Father’s Day Sermon for June 21, 2020 from Pastor John
Sermon for June 21, 2020
What is a pastor to do? Look at the calendar and I am sure everyone will give the notation of Father’s Day. This is a day of recognition for fathers with nice cards, gifts, and perhaps even favorite foods. Father’s Day has a feeling of relaxation. But you heard the gospel lesson, the words of Jesus to his first disciples: “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…..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”. Jesus concluded with the puzzling “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” If you are confused, you are not the only one. We are accustomed of calling Jesus the Prince of Peace, and now he talked about bringing a sword. Father’s Day, and also Mother’s Day, celebrates family love but Jesus said love me more. So I worried about today’s sermon more than usual. True enough, I am free to preach on another text, one more comforting like Jesus’ words in the very next chapter of Matthew, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”—actually you will have to wait a couple of weeks for that wonderful text to show up in this year’s journey through the gospel of Matthew.
Although the gospel reading is a difficult one to hear, let us not reject it outright but pray to be receptive of what the Holy Spirit is seeking to teach us. Jesus was speaking to his first disciples and he was about to send them out to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of heaven. This was not preaching what has been termed ‘pie in the sky’, a piety focusing on the afterlife. This was proclaiming the coming of God’s rule on earth. God’s kingdom or rule does not come to bless the status quo. The status quo is all too often unjust. Those who often have the most power and wealth are not always willing to be concerned about others having a fair share. It is interesting that after Jesus told his followers to go and preach the good news he then spoke of actions not separate from the proclamation of the kingdom, but inseparable from it. Jesus told his disciples to “cure the sick”. We hear that in the Scriptures and we associate that with the mercy of God, which is true enough. But do we stop and think a little deeper. In Jesus’ time, as it is true today, the very best of physicians and health care was enjoyed by the wealthy elite. The vast majority of the rest of folks, low income and poor, could not afford health care. So when Jesus said “cure the sick, it was not just the mercy of God revealed, but the demand for the justice of God, the benefits of this good creation available for all.
So when you disturb unfair systems, you are going to be greeted with opposition. As one commentator said ‘Jesus’ insistence of fairness for all will be met with resistance. If the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven was only about a pleasant life-after-death, the followers of Jesus would meet no opposition. The rulers of the age could continue to lord it over others. But the preaching of the kingdom of heaven, the justice of God, God’s righteousness, what God wants to see on this earth would bring persecution and arrest for his followers. Jesus even said before today’s text “you will be hated by all because of my name.” Jesus warned do not expect any better treatment than what I will receive: they have called me “Beelzebul—a demonic prince—just think of what they will say about my followers. We can think that this text is especially true in parts of the world under autocratic rule like North Korea where Christians are unwelcome and if discovered, imprisoned. But does not this text apply to the United States as well? Think today of the ongoing problem of racism meaning the status quo of white supremacy and exceptionalism. Just think of the 1960s when how many Civil Rights advocates were maligned, cursed, beaten, imprisoned and even killed. Many of those advocating for Civil Rights were motivated by the words and guidance of Jesus. Now fast forward to today with the protests in the streets with many carrying banners “Black Lives Matter”. If you brought up this discussion in the bars or among others, what kinds of words will you, hear? I can imagine some would say such protests are unnecessary and would decry a loss of law and order. If you would say you are struggling with racism within, seeking to understand and listen to black lives, and you are doing so because of your faith in Jesus, I wonder if your faith would be mocked. We might feel like the prophet Jeremiah who said “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me…all my close friends are watching for me to stumble.”
