Go, have no fear, take risks, and share the Good News – a sermon

You can hear this sermon on the Christ Church website, or read it here.


It was pointed out to me after last Sunday that thanks to a couple of baptisms and Vacation Bible School, I had escaped a pretty difficult Gospel passage for another three years.  Without thinking, I laughingly agreed, and gave the old “phew” sign.  Monday morning, I realized that I had breathed a sigh of relief just a little too soon.  Unfortunately for me, the Lectionary has split Jesus’ warning into three sections, the toughest of which we hear this morning.  If you’ll recall from last week, Jesus’ ministry has become increasingly successful.  He toured many of the cities and villages of Israel, proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near, and the crowds continued to grow.  As Jesus looked at the throngs of hurting and helpless people who were following him, his heart was broken.  They were like sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus knew that for every one that had heard his message, there were hundreds of others who had yet to hear the Good News.

So, Jesus called together the twelve and commissioned them to go: cast out demons, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and proclaim that the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  Before they departed on their evangelistic expedition, Jesus offered a word of caution.  Well, actually, it’s more like eight hundred words of caution.  The task will not be easy.  There are plenty of people who do not want the Jesus Movement to take off, and many of them are in positions of power.  “You will be brought before councils, flogged in the synagogue, and dragged before governors and kings,” Jesus told them in last week’s Gospel, “but don’t worry, the Spirit will give you the words you need.”  “You will be hated by friends and family alike,” Jesus goes on to warn them, “but with God’s help, you will endure.”  His rhetoric heats up in this week’s passage.  Jesus reminds the disciples that “out there” they are calling him Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that is, Satan himself.  “What do you think it will be like for you,” Jesus asks, “as you take my message and help it to spread.”

Consistently throughout these dire warnings about the struggle that is to come, Jesus pauses to offer the word that God always offers in moments of anxiety and struggle, “Have no fear.”  The work will not be easy.  There will be pain.  There will be broken relationships.  There will be rumors and innuendo.  There might even be a call to die, but despite all that, Jesus says, “have no fear, for even if they kill your body, they cannot touch your soul… Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

When Jesus talked about giving up one’s life and that “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household,” he was dead serious.  To give up one’s faith in the Jewish tradition and follow Jesus was akin to walking away from one’s family.  The same was true of Pagan Gentiles who converted.  In a world where men followed in the family business and sons took care of their aging parents, this was a significant issue.  To disrupt the religious, political, and economic status quo was the threaten the stability of the whole region, and governments are not fond of instability.  It was not safe to be a disciple of Jesus.  In fact, for the first three hundred or so years of Christianity, there was an almost constant, real threat of death, and so these words of comfort were of crucial importance.

Hearing a similar chunk of Matthew 10, this Thursday, the Church remembered Saint Alban, the first British Christian for whom we have a name.  Alban lived just outside of modern day London during the third century.  He was a pagan when he met a priest who was fleeing the most recent wave of Roman persecution.  For reasons that will forever be unknown, Alban decided to hide the priest in his home.  For several days, they had nothing to do but talk with each other.  Over time, Alban was so impressed by the faith of the priest, that he became a Christian.  When soldiers got word that the priest was hiding at Alban’s home, they came to arrest him, but Alban quickly donned the priest’s cloak and gave himself up instead.  Alban was tortured in hopes that he would renounce his faith, but when he withstood the flogging with patience and joy, the judge ordered him beheaded.

martyrdom

As Alban and his executioners made their way to the hill where he was to be killed, they came upon a fast-flowing river.  The bridge was so clogged with onlookers that the execution party couldn’t cross the river, but the excited new convert was so ready to lose his life for the sake of the Gospel that he “raised his eyes to heaven and the river dried up.”  The first executioner, amazed by the miracle, put down his sword and offered to be killed in Alban’s place.  Ultimately, both men were beheaded atop a hill that now bears his name.  Legend has it that as he made the fatal blow, the second executioner’s eyes popped out and dropped to the ground along with Alban’s head, which then rolled down the hill and a spring of fresh water burst forth from the ground at its final resting place.  Martyrdom stories tend to get embellished over time, but even if all the details aren’t exactly true, the reality is that for Alban and thousands of others like him, following Jesus in those early days of Christianity was a life-threatening endeavor that they willingly took on buoyed by the assurance of Jesus in passages like this one.

