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Sermon for Sunday 21 June 2020

First Reading                                                   Jeremiah 20:7-13

7O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. 8For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. 10For I hear many whispering. Terror is on every side! “Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” say all my close friends, watching for my fall. “Perhaps he will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him.” 11But the Lord is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble; they will not overcome me. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. 12O Lord of hosts, who tests the righteous, who sees the heart and the mind, let me see your vengeance upon them, for to you have I committed my cause. 13Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hand of evildoers.

Psalm                                                Psalm 91:1-16

1He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, abides under the shadow of the Almighty. 2He shall say to the Lord, “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.” 3He shall deliver you from the snare of the hunter and from the deadly pestilence. 4He shall cover you with his pinions, and you shall find refuge under his wings; his faithfulness shall be a shield and buckler. 5You shall not be afraid of any terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day; 6Of the plague that stalks in the darkness, nor of the sickness that lays waste at mid day. 7A thousand shall fall at your side and ten thousand at your right hand, but it shall not come near you. 8Your eyes have only to behold to see the reward of the wicked. 9Because you have made the Lord your refuge, and the Most High your habitation, 10There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling. 11For he shall give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways. 12They shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone. 13You shall tread upon the lion and adder; you shall trample the young lion and the serpent under your feet. 14Because he is bound to me in love, therefore will I deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. 15He shall call upon me, and I will answer him; I am with him in trouble; I will rescue him and bring him to honor. 16With long life will I satisfy him, and show him my salvation.

Second Reading                                   Romans 6:12-23

12Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. 15What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 20For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Gospel                                                        Matthew 10:5a, 21-33

5aThese twelve {disciples} Jesus sent out, instructing them,

21“Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. 24A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. 25It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. 26So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 27What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. 28And 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. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

Stop Being Afraid

I read a story the other day of a family who had three small children who were determined to have their own puppy.  The mother protested because she knew that somehow, she would be the one who ended up caring for the pup.  The children pleaded with her and solemnly promised that they would take care of the dog; they just had to have their own puppy.  Finally, Mom relented, and they brought a little puppy home.  They named him Danny and cared for him diligently . . . for about a month.

As time passed, as predicted, Mom found herself responsible for cleaning and feeding the dog.  It didn’t take long, and she decided that the children were not living up to their promise, so she resolved to find a new home for Danny.  However, mom was quite surprised to find that the children’s reactions were mild.  One of them remarked matter-of-factly, “We’ll miss him.”  “Yes,” Mom answered, “we will miss him, but he’s too much work for one person, and since I’m the one that has to do all the work, I say he goes.”

“But,” protested another child, “if he wouldn’t eat so much and wouldn’t be so messy, could we keep him?”  Mom held her ground, “It’s time to take Danny to his new home.”  With one voice and in tearful outrage the children reacted, “DANNY?” they sobbed.  “We thought you said Daddy!” 

Today, believe it or not, is Father’s Day.  It’s our most fervent prayer that when our boys and girls look at their dads, they see God’s love reflected in their father’s eyes.  Sadly, not every Dad is a great Dad.  For some, the only reason they have the title of father, is that they had the ability to impregnate a young woman.  This is part of the reason a good many fathers don’t receive much respect in our society nowadays.  The reason for the number of homes living without a father in the home varies, but one of the major reasons is fear: fear of being tied down, fear of commitment, fear of failure, and the biggest fear, the fear of the responsibility that comes with providing for a family.  It’s sad what people will miss out on simply out of fear.  But it’s not surprising. 

Society has forwarded that blame is always placed on something or someone else, that we can have anything we want almost instantly, and with little effort, and that everything is owed to us because we have, without any effort on our part, the right.  Now I realize I’m taking a complex subject and simplifying it, but when you get to the root of it, fear is the driving factor in almost every short coming in our lives.  Jesus addresses fear in our gospel lesson for this morning when He reassured the disciples by telling them to “fear not” and then followed up that command, by telling them just how much God loves and cares for them: “even the hairs of your head are counted” (Matt. 10:30).

In both of our gospel readings from last week and this week, Jesus is giving instruction and encouragement to His disciples prior to sending them out on their first mission trip.  He’s been telling them about all the dangers and hardships they may have to put up with, and ends by saying (in effect), “What do you expect?  A disciple is not greater than his teacher.  If the world gives me a hard time, it will give you one too” (Matthew 10:24-25).  Interestingly, Jesus’ words of instruction and encouragement do not include the things you and I might see as critical.