So maybe it would be better to keep silent thinking “people have their own opinions, so what am I to oppose such thoughts.” But Jesus says “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, proclaimed from the rooftops.” Jesus is talking about the truth, and it will prevail. Just think of the many lies over the years about white superiority and black inferiority. The origin of such thoughts is a legacy from slavery, the ultimate lie which treated beloved human beings created in the image of God as chained up property. The sword Jesus was talking about wielding was the truth of God’s word. Think of the familiar verses from the letter to the Hebrews, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow, to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before God no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” And in the well-known image of the full armor of God in the letter to the Ephesians we read “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and action of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
Jesus’ words are so important for the church, an awakening to our calling to be advocates in the true meaning of the word, to be voices of truth in a society where sadly there are so many lies that prop up a status quo that is often not fair. The church has important questions to deal with: why are one in five children hungry in this country; why in a nation of wonderful health care still unaffordable for many; why does the United States, among developed nations, have the highest rate of incarceration? There will be opposition because the truth is often inconvenient and unwelcome. And it is hard to leave one’s comfort zones. But Jesus said “Have no fear of them. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.” I don’t like to hear such words, but it is not my role to dismiss Jesus’ words and explain them away. We need to hear the harsh side of Jesus as well as his gentle side. Jesus’ words are so important so the church does not surrender to the powers that be and defend the status quo. I guess the old cliché has truth: the church is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
The church is called to proclaim and live the kingdom of heaven here on earth. We are called to minister without fear and Jesus has important words about that: “Are not 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.” Jesus’ motto for being a disciple, if I can use that term is to “take up your cross and follow me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
An example of this is found in the book “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. They tell the story of a privileged woman named Debby. She was out partying with her friends at a restaurant. Afterward, as she left and headed for her car she was approached by a 13-year old African American boy who pointed a gun at her head. He told her “I mean business, hand over your purse”. But then he shot her in the face. The bullet went into her mouth and exited out her cheek. She was able to run away even as the boy kept firing at her back but missed. She did not die but her face was messed up. She has had many reconstructive surgeries to repair and rebuild her mouth. The perpetrator was caught. He grew up in poverty and never knew his father. His mother worked several jobs and so was not home all that much. So the boy, named Ian, fell into a violent group of boys. Before the shooting he had a long record of crime, mainly shoplifting. The judge thought to make an example of him and although still a juvenile, was sentenced as an adult to life imprisonment with no parole possible.
The strangest thing happened one Christmas Eve. In prison Ian was allowed one phone call a week and he asked the operator to call Debby, the woman he shot and wounded. Amazingly Debby accepted the collect call and when she discovered who was calling she asked “Why did you shoot me?” Ian could only say what he did was a foolish and terrible act, and she asked for forgiveness. Initially Debby was appalled for her wounds still required surgical repair. But then she was moved by this unexpected call asking her for forgiveness. She thought about Ian, thinking he was just 13 when he shot me, just a kid, and what kind of growing up did he have, a life surrounded by poverty and pretty much on his own on the streets. She began to take an interest in Ian and a correspondence ensued. Her friends and mostly her husband were appalled warning she was being manipulated. It was too much for her husband when she began to advocate for his release from prison. They divorced. In prison Ian took courses and revealed a first-class intellect. Ian was released after serving 26 years behind bars. Ian and Debby met and celebrated his release enjoying pizza at an Italian restaurant. No one would ever think that Ian was the one who perpetrated such a savage crime against her. He called her his guardian angel and “second mom”. Ian is presently employed working with at-risk kids.
Authors Nicholas and Sheryl write “If America since the 1970s has often approached crime, poverty, and drugs with an unforgiving ethic of harsh punishment, Debbie’s action represent an alternative: an ethic of grace. She knows better than anyone that someone who shoots another in the face deserves punishment, but her belief in second chances and redemption should inspire us all to imagine a world which America is leavened by a politics of grace.” I think Debbie is a powerful example, a courageous example, of one who took up the cross, and she found her life by going against the grain of popular thought to help give another one a new chance. I like what the authors of the book said, an ethic of grace. With Jesus we are given grace, forgiveness and the assurance from him, “Do not be afraid, I am with you always.” May we respond with an ethic, meaning a lifestyle of grace, fearlessly speaking out against the status quo when it is unjust, courageously understanding others as better than their sins, but ever beloved of God.