June 26, 2011 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

by The Rev. Darrell Huddleston

Jer. 28:5-9; Ps. 89:1-4, 15-18; Rm. 6:12-23; Mt. 10:40-42

This is one of those Sundays when the gospel lesson has been isolated from its context.  Most Bible verses do not live in isolation.  There is context and the context for these three verses is the preceding thirty-five.  Chapter 10:5b-42 is of one piece and it is known as “The Missionary Discourse.

A brief summary of it:

Be alive and active in mission and spreading the “Good News.”

Don’t worry about material possessions.

Don’t worry what others think of you; in fact, you may be hated by others, even by your own family.

Loyalty to God in Christ comes first, even before family.

Don’t fear those who can kill the body, but the one who can kill body and soul.

Pick up the cross and follow Christ.

Trust in God.  If God cares even for the sparrows God will care for us.

Practice hospitality.  In receiving from you they receive Christ.

Let me read just the preceding six verses to give you a sense of what he said:

34 ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  35 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; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever 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; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

I read that and my initial reaction is, “Is this coming from the same person we call the Prince of Peace, the one who urged us to turn the other cheek?” Is this what we have to do to be faithful Christians?  Is this really what I signed up for at my confirmation?  Is this what it means to be a baptized follower of Jesus?  By hearing only the verses of the gospel lesson for today, without the context, we end up with only part of the picture of what it means to walk in the way of the cross.  Jesus’ missionary speech is anxiety producing, to say the least, and it tempts a person to start looking for the nearest exit.

So, what are we to do with this “missionary discourse?”  Since sermons are expected to have reasonable length (I usually go about 15 minutes), I’ll refrain from preaching on the whole discourse and focus on today’s lesson and those six verses made preceding it.

“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” It’s a verse that has misled some Christians down through the centuries as justifying the killing of those who aren’t Christians, and in some instances, of Christians killing other Christians.   The sword Jesus is talking about is not a political or military one; rather, it is an eschatological one.  That is, it has to do with ultimate goals, with an eternal perspective as related to how we live.  To think otherwise would be contradictory to the rest of his life and teachings.

The Prince of Peace is against any force, any cultural practice that would pull people away from God and God’s desire for our lives.  There is always a tension between Christ’s vision for us and society’s practices.  Jesus is reminding us with his sword image, that we live in a hostile environment.  It doesn’t appear all that hostile to us until we recognize how much we are held in captivity by our culture’s norms.  Here’s a sampling:

Wealthy people are winners; poor people are losers.  Youth is an asset; age is a liability.  Better to be white than a person of color.  Being thin and beautiful is superior; being average size and ordinary looking is inferior.

Or, take the norm of  “I need more than I have” …that what I have never truly satisfies and if I only had this or more of that, or a better and bigger model, then I would be happy and content…it’s a norm that undergirds many of our commercials.  When I am unable to recognize that I have enough, then I am  captive to my appetites.  Jesus’ sword cuts right through all such norms.

I don’t think he wants his disciples to keep their mouths shut for the sake of peace in the family, community or church when dealing with such norms or when facing greed, abuse, racism, or corruption, for example.  Jesus’ sword is one that pierces our soul, and the world’s, about what is right, and what is just and what is of God.

Sometimes that sword divides families.  “Whoever loves Father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” A statement that was particularly pertinent during the time of the writing of Matthew’s gospel.  It was a time of persecution of Christians by the Romans.  Families were split over the faith, even turning in other family members to the authorities.  Jesus became a dividing issue.  It is not unknown in the world today.

Families have powerful positive and/or negative influence in our lives.  For some people it’s difficult for them to be away from families at all, and for other people they can’t be far enough away.  If it’s an unhealthy family relationship, it can consume a person’s waking moments and dreams as well.  If it’s a healthy, loving and caring family relationship then one enjoys spending time with them.

I remember how hard it was for me to leave for Africa.  My father had had open heart surgery and was doing well, but at his age, I knew that I might never see him again.  He died the day before we were to leave the country.  He had not told me that he was having chest pains for fear that it might keep me from going where God was leading me.  He recognized there was a higher loyalty than the one to him and the family.

Many of us are blessed in that we learn God’s love through our families.  But when our ultimate loyalty is to anyone other than God, when our human relationships get in the way of “take up the cross and follow me,” then those words of Jesus must be heard.

In taking up the cross and following we are to welcome others; to practice graciousness in Christ’s name.  “Whoever welcomes….whoever gives a cup of cold water…will not lose their reward.” Christian hospitality is everything from small kindnesses to sacrificial acts of heroism in the faith, even to the point of laying down your life for your friends.  It is hospitality extended to all persons.  We care for others because Christ cares for us and in that caring Christ is present.

Water is a powerful image for a desert people.  The people described in the Bible always lived with one foot in the desert and the other in an oasis.  To request and be given a drink of refreshing water was a sign of friendship and bonded those who participated.

Giving a cup of cold water takes many forms.  Have you ever been with someone who is dying and they ask you for a sip of water, or to moisten their mouth with a swab?  Have you ever received an unexpected gift from someone that touched your heart?      I remember when I was an agricultural missionary in Africa, and upon leaving a group of farmers, a man came up and offered me a chicken as an expression of thanks.  This from a man who only owned 6 chickens and earned an income of no more than $200-300 a year.  At first, I thought I can’t accept such a gift, but I also knew I could not refuse such hospitality.  To not have done so would have been an affront to that man’s dignity, self-worth and generosity.  But in accepting that chicken it was a profound spiritual moment and bonding, and I felt the presence of Christ in our midst.  I’m sure you all have had similar experiences.

It is the accumulation of consistent little deeds of kindness and justice, small loving and often brave acts, done in Christ’s name, that eventually change lives and, we pray, the world.  The cup of water in his name and the whole of Jesus’ missionary discourse hinges on his statement:  “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Or, as C.S.  Lewis put it:

Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end:  submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life.  Keep nothing back.  Nothing that you have not given away will ever really be yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead… look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in. (Mere Christianity, p. 190)

 

 

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