God and Sparrows
Sunday, June 25
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
God and Sparrows
God of strength and courage, in Jesus Christ you set us free from sin and death, and call us to the risk of faith and service. Give us grace to follow him who gave himself for others, that, by our service, we may find the life he came to bring. Amen.
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
“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.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
All readings for the week:
Genesis 21:8-21 with Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17 or
Jeremiah 20:7-13 with Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18
1. What is your greatest loyalty?
2. Did the martyrs and heroes of the early church have a different call from ours?
3. Does discipleship have to be costly? Why or why not?
4. What “dogmatic slumber” tempts you today?
5. How do you experience God’s love as tenderly watchful, even in the face of hardship, deprivation, uncertainty and division?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
This week’s long passage brings together a number of sayings of Jesus to create a set of instructions for “the twelve,” his apostles, the ones we’re familiar with (Peter, James, John) and the ones we don’t know very well (Bartholomew, Thaddaeus, Simon the Canaanite), before he sends them out on a mission that is not without its risks.
Matthew writes for a community that claims a relationship, a kinship, with these apostles, who gave up everything to follow Jesus. This little community of early Christians listens for how God is sending them in their own turn, a generation or so later, and they’re undoubtedly wrestling with how much they may have to give up, too, and what the risks are that they will run.
Weighing the cost of discipleship
Perhaps they’ve already paid a price for being disciples of this Jesus, especially if their family ties have been strained or broken by their new faith commitment. Family ties were even more important in that time and culture than they are today, if we can imagine such a thing. And broken relationships meant more than hard feelings and spoiled family functions and fights over inheritances: they could be a matter of life and death in a culture where family identity and connections protected you from the many dangers in life.
Matthew makes Jesus sound as if he’s sending his apostles out on a dangerous mission. “Indeed,” Holly Hearon writes, “the references to words told in secret, bodies killed, and oaths of loyalty sound like they belong in an espionage film.” But Hearon ties such ominous talk to the apocalyptic hopes of beleaguered communities, living under the thumb of the Roman Empire (or any empire that crushes the “little ones”), who yearn for, and count on, a day of vindication. Of course, the day of vindication promised by Jesus in these verses has to do with the truth, with light, with full knowledge and openness, not with military conquest or rule.
Leaving family and friends behind
In the meantime, following Jesus was a costly thing to do in that time and that place, a world broken and pressing down upon them, a world desperately in need of good news. It was costly, and risky, too, as David Bartlett notes: “Matthew’s Gospel was written in part to encourage synagogue members to risk separation from family and friends in order to follow Jesus. Christianity was not just counter-cultural; it was dangerous.” We accept the idea that there were early Christian martyrs who gave up their lives–literally, dramatically, violently–for the gospel. But there were also those lesser-known Christians, the everyday, ordinary ones like most of us, who suffered loss of family, place, security, “respectability,” because they embraced a faith that challenged social structures, including even the stability of the family itself.
We often hear about “family values” in our own culture, and family is of course a good thing. Most of us would agree with Richard Swanson that family is “what must be honored for the world to hold togetherÖthere is a dance done by parents and children that acts out the stable and orderly love of God so that people grow up knowing in their DNA that God is good and loving. This holds the world together.” Even more then than now, family also provided security and safety because people knew that they had to stick together and face every challenge as a “household,” not as vulnerable individuals.
Finding a new family with God as its head
It’s understandable that the fragility of life reinforced the value put upon family ties, and fraying those ties endangered not just the individual but the strength of the whole group. If you were an early Christian and found yourself expelled from your family, however, you would have also found yourself with a new family, with the loyalty and support of that new family surrounding you, and God at the head of your new household. Jesus knows how frightening all of this would be, and so does Matthew, so these words of the Gospel reassure those early disciples repeatedly not to be afraid.
