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Sunday June 20, 1999 ~ Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Sermon Text:  Matthew 10:24-39
Romans 6:1b-11   *  Genesis 22:1-14  *  Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17


A Cross To Bear

A colleague who served a fairly wealthy congregation told me that parishioners had invited him to go to Nassau and spend a week on their yacht in a harbor on Paradise Island. They just gave him the keys.

"That must be hard to take," I quipped.

"Well," he said, "Someone has to minister to the souls of the wealthy and you can't do that if you don't accept their invitations!"

Not exactly, "Take up the cross and follow me!" would you say?

And yet it is a matter of perspective isn't it?

I can recall very clearly a young man and woman in Mexico seeing their brand new 12 x 14 foot concrete block home.  It had a dirt floor and a corrugated steel roof and a tiny patch of ground for a yard with a water spout behind the house.  They were about to move in with their infant daughter and they were filled with such amazing gladness.  A one hundred and sixty eight square foot house with a dirt floor and the woman wept with joy because it was light years from the abandoned car they had been calling home.

The difference between that little hut and what I had always considered my meager middle class home with its amenities in Wisconsin is less than the difference between my home and the half million dollar yacht my friend was about to spend a week on!

So -- the happiest guy in the world has to be the owner of the yacht in the harbor on Paradise Island right?  I mean when you look at a family of three in a 168 square foot hut and a couple on a 2400 square foot yacht, you have to think the couple feels like they are in heaven.  Right?

Wrong!

The rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say is this.  My friend told me that the owner of the yacht is miserable.   That's right -- he's miserable.  He was fine you understand, until his neighbor at the harbor pulled in with his new  ¾  million dollar yacht!   It is fifteen feet longer and has 700 more square feet of living space than his does.

Kind of gets you right here -- doesn't it?   [Beat breast!]

To jolt your perspective just one more time.   Can you think of anyone who might consider the couple in Mexico with their little hut to be quite fortunate?

Does the name Jesus come to mind?  There is a line in Matthew where Jesus tells a prospective follower, ""Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."  [Mt. 8:20]  Amazingly,  Jesus said this to someone who wanted to become one of his followers.  That prospective follower was warned --  a follower of Christ did not even have a claim for a place to lay their head at night after a long day's work.  This almost sounds like those who make the commitment to follow Jesus will be homeless!

Perspective makes all the difference in the world. Between homelessness and a ¾ million dollar yacht the definition of who is well off and who is not changes radically. Perspective is everything.  A mid-level manager who is facing "downsizing" and loss of a $80,000 dollar a year job might have a hard time sympathizing with a star athlete who is holding out for an extra half million on his 4 million dollar a year contract.  [For more on this subject see Money and Materialism in the Illustration Data Base]

***

Our scripture reading today is an example of how perspective makes all the difference in the world.  Literally!  Jesus is appointing twelve of his followers to take his mission and his message to God's people Israel. (These are the twelve who will become known as "the disciples" -- and later apostles.)

What does it mean to follow Christ?  Are there perks?  What are the  benefits?

Some people have taught that people who believe in and follow Jesus can expect to be healthy, wealthy and happy.  If you believe strongly enough you can have that yacht!  You can bypass sickness and disease. I can recall reading a newspaper ad on the "church page" that read in part, "Come and receive your miracle!"  These promises were deep in what some called the "prosperity" gospel.

And what does it mean to have a full, meaningful life?  Didn't Jesus promise hope, joy, love and peace to those who would follow him?   There is a whole industry for Christian "self help" books and products.   Perhaps you've seen those ads that promise success in almost everything if you will follow Jesus -- and buy the books, tapes and videos.

Don't get me wrong here.  I am very interested in health and happiness.  I want to feel like I can take my trials and troubles to God.  I pray for my children when they are ill and I turn to God when there is more month left at the end of my check than there is check left at the end of the month.  I don't want to represent Christianity as a "hair shirt" or an invitation to gloom and doom.

