The Sunday Sermon: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost – July 3, 2016
Scripture: Matthew 10:34-39
Fathers and Brothers and Sisters and Mothers
Week four of our exploration into Christian discipleship during this summer of 2016. This morning, a look at our loyalty to the God of Jesus and it’s place among all our other loyalties. A fascinating weekend, this National July 4th holiday weekend to discuss primary loyalties. But we’re going to go even deeper than loyalty to country. Listen for the Word of God …
Read Matthew 10:34-39. The Word of the Lord …
I had a classmate in seminary back in the late 90’s who hated this passage. We studied this particular “pericope” in our New Testament exegesis class because of a few of the literary and text critical questions it contains. I remember that she pretty much flat out refused to listen to our instructor’s argument that this is only a part of a larger collection of sayings given by Jesus to the disciples as they set out on a mission of healing and preaching the “good news.”
She knew, of course, that a “life of faith” includes times of struggle and opposition – she was a Master of Divinity student, after all. “Cathy” (as I’ll call her) was a middle aged woman, divorced, with two grown children, one of whom was a bit estranged during the time I knew her. “Cathy” knew, as every Christian disciple should know, that along the way of faith, some of us will suffer, perhaps even as much as our Christ suffered. “Cathy” knew that the community of the faithful must seek to persevere even during – especially during – those times of persecution and fear.
But I remember her arguing with our instructor and any of us who engaged her on this passage that in it Jesus, or at least the Jesus that Matthew (and Mark and Luke, actually, for these saying are common in them, as well), goes too far. The Jesus that she had come to know was a man of peace, not a sword. And though she understood that the sword the Christ speaks of in this passage is not one of war, but one “cleaving” – that is, not a sword of death, but of division, a powerful metaphor for the way a community can be, and should expect to be, “split” by the preaching of the gospel, her Jesus would never have encouraged such division in the midst of family.
I remember thinking at the time, “Well, I’m sure Matthew and his community and the early church in the first and second century put some words into Jesus mouth out of their own experiences and in our study we’ll probably learn, through the powers of our new ‘source, literary, and form critical’ tools, who really said what and Jesus can remain the man of peace and love that we so dearly desire.
Well, as I remember it I found no such comfort that day in class. And in this past week, I’ve found no such comfort in such discoveries, either. A good time to pray. Pray with me …
No … As “Cathy” and the rest of us found out some 20 years ago, there’s very little wiggle room here as we examine our fourth “essential for the Christian life”: Placing loyalty to God about all other loyalties, even the deepest ones of home and family. It’s hard for us to hear Jesus (or anyone else, for that matter) speak “against” the family in any way, because contemporary families are taking a beating from an economy that pretty methodically uproots and scatters us or a culture that often paints the “family of origin” in a negative light and downplays family ties. It feels a bit unfair to have Jesus himself piling on!
We can contextualize this passage, as we students tried to do in Seminary, pretending it really only speaks to the first readers who faced pressures from Empire and their family’s Jewish traditions to reject Jesus and his claims. Surely families were split over this new movement in the first century from those two forces. We still are – loyalty to country and family traditions are powerful forces in our lives. No matter how we slice it, Jesus is no champion of family loyalties in any age – not as primary relationships. Not when God is in the room (and God is always in the room for Jesus, and should be for us).
No, Jesus advocates Kingdom loyalties, Kingdom values, and he calls all who follow him to put their relationships in that order, the Kingdom of God first and then any others. Kingdom values and family values are not the same thing, as much as we would like them to be, as much as we think they are. AT the very heart of Christianity is the dying to self. Nothing and no one is closer to self than family. To choose God over those we love the deepest, is to wield the sword of division.
The most severe and dramatic divisions we encounter are within the fold, within the larger Christian family. In the forties and fifties those divisions were among Catholics and Protestants. Today it is between liberal and conservative, progressivism and fundamentalism. In our time, I do believe, the metaphoric sword of division is being used in a more lethal fashion. We have so much work to do in our larger Christian family, work of forgiveness and reconciliation. But as we search for a deeper, fuller, more authentic Christian identity, we must acknowledge Jesus’ call to us to a relationship that must be even deeper than those we share with our wives or husbands, or children and grandchildren, or brothers and sisters. Can we really do this?
As harsh as this sounds, as difficult as it is for us to get our heads around, let alone order our lives around, this “letting go” of loyalty to family in service to our loyalty to God, sets the stage – opens the door – creates the space within us for a fuller, more authentic, life with our families – and all others. First and foremost, we are called to live, to do what we do, out of loyalty to the God revealed to us in Jesus. If that is genuine, if that is honest, if that is faithful, then our families – our spouses, our children, our brothers and sisters – biological and “in Christ” – will be enriched and empowered beyond measure.
That’s a big “if,” I know. So much depends on how God and Christ are experienced and shared in our lives of faith. I attempt in every breath I take and with every word I speak to communicate to you and to the world a God of justice and mercy and grace, and a Christ of love and forgiveness and joy. That’s not the God or the Christ that makes headlines or seems to fill many sanctuaries. A punitive, vengeful God and a victorious conquering Christ appeal more to our need for judgement and certainty. That’s why we can’t get behind this week’s “essential for Christian life,” I believe We won’t place family loyalty behind loyalty to a tyrannical, vengeful, reality, divine as it may be. But if God is Love, and Mercy? That is the God revealed through Jesus. If God is Grace? That just may be possible. That is the good news that Christianity has to offer.
What we are being told in this passage is that the Good News is not intended for the comfort of close relationships, but for the transformation of the world. What we are being called to do in this passage is not to hold our knowledge and our experience of God at work in the world in our small communities – Churches, families, or even in our own hearts. We are to take the gospel to the world. And as we do that, if we do that, we’ll face challenges, we’ll face divisions, well face persecution, from the world, from our own families, and even within ourselves. Which brings us back to the questions that began this summer’s journey.
On the first Sunday of this month, we’re back in the tenth chapter of Matthew where we started on the first Sunday of last month. We were “Summoned into the Summer” on June 5th by reading the verses the precede our reading this morning, verses that lay out the coming persecutions that disciples of Christ can expect in their lives of faith. We wondered why those verses and that list of “persecutions” sounded so foreign to us, and I suggested it was probably because we weren’t taking our job as disciples quite as seriously as we ought to be. So we began looking at some of the “essentials of a Christian life” and exploring how we may be more dedicated and effective Disciples of Christ in the 21st century.
How might “confessing God’s act in the person and ministry of Jesus” get us into trouble with the world today?
How does “living towards God’s Kingdom on earth” put us at odds with those around us who live towards earthly treasures and material kingdoms?
How does letting go of our material possessions and our fear of what others think of us create suspicion and mistrust from the world around us?
And this morning, why does placing loyalty to the God revealed in Jesus above all other loyalties divide us, rather than unite us?
This is not the first (or the second) summer we’ve spent time digging deeper into our faith identity and wondering how we can be more truly, deeply, and fully Christian in the world today. This long period of ordinary Time after Pentecost every summer lends itself to deeper examination. But as I recap each week in my writing and each Sunday in my preaching, I wonder if we’re once again going to go no further than just asking the questions I just asked again.
Well, we have one more week, this week and this coming Sunday to accomplish what we set out to do, so I’ll trust the Spirit to inspire my words, to open your hearts, and to illumine our understanding in deeper ways as we draw this probe to an end and answer he questions we ask.
Our table is set before us to fortify us for our lives together, always. What a gift it is for all we are called to do. Come, let us prepare to share this meal this morning for all that lies ahead in our lives with one another.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / July 3, 2016