Proper 12 (7), Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
21 June 2020
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
I try not to pay much attention to American politics. It only makes me upset without the possibility to do anything about it.
I did, however read an editorial about former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s claim that the president approved of Chinese concentration camps for one million Uighur Muslims. The author argues that the president merely expresses what most people think, because we are far more interested in cheap consumer goods than in human rights.1 The author goes on to say that, because of our priorities, “of course, we accept the reality of mass imprisonment; of forced labor; of brainwashing and involuntary programs of re-education; of rape, forced contraception, and sterilization; of sickening medical experiments; of mass surveillance and torture.”
This is part of the problem with the outrage we often experience when looking at politics. To change things would require a price that most people are not willing to pay. And so we end up living in a world where it makes us feel good to profess certain moral principles while we don’t expect anyone to act on them.
Today’s passage from Matthew’s Gospel is part of the sending narrative of the disciples we read last Sunday, which includes such passages as, “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (10:21-22)
It seems that the creators of the lectionary did not realize that these readings could fall on Father’s Day.
Today’s reading picks up where last week’s reading left off. The disciples are not greater than their master, suggesting that if the master is persecuted and crucified, the same may happen to the master’s disciples. This is heavy stuff. Not the kind of thing we want to talk about on a day like this.
To be sure, our reading contains comforting elements such as that the hairs on our head are all counted and that if God’s eye is on the sparrow, than surely God’s eye is on those who love God. And I find comfort even in the announcement that Jesus will deny those who deny him, since we know that Jesus forgave Peter after Peter had denied him three times.
But all in all, our passage speaks of the consequences of discipleship, and the consequences look rather unpleasant. Yet, it seems to be a package deal. Persecutions, or at least moderate discomfort are part of what it means to be a disciple. Certainly for the church for which Matthew was writing, so why not for us?
It is true that we live in a liberal democracy where freedom of speech and freedom of religion are enshrined in the constitution. And so, that explains some of it. The fact that freedom of religion is protected by the Charter also explains why in our society faith is largely seen as a private affair. It’s a personal choice, and perhaps more importantly, it’s a personal choice that shouldn’t affect anyone else.2 When it does, we speak of religious fanatics.
But making faith a private affair denies the claim that God has laid on our lives, to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God, (Micah 6:8) or that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6) Mercy and justice are not simply private categories but public ones. There is no such thing as justice only for me that forgets or ignores the Uighur Muslims, the lack of clean drinking water on First Nations reserves, or the fact that our society is built on the theft of land from First Nations.
And so, part of the reason that we don’t face the persecution or at least opposition that Jesus talks about has to do with the fact that we have relegated faith to our private spheres, that we agree that religion is the last taboo in our society (speaking about sex ceased to be a taboo a long time ago), and that we think that faith is largely about being forgiven, about making our children into better people, and about going to heaven, rather than heaven coming to us as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The people the church venerates as saints are generally people who did not regard faith as a private affair, and because they did not regard their faith as a private affair, they were willing to sacrifice for it. Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while saying mass because he refused charity to be sufficient but continued to ask why people were poor.
Mother Teresa is considered a saint because she invested her whole life.
Martin Luther faced opposition because the theology he articulated questioned the power structures of his day.
Saints are those people for whom faith does not remain a private affair and who, like Jesus, proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near.
The beauty of being the church is that even though we live in a culture that encourages us to think of ourselves first and that seeks us to affirm the status quo, week after week we gather to hear scriptures and sing songs that proclaim not personal fulfillment as the highest goal but the mercy of God for all people. And week after week we act this out when we welcome strangers, practise forgiveness, and gather around the table. What we do in worship is counter-cultural.
Such weekly practise inspires our lives to be more, to welcome the stranger, to break our bread with the hungry, to speak and act against oppression and self-interest.
As your pastor I am blessed to see this acted out in your lives, as you reach out to one another, give of your possessions, and seek a higher righteousness, as you seek justice, not only for you but for all people.
I admit that our reading is scary, for it appears that God’s grace is conditional, which it is not. Rather, Jesus’ speech is intended to get the disciples to be serious about following him, to take their faith and to take God seriously. May it also be so among us.
1 Matthew Walther, The ugly truth of Trump’s position on Chinese concentration camps, The Week, 20 June 2020, https://theweek.com/articles/921024/ugly-truth-trumps-position-chinese-concentration-camps
2 The theological ethicist Stanley Hauerwas argues that we don’t actually have freedom of religion because while the state can order killings (war, executions), people of faith are prohibited from doing so. He is not arguing that Christians should kill, only that the freedom the state grants is limited and requires Christians to acknowledge the state as highest authority, not God.