Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

"Freed to Love with Integrity: The Good News of Matthew’s Hard Word"

by Sarah Dylan Breuer, Cambridge, MA

Scripture: Matthew 10:34-42

In the name of the one who created us for love, the one who frees us to love with integrity, and the one who sets us in communities of love, one God, Amen.

The bulk of this Sunday's gospel is hard to hear for us all across what I call the theo-political spectrum. Those who (like me) emphasize that Jesus' work among us is as reconciler and that Jesus consistently condemned violence are disturbed by Jesus' saying "I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34).

Perhaps even harder for many of us to hear is Jesus' saying that he has come to set parents against children and children against parents. If that makes you feel uncomfortable, you're not alone. The language that passed Jesus' lips about this was almost certainly more like Luke's, which has Jesus saying, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters ... cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26). There's no trick of Greek vocabulary or ancient Aramaic translation that blunts the meaning of the word "hate" there. If you look at how that same word (misein) is used in other places in the New Testament and in Greek literature in general, you’ll see that there’s no way around it: the word is used to mean the opposite of love (agape), the kind of emotion that persecutors feel before they put the persecuted to the sword.

The temptation, when a text like that comes up, is to gloss over it. When a preacher reads something like that in the gospel for the coming Sunday, you’re very likely to hear a sermon about the collect. It’s just too hard to take: how could talk about swords and division turn out to be Good News?

Well any preacher, or any Christian, who trembles a bit during the reading of this Sunday’s gospel is in very good company. Matthew used a lot of the same written sources for his gospel that Luke used, and it’s likely that when Matthew was confronted with Jesus’ harsh language about sons and daughters coming to “hate” their fathers and mothers, Matthew did what we’re tempted to do: if he couldn’t just gloss over it and hope that nobody else had heard about this shocking word from Jesus, the remaining strategy is to backpedal – like the wind! Take those shocking words, and soften the language so that it’s about loving parents or children more than Jesus.

But even with Matthew’s wording, we’ve still got a mouthful here. "Whoever 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" (Matthew 10:37) is still a radical and potentially offensive statement. I think about a bio I once read from an Episcopalian candidate for vestry which said something very like "family is, and will be forever, the absolute foundation of my life, the church, and society." What does Jesus' claim that he came to set parents against children and children against parents do to that? Those who loudly proclaim a Jesus whose "family values" exalt heterosexual marriage and parenthood above all other relationships and priorities can't be biblical literalists about passages like this Sunday's gospel, so they often resort to invented obscure meanings for Greek words to try to dull the force of Jesus' proclamation. Fortunately, we progressives don’t have to take these things literally.

... I’m still not going to just dust my hands off and preach on the collect, though.

We don’t have to take Jesus’ words literally here, but I want to challenge us – me included – to take them seriously – not because we have to, but because I believe that that this bunch of books left to us by ancient performance-art prophets and wild-eyed saints is actually GOOD NEWS, and when we gloss over the parts that make us initially uncomfortable, we run the risk of passing by some words that could serve not only as a healthy challenge to those whose claim to moral privilege and political power too often goes unanswered, but also as an encouraging, inspiring, and liberating word to us.

So what is that inspiring and liberating word in today’s gospel? What the heck is Jesus talking about when he says that he's come to set Mom against her daughter, Dad against son, children against their parents?

One side of it is that Jesus is talking about a fact. In a culture that wants to pay lip service at least to the importance of “family values” above all else, sometimes justice, integrity, and wholeness -- qualities characteristic of Jesus' work among us -- can divide parents from children.

I'm thinking about Zach, a young man of sixteen who lives in Bartlett, Tennessee. Zach loves the Harry Potter movies and The Lord of the Rings and rock bands like Good Charlotte and No Doubt, but he'd usually rather read a book than watch T.V. He has an online journal -- a web log, or “blog” -- that describes a good amount of typical teenage drama in sentences that sometimes run on or lack a few capital letters.

Zach hasn't posted anything new to his blog in nearly a month, though. He's been sent away to a place where he's searched bodily every day, he isn't allowed to have keys to his house or a phone to call a friend, or even a photograph or memento to remind him that he has friends with whom he can hang out or play video games, friends who care about him. He was sent against his will to a place where even Bach and Beethoven are banned as secular music and a possible influence to sin.

Zach was sent there by his parents when he finally worked up the nerve to tell them that he's gay. His parents found this place -- a place run by a group called "Love In Action" -- where they hoped that Zach would, with their treatment, become heterosexual. They told Zach that they were sending him there. Zach ran away, but when he came back to try to reconcile with his parents, they did send him there, very much against his will.

That’s the news I got from all of the conventional news organs – the newspapers, the newsletters, the editorials, the other blogs. It’s bad news too, to hear about what goes on in our culture in the name of things like love, or freedom, or democracy, or even in the name of Jesus himself.

