June 24, 2017 – He Who Has Ears to Hear – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to the sermon click here: Z0000030
One of the billion things I love about the Episcopal Church is that God’s word is an important part of our worship together. But even though we read Scripture every week there are a few things that can get in the way of our really understanding it.
Oddly, one thing that sometimes keeps us from hearing what God is saying is that the words become so familiar to us. You might have heard these same words dozens of times. It can be something like when our spouse or our child tells us a story they’ve told us so many times before, that eventually we just tune them out; we hear them, but we stop listening. You’ve heard these verses about the sparrows before and the hairs on your head, and when you heard it again this morning maybe it made you feel good and maybe it didn’t. Either way, you might just file it away as Jesus’ way of telling us God loves us. Period. The words are so familiar to us sometimes that we assume we’ve understood them, and we stop really listening.
The second big obstacle to our understanding is that we often don’t hear the Word in its context. How can we understand what Jesus is talking about if we don’t know why he is saying what he is saying and who he is saying it to, and when and where? We only read short passages; it’s all we can do in the setting of our Mass. It’s up to me to know the context and try to faithfully teach these precious words accordingly, so that you get a proper understanding. All in about ten minutes, give or take a few. So, you see the limitations.
But today I’m going to invite you to open up one of those nice pew Bibles we bought last year. Open to the New Testament, page 8; the numbering starts over again at the end of the Old Testament, so you have to get past all the prophets and things before you get to Matthew, chapter 10. Our lectionary reading starts at verse 24, but to see the context of today’s reading, look at verse 16. Jesus says, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves…” And then look ahead, to the first verse of chapter 11. Matthew says, “When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on….”
So first of all, we find that we’re reading more of the story we began last week, about Jesus sending the Twelve out on their first missionary journey. And second, we can see that Jesus is talking to the Twelve about danger, and maybe about death. Because being sheep surrounded by wolves is a risky business. This passage is Jesus warning his disciples that they were going out into a world full of very real enemies.
Look at verse 17, where Jesus warns them ‘Beware of men’, and verse 18 ‘You will be dragged before governors and kings’ and if that wasn’t sobering enough, look at what Jesus tells them in verses 21 and 22 ‘Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all’. Clearly, Jesus was preparing them for the very real possibility – for the certainty, really, of persecution. Before they went out all excited to do all that Jesus himself had been doing, all that impressive, powerful stuff, he wanted them to know they were going into dangerous territory. That’s the context for everything that follows. If we don’t read these verses in the context of being disciples in the face of persecution, it’s not only hard, it’s impossible, for us to fully understand what Jesus was saying.
But if we know he is talking about persecution, it makes complete sense when Jesus says to them, in verse 28, “Have no fear of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” All but two of those twelve apostles he was talking to on that day, Peter and James and so forth, would eventually be put to death just because they followed Jesus. One – John – was sent into exile, and the other was Judas. All the rest, beginning with James, became martyrs of the early church. But those who destroyed the bodies of those apostles had no power over their souls. Jesus had to assure them of this, before he ever sent them out. Don’t be afraid of those people who have the power to arrest you, and beat you, and even kill you. There is only one you need to fear, he told them, and that is the one who has power, not just over your body, but over both your body and your soul. So who is he talking about?
Well, it’s at this point that Jesus starts talking about the sparrows. He’s not jumping randomly to a new subject; he is continuing to reassure his disciples that they have nothing to fear from their enemies. “Those little sparrows are a dime a dozen, right?” he said to them. “But not one of them falls to the ground unnoticed by your Father in heaven, who loves and cares for every living thing. Just think how much more valuable your life is to him; know that you are of more value to God than many sparrows. He knows everything about you – he knows how many hairs there are on your head! Just think of that. So listen, I am telling you that you don’t have to be afraid of anyone, because the only one in all of creation who has the authority to harm you, body and soul, is the Father who loves you that much, and who would never harm you.”
The Twelve had already begun to see persecution in action as they traveled with Jesus. When a man was brought to him who was possessed by demons, Jesus cast out the demons and all the people who saw it were amazed. But the Pharisees, who hated him, said to each other, “It’s all very well saying this man is powerful. But how do we know where his power comes from? What if his power to cast out demons comes from the prince of demons himself!” That’s what Jesus was talking about in verse 25. If people hate and mistrust the Master, they will surely hate and mistrust his followers, Jesus warned them.
