St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

Of More Value

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.

Philip Brad­ford