The Comfort and the Challenge

Sermon for Sunday, June 22, 2014 || Proper 7A || Matthew 10:24-39

comfortandchallengeSometimes when we pull a piece of the Gospel out of its natural habitat and read it in our cozy New England church, the impact of the words changes. Take the lesson I just finished, for example. How surprised would you be to learn that Jesus is trying to comfort his disciples with these words? You just heard them. They don’t sound very comforting, do they?

Certain passages of the Gospel cut through the dusty weight of years and touch our hearts in the same way I’m sure they touched the hearts of Jesus’ original followers. Others, like today’s, meander towards the present time and get a bit lost along the way. So let’s see if we can follow the path back to Jesus’ lips and hear anew these difficult words. Then we can bring them back to the present and hear what they have to say to us now.

Today’s Gospel lesson comprises the end of a set of instructions, which Jesus gives to his inner circle before sending them out to do the work he has appointed them to do, namely to cast out unclean spirits and cure disease. If we had started the passage sooner, we would have heard Jesus instruct the twelve disciples not to take any extra clothes or food with them, but to rely on God’s provision in the form of hospitality. If we had started the passage sooner, we would have heard Jesus tell them not to worry about what they will say when brought before the authorities, but to rely on God’s Spirit to speak through them. If we had started the passage sooner, we would see what a challenge Jesus sets before his friends, a challenge to rely on God – for sustenance, shelter, endurance, eloquence, in all things really.

This show of reliance on God in the face of challenging circumstances might even be the reason Jesus sent his friends out in the first place. They were living billboards for the kind of life Jesus promoted: a life of trust in God, a life in which you put God first and everything else fell into place. Jesus’ disciples trudged from town to town with nothing but the clothes on their backs, good news on their lips, and the power to heal in their hands. Now some scholars tell us that they didn’t bring extra clothes or food so they wouldn’t be juicy targets for bandits out on the dangerous roads. And I’m sure that’s part of it. But the more compelling story is their acceptance of the challenge to rely on God for all things.

And I’m sure the story was compelling: compelling enough to make new disciples and new enemies. And this is where Jesus’ supposedly comforting words for today arrive on the scene. First he reminds his friends that his opponents have openly called him Beelzebul (that is, the father of demons). If they call me such a name, he says, then don’t expect kind treatment. But even if they treat you poorly, “Have no fear of them.” In fact, Jesus tells his friends not to be afraid three times in this passage, just to make sure the words sink in.

Don’t be afraid, he says, because, while they slander you now with false words, all will be revealed in time. Don’t be afraid because, while they can hurt your physically, they cannot touch the soul, which resides with God for safekeeping. And don’t be afraid because your Father in heaven knows you intimately, knows even how many hairs are on your head. If you do happen to fall to the ground, God will be there to pick you up again.

So far, Jesus’ words are speaking comfort to the challenge. Jesus trusts his disciples to rely on God, and this trust will help them overcome their fear. But now we move to the more difficult words, the ones which the long march of time has mangled. As we listen to them, we have to remember one immutable fact that separates our experience from that of Jesus’ original followers. We do not live in a part of the modern world that is charged with religious fervor. Indeed, in our part of the modern world, the religious fervor tank is approaching empty. I don’t know about you but when people discover I am a practicing Christian, their responses range from total indifference to mild surprise to pleasant curiosity. I can count on less than one hand the number of times my identity as a follower of Jesus has been met with unmitigated derision.

Not so for his original followers. Their world was charged with religious fervor. The very idea that someone like Jesus might be teaching something new would be downright offensive to many people. Jesus’ reinterpretation (and in some cases strengthening) of the Jewish law was a punishable act. The words Jesus speaks in the rest of today’s passage are not intended to strike fear into the hearts of his listeners (as they might do to us), but rather to lay out plainly the state of affairs if you were to take the leap and join Jesus’ team. Such a leap would cause division, as symbolized by the sword. Such a leap could separate families. Such a leap could lead to physical death.

The religiously charged atmosphere was hostile to change, and with his words here, Jesus shows that he knows exactly what he is asking his friends to do. But in the final verse of our passage, he also tells them that it’s worth it: “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” he says.

So, as we bring Jesus’ words with us back to our modern moment, what do they say to us? Well, the comfort remains. “Do not be afraid” always rings true and always will. But the things we might be afraid of have changed. In fact, our fear might ironically spring from Jesus’ own words: what he meant as comfort has become our challenge. He says, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” As religious fervor leeches from our land, speaking about how we make choices because of God’s movement in our lives – indeed, being on fire for God’s service – has somehow become impolite, even taboo. But we have good news to share, and we have God’s work to do. And we can do so invitingly, unapologetically, and – yes – fervently. Our faith is nothing to be ashamed of. So be open, and rely on God to find the right words and actions to display your allegiance.

In Jesus’ day, he upset the status quo by deepening and expanding the meaning of what it meant to be a follower of God. He spoke comfort and challenge in equal measure to attract and galvanize people to join him in his mission to re-imagine what God was doing on earth – indeed, to make earth more like heaven. In our day, we follow Jesus’ lead when we continue upsetting the status quo. With God’s help, we offer hospitality to the stranger when society tells us to shut our door. We offer generosity to the needy when society tells us to hoard what’s ours. We offer friendship to the lonely, dignity to the outcast, love to the unlovable. This is our story, and it is a compelling one.

Just as Jesus sent his friends out to heal and serve, so he sends us out. He sends us out in trust and not in fear. He sends us out, knowing that our road will not always be an easy one. But he sends us out always walking a road he trod before us, a road that leads, yes, to the cross, but then past the cross to the empty tomb and the glorious new life God offers to all.

Art: Detail from “Jesus Walks in the Portico of Solomon” by James Tissot

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