Sunday 22 June 2014

Fearlessly do what is right

An address given At Templederry, St Mary's Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 22nd June 2014, the 1st after Trinity, year A

Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (10:24Matthew 10:24-39 is strong meat, isn’t it!
When I first read it I said to myself, ‘Joc, you really can’t preach about this!’ How could such dark stuff about conflict, violence and death be appropriate for a lovely summer’s day? A day of joy, as Caleb & Laura Clarke bring their daughter Amy to Killodiernan to be baptised. And a day of fond farewells to Bishop Trevor and Joyce this afternoon in the Cathedral in Limerick.

But then I re-read it, I thought about it some more, and I realised that I have no choice in the matter – it is my duty to wrestle with it. That is what the Lectionary is for – to make preachers like me focus on passages from scripture they might prefer to avoid. As Jesus said, ‘What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops’.

First, what is the context of the passage?
Jesus is briefing his disciples - the Twelve - as he sends them out two by two on a ministry training exercise. He is sending them out on their own for the first time to imitate his ministry, to proclaim the good news and to heal the sick. He has just warned them what they must confront: ‘See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me’.

Who are these wolves? Jesus as always is entirely realistic about the world – it is full of people consumed by evil motives. People like the Pharisees, who Matthew tells us criticised Jesus for healing the mentally ill, whispering about ‘By the ruler of the demons he casts out demons’. Beelzebul is the Aramaic name of the ruler of the demons, the devil. If the Pharisees and people like them attack Jesus and call him Beelzebul, what will they do to his followers?

So, in the first half of the reading Jesus seeks to reassure his disciples.
Three times he tells them not to be afraid of such people – they may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul. Instead they should fear God. Now, if we disobey God, if we blank out our God-given conscience, we lose our soul, we lose our integrity as human beings made in God’s image. And that is worse than death.

Shakespeare expresses the same thought in Hamlet, when he puts these words in the mouth of Polonius as he says farewell to his son Laertes, ‘This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man’.

Jesus reminds his disciples that God is like a loving Father who values them. ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.’ What a lovely image.

And Jesus promises solidarity with his disciples in the face of persecution: ‘Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven’.

Jesus is surely teaching his disciples – and through them us - an important lesson, which we must in turn teach our own children. It is this: each one of us must be fearless in doing what we know is right, because each one of us is loved and valued by God.

At the Baptism in Killodiernan the address ended with this:
Let us pray that with the help of Caleb and Laura, and her Godparents, Amy will learn this lesson and learn it well. 

May she and Sarah-Jane, and all the children here, grow up ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ to overcome the wolves they will encounter in the world!

In the other churches it continued s follows.

But what of the second half of the reading, with its apocalyptic tone?
Matthew has already told us that Jesus taught his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount to turn the other cheek in the face of violence. How then can Jesus now declare: ‘I have not come to bring peace, but a sword’?

Jesus continues, quoting from the prophet Micah: ‘For I have set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household’. Micah is writing in the 8th Century BC about the corruption of Jerusalem, lamenting the collapse of traditional Israelite values and foreseeing the city’s eventual destruction.

No doubt Jesus’s disciples understood the reference to be to the corruption of their own time. And they probably realised that for them to be true to the values Jesus taught them and leave home and family to become itinerant preachers - would inevitably split their families.

Notice that Jesus, following Micah, is talking about conflict between generations – sons against fathers, daughters against mothers. We all know, don't we, that children always cause their parents grief by their behaviour. And parents are always scorned by their children for their comfortable hypocrisies. I think Jesus is making a general point, relevant to every time and place: young people, in order to be true to their own conscience and to God – to be true to their own selves in Shakespeare’s sense - are bound to behave in ways that hurt their parents.

And this is right. Because Jesus claims his disciples for himself before any family ties, and calls them to follow him no matter what pain and suffering it causes: 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; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me’.

Are we prepared for this? 
We must become so. Loving parents must let their children go to grow as individuals, informed by their own sense of right and wrong - and loving children likewise their parents. Our Christian hope is that their relationship with God through Jesus will deepen and broaden as the Spirit leads their journey as disciples - because ‘those who find their life’ – those concerned only for their own life - ‘ will lose it, and those who lose their life for (Jesus) sake will find it’.

And let us pray that young and old we may all be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ to overcome the wolves we encounter in the world.