From the comfort of our mortgage free building that sits in the heart of the Bible Belt, and is filled with relatively comfortable, middle class, “mainline” American Christians, this message doesn’t have the same impact.  In fact, it can be downright difficult to begin to make sense of it.  When I hear these warnings about persecution, I can’t help but wonder if I can even consider myself a disciple.  Life as a 21st century American Christian just seems too easy.  What are we to do with a text like this?   I think the answer is two-fold.  First, these words from Jesus should call to mind the millions of Christians outside of our safe little American bubble who face the threat of death every day.  These words from Jesus remind us to pray with fervor for the Coptic Christians in Egypt and Iraq, for Anglicans in Sudan, and for Christians around the globe who are under the real threat of violence for their faith in Jesus.

Secondly, I think these words of warning should inspire us to evangelistic action.  In a country where there is no actual threat to our faith, but where the face of Christianity is often closed-minded, abusive, or worse yet, a self-seeking get-rich-quick scheme, to not speak God’s word of love for the world God created is to fail to live up to the expectations Jesus has for us.  Instead of choosing to love father and mother more than Jesus, many Episcopalians have decided to love polite society or our own comfort more than him.  When we choose the easy route, we fail to take up our cross and follow him.  When we ignore the call to proclaim the Kingdom of God in word and deed, we deny Christ before others, and, tough as it might be to hear, Jesus promises that he will deny us in the same way.

If it weren’t for the faithfulness of those early disciples, who withstood persecution and proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord, we wouldn’t be here today.  It is our responsibility, then, as committed, albeit comfortable, disciples of Jesus, to continue to share the Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near, to share a message of God’s love and grace in a world that hears mostly of God’s anger and vengeance, and to show that following Jesus doesn’t mean condemning those who are different from us, but rather, embracing the reality that God loves everyone, no exceptions.  In a world full of vitriol and strife, the message of hope, grace, and love that we have to offer is too important not to share.  So, go, have no fear, take a risk, and tell out the Good News that the kingdom of heaven has come near.  Amen.

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When family tears itself apart

As I’ve already mentioned this week, I am really struggling with this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, but I’m only now beginning to get a grasp on why.  Prior to now, I had thought that my dislike for this passage had to do with its lack of relevance to 21st century white middle class “mainline” American Christians.  We who are the majority, who have held a place of privilege in this country for 241 years, who were so tied in with the Colonial government that in many colonies one’s tithe was a government required tax, who know nothing of what it means to be persecuted, how can we dare to begin to think that Jesus’ warning to the disciples has anything to say to us?

I really thought that was what was bothering me, until I started to read my go-to sermon resources, and realized that what I’m really struggling with this week is not that this lesson doesn’t apply to us, but instead that Christians are living out both sides of this dire warning.  It isn’t that non-Christian family members are kicking Christians out of their wills, but that the Christian family, writ large, is tearing itself apart.  For eight years, the conservative members of our family saw themselves as the persecuted ones.  As social structures changed to bring LGBT Americans into equal protection under the law, and denominational structures similarly began to understand that God’s love and sacraments should be made available to everyone, many conservative Christians saw their ability to live out their faith being challenged.  Now, with the other party in the White House, more liberal Christians are beginning to feel that same fear.  They see the rolling back of equal rights protections, cutting of programs that care for the poor, and a seeming disregard for the disabled as a direct attack on their faith in the God of love.

