Sunday, June 25, 2017

Pentecost 3A

Matthew 10:24–39




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


What a disturbing gospel reading for today! In Matthew 10:28 Jesus warns his newly commissioned disciples to “fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell”— not a pleasant verse, especially on the hottest day of the year. Was Jesus trying literally to scare the hell out of the disciples with an image of a wrathful God? Wasn’t the whole point of the Reformation to free us from such a scary view of God? For years as a young monk Luther had been haunted by the wrath of God. As Luther later confessed, he “raged with a fierce and troubled conscience” against such a God. In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation do we really want to return to fearing a God of wrath?


In verse 34 of our gospel reading Jesus instructs his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth: I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Isn’t Jesus the Prince of Peace? Isn’t he the one of whom Isaiah prophesied, “He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”? Isn’t Jesus the one who exhorts his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”? In the Garden of Gethsemane, when Judas and the religious leaders came to arrest Jesus, one of the disciples drew his sword and cut off the ear of the slave of the high priest. Jesus said to his disciple, “Put your sword back in its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” In what possible sense did Jesus come to bring a sword?


As if Jesus bringing a sword is not disturbing enough, he then adds: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Are we not instructed in the Fourth Commandment to honor your father and mother? How does setting a man against his father or a daughter against her mother honor them?


When our lectors read the gospel, they always conclude with the words: “The gospel of the Lord.” “Gospel” means “good news.” Our gospel reading for today seems to be filled with disturbing news. We are going to have to do some digging to uncover good news in it.


In last week’s gospel Jesus warned his disciples to beware of religious leaders and political leaders who felt threatened by Jesus’ message of the reign of God. “See, I am sending you out,” said Jesus, “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” These leaders wanted to keep the status quo and the privileges that went along with it. Jesus knew that they would not hesitate to slander and persecute anyone who they thought could sway the people and threaten their authority.


In this week’s gospel Jesus tells the disciples three times not to fear these leaders. What is most instructive are the reasons Jesus gives them not to fear.


First of all, he assures his disciples that evil will ultimately be exposed: “for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” Truth—God’s truth—will triumph. That is good news. The traditional gospel on Reformation Sunday is John 8:31–36. It includes the assurance that “the truth will make you free.”


Jesus encourages his followers to speak his truth publicly: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” Disciples of Jesus are not afraid to call sin by its rightful name, wherever they witness it.


Health care reform is in the news again, as the US Senate considers the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017. It is our Senators’ responsibility to debate the best way to provide health care. As people of faith, we do not necessarily have privileged information on providing health care. But what we cannot remain silent about is leaving millions of people without adequate health care, especially in our well-off nation. Being uncaring toward our neighbor in need of health care directly contradicts our core values.


In the Parable of the Good Samaritan the priest and the Levite look at the wounded victim along the road, one of their own people, and pass by on the other side. We are passing by on the other side of millions of our fellow Americans if we do not provide adequate health care coverage. We need to speak out against any health care plan that does not provide access to basic health care for all. Any such plan would be in the words of our President: “Mean.” The Good Samaritan went the extra mile for the wounded victim. Jesus assures his disciples in our gospel reading that they will never regret speaking the truth on behalf of wounded victims in our midst. Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I would only add, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to say or do nothing.”


The second reason Jesus gives for not being afraid of those in power is that they can do bodily harm to us, but they cannot kill the soul. In The Message Eugene Peterson translates Matthew 10:28 in this way: “Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.” There is nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life— body and soul— in [God’s] hands.” The power of bullies to do harm is limited. Virtually everything in life can be taken from us, including life itself. But no one can ever take away our core being, as long as it is firmly grounded in God.


The third reason we need not fear is that God cares for us. Sparrows had a relatively small financial value in the time of Jesus. Yet as Jesus says, “not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” God cares for every one of them. Surely then God cares for each one of us.


God’s care for us is the firm ground on which we stand. God’s gracious love for us was the firm ground on which Luther took his stand in the Reformation. Today Tristan and Landon Shepherdson are being baptized and their mother Kirsten is affirming her baptism. God is declaring publicly that Tristan and Landon are beloved children of God, just as God declared publicly that Kirsten was a beloved child of God on the day of her baptism. That declaration of love is the firmest ground on which they could possibly stand in their lives. As we articulate in our Vision for Ministry, “Because God Cares,” we care for God, our Earth home, our communities, our neighborhoods, and ourselves. God’s care is solid ground on which to stand.


It is not entirely clear why Jesus goes from exhorting his disciples not to be afraid to telling them he has come not to bring peace, but a sword. Biblical scholars seem to agree he must be using sword in a metaphorical sense. Surely he is not advocating using an actual sword to inflict bodily harm on another person. He has just been coaching his disciples how to stand up to those who do use such weapons to harm others. The sword appears to be a reference to the gospel itself— the good news of God’s reign of love. It is compelling news, but he prepares them for the reality that not all will welcome this good news. In fact, this good news of God’s reign of love can even lead to conflict in our closest family relationships.


As David Lose writes, “fear of conflict may be one of the most debilitating of all fears . . . We can get so afraid of conflict— whether within our immediate families or the larger family of faith— that our witness is muted, our convictions surrendered, and any forward movement limited for fear of upsetting the apple cart.”[1] Lose’s point is that if we are afraid of conflict, the sword of God’s gracious love will be hindered from doing its work. The gospel assures us that those who live by the sword of God’s love will ultimately triumph. That is good news, indeed.


A final clarification is in order: the likelihood of conflict with close family members does not preclude loving them. Jesus explains to his disciples: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” We are to love our closest family members, whether in our immediate family or family of faith. But as followers of Jesus, our ultimate loyalty is to him. The only unconditional oath of loyalty a follower of Jesus should ever take is to Jesus. All other loyalties are conditional whether we are talking loyalty to our closest family members, our dearest friends, our favorite religious leaders, our political leaders, or our nation. Loyalty to Jesus puts all our relationships into their proper place. In the final verse of our gospel Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Be assured that whoever gives their ultimate loyalty to Jesus will discover the fullness of life.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.