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What Should We Be Afraid Of?

Written by Pastor Dan Wilfrid. Posted in Sermons

Pentecost 3 (A)    Matthew 10:24-39

It seems to me that a good way to summarize the message of today’s rather challenging Bible readings is with the words “Get your priorities straight!” Jesus certainly seems to be saying that to his disciples, and through Jesus’ words, Matthew was clearly saying that to his late-first century congregation, so I guess I’ll just say it to you: “Get your priorities straight!”

Only what I mean by that is perhaps not what you think I mean, because whenever Pastors say “Get your priorities straight!” to their congregations, we’re usually talking about things like giving priority to being at church instead of at one of the host of other things that compete for your time and attention, or urging you to offer your time or talent or money to support the church’s work instead of spending it on the host of other things that compete for those precious and limited resources.

And while those things are important and getting and keeping those priorities straight truly does matter, they are not the priorities that today’s readings call us to straighten out. Today, we’re specifically challenged to prioritize our fears – to sort out what is worth worrying about, and what is not, and among those things that ARE worth worrying about, to keep clear which are primary concerns for baptized disciples of Jesus, and which matter less or not at all.

 

For Jesus’ disciples and for Matthew’s congregation, the number of things to fear was large and so the need to sort out and prioritize those fears was great. Jesus told them that because their master faced abuse, arrest and was crucified for living and preaching the way he did, his disciples should expect to face the same things. Declaring yourself to be a Christian, and even more trying to persuade others to follow Jesus could result in things like persecution, divided families, even death. Jesus never promised that a life of faith would be good for you. God’s call is to love God and love your neighbor no matter what it costs you. That is the shape of the Kingdom Jesus was bringing into the world and that he called his disciples to embody. That is the way of the heaven Jesus promised awaited them in the end.

“Love God and love your neighbor no matter what it costs you.”  And that will of God, that intention of God, is what Jesus says establishes the priority of our fears. “Don’t fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul (the psyche, the core of who you are before God).  Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” 

We too live in a time when it seems that there are more things to fear than we can count, much less prioritize. Which fear should get our priority: a crazy despot in North Korea with nuclear weapons, or Russian and American fighter jets playing chicken over Syrian airspace? How much should we fear planned terror attacks from Muslim extremists? Do we now need to add the fear of terror retaliation against innocent, law-abiding Muslims? And after this week, do we also need to fear Canadians crossing our border to attack airport security workers in places like Flint, Michigan?

How should we prioritize those fears with those we have about the future of health care, or the increasingly unleashed bigotry in our culture and growing violence in our political life. Should we worry more about our kids and neighborhoods getting engulfed in the opiod epidemic? The rising costs of college?  Getting old? Falling down? Missing out? Help us, Jesus, to manage all these fears, to order them in terms of importance, to know which are primary and which matter less!

And Jesus says: “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. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from 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.”

Notice well, that Jesus doesn’t promise that sparrows won’t fall to the ground. They do, but not apart from God. And notice that Jesus does not promise that the count of those hairs on your head won’t diminish. They might, believe me! Jesus doesn’t promise that the variety of things we fear cannot or will not ever happen to us. They can, and do, and some surely will. Our fears of things that can kill the body or at least hurt it or make it miserable are not unfounded. They’re just not worth ordering our life around. They’re just not as important as being afraid of losing our grounding and purpose and focus as baptized disciples of Jesus. They’re just not worth losing our soul, our sense of self as a no matter what happens beloved child of God. They’re just not worth letting any lesser earthly fear turn our hearts from the life of love for God and neighbor that God has called us to, baptized us into, and promised that nothing in all creation can take away from us.

It is fear of the wrong things that kills our souls. It is fear of what might happen to us that turns us in on ourselves and against our neighbor so that we see them as a threat instead of an equally beloved child of God. It is fear of the wrong things that divides communities, and builds walls, and spikes gun sales, that leads us to think that cheaper health care for me is more important than the availability of basic healthcare for everyone, and even makes churches worry more about surviving than serving.

Whether it was Jesus day or Matthew’s day or our day, whenever fears multiply and intensify, getting and keeping them in their proper priority, so that we not lose our soul, our core, our God-given identity and mission, is crucial.

So if you want to be afraid of something, be afraid of losing that, be afraid of letting lesser fears push aside, or cause you to neglect or abandon your love for God and neighbor. You were baptized not to make your life easy, but to make this world more closely resemble the reign of God that came into it in Jesus and is coming in all fullness to make all things new. You were baptized and gathered into this church, not so that you’d have a nice group of church friends to surround and support you (though you do most certainly have that), but so that together you might show your community and world a little sign of what heaven looks like, what loving God and your neighbor as yourself, what taking up your cross and following, what losing your life in order to find life, what looking not only to your own interests but to the interests of others, what having no fear of those things everyone else seems to be deathly afraid of…. looks like today in real flesh and blood human living and dying.

Among all of the many things that with good reason make us fearful, fear most losing that soul, that sense of yourself as a beloved child of God and disciple of Jesus who lives grounded in love for God and who cares as much about your neighbor’s welfare as you do your own. “More than anything else you find fearful, fear losing that.” Jesus says.

And since that is the number one fear, the highest priority human fear, the only thing really for us to fear, God gathers us here, where that primary fear gets addressed and dealt with directly. It’s here that that highest priority fear for us as human beings gets taken care of and dealt with by God in Christ Jesus. Here, we learn that we are of more value to God than many sparrows, and that the hairs of our heads are all counted. Here, we are reminded that those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might now walk in newness of life. Here, we are taught to consider ourselves dead to sin and all its lesser fears, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Here, the body of Christ is given for us. The blood of Christ shed for us. Here again today, we receive our soul and become what we receive.

What a gift! What a blessing! Who wouldn’t fear losing that, even as we gather to again hear God tell us that we never can and never will?         AMEN