Sermon for First Sunday after Trinity – HIGH MASS Sunday 22 June 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Jeremiah 20.7-13; Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39
When I was preaching in New York last month, one of the last people who spoke to me as I stood at the church door after mass was a gently spoken man who told me he was from Iran. He had come to the United States to study. While there he had become a Christian. He knows that he cannot go home. Friends in the same position who have had disappeared into the Islamic Republic’s jails and are probably dead. This means that he does not know if he will ever see his parents and family again.
Matthew organises the teachings of Jesus into blocks of material on related subjects. Our gospel today is part of what is called “The Mission Sermon.” For Matthew it is more than historical record. He sees it as addressing the situation in which the Church and Christians found themselves in the time he was writing. The Church came to see it as speaking to it in all times. And while it may seem removed from ours, if we come from families which are not religious and we become Christians, our relatives might think us eccentric, but they are unlikely to expel us from the family circle. All we are likely to encounter if our faith becomes the subject of discussion, let alone if we start telling people outside what we hear in the church, “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops,” is a degree of social embarrassment; and yet many of us find even that hard to bear. We may liken our situation to that of Jeremiah who complains that God has enticed, even seduced him into a terrible place: “I have become a laughing stock all day long; everyone mocks me….the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and a derision all day long.” The experience of that man who spoke to me in a church in Manhattan shows that what Jeremiah and Jesus spoke of and what Matthew writes of it is not remote from the lives of many Christians in our world.
When he was speaking to a group of Parliamentarians last week, Archbishop Justin spoke of the visit he and his wife had just made to Pakistan. This included a visit to All Saints, Peshawar – the church where a Taliban bomb exploded after the Sunday Eucharist had claimed the lives of 200 members of the congregation. The archbishop asked the priest if people were now too frightened to come to church. The answer was, “No.” Attendance at All Saints has tripled.
In the news, we hear or read daily of the horrors perpetrated by Islamic extremists, often against their co-religionists, but also against religious minorities, and especially against Christians.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace of the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to 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 household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son of 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.”
We had a family gathering yesterday evening before our son and daughter-in-law go off on holiday. Father and son, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law parted on amicable terms, but even if our experience of family life has not been very happy, still we think it ought to be. So the words of Jesus sound a harsh and jarring note. Is Jesus deliberately intending here to set family members against each other? There have been cults which have deliberately abused this difficult text to separate vulnerable people from their families.
Although these words of Jesus would ordinarily be taken to mean a deliberate purpose, here they are more a way of describing the effect of the coming of Jesus and his proclamation of the kingdom. The response to the message of Jesus in his ministry, and then to his disciples’ proclamation of it in their mission, will be mixed. Later disciples should not expect it be any different for them:
“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave to be like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they malign those of his household!”
It will cause dissension among members of the same household. Jesus takes words from the prophet Micah (7.6) to describe these oppositions. The experience of disciples and those who believe their message will not only be that they will be widely hated, but that they will be rejected by even their own family members.
Today’s Psalm, 69, is one which the early Church quickly came to associate with the passion of Jesus and it is still used in the liturgy of Holy Week:
“I have become a stranger to my own kindred, and alien to my mother’s children. Zeal for your house has eaten me up; the scorn of those who scorn you has fallen upon me”
For contemporaries of Jesus and Matthew, this had consequences which we find difficult to imagine. The breakdown of family relationships is not something we take lightly, but few of us can rely on the extended family as our principal or only support system in the world. That was not the case on the time the gospel was written. It is not so in many parts of our world today. Then and now, the family is the only institution in society on which you can rely for support; the only one you can trust, in a precarious world, to provide shelter and security, support and sustenance. To be separated from one’s family is to be at risk. Anything which undermines family cohesion is a serious threat, and one of the principal foundations of that cohesion is religious belief. The word “religion” comes from that which binds together. So difference in religion, abandoning your family’s ancestral faith for another, is threatening.
Pope Francis has just been visiting a part of southern Italy dominated by one of the mafias, the criminal organisations which dominate so much of the life of that country; whose tentacles reach into every aspect of society.
Those of you who know the “Godfather” trilogy of films about the life of an Italian-American Mafia family, will know that one of its themes is that the family is paramount. Nothing and no-one: state or church, law or love, is allowed to trump the demands of absolute loyalty to it. Its members must never speak against it or demonstrate disloyalty to it. The penalty for infringing this iron rule is death. Such an attitude developed in a society in which respect for the institutions and laws of the state had never really developed because of endemic corruption and abuse of power. The methods used to survive in such a world were simply transplanted to aid an immigrant community in a new world. But this is a family which devours its own children. And so, the Pope has said, members of such organisations should consider themselves excommunicated; cut off from the family of God until they repent.
And what is true of crime families is true also of criminal states: ones which demand absolute loyalty to the ruling ideology or faith, institution or leader, or some combination of these. The history of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China, North Korea is marked by the deliberate encouragement of people to denounce their neighbours, and even children their parents, for any sign of disloyalty. Parents would have to be careful of what they said in front of their children, lest it come to the ears of the authorities and they find themselves dragged off in the middle of the night and consigned to concentration camp or Gulag. They knew all too well what the prophet Jeremiah experienced: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him! All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.” Those whose faith means that they cannot accept the authority of any earthly power, family or state, as ultimate, find themselves in a dangerous place. They must make a choice: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…”
Jesus speaks and Matthew writes to reassure disciples who must face these trials: “So have no fear of them.” They remind disciples then and now that they have a “Father in heaven.” They belong to another and greater family in which God is their Father and he cares for 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.”
Reassurance of God’s loving care is mixed however with challenge and warning:
“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before other, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven, but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
“Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
There is no middle ground here, no comfortable place where we can be neutral, neither for or against Jesus; religious but not very – not enough that is to cause awkward silences at parties or provoke ridicule in the pub. In our hearts we perhaps know this already, even if not with the passionate intensity, that almost physical agony, of which Jeremiah speaks. We know that we cannot say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more of his name.” We know that “within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones….” We know that even if we do not feel that burning fire, we ought to.
But if we disciples are like our teacher, we servants like our master, then we discover that to cling to life, to comfort and security, is to lose it, but to lose life for him is to find it. Or as Paul, who had considerable first-hand experience of the cost of discipleship, the price to be paid in mission, the weight of the cross, puts it, “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”