24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever 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; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Mike Anderson, who is graciously coordinating extended session for our kids six and younger, does a really good job of finding ways to connect the scripture we read in worship with the activities the kids do at the same time downstairs in the fellowship hall. He likes the kids to share what we do up here. And so Monday of this week, as we were preparing for Vacation Bible School, Mike asked me what I was preaching on this week. And I told him that the lectionary passage appointed for today, the scripture we are scheduled to engage this morning, is a very random series of statements from Jesus that don’t make much sense and when they do make sense, they are pretty much universally disturbing. At which point he said, “never mind. We’ll do the mustard seed or something.”
I want to acknowledge that this is difficult material, that it is dense, that it reads like a weird list of uncomfortable things, so it’s an unusual passage to be reading on a day like today, when we’ve welcomed so many of our Vacation Bible School families to worship for the first time. If you want to share the love of Jesus with people you’ve just met, maybe it is not such a great idea to skip straight to the part where Jesus says, “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law,” although if my own family is any guide, the last one is already pretty obvious.
But the context is important; you’ve got to look at the context, and here, Jesus is talking to his Disciples, giving them instructions for how to be his followers, and earlier in Matthew chapter 10, just before the verses we read this morning, he says this: Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff. Don’t take any money. Don’t take luggage, not that you need it, because to be a disciple is to not even take extra clothes, extra shoes, a staff to defend yourself. They are to go out totally vulnerable, like sheep, he says, in the midst of wolves.
You can imagine the looks on the disciples’ faces as they start to understand that the life Jesus is asking them to take on as his followers is inherently vulnerable, as they start to realize that they will likely be killed in service to God, which is pretty much with happened to all of them. The church sometimes pretends that the work of following Jesus is all cupcakes and unicorns, and we do have great joy in Christ, but this passage reminds us that the sacrifices of the Christian life are real. Following Jesus isn’t about trying to get something. It’s about trying to give something, and for the disciples, that meant their lives.
But do not fear, because I, for one, am absolutely convinced this is all good news. It is easy to read something like this, about Jesus coming to bring the sword instead of peace, about how he will turn households against one another, and just take it at face value, which, as I’ve said, is disturbing. It’s enough to make you want to say Never mind, let’s just talk about the mustard seed or something.
But the context! The context is bigger than Jesus predicting bad things. If you take a step back, you’ll see that Jesus is not predicting bad things. He’s promising good things. He’s not predicting bad things; he’s looking at the world, acknowledging the difficulties of being human, and promising good things. It is an acknowledgement that the world’s most powerful force—fear—is no match for the power of God.
I think back to the most successful social movements of the past century, and you see how this plays out. You look at the civil rights movement, for instance, and you see just how powerful fear can be. Fire hoses are about instilling fear. Lynching is about instilling fear. I am serious when I say fear is the world’s most powerful force, and that’s because we are taught to fear from an early age: fear of strangers, fear of people who are different, and some of this teaching of fear is helpful—I won’t pretend that there aren’t scary people who seek to harm children. And the way you protect children is by instilling a little bit of fear. And politicians do it all the time: warning us of dire consequences if we don’t do this or accept that. It’s the whole point of terrorism, to selectively and decisively spread terror, to spread fear, and affect billions of people by killing a much smaller number of people. It’s why Bull Connor ordered the fire hoses to be used against African Americans in the civil rights movement. It’s why Emmett Till was murdered, Emmett Till, an 11 year old black kid who was accused of talking insolently to a white woman, Emmett Till, a cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire before his body was thrown in the river. J.W. Milam, one of the murders, later said that the reason he killed Emmett Till was that it was time a few people got put on notice.
I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but the world is run by fear. To be human is to be scared of something. Scared of being found out. Scared of failure. Scared of sticking your neck out too far. Scared of losing your security.
This is why I think three of the most powerful words in all the Bible are Do. Not. Fear. Do not fear. The world is predicated on keeping us in line, on maintaining homeostasis, on not disrupting things too much. We tend to look at people who are different, who are not so bound by fear, as freaks. To those advocating change, we say, be patient, don’t upset the apple cart too much, just stay between these narrow boundaries and mow your lawn and care for your own and don’t pay too much attention to the problems in the world because who are you to do something about them anyway? Who are you?
