Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 12, June 25, 2017
Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about one of the things Christians like to talk about least. Conflict. Disagreement. Division. The hardship that comes from following Christ. But whether or not we like to think about it, the sad reality is that it happens all too often. When there is conflict or disagreement, Christians tend to respond theologically in one of two ways. That is, if you ask us what God thinks about conflict and how that should affect us, all too often you’ll get one of two answers. One is to say, well, God is love, therefore God doesn’t want us to fight, therefore we should just be nice. The other reaction is to say, well, I know what God wants and therefore anything I do is following God’s will. I don’t think Jesus likes either option.
The belief in the niceness as the central Christian virtue leads us to try to paper over problems or ignore them, because they feel threatening, like a sign that our community isn’t Christian enough. The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow for healing or growth. Problems fester and grow instead of being dealt with. The loudest voices get heard, and the others are shut up because they threaten the status quo. Which is great if you’re one of the loudest voices, but not great if you aren’t. Some people’s needs get met, while others get trampled on in the name of unity and community. The least powerful people are forced to sacrifice so that the most powerful will be comfortable.
The belief in self-righteousness, on the other hand, leads to really nasty fights because of course if God is on your side than whatever you do is justified, and your enemies are evil, horrible people. So you can be just as much of a jerk as you want, and it’s justified. You can be as nasty as you want, and you are in the right because God is on your side. There are a couple of problems with this one. First, sometimes we’re wrong. It’s actually pretty easy to convince yourself that God thinks the same way you do, instead of conforming your heart and mind to God. I’ve seen far too many people—from a wide variety of backgrounds, education levels, and political orientations—use the Bible and God’s will to back up and support what they already think, instead of truly following Jesus. The second problem with this kind of self-righteousness is that the God who commanded us to love our enemies is probably not going to look too fondly on the sort of scorched-earth tactics this kind of belief tends to lead to.
Conflict can happen for a lot of reasons, some good, some bad. Sometimes everybody is just being a selfish jerk, or refusing to listen and think about anything other than themselves and the way their community sees the world. Sometimes conflict happens because petty disagreements and old grudges keep getting brought out in new forms. In these cases everybody just needs to take a step back and learn to listen to other people and be reconciled. But sometimes conflict happens because of a deep conflict between God’s ways and the ways of the world. In our Gospel reading Jesus says that we’re going to go through some of the same things that happened to him. Just as Jesus got into conflicts with a wide variety of people, if we are truly his disciples, we’re going to have conflict too. So what was Jesus doing that got people to react? Why did some of them hate him and plot against him? Why was this a concern here, in the tenth chapter of Matthew? Let’s back up and see what Jesus has been doing.
Matthew chapters five through seven is the sermon on the mount, one of Jesus’ greatest times of teaching. He starts off by saying that God especially loves the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers, all the ones who get trampled on by the world. In other words, God loves the ones that society would rather ignore or shut out. Then Jesus talks about relationships, friendships and familial relationships and marital relationships, and how important reconciliation and forgiveness are. Then he talks about loving your enemies. Then he talks about doing good and religious works in private, so no one can see you doing them. And Jesus finishes up by reminding us that we should always be relying on God, not on our own ability to make things turn out the way we want.
This is all really difficult stuff. He’s telling anyone who will listen that what you look like in public—what the world thinks of you—is irrelevant. God doesn’t care about who has power and who doesn’t. God cares about people, even the least important and most despised people. God loves everyone, good and bad alike. God cares about how we treat one another. Especially when we have nothing to gain by doing the right thing. Especially when we will suffer for doing the right thing. Because there are always people and forces in society who like to divide people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t. The ones who deserve good things and the ones who don’t. The saints and the sinners. And when you start building bridges with the people that society doesn’t like, well, society generally doesn’t take it very well. It’s a recipe for conflict. And when you truly trust in God’s abundant blessings to provide, you’re a lot less likely to buy in to the rat race that tells us that to get ahead we have to keep others behind. That’s a threat to all the people who profit on the rat race. In order to follow Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount, you have to pretty much ignore everything the world teaches about power and weakness, about love and hate, about money, about religion, about what matters and what doesn’t.
Then after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spends chapters eight and nine putting his words into practice. He heals people, casts out demons, forgives sins, and eats with all the people society wants to exclude. And the Pharisees are outraged! The Pharisees, by the way, are the local leaders of society. They’re the movers and shakers in each little town, they’re the deeply faithful people who go to worship every week and study the Scriptures and spend lots of time and effort trying to be as faithful as possible. They deeply hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness and mercy … but only on their terms. They want God’s healing and forgiveness to overflow … but only for the people they believe deserve it. They want society to be healed and reconciled … but only the parts of society they approve of. They want to experience God’s miracles … but only in the times and places that fit their ideas of when and where God should act.
When Jesus doesn’t fit into their nice, neat, orderly lives, they get angry. When Jesus doesn’t fit into their expectations, when he teaches about loving everyone—and then goes out and actually does it, forgiving sinners and eating with them!—they can’t stand it. When Jesus casts out demons, therefore, they say it’s a trick, and he does it because he’s a demon. We don’t like to remember it, but the deepest resistance to Jesus came from the people who should have been his most ardent followers, the ones who had spent their lives honestly seeking God but who balked when he didn’t look like what they expected. And if people balked at following Jesus when they saw what it was really like 2,000 years ago, we shouldn’t be surprised if we have conflict today when we try to follow Jesus. And some of that conflict is going to come even from deeply faithful people who disagree about what it means to put God’s word into action.
But let’s notice what Jesus is doing and what he’s not doing. He’s preaching the Gospel, but he’s pairing it with actions. He talks about God blessing the poor and meek, and then he goes and heals and feeds them, giving them tangible blessings. He talks about forgiving people, and then he goes out and forgives sinners and eats with them. He talks about the importance of right relationships, and then he goes out and builds relationships with people that society tries to exclude. This is not about proving his point or rubbing his opponent’s noses in all the ways they’re wrong. This is about putting God’s love into action. The haters are gonna hate, but we don’t have to become haters in response. We don’t have to be afraid of them. The same God who sees each sparrow is watching over us, too.
We have a mission. That mission is not to attack people we don’t like, or to prove how great of a Christian we are, or to preserve the political power of Christianity, or to be nice no matter what. That mission is neither to give unity through superficial niceness nor to self-righteously destroy those who disagree with us. That mission is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed. It’s to tell people that God loves them and forgives them, that God brings life and healing and freedom, and then show them what that love and forgiveness look like. And sometimes showing people love and forgiveness is going to bring us into conflict. And that’s not going to be fun. But that is the mission Christ calls us to. That is the mission Christ died for. That’s the mission of the cross, the mission that brings salvation and the only life truly worth living. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it. May we find the life that truly matters in Jesus.