Marcus Borg adds another layer to the “conventional wisdom” of security and identity that family provided in that culture. Yes, the Bible and the tradition of the community may reinforce and “justify the means” we use to establish and maintain our security, but, he says, “Jesus taught another way.” The counter-cultural teaching of Jesus challenged those “primary allegiances cultivated by conventional wisdom” that protect us and make us less anxious. Is it any wonder that the Bible keeps telling us not to be afraid? Anxiety sinks us deep into the “the quest for security,” Borg says, and, lamentably, “anxiety, self-concern, and blindness go together.” This would be an interesting question to explore: what does this teaching of Jesus say about the canonization of the family that “good Christians” consider a core value of their faith? It’s not a comfortable question!
The most heart-connected part of life
Fred Craddock offers a slightly different take on this text when he observes that “Jesus gave his call for loyalty over against the strongest, not the weakest, claim a person otherwise knew, the claim of family love. Jesus never offered himself as an alternative to the worst but to the best in society.” Perhaps Jesus wanted to touch on the most basic, most heart-connected part of human life, and then to teach us that even deeper, even more important, even more powerful than that, are the love of God and the demands of faith.
Charles Cousar, however, does not seem to think that Jesus put the family up on a pedestal or intended to “provide an unequivocal reinforcement of family cohesiveness.” On the contrary, “Jesus calls into question an idolatry of the family and warns that the gospel may divide rather than unite the home.” In this showdown, the good news of the gospel sounds a bit like bad news, because “there is no encounter between the new order and the old that will not at some level be fraught with conflict, division, and painÖ.” As usual, Jesus’ word makes us uncomfortable, just like the faithful, religious people long ago who were offended by so much of what he said and did. Could we have more in common with them than we’d like to think?
No easy passage in any translation
So how do we make sense of this somewhat troubling passage? Barbara Brown Taylor calls it a “burr from Matthew’s GospelÖone of those passages I wish he had never written down.” However, she wrestles with the text and comes out with an elegant understanding of its claim on us: “I am a daughter,” she writes, “a wife, a sister, an aunt, and each of those identities has shaped my life, but none of them contains me. I am Barbara. I am Christian. I am a child of God. That is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it.” Taylor draws a sharp distinction between our identity as a child of God, and any role we may have in life.
But claiming that identity, and living faithfully into it, can have consequences in a world of empire and fear, in the first century and the twenty-first as well. As much as we all long for family, in whatever shape or form that takes (one thinks of “families of choice”), Taylor says that we are nevertheless called by Jesus–even required–to “love him above all other loves,” no matter what that costs us, including our family. Still, we are assured that “we are not to fear, because buried in the demand is a promise: that what we lose for his sake we shall find again, returned to us more alive than ever before.” (Taylor’s sermon is called “Learning to Hate Your Family,” in God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering.)
Domesticating the gospel
By the way, Taylor is even more thought-provoking in her sermon on Luke’s version (12:51) of this message from Jesus, about families being broken apart, and swords cutting our world in two. It’s hard for us to connect this unpleasantness to being “good Christians,” and we certainly don’t want our lives, and the world we inhabit most of the week, to be too upset by the things we hear on Sunday morning or read each evening before we go to sleep, if we’re in the habit of ending our day with the Bible.
Reading her sermon reminds me of that phrase, “domesticating the gospel,” which seems like another way of saying that we can too easily conflate the good news with good citizenship, good behavior or maybe simply not causing trouble…just following orders…it’s not too hard to see where this can lead. As Taylor says, “Sure, it is the gospel, but there is no reason to get all upset about it….to go make a spectacle of yourselfÖ.” Perhaps the part about a sword is the most difficult part, but Taylor helps again: “The gospel is not a table knife but a sword. It can set free and it can divide. The gospel is not pablum. It is powerful stuff, powerful enough to challenge the most sacred human ties, but as frightening as it is, it is not finally to be fearedÖ” (This sermon, “Family Values,” is in Gospel Medicine).
It all matters to God
I’m also reminded of the 1990 film, “The Long Walk Home,” about the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott and the struggles, even sharp divisions, within families, churches, and communities when some people were willing to go all the way for the sake of what was right and just, and others were not. Not just unwilling, but unable to see the difference–and yet still able to think of themselves as “good Christians” in either case. Nevertheless, God hears what we say, sees what we do, and knows what’s in our hearts–and God cares about it all. It all matters to God.