But that’s not the only news I read. As a Christian, I read this book, this bible, not as the bad news that sends Zach to a prison camp, but as a source of Good News, the kind that sets Zach, and you, and me, and our world FREE. It’s this book, and reading it both carefully and prayerfully, that tells me what Jesus really comes to do -- to heal, and to love, and however long it takes to grow, to nurture the peace that comes with the fruit of the Spirit. And I stick with this book because when, as in Zach’s case, it separates a son from his father, I know that, in Paul’s words, “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free,” and Christ is at work in this situation to bring freedom – freedom that both Zach and his father need. I don't know Zach or his parents personally, but just from reading Zach's blog, I wonder whether the best thing I can pray for Zach is that this conflict will be the start of something much better, that he'll find a way to BREAK AWAY from his parents while staying safe. Zach needs to be among people who, though they're not related to him by blood, will receive him as a beloved brother, a child of God whose every capacity for self-giving and life-affirming love is a gift from God.

I spent the day last Sunday in just that sort of community, standing with people from this parish at a booth at the Gay Pride festival, handing out fortune cookies and brochures and cards with Good News for anyone with ears to hear – that the kind of beloved community and chosen family we all were born to seek is HERE, wherever two or three gather in the name of our shocking and life-giving Savior. That’s GOOD NEWS, for us and for the whole world, as I read about in a very, very Good Book.

But can be very difficult to stand in a place like a Gay Pride festival with a cross around your neck. There are so many people who think – whose parents and pastors may have told them – that all the Cross or the Bible has to offer is condemnation. Worse, yet, there are people who are attracted to the Cross and the Bible for just that reason – because there’s something in them that loves the idea of a judgmental God who hates and wants to punish all the same people that they do.

But they’re not reading carefully enough. If they did, they’d catch a glimpse of what energized St. Paul to proclaim Good News among all people – even, or especially, those who at first could see him only as a lunatic or a heretic. If they did read the whole story – if WE read the whole story – we might find something even more audacious and inspiring to dream about than the best of what we knew to hope for before.

I’ve read to the end of this very Good Book, and I’d like to share with you one of the dreams it’s given me – a dream for Zach. As I said before, I hope and pray that Zach could find the kind of community we’ve experienced here – a community where he could be received as a beloved child of God, and start to take in just how extravagant and unconditional God’s love for him is. But it doesn’t stop there. My dream, my hope -- my vision, as someone who believes with all her heart that the God of Israel, the God who became Incarnate in Jesus, is present and active and powerful to heal and redeem -- is that Zach could, with the support of his new sisters and brothers and an unshakable sense of just how much God loves him, find the strength and the courage to forgive his parents, and that they would be moved to reconcile with him, receiving him as an adult with his own integrity, not as a disobedient son, but as a beloved brother in Christ.

Is that even possible? At the very least, it does take a willingness to risk it, which in turn has to come from a glimpse of the immeasurable height and depth of God’s love for each one of us. But it is possible, with God. That's the Good News in this hard word of Jesus about the gospel inspiring sons and daughters to break from their parents. Our culture wants to paper over cracks and wounds to get us to limp along in relationships with others, relationships with money, relationships with power, and even relationships with God that seem to work superficially, but won’t allow us to experience real freedom, real love, real justice. So it’s Good News that Christ has come to break us out of those old and harmful patterns.

But that isn’t all. The Good News we proclaim – the Good News of this Good Book – is that there is no brokenness, nothing so disordered as to be completely beyond the reach of God's power to redeem. That’s the story of the world, and our story when we claim it. There are a lot of people out there who have told Zach and you and me that what God wants and what the Bible commands is about being good, following the rules that keep the powerful in power, the rich getting richer, the respectable keeping others invisible. But when we take the story of God’s people as our own story and when we wrestle with that story -- all of it -- in community, there is no prior obligation, no person, no cultural imperative, no unjust law, no earthly power that can keep us from our identity in Christ. Our freedom in Christ divides us from all that would oppress us and restores us to one another as members of one Body of Christ, called to ministry and maturity in Christ, co-heirs with the one who sets us free.

Thanks be to God!

See Also:

I Have Not Come to Bring Peace
by Aaron Burgess

Taking Gospel to the People
by Elisabeth Johnson

True Discipleship, Christ Brings Division
by Edward F. Markquart

Battle Your Heart to Keep Jesus First
by Gregg Bitter

Losing Life and Finding It
by The Joshua Victor Theory

Peace With God
by Dr. Lonnie H. Lee

The Welcome Wagon
by The Rev. J. Curtis Goforth, O.S.L.

Second Sunday after Pentecost
by Richard Alan Jordan

Love Me More
by Monte Marshall, TX

Freed to Love with Integrity: The Good News of Matthew’s Hard Word
by Sarah Dylan Breuer, Cambridge, MA

Devotional Thoughts Based on Matthew 10:34-39
by James T. Batchelor

Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

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