Text: Matthew 10:24-39
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to accept the cost of discipleship and to receive assurance of God’s watchfulness and care.
There is a small tree on the front lawn of the parsonage that hasn’t budded into leaf. From one of its branches, my wife and I hung a birdfeeder which sparrows, blue-jays, cardinals, crows, robins and chickadees have enjoyed along with chippies and squirrals. Human, canine and feline residents of the parsonage have all enjoyed watching the activity at the feeder. “Don’t let the trustees cut down the dead tree the feeder hangs from!” my wife begged the other day.
“They won’t do that,” I replied, before going out to examine whether the tree really is dead. It is covered with buds that haven’t progressed and do seem brittle, so time will tell if it is a late bloomer or not. We will keep an eye on it and do what we can to help it thrive.
In a similar way, God watches over us, though we are not always aware of it. When troubles come and life feels brittle, when misunderstandings occur and relationships break, when doing the right thing draws criticism rather than praise, we feel like God’s attention is elsewhere. “Does God really see what I am going through?” we ask, “And if God sees, does God really care? Will I be chopped down or rescued?”
In the gospel of Matthew, chapter 10, Jesus sends his twelve disciples on a mission to announce, “The kingdom of heaven is near,” and to heal the sick. He doesn’t sugarcoat the mission. He says in effect, “There will be many who will not listen to your message, and there will be many who do not welcome your help. No good deed goes unpunished. But don’t let that stop you from doing good or speaking truth. You have words of life, power to heal, hope to give. Give generously, regardless of opposition, for God is with you.”
Jesus assures his disciples that God watches over them just as God watches over the sparrows which are sold two for a penny. Though sparrows have little value in human currency, they have great value to God. This anchors the disciples in mission: though some may judge their witness to have no value, God sees their faithfulness and sustains them.
But then Jesus says one of the most difficult things of his entire ministry, one that on surface seems to contradict his own message. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.” Quoting from the prophet Micah, he continues, “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother. A daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Hold your horses! What is he really saying? How can this possibly fit with, “Love your neighbor as yourself?” Stripped of context and meaning, such words sound violent, dangerous and abusive. How can they possibly fit with the angelic announcement of his birth promising peace on earth?
First, Jesus’ method of teaching made generous use of parable and metaphor. The sword that Jesus references is not a sharp blade used for cutting, slicing and dicing, but a word of God that penetrates right to the heart, revealing what is honestly and truly there. God is not fooled by expressions and professions of worship that are not backed up by authenticity and integrity. We may convince others of our righteousness. We may even fool ourselves into thinking we have it together. But we cannot fool God.
Second, whenever we choose to follow Jesus in the path of wholeness, discipleship and compassion, the commitment shifts our interaction with others. In all honesty, this can feel quite threatening to those close to us. Let us say, for example, that you have a child, spouse or friend who has an addiction. They may depend on you to ‘cover’ for them, to bail them out of trouble, or to make excuses in their behalf. As you grow in wholeness, learning how to avoid codependent and enabling behavior, your loved one finds him or herself exposed. The betrayal they feel hurts, but is essential to recovery.
In the past year, I have witnessed many of you living into this miracle. You have taken the high road when others misrepresented you. You have written notes offering or requesting forgiveness to heal a fractured relationship. You have offered compassion regardless of mistakes made by others and have taken heat for it. You have spoken a difficult truth because you care enough to help others grow. You have given assistance even though some have taken advantage of your compassion.
Jesus never said the way would be easy. In fact, he said just the opposite. As we grow into the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus preached in earlier chapters of Matthew, we find that loving others radically, especially those on the margins who make us feel uncomfortable, and who sometimes seem ‘sketchy,’ comes with a cost. As we confront racism, abuse of the earth, xenophobia, homophobia and fear of the ‘other’ in our own hearts, communities and conversations, we encounter opposition, and often that conflict comes from those closest to us, even those in our own family.
At such times, it is tempting to give up, to no longer engage in debate, to walk away and put distance in the relationship, or, worse still, to buckle and become complicit in the prejudice. Sometimes we want to shake the dust off our feet, or call fire down upon our ‘enemies,’ forgetting they are really friends and family. But that is not the way of Christ, and it is not the way of love. The mission continues: tell them the kingdom of heaven is near and heal them.
Right in the middle of this challenging teaching, Jesus speaks of the sparrow. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Sometimes we, too, feel small, vulnerable to attack, unequal to the challenges of the age in which we live. We fear those who can harm us, dismiss us, embarrass us or misrepresent us. We struggle to be courageous in a world that feels callous. But we carry a vital message of life, a faith that trusts God, a hope that heals and a love that grows a better tomorrow. God not only sees what is, but also what can be.
“Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come? Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home? When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is “he: his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.
“Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, when song gives place to sighing, when hope within me dies, I draw the closer to him, from care he sets me free: his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me, his eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me. Please join with me, “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free! His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
Go get ‘em!