by the Rev. Sarah Buteux
June 25, 2017
Sometimes I just want the Bible to be easy. It’s summer after all. We’ve all worked very hard this past year and – I don’t care how old you are – it has not been an easy year. But now, schools out. Our van is packed. My family is ready to head up to our cabin in Maine as soon as church is over and I’ve spent a respectable amount of time at coffee hour. It’s hot. And frankly, I just don’t want to have to think very hard …about anything …for like 2 months.
So when I checked the lectionary this week, I was really hoping for a few nice words from Jesus, maybe some encouraging words; a healing story perhaps or something about the need to take it easy and rest awhile. Which is to say, I was not hoping for this.
And yet the moment I read these verses, I knew I was going to have to preach on them. I don’t know if this is a case of the Holy Spirit chasing me or just razzing me but, I kid you not, just a few weeks ago I was confronted with two of the verses from this passage and at the time I simply refused to deal with them.
We had ordered church membership certificates for all the confirmands and they looked real pretty on the outside, but when I opened them up I found they were all emblazoned with Matthew 10:32-33.
“32 Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men,
him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven.
33 But whosoever shall deny me before men,
him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.”
Thankfully these verses only seem to affect men, I thought, so the rest of us are ok, …. just kidding. That wasn’t my first thought at all. My first thought was: Really! Of all the verses you could have chosen to welcome people into church membership you went with these! Yuck! I was not happy with those verses.
They sounded so exclusive to me and so completely contrary to our whole vision of what it is to be followers of Jesus here at First Churches.
I wanted a verse of extravagant welcome for the confirmands. I wanted a big unconditional invitation into a joyful Christian community where we could work together to make God’s love and justice real.
But that verse made it sound like church membership would be a welcome into an exclusive club reserved for people who know the secret password, a golden ticket to a heaven where it’s ok to leave others behind. Those verses did not read like good news to me. And so I placed the certificates back in the box, sat down at my computer, and designed my own thank you very much.
Only now here they are again, turning up for all the world like a bad penny, which makes me think I need to deal with them, understand them, integrate them into my overall understanding of what it is to be a Christian.
Because here’s the thing: if Matthew is to be believed, Jesus said those words. Not only that, he said them in the midst of a whole lot of other really difficult words, and I have to tell you that I’ve been at this long enough to trust that as harsh as they might sound at first, there’s a good word for us in here somewhere.
My preaching professor, the Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes, used to encourage us to go straight for these sort of verses when we encountered the text. “The stones in the road,” he called them. He warned us that if we only ever dealt with the parts of the Bible we liked that we would run the risk of knowing more and more about less and less.
“Don’t be afraid,” he would tell us – words that just happen to echo throughout our reading this morning this morning – “Don’t be afraid. This is the good news. If you don’t find it the first time through, than read it again. It’s in there somewhere.”
And he’s right. There is good news in here, even if this passage is one of the rockier roads we are called upon to travel. Just out of curiosity – putting aside my two least favorite verses – what jumped out at you as Patti was reading the scripture this morning?
Take another look at the reading in your bulletin. Were there any stones here that tripped you up? Questions or seeming inconsistencies that jumped out at you? Ideas you found offensive or even just vaguely off-putting?
Fearing God. The idea that God would destroy people body and soul.
Jesus not coming to bring peace but a sword.
The promotion of family conflict rather than family values
Taking up our cross, losing our life to find it…all hard things.
I think there’s a little something here to upset or offend everyone, thank you Jesus. But just to be fair, are there any parts that anyone liked?
I think the part about the sparrows is nice, but honestly, the rest of this is hard. It just is. And although I think I can bring us to a place where we have a better understanding and even acceptance of these words, I can’t promise they’ll ever be easy. Because here’s the thing, truly following in the way of Jesus isn’t easy. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now, which I think is the overall point Jesus is trying to make.
He’s just about to send his disciples out on their own for the first time to preach, teach, and heal the masses. He’s sending them out to proclaim the gospel, which, let’s be clear, is not the good news that you, yes even you, can go to heaven someday if you just accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and savior before you die.
That is not the gospel. Matthew is very clear on this, as are Mark and Luke. John was clear on other things, but as for the synoptic gospels: the good news Jesus came preaching – the good news he sent the disciples forth to proclaim – is simply this: “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”
Jesus sends them forth to declare that the way the world has always been is not the way it will always be. A new day is coming, the day of the Lord: a day when the poor will be filled and the rich sent away empty, a day of release for those held captive and recovery of sight for those who have become blind, a day when the proud will be scattered and the mighty pulled down from their thrones, that the lowly might be lifted up and the whole world order be remade anew.
