A few months ago I was invited by Rev. Alice Ford to preach at the church I grew up in, Calvary United Methodist Church! Allison and I packed up the Jeep with enough gear to get us through the 24 hour stay in Frederick and headed north. You can listen my sermon and read the text below. The scripture text for this sermon was Matthew 10.24-39. This sermon was my first time preaching from the lectionary.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today….. Just kidding.
It has been a few years since I last worshipped in this church. It has been a few years since I was part of this gathered, worshiping community. The last time I stepped foot in this building was when I had the privilege to be a part of Tommy Stokes’ Eagle Scout ceremony. Before that it was to celebrate the marriage of one my closest friends from high school. Before that it was to celebrate the life of a woman who cared for me, taught me what it meant to be a follower of Christ, and at times didn’t mind slapping upside the head when I needed it.
I guess you could say that I have taken the words written in Ephesians 5:31 and Genesis 2:24 literally.
I was raised in this church. But for those of you who don’t know me or the antics that I pulled in this building, you should not believe any of the stories that Billie Stokes, Greg Shipley, or Ray McKinnon will tell you. In case you might be wondering, the box in your pew pad that says “Request a call from the pastor” really does get you a call from the pastor. Just ask Karen Leggett. As a high schooler I had to opportunity to serve as an usher. Greg Shipley, Dave Mills, and the rest of the team taught me that it’s ok to make change in the offering plate.
I remember as a kid being a part of Mrs. Frank’s Sunday School class. You could call Mrs. Franks’ Sunday School class a rite of passage for many of the us who grew up in this congregation. I can remember attending my first youth group event at Marcie and Graham Baker’s home. Ray McKinnon was my confirmation mentor, and my family even lived down the street from Rev. Gaye Smith. Can you imagine, living down the street from your pastor?! Not only did you have to worry about your parents catching you terrorizing the neighborhood, but you also had one of the pastors of your church to worry about.
When my parents divorced it was members of this congregation who stepped in to make sure that my siblings and I had the support system in place to help us through the turmoil that accompanies divorce. When I had to abruptly change high schools a few weeks before the beginning of the school year, it was the friends I had from youth group that made the transition easier. It was while on a mission trip to Puerto Rico that I learned structural work does not need to be pretty, something I have carried with me on mission trips and even at work today. It was members of this congregation that helped me to realize my call to ministry.
This congregation is a part of my family. I carry what this congregation taught me with me today as I figure out where I am called to ministry. And for many of you here, and those who are no longer with us, you welcomed me into your family.
This morning’s gospel reading from Matthew is the second part of the commissioning of the disciples. In the passages prior to this, Jesus tells his disciples that if they join him they will be proclaiming the Kingdom of God. The disciples would be proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was in the present and not some distant event that would eventually occur.
That sounds pretty exciting, right? The Son of God inviting someone to participate in building the Kingdom of God. Jesus follows this calling with a warning, a warning of persecutions and hardship. Party’s over. Jesus tells the twelve that they would be like sheep sent among wolves. Oh boy! I can only imagine the feeling the disciples must have felt. “This guy we just met, this guy who many consider to be off His rocker, wants us to proclaim the Kingdom of God, a proclamation that would upset the religious and political establishment. Then he tells us that while we do it they would be taken before courts and flogged. Where do we sign up?!”
And this brings us to today’s passage. Jesus explains that nothing will be kept secret from those who proclaim the word of God. What He whispers into the ears of the disciples, they are to shout from the roof tops. They are not to fear because Jesus will be with anyone who proclaims the Kingdom.
Jesus explains that he has come to upset the sensibilities of the first century Roman Empire. He explains that persecutions will come not only to the first twelve but to the saints who are to follow. Families will turn against one another, brother against sister, mother against daughter, and husband against wife. Jesus is coming into the world with a sword and intends to disrupt the lives of all those who come into contact not only with Him, but also with anyone who hears His message of peace, reconciliation, and love.
The words of Matthew 10 seem to support Dr. Will Willimon’s assertion that Jesus is actually a homewrecker. Will is a professor at Duke and one of the most influential voices in the American church. In his book Why Jesus, Will lays out why the title of “Christian”, the title we assume at our baptism, takes priority over our family name and any titles or accolades we are given. The church is a new family, made up of those who have heard and responded to Jesus’ invitation to follow and proclaim.
The title of Christian is superior to the American individualism that we all cling to and by doing so, we are able to gather at the table in open fellowship with sinners and outcasts, and call them “sister” or “brother”. The body of Christ, the church, those who gather on Sunday mornings to worship and praise, are called to take on the same barrier-breaking qualities that Jesus Himself took on.
When Jesus began his ministry he left his family so that a new family might be formed. The open table fellowship that he practiced, and that we practice today, is a mirror of the scandalous proclamation that all are loved by God and are worthy of being treated with the love, respect, and dignity due to someone who was created in the image of God. Living a life this way, living in a way that values all people regardless of who they are, what they have done, who they love, how much money they lack, or the mistakes they continue to make, is what proclaiming the Kingdom is all about. Jesus was always looking for fellowship with those who were considered to be lost or outcasts: lepers, adulterers, Samaritans, Gentiles.