Curiously, Jesus doesn’t tell them to obtain life insurance.  His instructions do not include the procurement of personal protective equipment or martial arts training.  He doesn’t give them instruction on conflict management.  Instead he says, “Don’t ever be afraid of your enemies and critics.  Even though it’s not obvious now, the truth will come out eventually.  In essence, Jesus is telling the disciples to do the exact opposite of what society was telling them; instead of keeping God’s good news to themselves, they were to speak up; shout it out; stand and deliver” (10:26-27).  What’s more, in last week’s reading, Jesus told them that if they are not received, they are to shake the dust off their feet as they leave as a testament against them (Matt. 10:14).  Talk about facing an angry mob and then inciting them further!  It would take a lot of faith in what you are doing to follow that instruction.

Sadly, the hero complex we all struggle with, doesn’t include being a hero of the faith.  When it comes to our responsibility for sharing the good news, it seems that it’s all we can do to get to church on Sundays.  So what are we to do with Jesus’ command to shout the word of God from the housetops?  Why are we so reluctant?  Simple, fear.  Fear of ridicule, fear of rejection, fear of hurting someone else’s feelings, possibly fear of bodily harm.  And Jesus knows this.  This is why Jesus tells the disciples, “Stop being afraid.”   When you look at vs. 31 in the original language, this is a better rendering of the phrase, fear not.  Jesus is telling us to “stop being afraid” — not just once but always.  It’s not simply a command that’s once and done; it’s has a present and future tense.

“Stop being afraid of people who can kill the body but not the soul.”  King David echoed this in Psalm 27 when he wrote, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? (vs. 1).  And St. Peter restated the same psalm when he wrote, “The LORD is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear?  The LORD is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?  (1 Peter 5:6-7).  The point is, yes, people can hurt us, but only temporarily, because life comes from God.  Even if they do kill us, God the author of life will raise us.  “Don’t fear people; fear God” (God is the one who can kill both body and soul) (10:28).

Now contrary to popular opinion, Jesus is saying that the voice of the people is not the voice of God.  We worry way too much about what other people say or think of us and far too little about what God expects of us.  We know this is true.  We’ve heard it all before.  But it’s easier said than done, isn’t it?  So what’s the solution?  How can we reverse the problem?  How do we get over our fears?  More advice?  More instruction?  That’s what we would expect.

But Jesus isn’t just a teacher; He is the revelation of God, although He doesn’t stop being a good teacher when He reveals something important about God the Father; the fact that God cares deeply about us.  Jesus says, “Aren’t sparrows the most common and cheapest bird around?  Yet not one of them dies apart from God your Father” (10:29).  “And what about you?”  Jesus asks.  “God even knows every hair on your head.  So stop being afraid.  You are, by far, much more valuable than any sparrow” (10:30-31).  Ponder this deeply.

God knows us in the smallest detail, and we are of great value to God.  And because we mean so much to God, He knows everything that we go through and nothing that happens to us escapes Him.  And thanks be to God, even if we die, that doesn’t happen apart from God.  Even when we feel totally abandoned, even when our prayers don’t seem to be answered, even when everything seems hopeless, God knows and God cares.  Therefore, we can stop being afraid.

However, we need to recognize that on our own, not being afraid isn’t something that we can accomplish.  In this life we will always struggle with fear – fear of other people, of death, of circumstances (real or imagined).  But as Jesus reveals, we can stop being afraid because of a promise — a promise that God, who watches over even the most common of birds, will take care of us.  Again, stop and think about the promise God is making here.

In this life, when someone makes you a promise, we seem to always ask, what do you have to do?  If your grandparents, for example, draw up their will and say that when they die you’ll get the farm, what do you have to do?  Be nice to them?  Work really hard?  Why?  They’ve already promised you the farm.  Therefore, “What do I have to do?” is the wrong response to a promise.  It doesn’t make sense.  If you find out you’re going to inherit something, you should say “That’s fantastic!  Thank you.”  Out of the blue you have a retirement plan.  Suddenly the future doesn’t seem so uncertain.

Most of our life is lived, not according to “the logic of promise”, but in asking and answering the question, “What do I have to do?”  If I want to graduate from school, what must I do?  If I want to get promoted, what must I do?  If I want to be respected, what should I do?  And there’s nothing wrong with asking these questions.  These are all important things we can work on.  Most things in life are like that.  The problem comes in when we try to put the “logic” of “What do I have to do?” into our religious life.

“What do I have to do to get God to care about me?”  Stop being afraid?  No, that’s backwards.  God already care about us, therefore, we don’t have to be afraid.  The response to a demand — to graduate from school, to support your family, to be someone others respect — is to do something.  The response to a promise, especially a promise of God, is altogether different.  The response to a promise is to celebrate, rejoice, give thanks — because someone else has already done something.  God knows every hair on our head.  God even cares about sparrows and we’re of much greater value than any sparrow.  God will take care of those He loves.  That’s the promise.  We have no need to fear, ever.  Not in this life or the next.