All of which is good news if you’re a slave, good news if you’re poor, good news if you find yourself on the underside, the outside, the wrong side of history. But, let’s be honest, not such good news if you’re rich. Not such good new if you’re powerful. Not such good news if you are someone who benefits more than most from the status quo.
Jesus knows there are plenty of people who have a stake in keeping the world exactly as it is no matter what it costs people on the underside, the outside, the wrong side …and Jesus knows that those folks are not going to yield their privilege lightly.
Such people will not look kindly on those who disturb their peace.
They’re not going to want to hear that the lives of those on the margins matter.
They’re not going to want to hear that no human being is illegal… that health care – which equals life – along with liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not national rights but human rights.
They’re not going to want to hear any of it, because such ideas are deeply threatening in a system that privileges some over others, the few over the many, the rich over the poor.
But these are the values that beat at the heart of Jesus’ gospel…a gospel designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Jesus did not see power and privilege as something to be shored up and hoarded, but as blessings to be poured out and shared.
Which is why he never asked people for proof of insurance before healing them, for their credit rating before he invested in them, or for documentation before he welcomed them in the kingdom of God. Instead, Jesus resisted the ways of any institution – be it religious or political – that thrived by dividing people between insiders and outsiders, the haves and the have-nots, citizens and non-citizens, any institution that privileged some by dehumanizing others.
In fact, I learned just this past week that Jesus’ call to take up the cross at the end of this passage was so subversive in part because citizens of the Roman Empire were exempt from crucifixion. The cross was reserved for foreigners and thieves, insurrectionists and enemies of the state.
So to take up one’s cross and stand with the crucified, was to side with the most marginalized people of all… people with no rights and no recourse. It was a call to take a stand on the outside, the underside, the wrong side and render yourself as vulnerable as society had already rendered them.
And let’s be honest, no one likes to be vulnerable.
Not back then. Not right now.
“This is the good news,” according to Peter Gomes, “that was bad news to many in Jesus’ time, so much so, that at the beginning of his preaching they nearly killed him, and at the end of his ministry they succeeded.” It is the sort of good news you can agree with in theory, but God help you on the day you decide to put it into practice. And God help you even more on the day your children decide to do so.
“This gospel is not a salve;” says Thomas G. Long, but “a sword that pares away all that is not aligned to the kingdom.” A double edged sword, to paraphrase Barbara Brown Taylor, with the power to set free or divide.
Jesus said as much. He did not under-estimate the risk for himself or his followers. He understood the cost, especially to families whose number one objective is to protect one another. He knew his way would be neither safe nor easy. Changing the world never is…which is why we’ve resisted it for so long.
So where is the good news in all this? Where is the good news in this passage so full of danger and division, cost and consequence?
Where is the good news for the family of Philando Castile and that little girl who watched him die from the back seat of their car?
Where is the good news for Rashelle Hibbard who posted a movie of her young son Leo who was born with cerebral palsy, a two minute video where she pleads on behalf of herself and the 23 million other Americans who depend on medicaid and the ACA?
Where is the good news for the immigrants arriving on our shore today or the refugees who will push off from shore tomorrow?
I’ll tell you where the good news is. It’s right where it has always been, hovering in that space between Jesus and those who would be his disciples. It’s right here, right now, in this very room. The good news is sitting right beside you, to your right, to your left. It is reverberating deep within your own heart, even now, for you my friends are the light of the world. The kingdom of God is within you just begging to be unleashed on a world that can and will change when we do.
The good news is that God has not given up on us yet but is still speaking, calling us softly and tenderly not up to some altar to get saved but out to the margins – the outside, the underside, the wrong side – to save the world.
Jesus is still calling us, through these words, to leverage whatever privilege we possess on behalf of those who have even less, challenging us to lay claim to our power the better to use it, spend it, lay it down and release it for the sake of others. This is not a call to arms, but a call to action, which brings me back to those verses I was having so much trouble with at the outset, verse 32 and 33.
“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.”
To be honest, I’m still not quite sure what to do with them, but if you look at these verses in context, it seems pretty clear to me that the acknowledgement Jesus is looking for here is not merely one of intellectual assent. I don’t think this is about believing certain propositions about Jesus in your head, but acknowledging Jesus’ call to follow him with our bodies to those places we were all warned not to go.
Jesus is looking for people who are ready and willing to agree with their lives, even at the risk of losing them, trusting that we’ll find something even greater on the other side. Rather than a threat, I’d like to read them as a promise that if we follow Jesus we will find him no matter what, because if we follow him he will find us, and when he does there is nothing on earth or in heaven that would ever compel him to let us go.
In the end, I think that’s the best news I could ever hope for. Amen.