On the other hand, I am sophisticated enough to know that John F. Kennedy's, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country," can not be translated to the church so easy these days.  People who study things like church growth tell us that the church faces a "consumerism" culture which must shape our outreach -- or we miss the boat.  People are looking for services from the church and not a place to serve.   Given a choice between wearing a gold cross or bearing a wooden cross -- most folks will take the gold!

To all of this, today's scripture will shake up our perceptions.  What does it mean to follow Christ?  And more than that -- what does it take to serve Christ?  Perhaps the best way to look at this is to ask the question, "What are your expectations in being a follower of Christ?"   In spite of anything you might have heard to the contrary, Christianity is not a religion where God does all the giving and we do all the getting. 

Unlike a lot of nominating committees in local churches, Jesus does not pull any punches.  When he sends out his chosen twelve, he tells them in very clear terms.  Expect persecution and expect conflict -- even with your families.  Expect to make a "no holes barred" commitment.  However...  in the end, expect to find the true meaning of life and living.   Jesus' words center in three themes:  [1] Persecution,  [2] Presence,   and  [3] Promise.

[1] Persecution

When Jesus sent his chosen twelve out, he made it clear to them that they would receive the same treatment he received.  They would face rejection, hostility and persecution.  In fact, his words about not fearing those who can "kill the body" had to send a chill or two down their spines!

This seems almost 'other worldly" to most of us.  We don't take much heat for our faith.  But there are those like Bishop Juan José Gerardi who was murdered a little over a year ago in Guatemala.  Two days before his brutal death, he released a major study on human rights violations and atrocities perpetrated by the government during the nations long civil war.  Or there are those church leaders in Congo-Brazzaville who remain in a dangerous, destabilized nation caught up in civil war so they can be close to their communities to take up their ministry of peace once again.

You and I don't face that kind of danger for our convictions.  Yet, there may be times when your inner values challenge the values of the world around you.  A manager in the health care industry quit her job because, "I got tired of looking for ways to deny coverage to people who needed help.  When I questioned my supervisor, he told me I knew where the door was."  A committed Christian guy in Washington D.C. gave up a lucrative position to go to work for 1/3 of his salary to manage an inter-faith coalition for the homeless. "Driving out of D.C. past all those homeless people to my wonderful home in Virginia got to me."  An wealthy, elderly man in one church I served, re-wrote his will after seeing the plight of poor, sick children in Tijuana, Mexico.  He provided for his two adult children, but willed a large portion of his estate to an outreach ministry that would help children like that.  His son and daughter took him to court!

Not exactly severe persecution...    But -- a strong commitment to Jesus Christ that results in commitment to keep his teaching will bring a crunch somewhere, sometime to all of us.  And when that comes to pass -- or if you should ever find yourself in tremendous conflict because of your faith, there is something that will help.

[2] Presence

Two things help when Christians face a world that is hostile to their commitment.  God knows and God cares!  In other words, God is present with us in every circumstance.

"Don't be afraid, Jesus says, "your tormentors can only destroy the body -- they can't touch the soul."  And consider this.  Even sparrows, which can be had at two for a penny, do not escape the attention of God.  The one who is with the fallen sparrow is with the child of God.

The presence of God gives courage to openly affirm our values, our commitments and our Lord!

Jesus said if we deny him before others, he would deny us before God.  We are to stand firm, all the more because we have the knowledge of God's care in the midst of trial. Yet, Peter, it turns out, would deny Christ when the chips were down.  Jesus had been arrested and things did not look good for this revolution of love --  and when asked, Peter swore up and down (literally) that he did not know who Jesus was.  Nevertheless, Peter was forgiven, renewed and sent out to try again.  Thank goodness!  (There's hope for you and me.)  The key thought here is that we are called to stand squarely for the person and passion of Christ.

There is an old gospel song that contains the words, "...His eye is on the sparrow -- and I know He cares for me..."   Because I am aware of the care of God and the presence of God at every juncture in my life, I am able to keep my commitments.  And when my strength fades and my commitment wavers, I am graced with the knowledge that the one who bought my soul with his life will heal my failures with his love.