In a time of stark political division, the Church has allowed itself to become a pawn in the political machine.  We are tearing ourselves apart by declaring our sisters and brothers in Christ as anathema, which is precisely what the prince of demons, Beelzebul, would have us do.  The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the Church’s intimate relationship with government, which dates all the way back to the Edict of Milan in 313 (culminating in the Edict of Thessalonica in 380), is antithetical to the Gospel.  By embracing the Church’s incorporation into civil governance, Christianity has come to put the love of social order ahead of the love of Christ.  We have given up our ability to preach the sort of peace that divides good from evil like a sword.  We have abdicated our call to take up our cross for the Kingdom by choosing to live as God-fearing citizens of the State.

martyrdom

Today, the Episcopal Church remembers Saint Alban, the first Anglican Christians known by name, and, not coincidentally, the first English martyr, I can’t help but be struck by his willingness to stand up and declare that though the State may have the power to take his life, his core identity wasn’t Roman or Celtic or anything else, but his defining characteristic was “I worship and adore the living and true God, who created all things.”  While his head my have been removed from his body, Alban’s brief allegiance to Christ never wavered, was never corrupted by the idol of power and prestige, which, I’m increasingly convinced, it probably the better place for the Church to exist: the only place from which we can actually speak truth to power.

Cost Benefit Analysis

In yesterday’s post, I used the example of a college student selling Cutco knives to family members to try to explain what I thought was happening in the rather intense prep session that Jesus gave the twelve before they embarked upon their first evangelistic tour in Matthew’s Gospel.  To hear Jesus tell them that ” 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” is difficult to hear, even if it is a rough quotation of the prophet Micah’s lament over his rejection by the people.   As I’ve struggled with what to do with this passage as a preacher, this Cutco image continues to play in my mind.  It seems to me that Jesus is inviting the disciples to think long and hard about the cost of what they are taking on.

Sure, they have spent considerable time following Jesus, but what he is preparing them for is something quite different.  They are about to move from being the students of a less-than-well-pedigreed Rabbi to being the carriers of his message in the world.  As Jesus notes, it is one thing to simply follow one said to be of the house of Beelzebul, it will be quite another to multiply his message in towns and villages all around Judea.  Before, these idiots who followed a fool weren’t worth the effort.  Now, they will be the target of some pretty brutal attacks with collateral damage that will threaten the livelihood of their entire family.  Jesus wants to be sure they have counted the cost before they weigh the benefits.

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Like the Cutco knife salesperson, the key to understanding the cost, is being fully aware of the benefits.  Jesus isn’t promising that proclaiming the Kingdom will be easy, but, he is quick to assure the disciples that “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven…”  If one is willing to take the risk of evangelism, the rewards will be exceedingly great.

So, like I asked yesterday, what does this have to do with us in the 21st century?  Well, I would suspect that a lot of the anxiety polite Episcopalians have about evangelism has to do with our images of it.  The cost of sounding like a Bible thumper who stands on a street corner and tells people they are going to hell seems awfully high.  The fear of ostracizing oneself from relationships because of a deep desire to see the whole world come to know the joy of the Kingdom is a significant cost.  What the Church hasn’t been so great at, and, quite frankly, this passage doesn’t do all that well either, is highlighting the benefits of a life of evangelism.  Without the full picture, one can’t make an informed decision.  In our lesson, Jesus is trying to give his disciples an idea of the cost.  In time, they will come to know the benefits.  This week, the preacher might do well to offer a look at both so that our people can do their best cost benefit analysis and decide for themselves if becoming an Apostle is something their faith life can handle.

Looking for wiggle room

The good news is that soon there will be an Associate Rector here at Christ Church.  The bad news is that she won’t arrive in time to preach this Sunday’s really difficult Gospel lesson.  I should have looked at the Lectionary more closely while negotiating her start date.  Yesterday, I was able to use our Vacation Bible School curriculum to deftly avoid the whole “Go nowhere among the Gentiles” and everybody’s Father’s Day favorite “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.”  It seems that this Sunday, I’m stuck preaching the hard stuff.

