There were a number of people who wondered how my sermon might be able to be passed on. I’ve been thinking about this topic – posting sermons, and how that should be done. I wrestle with posting the written word because the sermon is much more about proclamation – it’s about the hearing, and the experience, and even where it takes you while you’re listening (yes, some of those tangents in your mind may be the Spirit at work!). I don’t think sermons are meant to be scrutinized the way we do the written word, and yet I am reminded over and over that God has given me words to speak, to preach, to proclaim. And I am hearing that there is desire to pass them on, or hear them again in some way. As we work to figure out how best to record and share the audio of readings, sermon, and worship, I’ll start with a post here of my sermon on Sunday.
Because the sermon is composed in light of the texts for the day, and because I referenced three of four texts in my sermon, I give those to you. I’m just going to link them here, but I encourage you to read them first.
Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
What a Gospel text today. This is one of those Sundays where it’s hard to say “The Gospel of our Lord” after the reading, since the word gospel means good news. What sort of good news is in this?
You know how there are people who like to say that this or that religion is bad because of one verse, or a couple of verses? Like people who will say that all Muslims are bad, and that Islam is about war and killing since there is a verse about killing unbelievers. Well this is ours, fellow Christians. This is our text, that when plucked out of context and away from everything else, would say to the world that we are a group of people dedicated to separation and, by the mention of the sword, even killing. We are not about those things, but I tell you this so that you are wary of saying that about other religions, and wary of people who do say those things. Every religion has stories and texts that make even us as believers uncomfortable. There are troubling texts. Which is why we need to hear them in worship, and why we need to talk about them.
There’s a lot to talk about in these 15 verses, so I’m going to focus on the end, which is where most of the trouble is, I think. It’s the part about the sword and after. Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace but a sword. Now there might be some of you out there squirming in your seat about this verse, or many others in this passage today. And I am with you. It seems like there are so many places in scripture where Jesus is about peace! Peace on earth and goodwill to all, right? I wonder if Jesus could be implying that peace is more than just unity, it’s more than just getting along. Sometimes we simplify peace and it’s not as holistic as the peace Jesus brings. The peace Jesus brings expects justice. The peace Jesus brings asks for righteousness. God’s peace demands value and regard for all. And God’s peace is what will save us. (Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, workingpreacher.org for June 25, 2017) But Jesus still has the bit about the sword and all this talk that sounds like he’s promoting division.
I want to read this section to you from a Gospel paraphrase called The Message, written by Eugene Peterson. (Matt 10:34-39) (Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1995.)
Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut – make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law – cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.
If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.
Okay, I want to take a poll this morning. You are invited to raise your hand if this applies to you, but you don’t have to. Who here has tension in their family? Either with your spouse, or your siblings, or your kids, or your parents, or with other generations? All of us have that family tension. There might be tension with a family member that you don’t see or talk to that often for one reason or another. There might be tension with a family member you see often but end up arguing with more than not. There might be tension because you feel like you’re not good enough for them. Tension from having to care for aging parents. Stress from caring for children or teens. Tension from being told you have to do something because “I told you so.” Tension from differences in politics or religion that leads to stressful conversations and fear of losing relationship. We all live with tension in our families.
Today it might sound like Jesus is calling for tension, or separation in families. This is not that. Jesus is not promoting family dysfunction and disunity. But Jesus isn’t saying that tension won’t exist, either; he actually says that there will be tension. But it’s not tension for the sake of tension. He’s addressing the disciples to talk about what it takes to be a follower of Jesus. And he’s warning them that living as a true disciple can and will disturb your family relationships. This is the reality of the gospel. The message of Jesus isn’t often what we want to hear. We want Jesus to let us remain in our comfort zone, but he doesn’t. He’s always pushing. There’s always some way that you or I aren’t living out the gospel to its fullest extent. And there are ways that we might disagree about how the message of Jesus is to be lived out. These disagreements divide homes and families, and church families too.
Jesus is not anti-family. He’s just pro-discipleship, at all costs. He’s pro-Kingdom of God, at all costs. If that means that familial relationships will be severed, so be it. The Message translated part of the text to say, “well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies.” Our Bible translation from the NRSV said “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” It’s like he’s saying, look around you. Don’t get comfortable. I am calling you to a life of discipleship that is costly, and you might be tempted by your family to give up this calling.
