21st June 2020
Sermon - Matthew 10.23-39
May I speak in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen
For I have come to set a man against his father…
.....one’s foes will be members of one’s own household
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…
Not exactly the words you really want to hear on Father’s Day of all days, are they?
Indeed, today’s Gospel reading has been described by some as one of those difficult texts from which a preacher often wants to run away, particularly the last few verses.
It contains words often misused and abused by leaders of cults to require their followers to sever family relationships in order to allow the cult leader to exercise unlimited control over them.
We find the passage towards the end of a chapter in which we have first seen Jesus empower his disciples by giving them incredible powers of healing and exorcism as he sends them out on their mission, whilst at the same time bringing them to earth with a bump by warning them that like him they will face rejection.
As one commentator describes it, it’s a bad news/good news send off speech, akin to the following; “Dear Disciples, the proverbial is about to hit the fan. You have been warned!”
Jesus alternates proverbial observations about daily life with warnings to his disciples, echoing common wisdom but also making statements about the consequences of accepting or rejecting him for their futures. He highlights the horrors that await them, combining worst case scenarios with statements of reassurance. (As I think I’ve said before, Jesus would probably have made a pretty lousy salesman in today’s society!).
So the disciples are empowered but are also warned to be ready for rejection too. Empowerment and rejection seen by some as the marks of discipleship.
In these guidelines for his disciples Jesus seems to be saying remember these truths that I’m telling you, act accordingly and you’ll face the opposition and get through it. You’ll get the job done.
Some read “Do not fear” as the dominant message of this particular passage in Matthew, and one could explore in more detail any number of the pieces of advice it includes but, it being Father’s Day, it’s hard to ignore those most troubling verses which speak of divided families. So I won’t and it’s on there that my focus will rest.
It’s important to remember that in Jesus’s time family was everything - it determined one’s social status, one’s job, education, religion, and effectively where one stood socially, commercially and economically. Many Jewish people considered the mandate to honour one’s parents to be the greatest commandment; they accorded only God himself greater honour. In the Old Testament, narratives like those about Ruth and Naomi reveal how familial love was powerful and honoured.
Yet here we have Jesus telling us that following him may require separation from or provoke conflict with our families.
Even though his message may be one of peace and reconciliation Jesus warns us that proclaiming the gospel will inevitably meet with resistance and opposition, not least because its message is one which challenges the status quo, comfort and established power.
Remember how earlier in this chapter Jesus has reminded his disciples that they will be hated because of him?
How Christ’s words here challenge our perceptions of him. I don’t know about you, but when I read the words “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the Earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.“ I can’t help but hark back to the words ascribed by St Luke to the angels who proclaimed his birth. “Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men.”
We think of Jesus as the peacemaker, yet the very act of peace-making can, as his ministry amply demonstrates, generate violence. Our TV screens all too often remind us of that harsh reality when we watch as well intentioned peaceful protests degenerate after being targeted by violent opposition. Such tensions and conflicts are almost inevitable when the foundations of society or its power bases are threatened.
When Jesus speaks of conflicts and divisions amongst households and families he is, of course, saying is that there are exceptional circumstances when integrity and truth telling may become more important than even our most cherished and familiar relationships. “The sharp sword of truth and integrity can divide even close family and friends.”
In extreme circumstances we may be forced to choose. The choice should always be to agree with Jesus. There will be times when we will be required to be more committed to shining the light on those dark places and to honouring the truth even when it may result in tensions and conflicts at home or with those we love.
The sticking together of families per se doesn’t necessarily reflect faithfulness. As someone who regularly works with the abused and those who have been betrayed or neglected in the most cruel and obscene ways by their parents or other relatives, I’m all too aware of the lasting and irreparable damage that can be done when the protection of the family unit or reputation is prioritised above all else. Likewise I’m conscious that, for some who may be joining in our worship today, Father’s Day may not a cause for celebration.
It can be hard to stand up against your family, your friends or even your nation. One has only to look at the abuse and criticism hurled at some of the Black Lives Matter protesters who are understandably challenging the traditional narrative of our own nation to know just how difficult it can be.
It may be the natural inclination of many of us to “go along to get along“ as they say, but as Christians we are instructed to be committed not only to Christ, not only to the Church, but to the mission of the Church as well, which mission involves striving for social justice and social compassion for ALL people of this world.
The call to discipleship renders secondary all other claims upon our identities and allegiances and necessitates an awareness of the conflict and division that proclaiming the Gospel inevitably produces. It can put us on a collision course with the powers of this world. Tensions are inevitably part of the picture. Remember Jesus didn’t walk away from the sword. He didn’t take it up - but he didn’t walk away from it!
What Jesus demands is that our highest loyalty be to God. Whilst that may lead us to face persecution and danger and rejection, it is worth the sacrifice because it leads to the discovery of our true identity and because we are assured by Jesus that if we so acknowledge him he will acknowledge us to his father, our Father, in heaven. In the end he assures us that those who stand firm will be saved.
These days the family unit is not the sole determinant of our social and economic status. These days many families are fractured or dispersed. These days the commandment to honour our parents may not be afforded quite the same emphasis as in Jesus’ time so
I wonder what might Jesus say to us now if he were here with us now, sending us out into the mission field?
Who or what might he ask us to contemplate separating ourselves from? Where might he ask us to expect to find the division and the tensions? What is it we may need to separate ourselves from in order to maintain our integrity and to honour our commitment to God? When might we need to take that step of incurring the wrath of those we might love, cherish or respect, in order to speak the Gospel’s truth?
What does putting God first look like for US?
Richard Young (Rector)