Fear isn’t itself good or bad. It’s an emotion that identifies what we love. The quickest way to discover what or whom someone loves is to find out what they are afraid of. We fear because we don’t want to lose what we love.…
… What we think we need is healing. What we truly need is forgiveness and eternal life. Sometimes we get healing; sometimes we don’t. If we get healing in the context of forgiveness in the past and the hope of eternal life in the future, it’s a kind of fulfilment of forgiveness and an anticipation of eternal life. If we get healing in the absence of the things we really need, we may find it pretty much useless. — Samuel Wells, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith
It has been said that we do not read the Bible; the Bible reads us. I often feel that I have been ‘read’ when I read the more difficult parts of Scripture. It’s not easy to be read by a hard text.
It’s certainly not easy to be read by today’s Gospel Reading. It’s no devotional walk in the park. When I looked at it, I thought What to talk about? Do I talk about
— fearing the one who can ‘destroy both soul and body in Gehenna’? Gehenna was a place fearful in Israel’s imagination. There, in ancient times the people of Israel had sacrificed their children to the god Molech.
Do I talk about
— hearing that ‘whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven’? A scary thought.
— or hearing Jesus say ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’? Hang on Jesus, I want peace like a river in my soul!
— or that ‘whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me’? What’s wrong with loving dear old mum and dad?
Jesus probably never said all this in one sermon or at one time. Matthew has brought it all together because there’s a common strand running through it all. That’s what I think, anyway. That common strand could be summed up as commitment. Or loyalty. Or faithfulness.
God is looking for such people.
Today is a time for such people.
Such people are unafraid. It’s good to be unafraid. Fear kills. Fear kills hope, courage, friendship, love. Fear can kill faith.
We are afraid of death. Afraid of life. Afraid of the unknown. Afraid of both success and failure, of weakness and strength.
Afraid of confrontation and conflict.
The Uniting Church has faced confrontation and conflict. In Queensland, it was vilified by the state government during ‘the Joh years’ in the 1980s. It has been criticised for ordaining women. It has even been called apostate by some of its own members for accepting LGBTIQ+ people.
Jesus says do not fear this kind of stuff. It will come your way just because you are my disciple.
God desires — no, God requires — our commitment. Fear only gets in the way.
Fear causes us to deny Jesus before others. We catch ourselves saying No, I don’t believe all that stuff! Jesus says something quite disturbing: he’ll deny whoever denies him.
(Mind you, that’s not automatic. There’s wriggle room here. After all, the Apostle Peter denied Jesus three times and was restored. If Peter can be restored — we can be restored.)
Jesus says ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’. The problem comes when people say Jesus is advocating violence here. Nothing of the kind! Commitment to Jesus, loyalty to his Way, faithfully following Jesus, can cause you to come up against opposition. Any sword should not be raised by the follower of Jesus.
We’ve been hearing a lot lately that Black Lives Matter. They matter to those of us who are white because we benefit from white privilege. However hard our lives may be, they are never hard because of the colour of our skin.
Commitment to the justice of Jesus, love of neighbour, care for the marginalised mean that we should shout the truth: Black lives matter!
Some Christian friends may tell us that all lives matter. They’re right, of course. They do. But if a house is on fire you don’t say Leave that house! All houses matter! No, you try to save the burning house.
When Jesus told the Parable of the Lost Sheep, it wasn’t so we could hear the ninety nine say All sheep matter! It was so we could have a heart for the lost sheep.
Don’t hear me wrong: I’m not saying indigenous people are lost sheep. Lost sheep come in all shapes and sizes, and all colours.
What I am saying is that when white people say All lives matter, they are not walking the way that Jesus taught us.
Neither am I saying white people should do all the talking. We need to listen to black people, whose lives matter. We need to give space for them to speak. Our ears are needed more than our tongues.
Black lives matter. Right now, right here. Black lives matter. Whatever anyone else may say to us, no matter how pious it sounds.
Jesus also says:
If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
‘Beelzebul’ was a name used for Satan, the devil, the evil one. If they have said that Jesus is evil, they may say the same about you. If they do: wear it with dignity.
But wait, there’s more. Jesus says
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 …
What does Jesus mean by loving him more than our family? He’s not talking about the natural feelings we have for our family. He does mean that there are choices in life, where we discern that following Jesus means walking a different way from those we love but who do not share that same discernment. We need to choose the Way of Jesus.
In all of this, there’s that sense of faithful, loyal commitment. There’s also a sense of urgency: the decisions we make are important. They determine our future path.
That sense of faithful, loyal commitment isn’t all one way though. It’s not just about our commitment to God; this passage also concerns God’s commitment to us.
Where do we see God’s commitment to the likes of you and me in this passage?
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from 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.
The God who has our soul in his hands has carefully numbered the hairs of our head. God knows your fingerprint, your DNA. God’s Spirit has made a home within you. God is committed to your eternal wellbeing. So, don’t be afraid: speak out, act, live into the justice of God. Care, practise compassion, heal. Welcome others, give them support, protect the weak.
Conflict has come, and it will come. When it does, remember this: God doesn’t only count the hairs on your head. God counts the hairs on the head of the person you are in conflict with, too. God is committed to each one.
Do not be afraid. Fear only gets in the way. Amen.
West End Uniting Church, 21 June 2020