And so it comes down to what sort of Christians we’re going to be. Thomas G. Long challenges us on exactly that question, for “the gospel shakes up values, rearranges priorities, reorients goals. The gospel is not a salve; it is a sword that pares away all that is not aligned to the kingdom (Matt. 10:34), and this often causes strain and strife in family relationships.” Who wouldn’t want to avoid strain and strife and swords? No wonder that we try to keep our faith “private,” even when confronted with injustice and suffering, but David Holwerda claims boldly that “being silent lacks compassion for the crowds and constitutes a denial of Jesus.”
Most of us will not face martyrdom in any dramatic way, but we still may have to make a hard choice in deciding to claim the name of Christian. Richard Swanson brings all of this together: “Just for the moment, imagine that the Bible is more substantial and interesting than a greeting card. Imagine that biblical stories are more challenging than uplifting, that they give life by provoking their audiences out of their dogmatic slumbersÖ.” This passage, he claims, means much more than simply, “Love God a lot.” (As I said, this is a troubling passage!)
Discipleship that makes a difference in our lives
Let’s consider how this passage sounds, here, in the beginning of the 21st century, under conditions far different from those Matthew experienced as he provided instructions from Jesus to his disciples: do they sound as if they don’t apply to you and your congregation, to all of us here in the church, when our nation is perceived as “mostly” Christian, or Christian in some cultural, but not too specific or uncomfortable ways? How has discipleship ever been costly for you, and for your congregation, and for the “heroes” in your own life? Thomas Long notes that the expression, “the cross,” appears here for the first time in Matthew. In what ways have the people of your church experienced “the cross”?
Much of the dissension and division and even persecution experienced by Christians today, including within families (“man against father, daughter against mother”), is actually from other Christians who do not agree. How do we most faithfully respond to that situation? In the first century, the family had primary importance, so the words of Jesus lift the call to love him above the greatest good, not the lowest good. That’s how it is with “great” discipleship. In what ways has the call to follow Jesus changed (or not changed) the decision-making in your personal life? In the life of your church? What things had to give way, and what relationships had to be seen in a different light? What was the cost of that decision?
Learning not to fear, no matter what we face
Fear may disable us at times, but Jesus reassures us of the ultimate importance and value of all that he offers, and the ever-present care and concern of the One who watches over and guides us on our path. The much-loved image of the tiny sparrow, precious and watched over by God, is used by Jesus to remind us of our much greater value in the eyes of God. No power compares to God’s power, which extends far deeper and far beyond any power on earth. We may face persecution, rejection, criticism, and even hatred, even violence, for the sake of Jesus, but it will be nothing that he did not face himself, he says. In a “mainline” church and an affluent nation, how and when have we experienced ourselves as persecuted, rejected, criticized, or even hated? How is God still speaking to us today, centuries later and far away from the situation of the earliest Christians, calling us to faithful witness and persistent discipleship?
Eugene Peterson’s beautiful translation (in The Message) of this passage ends with an exquisite summary of Jesus’ most encouraging and comforting words, words that encompass both the great issues of life and death, and the smallest moments of compassion and care: “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.” Jesus, in this translation, calls us to “a large work,” but urges us to “start small….The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.” What is the “large work” you are doing for the sake of the gospel today?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are both at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the retired dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, 21st century
“[Jesus] had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love.”
Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, 21st century
“The trouble with deep belief is that it costs something. And there is something inside me, some selfish beast of a subtle thing that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, and if I actually believe these things I have to do something about them. It is so, so cumbersome to believe anything. And it isn’t cool.”
Martin Luther King Jr., 20th century
“Our only hope lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, 21st century
“The hardest thing on earth is to choose what matters.”
Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, 21st century
“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, 21st century
“In every historical period, the religious groups that grow most rapidly are those that set believers at odds with the surrounding culture.”
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