Of more value
Sermon preached at Enmore, Third Sunday after Pentecost, 25th. June 2017
Reading: Matthew 10.24–39
I wonder if you found this morning’s Gospel reading disturbing and confronting. If you didn’t, then perhaps you have heard this passage very often and it may have lost some of its immediacy. Matthew 10 contains some of the most challenging words Jesus ever uttered. The context of this chapter is Jesus’ sending out of his disciples to preach the good news of the Kingdom, to heal and to cast out demons. Jesus is aware that faithful proclamation of the gospel will inevitably put his followers into conflict with the powers of this world so he warns them of the threats and dangers they will face. They will face persecution from the religious and civil authorities, they will experience opposition from within their own families, and they will be maligned and hated. The sufferings poured out on their Master, Jesus, will be visited upon them. In spite of all this, Jesus tells them they are not to be afraid. Eugene Peterson paraphrases verses 26–28 in this way: “Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now. Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being. Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life-body and soul- in his hands.”
Jesus then adds the famous words: “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.” When I was growing up sparrows were everywhere, cheeky little birds that could nest almost anywhere. Today they are quite rare in our city. In the ancient world sparrows were sacred to Venus the goddess of love and they had a reputation for lechery- a view that prevailed for many centuries. In 1559 a Lutheran pastor in Dresden implored the Elector of Saxony to help him exterminate the sparrows because of “their incessant and extremely vexatious chatterings and scandalous acts of unchastity committed during the service to the hindrance of God’s word and Christian doctrine..” So I find it encouraging that Jesus should single these little birds out as examples of God’s care and interest in his creation. Those of us old enough to remember the Sydney Billy Graham crusades may remember the baritone George Beverly Shea, singing the old hymn, with the words, “Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, Why should my heart be lonely and long for heav’n and home, when Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is he; His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”
All human beings bear the image of God and are to be valued, even when that image has been horribly scarred. That is a fundamental Christian principle that should be kept before every politician, every law maker and every law enforcer. In a society that seems to have lost sight of the truth that people matter more than things, Christians need to be advocates for the marginalised in our community be they refugees, prisoners, the poor or the mentally ill. And let me add seafarers on this Seafarers Sunday. They spend months away from home, are often poorly paid and have dangerous working conditions. Their suicide rate is four times that of the general population. In his own ministry Jesus gave us a very clear example that his love embraced even the most despised in his society, the tax collectors and sinners. And James writing to a Christian community late in the first century that was tempted to show partiality to the rich and important, warns that “judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy, mercy triumphs over judgement.” It is a wonderful comfort to know that we are all valued and precious in God’s sight.
But the comforting words are followed by difficult words. “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…who ever who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…” To make sense of this passage it is helpful to remember that when Matthew was writing his Gospel sometime after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D.70 many Christians were experiencing the kind of opposition Jesus warned of. Many family ties had been strained or broken. Christianity was seen by many not just as counter cultural but positively dangerous. Becoming a Christian could result in expulsion from the family, the synagogue and one’s place in a strictly ordered society. In the first century family had primary importance even more so than today. One commentator writes, “Jesus gave his call for loyalty over against the strongest not the weakest claim a person knew, the claim of family love. Jesus never offered himself as an alternative to the worst but to the best in society.” (F. Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year A). Jesus was aware that the temptation to idolatry could come from one of the best things in life, love of family.
So how are we to understand Jesus’ words in the present day when in our society following Christ is not likely to lead to the break-up of the family unless we come from a very strict Muslim home? Let it put it like this: I am a husband, a son, a father, a grandfather, a brother, and an uncle, and each of those identities I value and treasure enormously but none of them actually defines me. I am first and foremost, a child of God and a follower of Jesus. That is my core identity and all the others grow out of it. You and I are God’s children first. We are to love God above all other loves. Indeed if we do that we will be better husbands or wives, partners, parents or children, for our love of God will inform and keep healthy all other loves. The Gospel shakes up values and rearranges our priorities and in an increasingly secular society claiming the name of Christian may become a more difficult choice than it is today. I’m reminded of the American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas who in an interview on national television was asked by a conservative Republican Senator if he believed in ‘family values’ and famously replied, “Hell no, I’m a Christian”. And as we read these words of Jesus again this morning we should remember that for many people in our world today following Christ comes at great cost, like the young woman, Asia Bibi still imprisoned in Pakistan primarily because of her Christian faith. We now find to our surprise that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in the world.
The section concludes with Jesus’ words, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” In Jesus’ day everyone knew what taking up a cross meant. When the Roman general Varus put down the rebellion led by Judas of Galilee he ordered the crucifixion of two thousand Jews as a sign to the population of the consequences of rebellion. Following Jesus means facing the authorities who have the power of life and death and daring to say, I will follow Jesus come what may. But Jesus promises that if we choose the risky path of following him we are actually choosing life. To lose our life for him is to find it. Whereas if we spend our days trying to find meaning in life without him, a life focussed on ourselves, we will lose everything that is of lasting value. The decision to follow Jesus is to choose life and to be freed from the fear of death. So do not be afraid, ‘you are of more value than many sparrows.’ Amen.