[3] Promise

One of the amazing and wonderful things about our faith is this: In the midst of the most difficult test of all -- when the worst that can happen has happened, the promises of God come through to bring, hope, joy and new life!

"If you lose your life for my sake," Jesus said, "you will find it."

Jesus makes the most incredible claim at the close of our scripture lesson.  This claim is absolutely consistent with the whole thrust of his ministry.

Jesus takes the values and presuppositions of this world and turns them upside down and inside out!  The way up with God, for instance, is down.  Humility lifts one up while arrogance puts one down!  The first, he says, will be last.  That is, those who buy the line that "Looking Out for Number One," is the way to success will ultimately discover that looking out for   number one actually delivers a person to last place.  The world says that the one who has lots of servants is great while Jesus says that the one who serves a lot is great! The world says he who saves and invests a lot in the markets of this world will be secure while Jesus says the one who gives up the treasure of this world will have the ultimate security -- namely "treasure in heaven."

Here's the promise that confounds the world.   Christian faith is based on the way of the cross.  Death is defeated and gives way to authentic life.  When you take up a cross, the world sees death, but God sees life. When Jesus is executed, the world breathes a sigh of relief, but God brings about a resurrection.

There is a profound promise here.  When you surrender your life to Christ you do not loose.  The world experiences surrender as tragedy.  In the world it is the Vince Lombardi line, "Winning isn't everything -- it's the only thing!" Christians, on the other hand, turn that all upside down -- surrender to Christ is to gain, it is a spiritual triumph.

"Take up your cross and follow me," Jesus says.  Although the cross is the way of death in the eyes of the world, it is the way to life in the eye of God!


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

In the gospel reading Christ spells out the cost of following him.  Those who "lose their life for my sake will find it."  We are not to fear that which can do harm to the physical body, but that which can do harm to the soul.  In Romans, Paul says we are dead to sin and alive to God.  Death no longer has power over the one who is united to Christ. The Genesis text relates tangentially in that God saves Hagar's son Ishmael from death.

To follow Christ and choose his ways is the way to authentic life.  Both Matthew and Romans contrast two ways of life.  One leads to the life Christ gives -- the life which overcomes and defeats death and the life of the "old self" which was self-directed and is finally overcome by death.  A key question in the gospel and epistle is:   "What is life and what is death?"  Matthew speaks to outward struggle with opposition from others who oppose our faith.  Paul speaks to inward struggle with our human nature which opposes the values of the new life of Christ within.

Matthew 10:24-39

A summary of this text would be:  Jesus says to his disciples,  "Expect the same kind of treatment people give to me -- but, don't be afraid because God is watching over you.  If you follow me, you can expect conflict and sometimes even death -- yet, with me you will have life that death can not touch."

"If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul..."  See Mark 3:22. 

This passage is a strong call and caution to followers of Christ.  They can expect opposition and conflict from religious officials and even from their families.  Jesus experienced both.  From the Pharisees, he received accusations that he was in league with the devil and even from his own family came a concern that he was "out of his mind."  [Mk. 3:21-22]

By the time Matthew writes his gospel, many in the young church are experiencing persecution and hardship because of their faith.  Others are falling away under the pressure to deny Christ and affirm the lordship of Caesar. Matthew reaches back and gathers sayings of Jesus that speak to this deep concern.  To these concerns, Jesus says three times that they should not fear.  "Do not be afraid!"

In our own time and culture (with the exception our subscribers whose ministries are in particular third world cultures), most of us do not face the difficult persecution -- however there is a strong call to discipleship.  Indeed the persecution for many of us is not the violent persecution of the world, but the reverse psychology type persecution of luxury and leisure.  I will never forget my wife's struggle to communicate to her grandfather what the term, "three-day-weekend"  meant.  He had been a farmer, God rest his soul, and a "day off" was otherwise called Christmas or Easter!