I’ll tell you who you are. You are a child of God, a Disciple of Jesus Christ, an heir of the King of Heaven who did not come to leave things as they are but to disrupt the things that stand in the way of love. Those things that stand in the way are powerful, and they are held in place by powerful people protecting powerful interests, but though some days it may not seem like it, because we get so frustrated by the way things are that we are blinded to the way things could be, the agents of fear are no match for love.
You are a child of God, made in God’s image, and while it may be hard to believe in a world that uses violence as if it were just any other tool, you don’t need an extra cloak. You don’t need extra spending money. You don’t need extra shoes or a staff. In fact, those things actually obscure what it means to be a child of God, because they signal that being made in the image of God isn’t enough, as if you sort of trusted in the salvation that comes from God but needed to carry a big stick just in case.
You see, it is no coincidence that Jesus told the Disciples to leave everything behind and follow him with nothing but the clothes on their backs and a song in their hearts. That kind of vulnerability—that kind of loving trust in something beyond the fear that surrounds us—that kind of thing has power. I mean, it is true that without armor—emotional or otherwise—you can be mortally wounded. And while there are those who can kill the body, to follow Jesus is to acknowledge that nothing can kill the soul, and that perhaps the vulnerability of being an agent of hope in an awfully cynical world is more powerful than anything the world can throw at you. You understand why the world is so intimidated by vulnerability, because when you refuse to give in to fear, the world loses its best weapon.
Now it is not easy message, I will acknowledge, but it is one of the most important messages I know. It is a message that has been proven time and time again. You see pictures of students, black and white, sitting at segregated lunch counters together with nothing protecting them from the wildly thrown punches and incoming projectiles other than a blouse or a polo shirt. You hear stories of forgiveness in your own life, your own sphere, that make no logical sense, considering that which is being forgiven, but then, love does not work according to logic anyway, and it changes you, being in the presence of that kind of forgiveness. Or you remember that picture in Tianamen square, of the unknown protestor standing in front of a line of tanks. Time Magazine did this thing in 1999 where they listed the 100 most important people of the entire 20th century and Tank Man, as he came to be known, is on the list despite nobody actually knowing who he is. And what makes that picture so moving to me, so iconic is that the lone protestor is wearing street clothes, no armor, no extra tunic, no extra pair of sandals, no staff. If he’d been dressed in armor, it wouldn’t be so meaningful. There is power in vulnerability.
It’s a fundamental element of the major social movements of the last century that nonviolence is key to social change. And this is exactly why. It’s why Jesus told the disciples to go out without extra clothes, with no money and no staff. When all you have to rely on is the kindness of strangers and trust in God, you have power. Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been killed, Gandhi may have been killed, but my God, if I do not hear the words of Jesus from this morning’s Gospel passage echo in my head every time I think of their faithful witness: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find it.” That’s not just about Heaven, y’all. That’s about power. It’s about acknowledging that when we devote ourselves to following Jesus, our lives go on beyond our bodies. You cannot kill the soul. There is power in that kind of witness, and it is a witness that lives beyond you.
Now I’m nearly done, and this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with me in my life? We can talk about the great social movements of the last century, but it makes me feel sort of feel inadequate about my little piece of the kingdom here, my own life. I mean, maybe this will change, but I don’t feel God pulling me toward any great movement. I don’t feel God telling me to stand so far out in front that my life is in danger. I have a small child, a family. I don’t think that’s what I am called to. And I don’t know about your private prayer time with God, but I think it’s unlikely you feel called to that sort of thing, either.
But you know what I do think I am called to? You know what I think we are all called to, individually and as a community? Vulnerability. Vulnerability. Carrying our hearts in our hands and offering them freely to one another and to those outside these doors. Not hiding them behind walls of bulletproof glass and hardened steel, but in front of us. That kind of thing can be painful, for when you offer your heart, you open yourself to being wounded. But there is strength in numbers, and it is why we bother getting the kids dressed and out the door in time for church. It is why you can’t sit at home and claim to be church. We need each other.
And the world needs us. The world is so full of fear that it is liable to collapse in on itself. And there’s only one antidote to fear. It’s Jesus. It’s the God who sends us out without armor to do the work of vulnerability in a world so full of fear that armor is almost standard issue at birth. It’s the armor that gets in the way of truly being in relationship with one another, so let us endeavor to take our hearts in our hands, leave behind the extra cloak and put on Christ instead, for while it is scary to go forth without armoring our hearts, it is the case that those who go forth in vulnerability, who go forth in Jesus’s name will find abundant life, for fear is no match for love. Thanks be to God. Amen.