Sunday, June 22, 2014

Obvious Answers

Matthew 10:24-39
June 22, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

In our scripture reading today we return to the gospel of Matthew. Jesus has commissioned the disciples and is sending them out to proclaim the kingdom, to heal the sick, to share the good news of God’s love. He has told them to go out, taking nothing – no money, no luggage, no extra tunics. He said, “Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” But Jesus wants them to be aware of the full scope of their commission, of the possibility of rejection, of persecution, even of death. This scripture is intended for us, as contemporary disciples, but it is important to be aware that our experience as Christians is bound to be different from that of others in other places and times.

Because we live in the United States, because Christians in this country have not only freedom but some privilege, we are never likely to have our lives endangered because of our beliefs. We are not likely to have our doors kicked in, to be dragged off to prison, or fed to lions, or shot dead in broad daylight – risks that our Christian brothers and sisters have faced in the past and in some places face even now. That isn’t what scares us, though – honestly -- we are mostly more afraid of being rejected or embarrassed. We are mostly afraid of giving up our own power. We are mostly afraid of actually doing what Jesus teaches us – loving others, whether or not they deserve it, sharing the good news of God’s love, telling the story of our faith, risking rejection.

Let’s listen for Jesus’ words in this scripture from Matthew 10:-24-39

“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 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. 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; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.


That is quite a speech.

I was talking with my friend Peg, the Episcopal rector, about this text, and we decided that one day when we see Jesus, we want to say, “Gee, thanks a whole big bunch for THIS one, Jesus!”

You probably noticed the bulletin cover “Find X – here it is” It reflects the sermon title – “Obvious Answers” Where is X? It is right there! But, like many questions that seem to have obvious answers, it is a little more complicated than that. “Here it is” – locates X, but it doesn’t answer the real question, which is “Find the VALUE of X.” Still, it is a relatively straightforward problem – computing the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle, when you know the length of the other two sides. You simply apply the Pythagorean theorem. Obviously.

So, when we read this complex speech from Jesus, what formula can we apply to understand the value of it? I have been joking this week that I have a three word sermon on this text. Rex was very disappointed that the one Sunday he will be gone, I’m preaching a three word sermon! However, I’ve already exceeded 750 words and still haven’t gotten to the solution.

Maybe the sermon is going to be a bit longer than THREE words. But I do think we can respond to the scripture with a few short statements. Three three-word sermons?

The first one is: “It ain’t easy.”
Jesus is using exaggeration, a bit, to make the point to the disciples that following him is not going to be all unicorns and rainbows. There will be challenges, difficulties, even threats. There will be rejection. It will be difficult, being a disciple of Jesus.

You know, of course that the definition of disciple is “student.” If you have ever tried to learn something – a language, algebra, the trombone, you know that it is not easy. Learning requires a teacher, who brings experience, knowledge and skill. The disciple needs to bring determination, self-discipline, and effort.

Some of you know I’m taking piano lessons, after a 44 year hiatus. I have a great teacher in Amy, but no matter how great she is, I won’t get any better unless I practice, apply myself, work on the boring stuff, the basics, to build a foundation for when things get more complicated. I think that’s what Jesus is getting at when he talks about what it takes to be worthy of him.

To do algebra, you have to first learn basic arithmetic. Math teachers are not withholding the Pythagorean theorem from us – they just don’t teach it until we have learned enough basic skills to use it. Jesus is not withholding his grace and love from us, he is teaching us, day by day, step by step, to be followers of Jesus, worthy to be called his disciples. So, if I want to learn to play the piano better, just hanging around Amy isn’t going to work I have to discipline myself to practice, put out the effort to learn, and be determined to learn what she teaches.

And if we want to be worthy to be called disciples, we have to discipline ourselves to follow Jesus, put out the effort, even take some risks, and be determined to learn what he teaches us.

It ain’t easy.

The second three word sermon is something Jesus repeats several times:
“Don’t be afraid.”

Jesus is not talking about swords and family divisions in order to scare us – he’s using hyperbole to emphasize to us the importance of discipleship. So don’t be afraid – even if we were under threat of death for our faith, we need not be afraid, for God is with us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God – neither sword nor famine, life nor death, principalities nor powers, nor denominational disgreements. Jesus even points to the common sparrow, reminding us that God cares for all of creation. Like the song says, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”

So don’t be afraid, for whatever befalls us, we know that God is with us, and that the Spirit of God is at work in the world, calling us to proclaim the good news, building the kingdom of God even as we speak. Don’t be afraid.

The third three word sermon today is this:
You are loved.

So many people, myself included, can get ensnared in the notion that discipleship is about getting more done, accomplishing more – more people, more programs, more events, more giving. We may fall into the trap of computing our value by how much we do, measuring the effectiveness of our ministry by the number of hours we work, evaluating our congregation on the basis of the size of our membership rolls, or our budget, or our surplus, or our mission activity. 

 I remember when I was in spiritual direction, I was always scolding myself for not doing enough meditation, or prayer, or lectio divina, or whatever spiritual practice I wasn’t practicing. My spiritual director said, “The point of this is not to get your time in, so that you dutifully do exactly this certain thing every day at 9:00 AM. The point of these practices is to learn them so well that they become second nature. Don’t be so hard on yourself – just learn them. They’re called spiritual disciplines because they are for disciples, not because they are punishments!”

When we know that we are loved unconditionally, when we really, truly, deeply KNOW it, we don’t feel the pressure to work so hard every waking minute. There are times in the life of every disciple when the best spiritual discipline is to simply rest in God’s presence. There are times when the most important thing for us to do is nothing. There are times when we need to say to ourselves, as a full and complete sentence, without any strings attached: “You are loved.”

That’s the thing about being a disciple of Jesus. To know that you are loved gives you the space to try, to risk, to be unafraid, and when the time is right, to simply rest in the presence of God. So there are the not-so-obvious answers for would-be disciples, three three-word sermons:

It ain’t easy.

Don’t be afraid.

You are loved.


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