This text gives an opportunity to discuss interpretation of scripture.  Jesus makes a couple of statements that appear to absolutely contradict things he says elsewhere.  "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword..."  How does that square with "My peace I give to you..." [John 14:27]  or, "Put your sword back in its place..."   [Mt. 26:52]   Scripture can not be properly understood apart from context, and culture.  Jesus' comments in John 14 have to do with the peace he gives in contrast to the peace the world gives.  "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword..." on the other hand, has to do with the conflict that will come when commitment to Christ conflicts with commitment to family, friends, work etc. One may have the peace of Christ at the same time as she or he has conflict with the world.   That's context.  When Jesus says, "I have come to set a man against his father..." he is using Jewish hyperbole.  This is akin to sayings like, "If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away." [Mt. 18:9]  Jewish hyperbole sets two opposites in tension so as to make clear the choice.

Romans 6:1-11

One of the criticisms Paul faced was the old argument that if salvation comes by grace and not by works, then can we not do what we want when we want and still count of God's gift of salvation?  If grace is "unmerited favor",  then I can do what I want -- God will forgive me and give me grace.

Or as Paul puts it, "Should we continue in sin that grace may abound?"  His answer is clear... "By no means!"  The resulting text is one of the great New Testament passages on the meaning of new life in Christ.  Our baptism identifies us with the death and resurrection of Christ.  As Christ defeated death and rose to a new life, so also we have a new life to live.  The life we have in Christ can never expire or be impacted by death.  This life is a gift which can not be bought by the greatest wealth the world has to offer.  There is a question to suggest to your listeners that comes from this text.  A question to ask in light of the inevitable envy most of us will feel when we see the man with the "yacht." 

"Will you still envy this guy in eighty years?"  Nuff said!

Death no longer has any power over us!  Possible theme here is, "The Day Death Died!"

Genesis 21:8-21

This is a tough story.   While studying this episode some years ago in a bible study, a woman in our group commented, "Well this isn't very nice at all!"  It was a rich bit of understatement.  her point was that is was Sarah's idea in the first place that Abraham try to have a child with Hagar.  Now she wants her thrown out!

God is going to keep the promise to Abraham no matter what -- poor Hagar and her child get caught up in the whims of important people -- or at least so it seems.

The text makes a few important points.  [1]  God's promises are sure in spite of the failures of the people who receive the promises.  [2]  God hears the cries of all people.   [3] God's plans are not thwarted by our inadequacies.  The main point is not the character deficiencies of Abraham and Sarah, but the character of God.


Worship Helps

A Call To Worship (Based on Psalm 86)

Leader:   Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.
People:  In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.
Leader:   Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.
People:  O Lord, you, abound in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Leader:   Be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.
People:  We shall bow down before you, O Lord, and glorify your name. Amen.

A Prayer Of Dedication

We who have received the gift of life everlasting come before you O Holy God,
to offer these gifts to you.  We are humbled and we are honored.  Though we
were dead, you made us alive. Though we had nothing to give, you chose
to build the kingdom of love through our giving.  O bless us now, our Lord, as
we bring these gifts and our hearts to you.  Amen.

 

A Pastoral Prayer

Sometimes, O Lord our God, the values of this world overwhelm our hearts
and minds.  We'd love to win the lottery or spend a month on a yacht down in
Nassau.  We are so vulnerable to jealousy toward those who spend summers in
Vermont, winters in Hawaii and vacations in Paris. O free us, we pray, from the
treadmills of envy and selfish desire.

Open our hearts more fully to the life without limits that is ours if only we could
train our hearts to look to you for fulfillment.  Give us a faith that can see beyond
the illusions of this world and a trust that can tell the difference between the glitter
of empty gain and the gift of eternal glory.

You have given us so much more than we could ever ask for.  Your love and
grace are greater luxuries than any lottery could ever deliver.  The gift of new life
which is ours in Christ is beyond anything we could ever imagine.  You have given
us freedom from the fear and the finality of death.  How can we not love you and
how can we not proclaim your glory?

Come bless us, O Lord, with courage to tell the story, joy to live the new life and
hope to color our future.   Amen.