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Pentecost 3 June 25, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for June 25, 2017 | Pentecost 3
Matthew 10:24-39
I grew up with the expectation that after I graduated from high school, I would leave home. I think that is a common experience many of us share and, of course, it makes sense in a culture that values the individual: you’re expected to make it on your own, that is, if you have the means to do so. We live in the age of what sociologists call the “utilitarian individual,” of the free roaming individual who will drop in and out of relationships, work places, religious communities, or political movements once the charm, the value or usefulness (the utility) of the person or group seems to be exhausted. The great challenge here is the difficulty in being committed to anyone or anything – other than oneself – for the long haul.
I am one of those curmudgeons who argues that you and I must recognize the social context in which the Scriptures were written and for whom they were written lest we make the terrible mistake of assuming that our social values are shared with our ancestors in the faith. First century Palestine is not 21st century Washington. Consider this collection of sayings in today’s gospel reading. In the social world of Jesus, no one, including Jesus, would ever think of leaving one’s home and striking out by oneself. Mary did not have a pep talk with her son about going to an academy of higher learning or seeking an apprenticeship with a well-known stone mason so that he could marry and live wherever he wanted in the vast Roman Empire that overshadowed their lives. If anything, he would have been engaged by his parents to his uncle’s daughter, his first cousin, which was the norm in his culture. And once married, they would have remained in Joseph’s house for the rest of their lives. In other words, Jesus, his family, his disciples, and many followers lived in a world where life in the extended family and commitment to its well being were of greatest value. To leave this group was tantamount to committing economic and social suicide.
It is in this context that his words seem so striking and outlandish: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” I have come to bring a sword, he says, that is, “I have come to ask for your loyalty, your commitment, to the kingdom of God and its values which may very well be at odds with, produce conflict with, the social values you may take for granted.”
Of course, no one thought they could survive on their own in Jesus’s world. We would never hear Frank Sinatra singing, “I did it my way” in the middle of a Galilean village. But we know that Jesus did leave his family of origin – only to create a new one: a community, however, in which bloodlines, and social status, and gender privilege, and perceived economic worth hold little if any value; a community that was less of a community and more of a movement committed to the social values of the kingdom of God rather than the conventional and frequently destructive values of society; a movement in which God alone is worshipped while the gods of national exceptionalism and ethnic superiority are set aside; a movement in which a fundamental equality is fostered, in which any sense of privilege rooted in gender, race, education, physical ability, or economic usefulness is seriously questioned; a movement in which individual competition for more and more yields to generous sharing among the members; a movement in which those who experience suffering of any kind are cherished with love and the works of justice. “Are not two sparrows (the cheapest bird in the market) sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
You see, a daughter living in a culture that gives social power to men, a daughter who thinks she has no more social value than a sparrow, might find equality in Christ a liberating experience, yet one that would put her at odds with a mother who accepted the security of male authority. A disabled son, considered dead weight by his society and an embarrassment to his family, might be drawn into a movement that recognized his many gifts, a move that would entail a departure from his family. Thus, to be with Jesus might well mean saying Yes to one way of living in the world and saying No to another. One might find oneself at cross-purposes with society’s expectations as one lives into the strange and liberating kingdom of God.
In his remarkable work on Christian community, the Jesuit theologian, Avery Dulles, asked this question, one that we might entertain today: What image of this worshipping assembly rests in your imagination, that is, Who do you think we are we? Are we a pleasant gathering, a religious society of like-minded and chummy people who enjoy the perks of membership – that is, so long as everyone promises not to rock the boat? Are we a communion of individual souls who seek greater union with God through a variety of spiritual practices – but can easily miss the human and ecological suffering all around us? Or this: are we an assembly called by the Word of God to spread the good news of God in Christ – but a group that can’t agree on the meaning of the good news because every opinion must be entertained so no one feels left out and thus the good news is rarely communicated? Or this: are we an assembly committed to service in the world, to exercising Christian charity for our vulnerable neighbors – but reluctant to ask why vulnerable neighbors exist in the first place and how the institutions in which we are invested might be complicit in their vulnerability? Dulles would invite us to think of ourselves as a sacrament: as the living, breathing, communal, physical presence of the wounded and risen Christ in the world, you and me and all of us together – an albeit imperfect sacrament of the wonderfully strange and liberating kingdom of God in which the lowly are exalted, the contemplative is welcomed, the sick are healed, and the hungry are fed with finest wheat. I would love to dwell in that kingdom. I hope you would, too.