DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.
May the Spirit Speak to you!
22 June 2014 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Anyone having a warm-fuzzy view of Jesus, who thinks he’s all about loving our families and being seekers of peace in this world; probably doesn’t like this part of the gospel of Matthew. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth,” he’s quoted as saying. “Man against his father, and a daughter against her mother . . . one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” And “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:34, 36, 37). Tough words that don’t necessarily match up with things elsewhere in scripture that he’s recorded as saying, let alone the Jesus so many of us love as our confidant and friend.
I’ve only ever met one person in the world who actually loves this text. I don’t remember his name. But I vividly remember his story. I met him one night in Pakistan. It was the days before most Americans even knew where Pakistan was, let alone what life was like there. It was the summer of 1993 and I had been chosen by a Presbyterian Missionary Conference to be in service for 8 weeks with 4 other college young adults. When I got the acceptance letter with the news of where we were heading, the first thing I did was found a map to look up where in the world Pakistan was. The next thing I did was call my parents to tell them the news. And while it wasn’t the first time they heard me tell them of plans to travel oversees for some sort of mission; they were not at all thrilled. Because: Pakistan?!! That’s like a whole world away! . . . Over the course of the next few weeks, we were sent various articles about Islam and the ways of this Muslim country. I learned that religions other than Islam legally were tolerated. But of course toleration and full acceptance are two very different things. I learned that out in public, I would need to keep my arms and legs covered at all times – and be ready to cover my head too depending upon where we were. I learned that I would need to know the proper greeting for most Islamic countries: “As-salamu alaykum,” I would hear. To which we were to respond: “Wa alaykumu al-salem.” Loosely translated it was: Peace be upon you; and unto you peace.
Based out of the busy city of LaHore, I spent my summer meeting various Christians of the country. My charge was to listen to the work they were doing at such places like the YWCA, the Christian Blind Society, a Christian Broadcasting Network, and a self-development training center for women. At the time, I think the Christian population of Pakistan was somewhere like 1% — in other words, being a disciple of Christ then and there was not a very popular pursuit. Nor were Christians across the country very well connected with each other. My work that summer was to learn how Christians were serving those in need in order to compile a resource that pastors and other church leaders could use in connecting those able to serve with places they could do it, and those needing to be served with ministries that could handle their requests.
Somehow, one Sunday night, our group met a man. I remember him rushing in to the home where we had gathered. In Urdu he said some words to the American mission co-workers who were with us. Then we all took seats in the living room. It was almost like we were having a little house meeting as the earliest Christians would – meeting for prayer and fellowship at the close of the day. Mike, one of the American mission co-workers, stood next to the gentleman who looked kinda tentative but eager to speak. Over the course of the next half-hour, the man told us (with Mike translating for us) that he was a follower of Christ. He told us how he had come to hear of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. He told us how he had learned of this one who spurred on the Christians of Pakistan to treat others with kindness and mercy and the human dignity they deserved no matter their religious affiliation. He told us of how he and his fellow Christians came together to rely upon one another and to serve those forgotten by the rest of society. How they were willing to take risks and even go against the ways of their elders if they must because of the love, forgiveness, and hope they had come to know through Jesus Christ. At long last, Mike broke in to tell us details the man wasn’t sharing. Details of his life that we really needed to understand. This man was the son of a prominent Muslim Imam. His uncle and his father both followed in the footsteps of their father to be important leaders of local mosques. He was to as well. Instead, when this man decided as a young adult to follow the ways of Christ, his biological family disowned him. He was like a stranger to them. In his context, he knew that becoming a disciple of Christ would set him at odds with those he loved most. There was something about these words of the gospel of Matthew that became a great comfort to him.
Now, before we jump to any false conclusions about how terribly divisive Islam is, we can remember that Christians too have experienced this kind of rejection by their own Christian families. It still happens today – you know it. One follower of Christ doesn’t agree with another’s understanding of it all. One disciple seeks to be true to who they’ve come to know in God through the good news of Christ, and the others are of a different ilk. Before you know it, folks are being holier than thou at the family reunion – if they’re still talking at all. It happened quite a bit for the first followers of the way. For many of them, their families were Jewish who kept to the ways of Judaism, even if one called Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah. As the movement spread, it was Greeks and Romans, who had notions of other gods. Before Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire in the Fourth Century, it took a whole lot of courage to go home to tell your parents that you were going to start living in the manner of Christ. . . . Doing that, you too might find yourself ostracized by your loved ones – or worse. In fact, it was another man in Pakistan who first taught me a great wisdom about such religious exclusionism. He was one of the most peaceful, serene, Christ-like persons I ever have met. He was Muslim and worked alongside me each day at the office of one of the Presbyterian missionaries. Everything about him embodied Christ for me: his gentleness, his generosity, his joy. He went out of his way to tell me more about Islam and the way it grounded him in being a person of peace in this world – a seeker too of justice. Something about him made me begin to wonder if, though we were walking different paths to God, was it all really the same Way, the Way I know as Christ? He’s one of the first persons to tell me that extremists exist in any religion, which can give us all a bad name. He firmly believed that when our religious practices fail to embrace and embody the highest principles of the Love to which they’re supposed to point us; then something has gone awry. Anyway, that’s the wisdom my Muslim co-worker taught me that summer.
The thing is that following in the footsteps of one who heals the sick, befriends the outcast, and casts out that which leads from life; following in the footsteps of that Teacher very well can lead to some very strong reactions. One commentator helpfully reminds that “if Jesus were really the . . . nice guy we often insist on imagining, should he not have been able to stay out of trouble? . . . Kingdom work, it turns out, is more controversial and subversive than conventional kindness. If the teacher gives offense (as Jesus did to those of his day), how much more the student?” (Feasting on the Word, Yr. A, Vol. 3, Lance Pape, p. 167).
It’s the reality with which we have to wrestle. I’m not saying we have to get out there to intentionally bring division. Rather, the message of Jesus in this part of Matthew’s gospel is that we very well may. In the words of that same commentator, “true discipleship is the art of seeking the kingdom with single-minded determination and letting the chips fall where they may.” According to that commentator, “The church that always manages to glide through life without ever rubbing anyone the wrong way may have reason to question whether it is truly this Jesus it honors as master and Lord” (Ibid.).
This Jesus, of Matthew’s gospel, is summoning twelve of his followers and giving them authority to go out doing the same things he is: proclaiming good news to those of their own nation who are being preyed upon by a religious system that had become entrenched with those seeking gain for themselves on the backs of others; those perverting God’s good news in fear of the oppressor; those turning their heads from the suffering of their brothers and sisters. This Jesus is coming as a balm to those who have lost hope in the confines of illness and death and social exclusion and forces beyond themselves. This Jesus is telling his followers to be learners and doers of his way – knowing that some are going to scoff. Some are going to say no way. Some are going to cut you off because they won’t accept such a God. That’s literally what was going on for the community to which Matthew first wrote, so that they needed to hear the good news that “even the hairs of your head are counted by our loving God. Do not be afraid; for you are valued as precious by God. We will be held through it all” (paraphrase of Matthew 10:29-31). This Jesus is telling those who would follow after him that the way will not always be easy. We might find ourselves locked out of one family – though thanks be to God another family is ready to welcome us in. It’s the road we must walk, come what may, if we want to be called worthy by our Lord. If we want to know the joy of full-acceptance by our God. In the end, it’s the way of losing ourselves, as the Jesus of Matthew’s gospel here says, in order to find true Life. . . . Despite the cost, no matter our fear; may our days be blessed as we follow in the footsteps of our Savior and Lord!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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