This morning’s gospel passage is not one of those that tend to make us all warm and fuzzy inside. On the surface, it appears to offer no real “good news” at all.
But that is because the gospels have this fantastic ability to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable all at the same time. To those who are facing persecution and pressure because of their faith – this passage from Matthew offers encouragement, and offers hope – it is a reminder that while those around them might be able to destroy their bodies, their lives in the fullest sense, rest with God and not man. Jesus tells those who are persecuted three times in this passage to not be afraid. As our missionaries minister to people in China, a place where there are real persecutions because of the name of the Lord, this message is one of comfort.
But here in the United States, we don’t typically face that kind of conflict. As much as we hear it being lamented on television these days, Christianity really isn’t under attack in this nation. There are isolated instances where someone is forced to confess or deny their faith under threat of death, like the young woman whose admitted faith in Christ propelled another young man to kill her in the Columbine shootings. And those events stay with us – but they are not our daily experience.
Brian Stoffregen is a Lutheran pastor in Arizona and in his weekly reflections upon the scripture, he brought these questions forward: “Does the lack of opposition to our faith mean that it is strong or that it is weak? … If we aren’t suffering in some way, why not? Is it because we are surrounded by people who are already in Jesus’ “household,” or because we are failing to be witnesses?”
Let me repeat that: is it because we are surrounded by people who are already in Jesus’ “household” or because we are failing to be witnesses?
I think the answer to that question is both. We are not daily facing persecution because we are both surrounded by people who are already “in” and because we fail to be witnesses.
For a long time, we have thought of ourselves as a Christian nation. There is a strong Judeo-Christian ethic and language that is used in politics and government and in the culture in general.
In these last few decades however, that unity between Christians and the nation has started to unravel a bit. The United States today is one of the biggest mission fields in the world with many who are not only unchurched, but to whom church is a strange and scary place. And the alliances between various flavors of Christianity and political parties is beginning to dissolve as many evangelicals find themselves looking at both moral and social issues.
While many people are feeling very anxious about this separation, about being one religious group among many, about not having the “in” with the state, I for one, am celebrating. I cherish our separation between church and state, not only in politics, but also in our schools, and in the various other places where the state and church act together – and it’s for a very simple reason: I don’t trust the state to do church.
When the state or government and the church are in bed together, things get complicated. You suddenly have multiple duties’ pulling you this way and that, and I think in the end, the church loses. We lose precisely because of this passage from Matthew this morning – we lose because we are already surrounded by people who are supposedly “in” and we also fail to be witnesses – we let the state tell us what to believe and we lose our prophetic voice.
Above all, we get confused about who we are serving.
At the very beginning of this passage from Matthew we find ourselves in the midst of a discussion about servants and masters, disciples and slaves… the question being asked of disciples in Matthew’s community, in Matthew’s time would have been: Whom do you serve? It is a question that is very pointed, very direct and gets us to the heart of the problem.
As we wrestle with that question today, I want us to really think about it personally. And as we start to do so, we need to think about the multiple things that demand time and energy and commitment from us.
At the end of each set of rows, there is a pad of paper and some pencils or pens. Take one of these and pass them down the row and then I want us to take some time to really think about the five things in your life right now that you are called to be faithful to – that demand something of your life. They may be things like your job, your family, the country… or something much more specific to your calling. What are the things that you feel like you have some responsibility to in this world? Write them down and then order them 1-5, with 1 being the thing that is the most important to you.
I don’t know about you, but writing down those things was extremely difficult – and tiresome. There are so many things that demand something from us and I think that most of us, most of the time, feel stretched and pulled in so many different directions that it is hard to know which way is up. It is hard to know which is the most important and it seems to change with the circumstance.
We are all here this morning, however, because of a shared commitment to follow God and to follow Christ. Let me just cut straight to the point and ask how many of you have God or Jesus on that list of five things?
This morning’s scripture is about allegiances, it’s about priorities, and it’s also about what happens when those priorities conflict.
Matthew was writing to a community that followed Christ, and they did so at their own peril. Day after day, they kept getting into trouble for the same kinds of things that Jesus did – because they were trying to live out the Kingdom of God in the face of a different kind of kingdom.
Sarah Dylan Bruer writes:
“They believed that only God could claim the kind of power over others that so many [like the Emperor, the family patriarch, the slave owner had taken] — and so they proclaimed Jesus’ teaching, “Call no one father on earth, for you have one father — the one in heaven” (Matthew 23:9). Their belief that God was calling every person — male and female, slave and free, of every nation — led them the build a community in which women and slaves were received as human beings with agency to make their own decisions and gifts to offer the community — and they didn’t ask anyone’s husband, father, or owner for permission to do so. They built pockets of community living into a radical new order that looked more like chaos to many onlookers, and that threatened to undermine the order of the Empire. And so their neighbors, their friends, and sometimes their own family turned them in, hauling them before governors as agitators, to be flogged, or worse.”
In their attempts to follow Christ faithfully, to make that allegiance the first priority in their lives, they came into conflict with the Empire and their roles as citizens, and they came into conflict with their families. But they were clear as to which of those things were the most important, and they were willing to sacrifice, even their own lives to be faithful to Christ.
In my own experience, these kinds of conflicts are messy and painful. In March of 2003, our country started to go to war with Iraq and I was a naïve college student. I kept thinking about all of those things that I had learned from Jesus and felt deep in my bones that this military venture was wrong. And in conversations with my roommates and other friends, we all found ourselves similarly moved. Matthew 10:27 reads “what I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”
And so, as Christians, we stood in opposition to the war. We kept coming back to the notion that all human beings were children of God, the hairs on all of our heads are numbered and we are all valuable in God’s eyes. If that was true, any life lost, was something to be mourned. A group of us got together and began to erect crosses on the lawn in front of the chapel – as a reminder that there was a real human price to this conflict.
The morning after the crosses had all been put up, we walked onto campus to see one of the most painful things I have ever experienced. The crosses were torn down, many broken apart, and some of the broken pieces were used to spell out “God Bless the USA”
That day, I learned how messy our priorities can be. I learned what happens when we start to equate something like patriotism with faithfulness to God. And I also learned how important it was to be clear on who you serve.
Our campus was torn in two that semester. We learned what it meant that Christ brings a sword not peace. The truth is that we are faced with a choice and that we must choose who we will serve. We must choose which one of those things that pull on us, and that we love, which of those things that are in and of themselves good, which one will be the guiding force for everything else.
And it will cause conflict. Any of you who have chose at one time or another to put your family before your job knows what a strain that puts on work relationships, or vice versa. Priorities and allegiances matter. Who we serve matters. But Christ tells us that if we chose to serve him. If we chose to be known as his followers, then we are in the palm of God’s hand. We should not be afraid, because we have life in Christ. We will find our lives and our fullness, when we follow him.
It will not be easy. And it doesn’t mean that we give up everything else. It means that when we make our relationship with Christ our first priority, all of those other relationships change, and we learn how to witness, we learn how to love, and we learn how to truly live God’s kingdom in this world. Do not be afraid and follow him. Amen, and amen.