Sermon: Matthew 10:24-39
3rd Sunday After Pentecost, Year A (June 25, 2017)
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
When I was in seminary, my synod’s bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, gave us this charge: “If you serve in Northeastern Ohio, there are 2 things you had better do: preach and visit!” She said that if we preach and visit faithfully and consistently, we build trusting relationships with our parishioners. While on internship in Minneapolis, an elder pastor gave me this charge: “Love the people, love the people, love the people.” I have kept these two charges close to me as I have served as a pastor.
I loved visiting – being invited into sacred personal spaces of church members, hearing stories, accompanying them in celebration and grief. I learned the power of presence. I rediscovered the wonder of Holy Communion, prayer, anointing.
I love preaching too, but this charge is harder. How does a preacher name the trouble in the text and in the world alongside grace in the text and the world – all in 8 minutes or less? What to do when people only want happy sermons? Do you leave them to daydream of shopping lists and yard work?
What if the world’s troubles are overwhelming and grace feels elusive? What does a preacher do when there’s a difficult message from God? Do they keep quiet and send people home unchallenged? Do they sacrifice a word that comforts the afflicted yet afflicts the comfortable, for the sake of admiration and a full offering plate? What happens when the hurts of the world weigh on our people’s minds?
Today’s texts don’t help. We have the prophet Jeremiah. Among the prophets, he is nicknamed “the weeping prophet”, because he lamented the prophets’ burden of bearing God’s message. Jeremiah knew that sometimes, this message would disturb their stated peace, that it would criticize religious, political and social practices. Israel’s and Judah’s prophets declared that God was not pleased when widows, orphans, the poor and strangers were harassed and neglected. The people and their leaders were to remember always that God had protected them so they were to protect others. When they failed, prophets let them know, giving them a change to get right with God. For this, prophets were often threatened, beaten or killed. Jeremiah writes:
I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.
8For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!”
Although the prophetic task was heavy and he faced ridicule, Jeremiah accepted this. The prophet’s allegiance was always to God alone. They were to be unbought and unbossed, independent of the powers that be.
If Jeremiah tried not to proclaim God’s message, he would be miserable. It had to get out!
9If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.
Jesus does not make this charge any easier. In today’s gospel, he makes it clear that he did not come with a message to keep us complacent. First, he reminds us that we are of more value than many sparrows, but contrary to our preferred image of Jesus chilling in a meadow with children and sheep, Jesus modeled a life that focuses on the oppressed, the captives, the outsiders, the hungry, the homeless, the powerless. This, he demonstrates, is how to announce that God’s reign has come near – imagining a world where everyone matters, where the hairs of everyone’s heads are counted and matter to God.
By doing so, Jesus is faithful to the tradition of the prophets and to God’s design for all of creation. Yes, this could upset our apple carts, but Jesus is not here for our shenanigans. He was about that resurrected life for everyone. If the message we proclaim does not challenge us to seek God’s reign of justice and peace, then what are we doing?
This is not the job of preachers only but for every follower of Jesus. There’s a world in need of healing and it won’t happen if we are content with lukewarm lullabies. Daring to stand with the oppressed, to step up and speak out will upset folks, even folks close to us.
Jesus says he did not come to bring peace but a sword. The message of the reign of God is intended to bring justice, liberation and wholeness for everyone. That will upset the status quo. That will call for new imagination of radical welcome for everyone, love for everyone, freedom and safety for everyone, deep respect for everyone as beloved and made in God’s holy image.
This radical message of the reign of God is disruptive. It will challenge beliefs and attitudes we learned in our families. We may even question our parents’ teaching, as wonderful as they were. This radical message may cause us to reconsider those whom we call friends. It may cause us to question how we invest our time and dollars – do they honor God’s love for everyone?
Did I realize what my brothers were teaching me when they would gather on our front porch to harass our neighbor because he was gay? Why didn’t anyone ever say anything to stop it? When did I realize this was hateful? When did I first recognize my neighbor’s humanity, created in God’s divine image?
Jesus says he does not come to bring peace but a sword. Being faithful to proclaiming God’s message may cause us question our own learnings and values. It may cause us question our politics. It may cause us question the voices that influence us. It may cause division and disruption among our closest relationships. This can be painful. Going against loved ones is never fun. I still struggle with how to confront the brothers I love dearly.
Archie Bunker’s character was that bigoted relative that few want to claim they have. His daughter Gloria disagreed with his racism and bigotry but she loved him dearly. Somewhere in her life she realized that her dad whom she adored was wrong.
It’s painful to discover that someone we love did not teach us love, but hate. They did not teach us appreciation for God’s diversity but instead fear of otherness. They did not teach us compassion for those who suffer but apathy. They did not teach us generosity but greed. They did not teach us empathy but vanity.
Followers of Jesus are to choose love over hate always, even if it causes division in our relationships. There’s a slang way of putting it when we say someone needs to confront hatred within our closest groups: “get your cousins”. Hopefully we can challenge them in the spirit of God’s love which always leaves room for reconciliation.
Jesus invites everyone into life-giving relationships with God and one another. God desires to see us live generous and loving lives.
There is still trouble in the world, as there is still trouble in our sacred texts. How can we name these troubles, so that God’s healing can happen? Maybe when we give away food or clothing, we could examine the root causes of poverty and work to end poverty. Maybe we can ask community organizers why they organize – listen to their concerns. Maybe we can look around when we gather at Christ’s table, ask who is missing and figure out how to ensure that they are welcome and safe. It’s small things adding up to big things. These small things added up can ripple through our families, into our communities, churches, across our nation and the world.
The good news is that there’s no stopping the message of God’s reign. God’s restoration and reconciliation will happen no matter what. The good news is also that we are loved so deeply by God, even more than many sparrows. We have been restored and reconciled to Christ by the power of his death and resurrection. We are here only by God’s grace and mercy. The flip side of the prophets’ message is that we are loved by God and God desires wholeness and healing, not just for us but for the world.
What if this became how we are known? What will be your message be?
Rev. Kimberly A. Vaughn