He wanted to be very clear that following him, being his disciple, wasn’t going to be any more socially acceptable or comfortable or successful than being Jesus himself. Make no mistake, he warned them, being like your teacher and master means being hated and rejected just as I have been and will be hated and rejected. But remember – don’t be afraid; none of your enemies has any real power over you.
There is a third big obstacle we sometimes face in understanding the Bible, and I think the passage we read today is a particularly good illustration of this one. Sometimes we don’t understand the Bible because it’s too familiar and we forget to listen closely, and sometimes we don’t understand because we don’t know the context, but sometimes we don’t understand because Jesus says things that really, really make us uncomfortable, so that frankly, we just don’t want to listen too closely.
When you read in the Bible, do you ever find yourself just kind of skimming over the really awkward parts….”whoever denies me I will deny them….” hmmmm blah blah blah….. “I come to set a man against his father”, blah blah blah, “not worthy of me”, hmmmm blah blah, and so forth….. It is very tempting to either quit reading, or to turn the page and find something nice to read, something that doesn’t make us squirm. But we can be sure of this: every word that God speaks is good, and every intention of God toward us is love, and we never need to be afraid to listen more closely to his words.
Remember again the context of this whole passage: that Jesus was speaking to his closest disciples, just before he sent them off on their own, warning them that they were going into danger. There is a famous quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran pastor in Germany during World War II, and who was killed by the Nazis: Bonhoeffer once said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The Twelve needed to know that discipleship is a deadly serious commitment.
As Jesus sent the Twelve out, he wanted them to know that following him took precedence over every other human commitment; that discipleship is all or nothing. Following Jesus is something like pregnancy in that way: just like you can’t be a little bit pregnant, so you can’t be a little bit Christian. “Either you acknowledge me, or you deny me,” Jesus told them. “You can’t have it both ways. And if you acknowledge me, I will acknowledge you. But if you deny me, I will deny you as well.”
But where it gets really uncomfortable, I think, is beginning in verse 34, where Jesus explodes the hope we all have that God’s big plan for our lives is to make sure everything is sunshine and roses forever. Here we see the Prince of Peace telling his followers plainly, “I didn’t come to bring peace; I came to bring a sword that cuts through every tie, even the most primal human attachments of father to son and mother to daughter, everything that sets itself in competition with me.” Remember when God was giving the Law to Moses, he said this about himself, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
It’s very hard for us to hear Jesus when he says, “A person’s enemies will be of his own household” and “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than he loves me is not worthy of me.” It seems to go against everything we feel, because our love for our family is so strong. But to understand why it sounds so harsh, we need to remember the context of the coming persecution, when it became so dangerous to be known as a Christian that family members really did betray their brothers or sisters or parents or children, handing them over to the authorities to be thrown in prison or torn to pieces by lions, all for fear of losing their own lives. Jesus’ words to the Twelve weren’t some kind of metaphor or principle; discipleship was literally a life or death matter for those early Christians. Only those whose hearts were fixed on Jesus, above all other earthly loves, would discover the true life that is found in him, even in the face of physical death. That’s the context; that’s the foundation for our understanding. We always have to start there.
But we don’t stop there, because the Bible is God’s living Word, and it speaks to us today, in our own context, as well. And more than that, God’s Word asks for a response from us. Now that we have heard Jesus’ instructions to those first disciples, we need to ask ourselves: what does that mean to me?
This past Friday I celebrated the funeral for Deacon Rick’s mother. And the words of the liturgy made me acutely aware – as they always do – that there is nothing on this earth we can put our hope in or hold onto other than the love of God. In the end, we lose everything, every possession, every loved one, every physical ability, until at the end we have nothing at all – and yet in Christ we find we have everything.
I want to encourage you to take a half hour some time this week to meditate on this gospel passage. Read it over, and ask God what he is saying to you particularly, and what he is asking of you. And be sure to listen, then, and in any moments of quiet you have in the following days, because if you ask, you can be sure that he will answer you.