Ultimately, Jesus is saying that it’s Kingdom first, family second. There are a lot of people who will say something like this – God first, family second. Or there was a country song that has made the phrase popular: God, family, country. But the reality of order is different. There was a Christian-based research company who did a national survey online in 2015 about this. They asked 1000 people online, “How much are each of the following a part of your personal identity – between family, being an American, religious faith, and ethnic group?” And they found that the real order for people is family first, being an American second, and religious faith third. (The Barna Group, results released Mar 19, 2015. http://religionnews.com/2015/03/20/americans-dont-cite-god-family-country-quite-like-cliche-goes/)
I don’t really put my trust in surveys, especially among only 1000 people taken online, but I have seen truth to this. Family first, God and my faith come somewhere after that in the list. But this is exactly what Jesus denounces today. “Whoever loves any family member more than me is not worthy of me,” he says. Ultimately, Jesus is getting at our identity, just like the survey pointed out. What things in your life determine your identity? Your family? Your ethnicity? Your country? Your faith? It’s likely all those pieces are there, but Jesus is looking for and asking for a certain order.
In our First Reading today we got to hear about Abraham and Sarah, and what happens to Hagar and Ishmael. Did you hear the family tension? There are definitely some serious power and privilege issues in this story that I’m not going to get into today, but I would welcome conversation if ever you want to talk about it. The background to what we heard today is that Hagar was Sarah’s slave. And it was common back then to have kids through a surrogate mother. Sarah couldn’t have children, and fertility was everything back then. So she has Hagar get pregnant and give Sarah the child. That child was Ishmael. Eventually Sarah does get pregnant – we heard this last week – she laughs because she thinks she’s too old, but she gives birth to Isaac. Now Abraham has two sons: the first is Ishmael through Hagar the surrogate, and the second Isaac through Sarah his wife.
Eventually the situation with Hagar and Ishmael makes Sarah uncomfortable. This isn’t said explicitly in the text, but this is what I see: Ishmael is the first son of Abraham, and though he was Sarah’s by surrogate, now that she has her own, she wants Ishmael out of the way so Isaac can be the first son, and the one to inherit the promise. Sarah gets Abraham to kick Hagar and Ishmael out. At least Abraham hesitates. God tells him it will be okay, and he sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness. They almost die, and an angel of the Lord comes to them, and Hagar is the first person to be called by name by an angel of the Lord in the Bible. The angel shows them to water, reaffirms God’s promise to Ishmael, and they are saved. Their identity has been transformed. Ishmael, who is claimed as the father of Islam, may have been removed by God’s covenant by Abraham’s kicking him out, but he is not removed from God’s promise that Abraham will be the father of a great nation. God affirms this when he tells Abraham that it’s okay to let Hagar and Ishmael go because God will make a great nation of both Isaac and Ishmael. This is the connection to Abraham that then makes us Christians part of the Abrahamic faiths with Muslims and Jews.
Identity was changed for Hagar and Ishmael. They had been kicked out and were on their way to starting anew. And God took care of them. They are still God’s. They are still able to find their identity as God’s people, though the specifics had changed.
So where do you find your identity? What is it that has the most influence over you? Over your life and your decisions? As Paul reminds us today in Romans, we are to find our identity in Christ through our baptism. We are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Through baptism, our identity has changed. We are children of God. Everything that makes you you, your family, your privileges, your suffering, all of those things are wiped away and you are made new. That’s a bit intimidating, but that is the cost of discipleship that we’re talking about here.
“Baptism isn’t a security, but a reality changer.” (Kyle Fever, Commentary on Romans 6:1b-11, workingpreacher.org for June 25, 2017) Baptism gives us identity as God’s people in this world. And as such, we have responsibilities. You know those bumper stickers that say “I am in Him”? I’m not a fan of those kinds of cliches, but if saying I am in Christ is a way of claiming my identity and how I should live, then I can get behind that. Paul describes believers as people who are in Christ. And as people who are in Christ, we are to live his gospel; his gospel that goes nowhere but to the cross. This gospel-life was never said to be easy, and it was never said to be comfortable, and today Jesus says exactly this. But as baptized children of God, as Jesus-followers, this is our calling. We are to be true to the gospel, following Jesus at all costs. We are to meet God where God chooses to show up – in sorrow, pain, and weakness. We are to follow Jesus in submission to the will of God that is radical, vulnerable, risking, trusting, obedient, self-surrendering, and joyful. (Daniel Erlander in Baptized We Live on the Theology of the Cross)
This life of discipleship is not easy. Jesus asks a lot of us, even to give up our families if we have to. That is hard to hear. And challenging. And sad, especially for those of us that already know how hard it is to live with family tension. But Jesus is serious about this: our life of discipleship, our life as people of God, our service to God needs to come first, above all else. We need to be willing to sacrifice. We need to be willing to risk our identity like Hagar and Ishmael, to risk it all, trusting that God will be with us no matter what. Because that is the truth. No matter what happens, God is there. We are people who are in Christ. And he is in us. He connects us to God Creator and Spirit. There is life is this promise. There is life in baptism. But only after death. Only after we have been able to give up the things and people we cling to. There is life abundant, and it is yours for free, but living it out is costly and not easy. May God give us the courage and the strength to live as God’s people in this world, remembering that we are marked with the cross of Christ forever.