Scary Jesus (or is it Matthew?)

Sermon for Sunday, June 22nd, 2014 || Proper 7, Year A || Genesis 21: 8-21; Psalm 86: 1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b -11; Matthew 10: 24-39 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield

If you’ve ever been in my office here at church, you’ve undoubtedly seen my irreverent collection of Jesus paraphernalia. In fact, many of you have actually contributed to it! I have a bobble-head Jesus, a Jesus action toy, a truly horrible pink velvet “Ask Jesus” fortune telling figure modeled on the old Magic 8-ball toy…I’ve got Jesus packing tape, Jesus pencil erasers, Jesus Band-Aids, and numerous other equally tacky and tasteless religious tchotchkes.

But there’s one piece in particular I am reminded of this morning– a plaster bust of Jesus’ head called “Miracles Eyes Jesus”—so called because no matter where you go in a room Jesus follows you and stares at you. There’s no escaping the steady gaze of this decidedly blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus. You can move up or down, to the left or to the right, but no matter where you go, this all-seeing Jesus is watching. This Jesus in particular is affectionately referred to by my daughter as, “Scary Jesus.”

Well, without some context for this morning’s gospel reading, what we are faced with is Scary Jesus. Matthew gives us a sort of hodge-podge of disturbing, threatening, and outrageously demanding teachings from an all-or-nothing, truly frightening Jesus. There are also some really important words of comfort here too, but they’re so far down in the story that any good newspaper editor would accuse Matthew of “burying the lead.”

So no, I’m not going to soft-pedal today’s message or try to make it more palatable to our 21st century ears; because if we take today’s gospel message seriously, there’s no way for it not to make us uncomfortable. But I do want to provide some context for it, and then point us to the good new that’s hidden here, too.

First, in many ways this morning’s gospel tells us more about Matthew and his community than it does about Jesus.

This reading is the second “chunk” of what’s known as the “mission discourse” that comprises Chapter Ten of Matthew’s gospel. In the first chunk, which we didn’t get to read this year because of oddities in the lectionary calendar, Matthew relates how Jesus commissions the disciples and sends them out “like sheep in the midst of wolves.” He tells how Jesus warns the disciples that they will be persecuted and “handed over to councils and flogged in their synagogues.”

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child,” Matthew has Jesus say, “And children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 22and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

What it’s so important for us to understand about all of this is that Matthew is writing at a time of intense hostility between his own Jewish-Christian community and the local synagogue in which they had until now worshipped. We need to understand that both mainstream Jews and Matthew’s nascent Christian community considered themselves to be the true Israel, the fulfillers of God’s divine plan. Matthew and his community were convinced that in Jesus they had found the true understanding of Jewish law and the fulfillment of the prophets, yet they had been unable to convince many, if not most, of their most beloved friends and family. Instead, they were in many cases disowned by their families, kicked out of their synagogues, and ostracized by the very same communities in which they had spent their entire lives and in whom they had formed their entire identity.

So there’s this huge, gaping wound of separation that is still really raw for Matthew. He’s writing from a perspective of grief that colors all he says, and all he reports Jesus to have said.

It’s no wonder then that Matthew wants to warn these early Jewish followers of the cost of discipleship, and to encourage them to stand strong despite persecution: “If they call Jesus ‘Satan’ imagine what they’re going to call you” he seems to say. “And if they crucified our Messiah, don’t expect any better for yourselves!”

“But remember,” he says, “they can kill your body but not your soul. There’s a lot more to life than this life, and you are alive now in Christ. That means forever. For. Ever. So don’t be afraid to spread the word. Don’t be afraid of claiming your allegiance to Christ. Shout it from the rooftops in broad daylight. Don’t deny Jesus or he may deny you! Your families may disown you, the synagogue may ostracize you, but you’ve got to put Christ first.”

Now, how much of this is actually attributable to Jesus, how much to the writer of Matthew’s gospel, and how much to later “redactors” or editors– is something we don’t yet, and may never, know.

But I’m not sure how much that matters for us as 21st century North American Christians. Clearly, as far as “outing” ourselves as followers of Jesus, we’ve got it pretty darned easy. Unlike Christians facing “extreme” or “severe” persecution in 27 countries and “moderate” persecution in 23 more, we have no fear of being hanged, lashed, imprisoned, or stoned to death for refusing to renounce our faith.

I suppose we might face embarrassment in some circles. And we certainly don’t want to offend anyone. But I wonder what, exactly, our fear really is of acknowledging our faith before others and how we can possibly expect Christ’s church to grow if we don’t overcome that fear?

I wonder how we, as a culture, have allowed sharing our love for God and the gospel of new life in Christ become taboo? And I wonder how we might honor –by proclaiming our Christian faith–the many victim’s of contemporary persecution like Meriam Ibrahim, facing execution in Sudan for refusing to renounce her Christian faith?

While preparing this sermon I read a commentary by a New Testament scholar named Stan Saunders. One line that really jumped out at me in Saunders’ commentary was this one. Referring to the disciples in today’s gospel he writes:

“Even though doing so will bring suffering, the gospel must now be proclaimed, “in the light and from the   housetops” (10:27), for the gospel proclaimed and lived is the most powerful tool at the disciples’ disposal against the powers of this world.”

The gospel proclaimed and lived is the most powerful tool at the disciples’ disposal against the powers of this world. It’s the mostpowerful tool at our disposal too. And we have nothing to fear by proclaiming it. No fear of persecution, no fear of shunning by our families, no fear of torture or death. And we, too, are of far more value to God than many sparrows. So what are we waiting for? Really, what are we waiting for? I wonder.

I wonder, and I pray. May God grace each and every one of us with the courage to acknowledge our faith before others, and to proclaim it in the light of day from our metaphorical housetops, that all those we meet might come within the saving embrace of Christ’s love and mercy. Amen.


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