Wow. This is a difficult passage. And in these days of a world pandemic and social unrest it feels especially hard. How about some good news? Jesus speaks truth about the cost of discipleship that warrants extensive conversation and frankly, a lifetime of study. But a 12-minute message in worship? Where does one start?
I’d rather start with Jesus’ simple invitation back in chapter 4 of Matthew’s Gospel: “Follow me,” he says to Peter, Andrew, James and John. “I’ll make you fish for people.” Intriguing… for those who already knew how to fish…for fish. What would fishing for people entail?
Jesus shows them. They follow him and learn. They sit at his feet and listen. They walk beside him and watch — he stills storms, heals the sick, welcomes those who’ve been cast aside, who are on the margins, and restores a dead girl to life. This fishing for people seems like a good gig — joy, health, community, new life… what’s not to like about this? Who wouldn’t sign up to be part of that? Jesus’ invitation to join with God in this holy work — an honor, a privilege, a blessing for sure. So many good and hopeful stories for those who follow Jesus and long for God’s kingdom to break in. You know this. First hand.
Or, another place I’d rather start is with Jesus’ description of what God’s Kingdom looks like. We get that in chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus sees the crowd, makes his way to a mountaintop, sits with his disciples and describes life in God’s kingdom: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst, blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted, Blessed are you…”
Again, these words warm our hearts. This is the world we long for, what we hope for, what we believe Jesus makes possible. We catch glimpses of it now and then but it’s not yet the reality in which the world lives. With the Beatitudes, Jesus describes the way life already is in God’s Kingdom so we’ll know it when we see it here on earth. And when we see it, give God thanks and praise for it, sharing with others about God’s goodness revealed.
But we don’t get any of that “feel good stuff” in today’s reading. Even Jesus acknowledges this… three times in these few verses he weaves in the refrain: have no fear; do not fear, do not be afraid. He’s naming hard truths about the future and he’s offering reassurance too. Disciples aren’t left to themselves. They’re not forgotten by God. You are known, loved and valued by God. Jesus says: “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.”
There’s a shift in this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Up to this point, Jesus has been teaching. The disciples have been listening and learning. Now it’s time for them to start doing. Jesus sends them out into the world. He gives them authority to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. They’ve completed their training. Now is the time for the disciples to go. They are equipped to be part of God’s holy work to reclaim and restore creation.
It won’t come without cost. Faithful discipleship doesn’t protect you from suffering, persecution, pain and rejection. Some will be killed. A disciple’s life mirrors the life of Jesus. The student is not greater than the teacher. The servant is not greater than the master. The friend we have in Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat the disruption and discord that happens when truth is spoken. There’s always opposition when that which is covered up is uncovered and when secrets become known. Those are Jesus’ words. Even though the disciples preach a message of love; they will be hated.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword.” These too, are Jesus’ words. In the words of another preacher: the Gospel “cuts through falsehood and serves up righteousness. It exposes evil and flashes truth. It takes the shape of the cross and leaves scars for us to touch” (Anna Carter Florence Preaching Year A Commentary). The peace that Jesus brings is not the absence of conflict but the relentless pursuit of a world in which all people are valued.
We are part of the mainstream. Not many of us part of this community identify as marginalized. We are 21st century Christians who don’t live with the threat of persecution that many contend with today or that was faced by the first disciples and the community for which Matthew’s gospel was written, but we know discord.
We know disruption. We experience strife — within our own families and neighborhoods. Opposition is prevalent. Tension is palpable. We resist leaning into this reality with curiosity. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unnerving. Scary. We prioritize our lived experience over and against the experience of others. I heard author Jim Wallis say in a podcast the other day: fears keep us captive to our own untruths. I know this is some of my truth. I have work to do. The world becomes more and more polarized. This isn’t the way of God.
Refusing to listen and engage in conversation respectfully with someone whose opinion or experience differs from ours: not the way of God. Clustering ourselves into groups that compete against each other in a zero sum game: not the way of God. Demonizing the other: not the way of God. Dismissing the pain of another’s experience: not the way of God.
Jesus shows us the way of God. It’s not one path marked by either/or but a well-travelled path marked by yes/and… We are people of a great paradox:
- We find rest under a yoke.
- We are made great by becoming like children
- We are exalted when we are humble.
- We become wise by being fools for Christ’s sake.
- We gain strength when we are weak.
- We are saints and sinners
- We are a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; and a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
- We follow a God who died that we might live.
Jesus reveals these truths as the way of God.
Back in 2003, Pastor Greg Meyer, former pastor here, invited me to participate in Bethlehem’s sailing ministry. I wasn’t new to sailing, but I was a novice. Still am. I’m still learning — thanks to the many competent, gifted skippers who have patiently taught me over the years. I enjoy getting off the grid, being out on the water, hearing the waves beat against the boat, feeling the power of the wind. Sailing is an activity that is rich with metaphors that give insights about faith and life.
Here are some things I’ve learned: the direction of the wind determines the direction a sailboat sails. The term Points of Sail describe the range of courses a sailboat can and cannot travel. There’s not one path to get to where you’re going. When you’re at the helm, or the one steering the boat, you choose a point of sail that’s available to you. You pick a point on the horizon and you keep your eyes fixed on that point.
There’s a lot that can happen between where you are and where you’re going — much of it unexpected, unanticipated — so keeping your focus on a particular place on the horizon, while letting the wind be your guide, moves you in the direction you hope to go.
Beloved people of God: God so loved the world that God sent Jesus into the world, not to judge it but to save the whole world. This is our point of sail. The breath of God moves the church, this congregation in the way of truth and reconciliation. It won’t be smooth sailing. Jesus is honest about this. But Jesus also assures you: do not be afraid. Jesus is with you. Keep your eyes fixed on the saving love of Jesus Christ and listen for the still, small voice of God. These holy whispers bless you with good courage to bear witness to God’s love and the peace of Christ.