We hear this, we want to internalize it, but it seems impossible.  Who can live without fear?  Sadly, because of sin, we’re suspicious even of promises.  We hear promises made all the time that end up being broken.  Our grandparents may promise to leave us the farm when they die, but who’s to say they won’t go bankrupt and lose the farm long before that?  Husbands and wives promise to be faithful to each other until death, but half the time, they can’t keep those promises.  Our life experience teaches us to be suspicious of promises, not because people who make promises don’t have good intentions, but because fallible, mortal, sinful human beings like us, can’t always keep our promises.

“I promise that I’ll repay you that money … if I possibly can.”  “I’ll be there promptly at noon … if something doesn’t come up.”  “I’ll finish remodeling the house … if I don’t get distracted by other projects.”  All of our promises seem to have an “if” in them — “if I can”; “if something else doesn’t come up”; “if I don’t get sidetracked.”  We can’t help it.  It has nothing to do with bad intentions.  It’s the way we are.  It seems we cannot make promises without conditions, without the “ifs.”

But Jesus made many incredibly far-reaching promises.  Not only about God knowing every hair on our heads and promising to care for us, but also several others: “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” “I go to prepare a place for you.”  “Lo, I am with you always.”  “I tell you, your sins are forgiven.”  And in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12): those who mourn will be comforted, the meek will inherit the earth, the pure in heart will see God, and so forth.  And when Jesus was crucified, the disciples thought all these promises had been cancelled out.

On the cross, it appeared that Jesus had failed.  Many thought He was just a dreamer; just one more idealistic prophet making promises He couldn’t keep.  Even the disciples abandoned Him as He said they would.  In the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the disciples, with one exception, were nowhere to be seen at the crucifixion. “All of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50).  And Peter denied with a curse, even knowing Jesus.  The story of the crucifixion would seem to tell us that you can’t live on promises alone.  But that’s not the whole of the story is it?  We know that three days later the rest of the story is revealed.  Because of this, the gospel of salvation is nothing but promises.  

The message of the gospel includes both the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This means the gospel is always a word about what will be the case forever, a word that opens the future to us, a word that frees us from being afraid.  In Christ’s death we are freed from the fear of enslavement to sin, and in the resurrection, we are freed from the ultimate fear, the fear of death.  On Easter morning, God made sure that Jesus could keep all His promises.

Even death, (our death), will not keep Jesus from keeping the promises He makes to us in the Bible; because we die with Him, we will be raised with Him.  That’s a promise.  And it’s the basis for our hope in all the other promises.  Even the sparrows don’t fall to the ground apart from God the Father and we are of far greater value than many sparrows.  This is why Jesus also promises, that “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge them before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32).  However, we can mess that up if we look at it through our “old” eyes of experience rather than seeing it in light of the death and resurrection of the One who said these words.

We can wrongly understand these words to be telling us that if we acknowledge or confess Christ, then He will bless us by acknowledging us to God.  But remember, Jesus is talking to His disciples, who have already been confessing their faith in Him; Jesus is saying to them, and to all who follow Him, that they will never be let down, because He himself will acknowledge them before God.  Again, that’s a promise.

I love the way one commentator translates this verse: “Every person who stands up for me in front of others, I will stand up for that person in front of my Father in heaven.”  It’s that sort of rock-solid guarantee, a promise won through the anguish of the crucifixion, that enables us to stop being afraid of people and circumstances and shout the gospel from the housetops.  Fear of God, as we know God through Christ, bestows fearlessness of people and circumstances that might otherwise cause us to lose faith.  But there’s also a warning here.

The final verse of our gospel lesson is a somber spelling out of the reverse of Jesus promise to acknowledge us to the Father.  If we deny Jesus, if we say, with Peter, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:72), then Jesus will also declare that He doesn’t know us.  Going to heaven is not automatic, despite what the world wants you to believe.  Nor will anyone be forced into the kingdom.  Even that’s a promise.  But as Peter learned by his bitter weeping, God does forgive, which was affirmed by the subsequent word of the angel at the tomb to be sure to include Peter in the news that Jesus is risen (Mark 16:7) and the marvelous account of Jesus’ threefold restoration of Peter (John 21:15-19) after the resurrection.

Today the same crucified and risen Lord is in our midst, allowing us to stop being afraid because of the powerful love of God on which the promise is based: “Even the hairs of your head are all counted; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  And this promise continues in the blessed sacrament as we hear Jesus say that “this is my body, given for you, and “this cup is the new covenant, shed for you.”  We receive body and blood of Christ in the bread and wine because He promises to meet us there.  In this sacrament, the promise is visible and touchable and feelable and tasteable.   “Take and eat; take and drink.”   Because we do this in faith, in remembrance of Him, we can stop being afraid.  


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