Two Sparrows for a Penny
| Matthew 10:24-39
||Sun, June 23, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|This past week one of you said that you wished the Disciple bible study course started now ... not in mid-October. Well, in case you didn’t notice, it is underway. The moment we open the Bible to the tenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel is the moment that we are engaged in disciple study. This is the chapter that details Jesus’ instructions to the twelve disciples (vs. 1) become apostles (messengers, vs. 2). Perhaps, like me, you find yourselves wishing that these troubling words might be have been saved for later ... for sometime next fall, in the school year, when studies are in order. After all, it is the first Sunday of the summer ... a day for a picnic. We just want to enjoy the day. But Jesus doesn’t make it easy. He says that disciples can’t expect an easy go of it. People are calling him “Beelzebul” - literally “Dungface”. He says that his followers will be called worse names than that! He says not to think that he has come to bring peace to the earth: “I have not come to bring peace”, he says, “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.” Maybe it would have been better to wait til October to talk about discipleship.
But it is too late now. We’ve allowed Jesus to get a word in edgewise. On most days we manage to silence these verses, to forget that Jesus claims such ultimate allegiance, that these texts of ours sound more fanatical than we care to admit. Can’t you just hear some Pharisee or other advising Jesus with words like: “Everything in moderation now, don’t get too carried away with this kingdom of God life”. To be fair, things aren’t all that straight forward here. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth” says Jesus. What happened to all those Christmas carols about “Peace on earth, good will to all”? Oh ... I looked it up ... the angels don’t quite say it that way. Their song goes like this: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours” (Luke 2:14). Hmmm. Well, what then of that blessing that Jesus offers just five chapters earlier in Matthew ... you know the one: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). And this talk of Jesus dividing families, of setting children against parents and parents against children - what are we to make of this? Isn’t Christian community about building up rather than breaking down family?! Remember the fifth commandment: “Honour you father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you “(Exodus 20:12). And Jesus has been very clear about upholding the ancient ways: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil” (Matthew 5:17). Perhaps, finally, it is Jesus talk of finding disciples unworthy that troubles us most. We thought that Jesus is the one who places the last first and the first last. Isn’t he the one who shows compassion on the unworthy and who invites them to the table? The Jesus we hear in the tenth chapter of Matthew sounds demanding and harsh. The discipleship that he portrays hardly looks inviting. This is eternal life? Really.
Well, to give Jesus his due, perhaps he is simply telling the truth. Here he tells it like it is. If you listen between the lines of this text you can hear that the early Christian community finds itself afraid of the social consequences of their new way of life. “Have no fear of them” says Jesus. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul ... do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” This is a community that feels devalued. Others mock their peculiar values. Jesus points to the sparrows that are sold to the peasants in the market - two for a penny - a poor man’s supper. Even these do not fall without the knowledge of the Father - the head of Jesus’ household. So there is no need to deny being a part of the Jesus movement, for he will not deny those who are prepared to stand with him. All of this talk of fear, of being devalued, of the temptation to deny being associated with Jesus has the sound of social conflict. This is how society ... and families ... control and silence movements of social change. Jesus is teaching disciples whose lives propose a radical alternative to the ways of their world, of their culture, of their families.
Make no mistake, if Jesus words about family sound strange to our ears they sound even stranger in 1st century Palestine. This is a world in which family is everything. Local economies are familial. Each family is a business. Local politics are familial. Each family has a political representative. Local identity is familial. Family name is everything for individuals. Honour and shame is not dependant on individual achievement but is shared by an entire extended family. To dare to break with family is to risk losing everything. And this is the risk that Jesus invites his disciples to take. He reminds them that the commandment above all other commandments is to “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul.” At least Jesus is prepared to tell the truth. Too often the church has domesticated the gospel. Too often the church has pretended that Jesus does not put families at risk. But Jesus knows that his word is a sword that divides people, it is a sword that separates them into those who find his word a foolish scandal from those who find his word utterly compelling and ultimately life changing.
This past Wednesday I had the extraordinary privilege of presiding at a service of welcome and dedication for Tiana Renee - the newly adopted daughter of Sandra and Dan Kierkegaard. The service would have been held here at University Hill except that on Sunday mornings Dan is preaching at East Burnaby United Church ... which makes it difficult for him to be here at the same time. So we met instead with the members of the L’arche community at their weekly worship service. L’arche communities are little Christian households that have taken shape all over the world. They follow the pattern of the first L’arche home that was established forty years ago by Jean Vanier. Each household has up to eight member at any time. Half are physically and mentally disabled, in need of assistance. Half are less disabled, but nonetheless in need of partnership. As in the Ark - l’arche - they enter by two’s. Tiana Renee - the Kirkegaards newest child (their fourth) - is a beautiful Chinese downs syndrome infant. One day she may herself live in a L’arche household as a core member. So it seemed a fitting place to welcome Tiana and to dedicate our life as a Christian community to her care and nurture. But as I preached in that setting on Wednesday, surrounded by the most extraordinary congregation, Jesus’ hard words about the radical challenge of discipleship made perfect sense to me. I found myself saying that Christian community is all about learning to welcome one another as Christ has welcomed each of us. This regularly means unlearning the ways of distancing others that we have learned in this society, in this neighbourhood and, yes, even in our families. In communities like the L’arche community and like this very congregation we dare to practice extending hospitality beyond the accepted norms of our culture. Welcoming the last and the least as family often does not bring peace ... it frequently causes division. Jesus tells the truth about that. And he encourages his disciples to live the truth about it.
So what happens when our life is a living denial of Jesus’ teachings and of Jesus’ ways? This is where the story becomes so intriguing and utterly mysterious. Jesus is blunt. If y’aa are not with me, he says, I’m not with y’all. There is a choice to be made. If the story ended here then this would hardly be gospel good news. Because living an alternative life in any culture is not without its many small - and large - denials. There is no perfect life of discipleship. Such a life is always about discerning when and how to stand over against the ways of the workplace or the neighbourhood or the family. In order to keep the peace we regularly find ourselves denying the ways of Jesus. Which is precisely what all twelve disciples do when push comes to shove. Faced with the prospect of losing everything because of their association with Jesus “all the disciples deserted him and fled” (Matthew 26:56b). More than that, of course, under direct questioning Peter denies, denies, denies. But it is not the end of their story. Beyond all expectation, when he must surely deny this company of deniers, Jesus arrives in their midst, empowering and encouraging and promising never to leave them alone (Matthew 28:16-20). It is the most amazing conclusion and it is one that we continue to inhabit. Do you see? We are those deniers who Jesus has not given up on. Instead, he has arrived in our midst to empower and encourage us in the ways of the kingdom come. And he has promised never to leave us alone. Which means, of course, that there will be no denying the truth of his ways. Amen.