a sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 7A/Lectionary 12A]
Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11
Today we hear Jesus tell his disciples that as they undertake his mission, they need to be prepared for discord, that, in fact, he has not come to bring peace, but a sword, a sharp-edged weapon used to divide.
Huh! Isn’t that interesting? We probably feel like responding, “You come to bring division, Jesus?? We already have plenty of it. We don’t need any more! Facemasks have brought us division! Symbols and hashtags of racial justice and equality have brought us division. In many cases we are divided on when and how to restart the economy and even how and when to resume in person worship! We are divided about kneeling or standing for the National Anthem at sporting events, which, thank goodness, isn’t a problem right now because we don’t have any sports, but we’ll probably be divided about how they should resume, too. We are divided between those who’ve watched Tiger King on Netflix and those who haven’t and which fast food chicken sandwich is better! Men are set against their fathers and daughters against mothers. Facebook friends are set against each other, and our foes are people we’ve known and loved our whole lives!”
I’ve noticed that even Instagram stories, which used to be a place people only shared birthday greetings and photos of food, have become increasingly used for making hard-edged statements about politics and social matters. I must own that I have posted a few things lately that have probably alienated more than a few people.
A recent study out of Penn State has revealed that political polarization may be at its all-time worst in America. There has always been some degree of disagreement on certain issues, but apparently we are now divided over things that historically we tended to agree on, that a middle ground is a thing of the past. The study has found that “If two people can’t agree on one issue, they’ve never been more likely to disagree on all issues.”
So then…about that division, Jesus. I think we have that covered. No need for you to pile on.
And yet…at least he’s honest with us, right? At least Jesus is up front right here as his disciples really get started that sometimes following him will put us at odds with the world around us. Sometimes people will give Jesus’ followers a hard time because they feel compelled to say and do things that aren’t popular. To speak out against white supremacy, to proclaim it from the housetops and from the confederate monuments of Richmond, still causes division in our culture, even on the week we remembered the 2015 horrific massacre of the Emanuel 9 by a self-professed white supremacist. To speak critically about abortion or the meaning of religious freedom or immigration brings a divide for people of faith. Even when followers of Jesus may find answers to come easy on certain issues, there is rarely an easy path forward when it comes to putting them into practice. They risk ridicule and rejection.
But if we’re honest, we feel even in ourselves a division between ideas and opinions we used to hold dear, soapboxes we’ve preached from before, and new thoughts and considerations that lead us in a different direction. That is what is liable to happen, though, when we find ourselves bound to Jesus rather than bound to ideologies or agendas. Jesus always leads us further and further into love and service to our neighbor in a world that is always putting new ones in our path.
So, as much as it feels like Jesus’ words are a bit off the mark today because we’re needing to hear about unity and harmony, it’s helpful to be reminded about the reality of bearing a cross. Because, ultimately, Jesus means to free us. That’s the real division he comes to create with his sword. Jesus comes to divide us from the sin and brokenness that holds us back from being anything less than who God creates and redeems us to be. Jesus’ division isn’t just division for division’s sake, to get us riled up about culture wars or politics. It is really my self-centeredness and my arrogance and my sense of entitlement that Jesus needs to slice and slay out of me. It is really my need always to be right, my need always to speak rather than listen, my need to surround myself always with like-minded people, my need to prove my own worth that’s going to require a sword—not tweezers, not a scalpel—but a sharp and powerful sword to whack away. To have those kinds of things removed will really put us out of sync with the world around us.
This is precisely what Paul is talking about to the Romans when he talks about baptism. There are parts of us that need to die, that need to be whacked away, as Jesus claims us for his kingdom. Instead of an image of the sword, however, Paul talks about burial and crucifixion. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Those happen to be the very first words spoken at most funerals and memorial services. As the pall, which represents the waters of baptism, is placed on the urn or coffin, we make it loud and clear at the beginning of our worship: Jesus’ sword has swung down and sliced the sin and death of our loved one away. Because of Jesus’ love, nothing within their life or around their life will hold them back from the kingdom of God.
