Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | June 22, 2008

2008.06.22 “No Cozy Christians”

Central United Methodist Church

“No Cozy Christians”

Pastor David L. Haley

Matthew 10: 24 – 39

June 22nd, 2008

       “A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher.  A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content — pleased, even — when you, my students, my harvest hands, get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, “Dungface,’ what can the workers expect?

       “Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are.  So don’t hesitate to go public now.

       “Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being.  Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life — body and soul — in his hands.

       “What’s the price of a pet canary? Some loose change, right?  And God cares what happens to it even more than you do. He pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail — even numbering the hairs on your head! So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk. You’re worth more than a million canaries.

       “Stand up for me against world opinion and I’ll stand up for you before my Father in heaven.  If you turn tail and run, do you think I’ll cover for you?

       “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut — make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law — cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God.  Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies.  If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.

       “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me.   If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”  – Matthew 10: 24 – 39, from The Message, by Eugene H. Peterson)

     As everybody knows, preachers have been in the news lately. 

      Unless you’ve been away on a trip to Mars, you know of Barack Obama’s break with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Who, yes, did say some inflammatory things. And when he had the chance to explain himself, said them again.

      Even though I don’t know Jeremiah Wright personally, we did share a common teacher: Martin E. Marty, formerly of the Divinity School, the University of Chicago.  I’ve known of Wright, and heard good things about him as an outstanding preacher, for 30 years.  In fact, because I’ve always wanted to hear him and visit Trinity United Church of Christ, a few years ago Michele and I and the girls had a Sunday off, and we visited Trinity U.C.C., where we were both welcomed and impressed.  Although Pastor Wright was not there that Sunday, it was a still a service I’ll never forget. Long before this controversy broke, I was hoping to get the young woman we heard preach that day, Rev. Stacey Edwards, to preach here one day.  I still have that hope.

      The tradition that Wright and other black preachers come from is one of prophetic preaching, in the tradition of the Biblical prophets, unafraid not just to address our personal situation, but our social situation in life and in society.  Sometimes we agree with it, and sometimes we don’t, but always it is challenging, just as Isaiah or Jeremiah or Jesus or Martin Luther King were challenging.

      At the other end of the spectrum, another preacher often in the news is Rev. Joel Osteen, the Pastor of Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas, a church described as the largest and fastest growing church in the United States, with more than 40,000 weekly worshipers. Perhaps you saw Pastor Osteen interviewed recently on 60 Minutes. Osteen, known as the “smiling preacher”, is 45 years old, and never graduated from college or seminary. His wife is the co-pastor.  For the most part, Osteen preaches a gospel of self-esteem and success. That gets him a church of 40,000, followers of millions, and his books on the bestseller lists. (Where did I go wrong?)

      The truth is, there has always been a market in America for both kinds of preachers, those who prod us and our society to be better, and those who skip over our failings, to accentuate the positive.  I always think of Adlai Stevenson’s comment when he read the late Norman Vincent Peale’s the Power of Positive Thinking, that he “found Peale appalling and Paul appealing.”

      Our text for today shows us that Jesus was somewhere in between. In today’s text, Jesus offers a balanced and realistic appraisal of what to expect for those who would be his disciples.

      It occurs in Matthew’s Gospel as part of Jesus’ charge to his disciples, as he sends them out on a mission.  As Jesus’ modern disciples, still sent out in mission, we do well to listen in.

      It’s helpful to know that the Gospel of Matthew was written in the ‘80’s of the first century, some 50 years after Jesus.  At that time, Christianity was an unofficial religion which met mostly in homes. It was OK to be a Christian as long as you didn’t stand out, and continue to do obeisance to Rome and to Caesar. But should you chose to publicly acknowledge Jesus as Lord rather than Caesar, that was risky. There was a price to be paid, that price sometimes being death. Because of this risk, some who publicly professed where tempted to deny the faith to save their lives.  It is that context — times of extreme testing — that these words of Jesus are to be heard.

      There are those who say that these hard sayings of Jesus do not apply to us and our time, because we don’t face such a situation.  That if we are doing a condensed version of the Gospels, we could leave them out.  I think not, and here’s why.

      The first thing we need to hear in this passage is Jesus’ reminder that being a Christian is not easy. “Don’t think,” says Jesus, “I’ve come to make life cozy.”  The true Gospel, as someone once said, “should comfort the afflicted, but also afflict the comfortable.  And that’s exactly what Jesus does here.