By calling his disciples and telling them: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to 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 (if you have in-laws then you know how easy this can be); and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or 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. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus is telling the twelve they are to look to one another and him as a family. He is telling them that he is breaking up their families. Telling fishermen to leave their elderly father at the boat. To leave everything behind and join a new family.
If you have ever pledged a fraternity or joined a social or civic organization then you know that before you can fully become a member of that group there is an initiation process you must go through. The process maybe a formal process or a set of unwritten rites of passage that must occur. The early church had a process called catechism. Candidates would be instructed in the teachings of Christ and doctrines of the church. Then on Easter Eve they would stand watch, be stripped naked at sunrise, and then baptized.
Now some things have changed over the years, but the idea that you must first be taught and then born anew through water has been the initiation that all Christians have experienced. Through baptism we respond to Jesus’ demand for our lives and we are able to find new life in Christ. Through baptism we join the family of living faithful disciples, as well as the saints who have gone before us.
When we lose our lives to Christ we are joining the larger family of followers. This community is family. The community that Allison and I are a part of is a family. The community down the street from here is a family. But more importantly all of the communities, all of the faith communities are collectively a part of the larger family found in Jesus Christ. It is easy to view of faith experience as an “us and them” experience. But if you have ever been a part of a mission trip where multiple faith communities are gathered, an inter-denominational worship service, or shared the Eucharist in a new church while visiting family, you know then that the God they worship is the same God we are worshiping this morning. You know that the same Jesus who is calling them is the Jesus who is calling us this morning.
Now this does not mean that there will not be turmoil or conflict. Jesus tells us in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel to expect it. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Conflict among individual faith communities, as well as conflict throughout the wider church is not something exclusive to the 21st century church. I do not want to diminish or degrade strongly held church doctrines but we cannot continue to allow disagreements over who can or cannot be a part of our community, or who can or cannot lead our communities continue to divide us! The public arguments going on in the church today, sex scandals and the marriage debate, are similar to a family having an all out shouting match on their front yard while the entire neighborhood watches. The idea that you whether you agree or disagree with Mark Discroll, Joel Osteen, Will Willimon, or Stanley Hauerwas decides how much a of a “Christian” you really are adds to the front yard blow out that the rest of the neighborhood is watching. The neighbors are watching, and like any trainwreck, onlookers are wondering just how much carnage will be left when the dust settles.
Families fight, children hit one another, and my time as a youth pastor showed me that teenage children become full of attitude and disrespect sometimes overnight. However, when this occurs families embrace the idea that blood, the blood shared by family is stronger than any disagreement or fight that might occur while the entire family is gathered at crazy Aunt Glenda’s house for Thanksgiving!
The blood of Christ, the blood poured out on the sword that Christ brought to the world is stronger than any doctrinal disagreement that we have today or have had in the past. Whether it was a disagreement over what happens when the elements of communion are blessed (or who can bless those elements), or who can be baptized and how they are baptized, the church has survived, the body of Christ has endured and continued the proclamation that the original twelve were called to.
When we turn on one another, and begin to have the front lawn shouting match where we are no longer listening to one another, we are no longer prepared or able to face the persecutions that we know are coming. When we turn on one another over which type of music should or should not be played during worship, what our clergy should wear during worship, or if we are helping the “right” people with our mission work, we are no longer able to face the world that will betray us, hate us, and persecute us. When we accept the sacrificial obedience required of us by Christ’s commissioning, we are able to move beyond the superficial divisions we create and fully respond to the calling Christ has placed on every one of us.
As communities of faith we stand together not to highlight our own lives but instead we stand together to call attention to the risen Christ and the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that is present here and now. A Kingdom that we can actively strive to further in everything that we do. We know that it will not be easy, and we know that there will be those who stand to prevent us from standing firm in our convictions and responsibilities as called disciples of Christ. But we know, we know that it is our risen Lord who stands with us in everything that we do. Whether is it leading Vacation Bible School, traveling around the world to serve the poor, standing up for the oppressed and outcasted, or simply aiding one another in a our own faith journey, Christ is walking beside us holding us up and aiding us throughout the task.
When we read Matthew’s gospel, it is important for us to remember that Matthew assumes that we know the story of Jesus. The author assumes that we have a basic understanding who Jesus was, what He did, and what He continues to do. We must learn like the disciples did in order to discover what it means to be a faithful church. We must learn by taking action. We learn by taking action in the same way the disciples did, not as individuals but as a faithful family of disciples who work together to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
The memories I have from being a part of this family of faith are what I have carried with me, and reflected upon as Allison and I have begun to start our own family. It is my prayer that Camden, my son, will experience the same love, grace, and support that so many of us have experienced here and elsewhere when we gather as faithful disciples.
There’s an old saying that blood is thicker than water. It’s true. The blood of Christ, the blood that binds us together here is thicker than the waters we are born through. The blood of Christ is thicker than the turbulent waters we experience as we continue to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
The peace of God is offered to us regardless of our past, regardless of the pasts that we hide from one another or hold against one another. We are washed clean by the blood of Christ, binding us today and tomorrow as faithful servants and families in Jesus.