I suppose you can’t blame me, though, for looking for some wiggle room in Jesus’ continued difficult teaching to the disciples turned Apostles who are preparing for their first missionary journey.  To be fair, Jesus is doing exactly what any good leader should be doing.  He is preparing his disciples for the hardship they are going to experience.  Certainly, they have seen the mixed reaction to Jesus during their time with him.  Only a fool would think that taking his message out would mean being welcomed with open arms and joyful acceptance.  Still, rather than sending them out with false hope, Jesus offers a clear warning that the message of the Kingdom of God is going to be unpopular with some; and that difficultly might start in one’s own family.

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You too can put all your family in debt in order to buy an ill-fitting suit

Like a college student selling Cutco knives, the disciples would logically begin their evangelistic tour with family members.  It would make sense that one’s family, those who have seen what a difference Jesus made in their life, would be open to the Good News of God’s saving love in Christ.  However, like the Cutco knife example, there are likely just as many hard feelings and a begrudging sense of obligation.  These disciples had dropped everything to follow Jesus.  Imagine being Peter’s wife’s family.  Sure, Jesus had healed their matriarch, but what about the wife (and children?) left behind that they had to take care of.  Or, what about the other son’s of Zebedee?  Losing two members of the family fishing crew couldn’t have been an easy thing to overcome.  Even Matthew, the “author” of this Gospel, must have worried about how he might go home to a family that was no longer able to live comfortably off his tax collections.

It is no wonder that Jesus spent so much of this time dealing with family dynamics.  Surely, he knew how difficult it would be for the twelve to share with family the story of God’s Kingdom when it seemed like it had left them all behind.  Now, how does this preach in 21st century America when the more likely version of this story is the children of devout church members who will never darken the door of a church again?  I’m still working that out.  Like I said, I’m looking for some wiggle room this week.  Unfortunately, I’ve not found it yet.

Mind Boggling Good News

In his sermon for Trinity Sunday, my Rector, TKT, rattled off a pretty good list of things that are mind boggling about the Christian faith.  Chief among them, of course, was the Doctrine of the Trinity, but TKT must have been looking ahead a week as another example of the mind boggling nature of discipleship is losing one’s life to save it while saving one’s live only to lose it.  At the very end of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, after lots of difficult examples of the cost of discipleship, Jesus makes this famous declaration.

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Jesus really is making a mind boggling claim here.  He invites his followers not just to sign on to a doctrinal statement or to make vows to God and bishop, but to hand over everything.  Every. Single. Thing.  To be a disciple of Jesus means that you no longer possess even your own life.

Given his audience, Jesus is probably speaking both literally and metaphorically.  Most of the Twelve will find themselves martyrs for the Kingdom; giving up their actual lives because of their commitment to the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Clearly, Jesus has this eventuality in mind as he’s speaking, but we can’t ignore that fact that Matthew chose to keep these words from Jesus for his own community that was still developing a generation after Jesus’ own death.  For the people of Matthew’s Church, the possibility of death for the Kingdom was still quite real, but there was also the realization that this Christianity thing might last a while.

It certainly wasn’t comfortable to be a Christian in the world of Matthew’s Church, but they were beginning to realize that Jesus’ call to discipleship wasn’t just a call to martyrdom.  Instead, Jesus’ call is for his followers to hand over the fullness of their being for the sake of the Kingdom.  Too often, this call to give up one’s life is couched in clericalism, “I gave up everything and became a priest,” but the reality is that each of us has the opportunity to live our lives for the Kingdom of God.  What does it mean to be a lawyer for the sake of the Kingdom?  What does it mean to be a truck driver for the sake of the Kingdom?  What does it mean to be a mom for the sake of the Kingdom?  A student? A doctor? A cashier? A grandfather? A lifeguard?

Giving up your life for the sake of the Kingdom isn’t easy, but the reward – having abundant life handed back to you – is so very worth it.  It is so good, it boggles the mind.

The Landing was Rough and Now the Breaks aren’t Working

In yesterday’s post, I wrote on the difficult lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, suggesting that it was a rough way to land in Ordinary Time. Today, I’ve got a little bit more time and so now having read through all the lessons, both Track 1 and Track 2 (more on that in another post), I’ve decided that the landing might have been so rough as to knock out the breaks as well.