      Because, as Jesus points out, there is — and ought to be — a connection between disciple and teacher. Why should disciples who have heard the words “Follow Me” expect a different reception from the one Jesus receives?   As Peterson renders it:

      “A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher.  A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. Be content — pleased, even — when you, my students, my harvest hands — get the same treatment I get. If they call me, the Master, “Dungface,’ what can the workers expect?”

      Preachers of the Gospel of Success and Prosperity sometimes conveniently forget — or at least overlook — that the guy we follow was nailed to a cross was his efforts.  And it’s worth remembering that before the cross became a piece of jewelry, it was an instrument of torture.  Makes you pause, doesn’t it?

      In fact, following Christ sometimes even necessitates taking a stance against popular opinion, and sometimes, even our own best interests. 

      “Stand up for me against world opinion and I’ll stand up for you before my Father in heaven.  If you turn tail and run, do you think I’ll cover for you?” “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me.  If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.”

      In our “me” age, in a time when even religion is more about “me” than God, these are harsh words.  And yet, there are times, when, in the interest of truth and conscience, you have to go against the crowd, and take a stand.  As my father and mother said to me so many times, “If everybody else is going to go jump off a cliff, are you gonna’ do it too?”

     There are times, as Jesus’ says here, when it’s not even about “me”, it’s about getting “me” out of the way. Then we discover the most tried and true spiritual irony: in forgetting about self, we find our true self.

And then, in some of Jesus’ most difficult words of all, he goes on to say that we may find the going hardest among members of our own family: 

      “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut — make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law — cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies.  If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.”

      So much for “Christian family values.” These are the jagged words of Jesus, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  And yet, the advent of the new order Jesus brings, is so radical in its message of love and freedom, it inevitably challenges the allegiances and arrangements of the old order.  You can’t put new wine in old wineskins.  The result is conflict.

      It’s like when a blast of cold, arctic air moves south from Canada and meets the hot, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico. Along the edge of the encounter a front forms, marked by storms and volatile weather. Jesus states that there is no encounter between the new and the old that will not at some level be fraught with conflict, division, and pain. 

        I still remember the day, back when I was in college, when I announced to my parents that I was changing vocations, from pre-med to ministry.  I was two or three years into it (I still got a minor in biology).  I was working nights in the local Emergency Room, and a future in medicine looked promising. Even though my parents were Christian and attended church every week, when I told them I was switching from medicine to ministry, that didn’t go over so well.  Of course they quickly came around, and have supported me faithfully ever since.  Even if many of their predictions, such as that I would be poor all my life, were pretty much right.

Thankfully, Jesus’ reminder that being a Christian is not an easy thing, is not the only thing he has to say in this passage.  He was also careful to reassure us, in the light of his more harsh words, that God cares about us.  Three times he says here, “Do not fear.”

 

      Do not fear, because even meager beginnings have grand consequences. “What has been spoken of secretly will be shouted from the housetops.”  A reality, powerful and conclusive, has been launched, and there is no turning it back.  And he’s not even talking about our media age, where what you say can and will be used against you.  Just ask Jeremiah Wright.

      Do not fear those whose power is limited to the body.  They can hurt, but not ultimately destroy. Instead, be in awe of God, who controls the destinies of body and soul. Therefore the old adage, “Fear God and no human authority.”  Remember, they killed Jesus, and we know how that worked out.

      Do not fear, because our Heavenly Father knows and cares. If sparrows get God’s attention, how much more God’s sons and daughters?  And yet not one sparrow falls without God’s vigilance.  As Psalm 116:15 tell us:  “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of God’s holy ones.”  And he’s not talking about sparrows.

      So, the twin temptations of Christianity in our time — and perhaps any time — are addressed in this text.  The first of those is to despair that — amidst the difficulty and suffering we experience, against the immensity and mystery of the universe we behold — God doesn’t care about us. But the second temptation may be even more idolatrous: to think that it is all about us.  It’s not about us, any more than it’s about sparrows.

      I was having a hard time coming up with a conclusion to this sermon. I just couldn’t find the right thing to tie it up, and spent hours puzzling over it.

      Then, yesterday evening, I came over to finish setting up.  As I walked across the lawn of the educational building, what did I find: a young dead robin, face down in the grass.  My first thought was “No . . . either this was a cruel joke, or some kind of sign.  But at the very least, it was a conclusion to my sermon.

      Sparrows do die, a reminder that sometimes life and faith are hard.  Nevertheless, we believe, convinced by the One who died but yet lives, that God loves us, and cares for us, more than many sparrows. The Jeremiah Wrights and the Joel Osteens may come and go — and yes, even we ourselves — but these words of Jesus we will never forget.  Amen.

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