One of my colleagues who serves a congregation in another state held his first in-person worship service this past week. They did it outside on a Wednesday evening, and they figured out a way to celebrate Holy Communion too. It was the first time since March he’d seen any of his parishioners in worship. They, like us, have been using pre-recorded worship services to reach people, which is, as you know, a bit artificial and disembodied. As convenient as it may be under these circumstances, it’s hard to know, from our perspective, if anyone is really tuning in. My colleague shared that as worship was finished this week and they were beginning to put chairs away, a man he’d never seen before, who had been sitting among the parishioners on the lawn, approached him with tears in his eyes, holding the baptism form from their website, and asked if he could get baptized. The man said it was time for him to get right with the Father. My friend said he broke physical distance just to hug the man and assure him it would happen. Jesus has made him right.
I’m sure there’s more to that story, but I believe my friend that day embraced a man who is joyfully aware that Jesus brings a sword, a sword that causes division from his dark and broken self. And he’s right. It is a sword that does set us at odds with our past, with the world we live in, as we stand up and bring to light what has been whispered in secret and told to us in the dark. It is a sword that causes us some pain as we may even let go of relationships that bring out the worst in us.
That man wanting baptism this week no doubt feels the release of all of that, but also will learn a new path of justice and peace and service stands ahead. A path of love and costly discipleship that eventually gets our master crucified. They destroy his body, his disciples scatter, and he lies broken in a borrowed tomb. Jesus himself feels all of the pain of the sword he brings. But in the midst of this suffering, in the midst of the division and hardship we should not be afraid, Jesus says, even the hairs of our heads are counted. He says it three times, in fact. Have no fear.
At least once a year, in the spring, I get an email or a text message or Facebook post from someone who has come across a baby bird and is afraid of what might happen to it. They come across it in their yard or maybe on their front porch, and there are few things that look as fragile and helpless as a baby bird. I don’t have a clue why people keep asking me bird questions. But, be that as it may, I try to assure them that it is an old wives’ tale that a bird will be abandoned by its mother or father if a human touches it. It’s probably not really abandoned at all, just momentarily flushed into the open. They should just pick it up and place it back in a bush.
This year, the baby bird experience happened to me. Or rather, to our son. We were in our own backyard playing and he came across a baby cardinal hopping along the ground in fright. Word has traveled fast even in nature to beware of him. But he was curious and careful and I scooped up the little guy and held it close for him to see and admire. It had the little cardinal mohawk already even though it couldn’t fly yet. And then the mother swooped down on us. My son keyed in immediately, felt a bit threatened by this angry bird and wanted to leave the scene. She was making a racquet and demanding we leave her little helpless baby alone. So we did. He and I stood to the side and, sure enough, she came in to shoo him into a bush for safety.
It wasn’t a baby cardinal, but a sparrow for Jesus, the cheapest form of meat in the ancient world, common and ordinary birds that were a dime a dozen, a defenseless little thing that could be scooped up or trapped rather easily. When trying to remind his disciples that the life of baptism might be tough-going at times but that they will be OK, Jesus reaches for the most vulnerable, most insignificant image he can find.
For there’s God, the mother bird who swoops down in power, who has this whole situation more under control than we could know. Don’t be afraid. Even in the midst of a fast changing and crazy divided world, God is the protector who is ready to take it all on to guard us and save us. That line from our first hymn says it so well: “This is my Father’s world, and let me not forget that, though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
We may be vulnerable, but we are not sparrows. Have no fear! Shout it from the mountaintops. We are children of the living God. Some of us are black lives that matter. We are disciples who are like the teacher, servants who are like the master, we are lives that have been declared valuable by the One God and Father of us all. “The Lord is king, let heaven ring; God reigns, let earth be glad!”
Thanks be to God!!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.