In Genesis, we are welcomed into the semi-continuous reading with the story of a jealous Sarah convincing Abraham to cast off Isaac and Hagar into the wilderness. It is prime example of God’s steadfastness, as he stays with and protects the boy in the wilderness, but I’m pretty sure that fact will get lost in the minds of most hearers as they ponder this odd “beginning” to the story of Israel’s founding family.

Meanwhile, the Romans lesson is, well, a typical lesson from Romans: dense theologically and deeply rooted in the controversies of its time. Since many congregations probably saw a pretty baby in a flowing white gown get sprinkled with water on Pentecost a few weeks ago, the Romans lesson offers us a chance to reflect theologically on the role of baptism in the life of faith. It is helpful that the baby baptism is somewhat removed from the theology since no one likes to think about that adorable baptism as a death to the life of sin. This is another lesson that requires a good bit of back story.

Track 2 preachers, which is where Saint Paul’s in Foley falls this year, are invited into the theme of the day with a lesson from Jeremiah. While it, like the Genesis lesson, gets off a rough start, there is at least no casting off of innocent children. Instead, it is yet another reminder of why nobody wants the Spiritual Gift of Prophecy. Being the mouthpiece of God when God’s people are disobedient is not a pleasant experience, and Jeremiah cries out for help from the Lord. As the passage ends, the prophet has found the solace his is looking for and cries out to God in songs of praise. At least one of the lessons has a nod to the Collect’s theme of God’s lovingkindness.

What I have spent the last two days being snarky about, however, can be a real opportunity for the preacher. The Bible is full of hard to hear passages, and historically, the Lectionary has worked hard to skip past them. The problem, of course, is that when our people do read the Bible, they will see these things: stories of concubines, slavery, murder, and poor life choices; and be totally unprepared for how to handle them. It would behoove the preacher to land in the minefield of Proper 7A and honestly talk about how difficult Scripture can be. Afterall, if we want to create biblically literate congregations, then we have to invite them into the fullness of the story of God’s steadfast lovingkindness to often despicable people.

A Rough Landing in Ordinary Time

Easter is a movable Feast, that is to say, unlike Christmas that is December 25th every year, Easter doesn’t fall on the same date each year.  It follows the lunar cycles so that Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.  Because Easter is a movable feast many others are as well: Ascension coming 40 days after Easter, Pentecost 10 days after that, and Trinity Sunday the Sunday following Pentecost.  All of this means that so-called ordinary time, that long stretch of green Sundays after Pentecost can begin anywhere from Proper 1 in early-mid-May or as is the case this year, Proper 7 in late-mid-June (I think even a Proper 8 start is possible, but I’m not that good at math).

All of that to say this, after a season of repentance and renewal in Lent, a season of celebration in Easter, and the always confusing Trinity Sunday, we crash land into Ordinary Time (I know, we don’t actually use that term in The Episcopal Church but “The Season After Pentecost” is just too long to type) with a bumpy Gospel Lesson.  All those Rectors who let their Curates commit heresy on Trinity Sunday are now selling them on the good exercise of preaching back to back Sundays.

“Whoever denies me, I will deny.”
“I didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“One’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
“Whoever loves father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me…”

Thanks be to God that TKT and I are both away this week, though I feel sorry of AOM who will be guest preaching in our stead.  These are hard words from Jesus, words that I’m guessing most of us wish he’d never said, but the fact of the matter is that he said them and we need to deal with them out in the open.  In this week’s lesson, Jesus lays down the gauntlet for radical discipleship.  He desires a full commitment to the Kingdom of God: above one’s own desires, one’s own family, even one’s own life.  Jesus never promised that life in the Kingdom would be easy, in fact he calls us to take up our cross and follow him – to carry the instrument of our own death in order that we might have abundant life.  It is a bumpy landing into Ordinary Time this year, but perhaps it will set the tone for a summer of thinking about what it means to really follow Jesus.