Broad Brook Congregational Church
Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 22, 2014
Hearing Caring Holy One
I have to be honest. The author of the Gospel according to Matthew (whom ever that was) gives me a headache! It takes a great deal of thinking and research to pull out at least a small nugget of good news from the scripture. It isn’t that the Gospel is all about gloom and doom. It’s just that there is such a difference between Matthew’s audience and us; or is there. We certainly have the benefit of 2000 plus years of experience, Christian faith traditions, and biblical scholarship to fall back on. We don’t have to be concerned about martyrdom as we practice our faith. Did the early church leaders really have a different call from ours? Is discipleship costly for us as it was for the early apostles and Christian communities? Does it have to be costly? See, these are not easy questions to deal with and yet they are what lie behind our scripture in order to make it relevant for us in the 21st century.
So with my bottle of Advil close by I began to dig into our lectionary selection from Matthew. The community for whom the gospel author writes shares a relationship with the apostles James and his brother John; Simon Peter, and his brother Andrew; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alpheus and Thaddeus; Simon the Canaanite and Judas Iscariot (this is before the betrayal). The writer is laying the foundation for the mission of the twelve. The repercussions of undertaking the mission are spelled out in our scripture reading.
The first point our writer makes is that all are equal. Jesus is telling the twelve that there is no one who is better that another. The focus is to be like the teacher, strive to be like—not better than—Jesus. In the next 6 verses Jesus tells the twelve not to be afraid. “Have no fear,” they are told. There is nothing that will be hidden or be kept secret. In other words God will be present and will know everything that happens. If God cares for the sparrows how much more will God care for those who are doing God’s will? Those who acknowledge Jesus, Jesus will acknowledge before God. Likewise those who deny Jesus, Jesus will deny before God.
Verses 24 thru 33 are pretty straightforward and easy to understand. This mission that Jesus is about to send the twelve on is about spreading the good news of the “kindom” of God and there may be trouble along the way. But, they are not to be afraid for God is with them and cares for them. Seems pretty innocuous. We are called to spread the good news of God’s kindom through good deeds, loving God with all our hearts, minds, and souls, and to love our neighbors which includes those different from us. For the most part we are not in danger as we practice our faith.
However, with verse 34 things begin to get dicey and uncomfortable. Jesus is not talking about bringing peace but a sword. Family relationships will be torn asunder and an enemy might well be a family member. Aren’t family dynamics difficult enough? Oh my goodness!! What on earth is Jesus talking about?
Well, following Jesus in that time and place was risky business. David Bartlett writes: Matthew Gospel was written in part to encourage synagogue members to risk separation from family and friends in order to follow Jesus. Christianity was not just counter-cultural; it was dangerous” (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). We are familiar with the martyrs of our faith but there were Christians like us—ordinary people—who suffered much because they chose a new way of acting in the world. Following Jesus meant going against the tide and embracing a faith that challenged the status quo, which included the stability of the family.
Jesus was to come first and not family. There was safety in the family. Family stuck together. Facing the challenges of living under oppressive Roman rule was safer in numbers. Individuals were vulnerable. Cutting family ties put the individual as well as the whole group at risk. For Matthew’s community this would have been very frightening.
My headache at this point was escalating. In a time when the definition of family is changing and for those who endure broken family ties how is this passage supposed to comfort us. We all play certain roles within our families. We are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and so on. These roles have shaped us us but as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests they do not “contain” us. First and foremost we are children of God. She goes on to say that is our true identity. I am a child of God. You are a child of God. That is who we are. It is not a role that we play (“Learning to Hate Your Family,” God on Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering). Taylor provides an understanding that rings true for Matthew’s community and us. She writes: “Jesus’ demand remains the same. we are to love him above all other loves, and if that means losing those we love, we are not to fear, because buried in the demand is a promise: that what we lose for his sake we shall find again, returned to us more alive than ever before.”