die, rather a reminder of a strong relationship that surpasses all other relationships.
Today's gospel reminds us that from the perspective of Christ, there is life beyond paralyzing fears and losses and that in the whole scheme of things and there are always new things of which to be afraid. Instead, Christ offers us the perspective of God's kingdom, and from that perspective, the Kingdom of God broken into our world and lives, we will all realize that being faithful to Christ wherever we meet him in this life is where we find fearless living.
Romantic rejection as a 17-year-old is hard, but however serious our worst fears may seem today, however serious we want to hold on to the past to avoid the future, if we remain faithful to Christ our fears will fade as the kingdom builds like memories of adolescent heartbreak, into insignificance in the joy of eternal life. Amen.