June 28. (Matthew 10:26-42) What are you most afraid of?
There is plenty that people fear in this world. Some people fear death. Some people fear suffering. Some people fear rejection or unkindness or embarrassment. Maybe it comes out in that recurring dream. Even though some may say, I’m not afraid of anything, it turns out in some way we usually are.
Myself, when I think about it I still fear in some ways, though not as much as I used to, what people think of me. People thinking I’m weird or not doing good enough in certain ways. I recently had one of those dreams where I had forgotten some clothing items… I hadn’t had one in awhile. There’s a fear of being vulnerable somewhere in there perhaps.
Jesus says to his disciples in this passage, three times not to be afraid- and once to be afraid.
I’ll come back to the one time that fear is a positive but first bring us back into this part of the story that we started last week. Jesus has been moved in his guts to have compassion for the many suffering people he saw around him, and has empowered his disciples to copy exactly what he does to help alleviate that suffering- heal, cast out demons, and announce God’s kingdom coming near. Then he starts warning them of how the powers that be will come after them when they do. Because the Romans were showing off their power on purpose, causing harm to the people for a reason- so they wouldn’t even think of fighting back. That’s what Empires do- crush spirits to prevent resistance. So Jesus empowers his disciples to follow him, do what he’s doing, minister in these ways, but he warns them of how they will be treated. Called names, harm will be intended against them, yes like Jesus will later be tortured and killed.
But he says then do not be afraid of them, and the “them” are the Roman authorities and all those aligned with them. Do not be afraid, but be bold he says, shout from the rooftops what I have whispered to you.
But he goes on to say- do fear- do fear One. The One he is speaking of is God. I have struggled throughout my life with the idea of fearing God. Because there is a lot of misunderstanding around it. Many people fear God as someone who will punish. Someone who, as Jesus even mentions here, has the power to destroy body and soul. Fearing a punishing God who is looking for a reason to “get” you is a belief that keeps a lot of people out of Christian churches. Having to look over your shoulder constantly, worrying if you are being good enough, is no way to have a peaceful or fulfilling spiritual life.
So I do not think that that is the kind of fear Jesus is advocating. I heard a preacher at the festival of homiletics Ellen F. Davis put it so well- the fear of God is knowing “where the true power of the universe resides.” It is another way of saying “faith.” So yes Jesus says to fear God- but not the kind of fear that keeps you up at night worried or the kind of fear that gives you bad dreams or keeps you from acting faithfully. It is the kind of faith that knows God is behind you encouraging you and calling you forward into action and holding you up as you exercise the power that God has given you.
Because a lot of people got it mixed up, then and now. Whom it is right to fear, in the proper way.
Being afraid of what the Romans would do to you, would not allow the disciples to do the ministry, the work that God was calling them to do. If they were all more afraid of the Romans, they would just cower at home and not make any waves. Jesus and his movement would have never gotten off the ground.
But to have the right regard for the Creator of the Universe, the Holy and Mighty and Loving God? That means that you want to align all your priorities with everything that God stands for, and instead of leading you to cower in a corner, you speak what is true, you do what is right and good. And when you know you’ve messed up, you know that God wants you to try again so you repent and you try again, you don’t throw in the towel and resign yourself to eternal punishment. Because the God you appropriately “fear” or regard appropriately as the truly powerful one, leads you to do things to show you are on God’s team.
So Jesus will say 2 more times, don’t fear them. Know God cares about you, so much more than a little sparrow- so you do what you can. Even if it is one cup of cold water. What you can do, is a lot. For God’s kingdom, small actions have great meaning.
There’s more in this passage that bothers me. Why does Jesus say he is bringing a sword, and going to divide people, even families? Even as he is telling us not to be afraid, he says some scary things.
It’s important to remember that there are words Jesus says that are meant like a prescription to follow, instructions to us, like, heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons, freely you have received, freely give… and then words that Jesus says that are simply describing what he sees happening. I think that is what he’s doing here, not calling his followers to pick up weapons, not asking people to invent divisions without good reason, but acknowledging that taking actions God wants, enacting God’s kingdom, is taking a side and will have people on the other side. And there’s no pretending that the two sides are the same, or are both equally good.
This is made clear by the word we say in a baptism. It was almost exactly one year ago that we had a baptism at Palm, little Matthew Vazquez and he’s been on my mind this week.
When someone is baptized, we ask them to make certain pronouncements, to take sides if you will, we ask them (or their sponsors in their place like little Matthew) to “reject the evil powers of this world.” To “resist evil injustice and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.”
Then and only then do we go on to confess Jesus Christ as our savior.
Jesus stands for many beautiful things, healing, wholeness, fullness of life like I talked about last week and other occasions… but Jesus also stands against a lot. There is evil in this world, yes, evil powers. There is injustice and oppression. And we as followers of Jesus have made promises, to reject and actively resist those things- wherever they lurk in our world today.
And some of the places where those things lurk in our world today have become more obvious in recent weeks. The killing of George Floyd shed light on other unlawful killings of Black Americans in recent times, such as Elijah McCain in Colorado, who had gone to a convenience store wearing a mask, before the coronavirus pandemic, which was deemed suspicious by someone who called 911. This led to the police questioning him, a young man on the autism spectrum, finally applying force to his airway, and shortly after he died. The way that racial injustice is threaded all through our society is becoming more and more apparent. Please know I am not talking about fighting against a political party or even any one person- but the power that goes against God that can be within a person and within a system. It is too easy to write someone off as unsavable- but Jesus didn’t do that either. He called people out on their hypocrisy and said plainly what God does not like- but when a Roman military official came to him for help to heal his servant in Matthew chapter 8, Jesus healed him. I think that is important to remember in this time of such great divisions in our country. Yes we stand against evil, but every person is still beloved by God.
Our baptismal promises include working against injustice in whatever form we encounter it. That is a lot. There is evil, oppression, injustice all around us in the world.
But there always has been, especially it was obvious in Jesus’ time. Jesus actively went to encounter people and tell them, this life of suffering is not what God wants for you, God wants healing, God wants fullness of life, God’s kingdom is coming near, here is what it looks like. Our baptismal promises are the beginning of our lives as disciples of Jesus. And those promises are by God’s grace, so we do not need to be afraid.
Only yes have that appropriate regard for the One who is the source of all life, so that you live in those ways, God’s ways.
It helps make all of the rest of this passage make more sense: Losing your life you gain it, in the work of opening the way to fullness of life… all the hairs on your head are counted, you are of so much value to God, And even offering a cup of cold water is an act of welcome and kindness that has a reward. In the way of the all-powerful God, what is valuable is so different than in the other power structures of our world. A small act can have immense power.
What if this week, dear sisters and brothers, we thought of one small thing we could do, to show kindness, to stand against injustice, to bear witness to our faith in Jesus Christ and the God of life and love? Something to meet the thirst for justice, for healing, for life in those we encounter?
It might make us feel a little vulnerable to try something new, it might be something that we are afraid of, letting others know we are on the side of love, trying to do what God wants, because people might call us hypocrites, might say we’re not doing enough. But we can’t let fear of anything be greater than our regard of the great God of the universe. That is the only kind of fear Jesus calls us to, proper worship and proper living to honor God, the faith that knows where the true power of the universe resides. May it be so.