Friday, July 18, 2014

Family Against Family and Doing Jesus' Work

A Reflection On Matthew 10:34-42, originally preached on June 29, 2014.

“Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy. I’ve come to cut—make a sharp knife-cut between son and father, daughter and mother, bride and mother-in-law—cut through these cozy domestic arrangements and free you for God. Well-meaning family members can be your worst enemies. If you prefer father or mother over me, you don’t deserve me. If you prefer son or daughter over me, you don’t deserve me.

“If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself. But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you’ll find both yourself and me.

“We are intimately linked in this harvest work. Anyone who accepts what you do, accepts me, the One who sent you. Anyone who accepts what I do accepts my Father, who sent me. Accepting a messenger of God is as good as being God’s messenger. Accepting someone’s help is as good as giving someone help. This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing.” (The Message)

In the name of God who calls us, redeems us and equips us to bring forth God’s self into our communities: open our hearts to receive the Gospel in truth and light. Amen.

Last week in the Holy Liturgy we commemorated the gift of the Eucharist: the celebration of God making divine love tangible in our midst in simple gifts of bread and wine. This week we celebrate the opportunity to be sent by God into the world to continue the work Jesus began some 2,000 years ago. Today in the Gospel we are called to become messengers of God, allowing ourselves to walk in the compassionate ways as revealed to us by Jesus. I encourage you to notice once again the rhythm the Church establishes for us: we must first be fed with love from heaven before we can be sent forth to give that love away. In order to give away God’s love you must allow yourself to receive God’s love. But rest assured it is an easy gift to receive; all you must do is ask! As Jesus once promised us, “Ask and you will receive!” One way people of faith have traditionally found the means to receive God’s love is in the worship experience, in the gifts of the altar and in fellowship with one another. This is why we gather each week. It isn’t to please a God that demands either sacrifice or our praise but rather to enter into communion with a God who desires to give of God’s self to us.

Once we receive the love of God it constrains us to find another to give it away too. This compelling need to share love is what Jesus is speaking of in our Gospel reading. Sadly, many who will hear Jesus’ words today will walk away with an interpretation that is not only incorrect but also destructive and dangerous. Some of us might have heard a faulty interpretation of Matthew buzzing around in our heads just a few moments ago. Coming from conservative fundamentalist backgrounds some of us can’t help but to read this passage through a lens that is focused only on literal interpretation and doctrinal absolutes. As you heard the words of Jesus you might have begun to think of your beliefs and the beliefs other family members have. Some of you might have started to wonder if your broken relationship with your family is due to you taking a different path in life then they did. Maybe you asked yourself, “Have I disappointed God with my beliefs, have my parents cut me off for good, or even godly, reasons?” Some of you might have prided yourself, a nice biblical pat on the back, for ending a relationship because you felt another had wandered too far from the truths of God. Maybe you found yourself saying, “That’s right – I told my daughter she wasn’t welcome in my home until she came back to God properly!” Another one of you might be thinking, “I just couldn’t spend time with my mother-in-law any longer, after all she doesn’t share our beliefs and I had to put God first!” The possibilities go on and on but the foundation is the same for each of them. A relationship has been destroyed or severed and done so on the justified grounds that God wanted it to be so.

You might be sitting there in misery questioning if you have been left out in the cold because Jesus required you to be. Or maybe you are praising yourself for severing relationships with another because they weren’t “God-like” enough. Both of these possible reflections are heartbreaking and go against the foundation of Jesus’s message. A message that was summed up beautifully when he told us, “Love God, love your neighbors as yourself.” Jesus isn’t talking about doctrine in the Gospel passage, even though many of us approach it convinced he is. Jesus isn’t talking about beliefs. Jesus is talking about action! In order to really put the first two verses into context we must jump to the end of the passage. There we are told, “This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice.” Please note, nowhere in this does Jesus say, “Defending doctrine and forcing family members to do the same is a large task.” Jesus doesn’t tell us to forsake our children if they believe something different than us nor to quit talking to our father-in-law because we have different interpretations of the Old Testament. Jesus tells us the task (the action) we are called to is as simple as giving a glass of water to someone who is thirsty!

You might be relieved that doctrine isn’t the focus of this passage but you are probably asking yourself,  “Why all that talk of children and parents being against one another then?” The sad reality is that everyone does not always cherish love and there are some who cannot fathom the idea of certain “others” being shown love, mercy and grace. The simplest act of giving a glass of water can literally turn people’s stomachs causing them to sever a relationship. I am reminded of Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, who helped to distribute glasses of water to marchers in a gay pride parade event. People were literally up in arms and furious that he would engage and participate in such an event and help these people by sharing fresh water. Because of his Christ-like actions, in his ministry, many relationships were broken, people despised him and others wrote him off. Yes, loving Jesus, and loving others like Jesus did, will turn family and friends against one another but never do we seek to do so. Never do we end relationships purposefully on the basis that God allows us to do so. The only time familial relationships should sever is when they do so naturally because of our dedication to the Good News. Only when our dedication to the mercy and grace and inclusivity of God disgusts another and causes them to turn away from us, does God permit brokenness. And in the love of God we pray and hope that those relationships will one day be healed. As a people of faith, we never revel in these severed relationships but hope for a day of resurrection when all is restored.

Our calling is to become the apprentice of Jesus, to love as he loved. We do so one step at a time, one action at a time. In this process people might become disgusted with us or we might tragically discover that cherished relationships come to an end. We can never allow our desire for the affection of another to stop us from doing what is right and good. In these moments we are reminded of Jesus’ words, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” Sometimes persecution comes from our own family members who feel we have lost our minds and our way; Jesus’ own family once felt that way about him. Breathe deep and know you are in good company. It is a great task we are called to: to show forth in action the inclusive love of God! Not everyone will love you for it but others will survive only because you have made yourself a willing and open vessel. A life lived fully and honestly isn’t always cozy but it has the possibility of changing the world. May you change the world beginning today with an act as simple as offering a cup of water!

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