Sermon / June 25, 2017 / The Rev. Anne F.C. Richards / Matthew 10:24-39
Jesus speaks some hard words in today’s gospel:
I have a sword in my hand.
I have come to sow dissension within your family.
Your enemy is a member of your own household.
You have to love me more than you love your child.
You have to lose your life. The one you worked so hard to create.
Jesus, with a weapon? Jesus, a home-wrecker? This sounds un-Christian, unethical, and just plain wrong.
A word about context: This passage had an impact on Jesus’s original hearers that most of us do not feel. Because in Jesus’s culture, the religious faith of a family was legally determined by the head of the family, who was of course at that time always a man. So if a man was a pagan, the rest of his family (including his slaves) were required by law to follow suit. Religion wasn’t a matter of individual choice. If anyone in a pagan household didn’t obey, and let’s say became a Christian, there was hell to pay. Divided religious loyalties divided the family, broke it apart, made it unworkable socially, economically, politically. It created disorder, and the Romans hated disorder.
And so here Jesus is reminding his disciples of the chaos and loss he knows that following him will cause.
But the essential meaning of the passage remains true for us too: Jesus is telling us that following him means making a decision that will cost us something.
And I think Jesus talks about a sword because he is saying that the life of mature faith is first of all, internally, about a wound, a piercing, that we must undergo so that we can become human in the way God made us to be.
“Take up your cross.” These are some of the most misunderstood words in the gospel, because they have entered the religious vernacular in misleading ways. A lot of people think that taking up your cross means gritting your teeth and bearing some kind of unpleasantness, usually in the form of another human being. My Italian mother called her Irish in-laws her “cross to bear”. You may think your tyrannical boss or your reduced finances or your imperfect interim priest are your “cross to bear”. Or your spouse who refuses to be remade in your image and conform to your agenda, your parents who never understood you, your fellow parishioner who disappointed you.
This is not what Jesus meant. He meant that in order to follow him, we have to die to our illusions about who we think we are and to our illusions about what we think life is about. We have to die to our need for power and control; for safety and security; and for affection on our own terms. We have to die to our desperate desire that the world and everyone in it conform to our expectations. We have to die to our illusion that other people are essentially separate from us and not our responsibility. We have to die to our illusion that if we play by the rules and work hard enough, everything will work out. We have to let all these things go. We have to die a kind of internal death that can be more painful than physical death. Only then can we begin really to live the deep, joyful life of freedom and love that God intends for us.
I think I know some of you well enough by now to sense that, for many of you, this dying is already going on inside you. Part of it involves moving from an affiliative, institutional faith (“I am an Episcopalian” or “I am a member of Grace Church”) to an appropriated faith, a faith with deep roots in our souls, a faith that really wrestles with how tough life really is, with our deep desire for God, with our recognition that we are all going to die, and with the loneliness that we all feel. These are all human questions and so they are spiritual questions. In both the Parents Group (young people) and the Wise Aging Group (older people), our conversations are basically the same conversations, conversations about these questions, this wrestling.
At one of our Wise Aging meetings, when we were discussing how hard to it is to go through this, Bruce Gregory said, “And the thing is, you have to do it every damn day!”
Crucifixion was the electric chair or the gas chamber of antiquity, except worse. It was the form of capital punishment most commonly used by the powerful to keep the so-called little people down. In first-century Palestine, the Romans used it to keep Jews, and others, in their place. It was the punishment for slaves who misbehaved, troublemakers who needed to be gotten out of the way, common criminals who didn’t have the cash to pay their way out of trouble, anyone who constituted a threat to an imperial state.
And crucifixion was used casually. It was not hidden away like a gas chamber. The streets of Jerusalem were lined with crosses, which were kept permanently in place as a visual deterrent. They weren’t dismantled after use. They were used over and over again. You’d see crosses on your way to work or to the market; they were fixtures of the public landscape. The cross – and the word itself was used as a vulgar curse – was used to keep an oppressed people down, to keep them afraid. It was terrorism.
We see crosses mostly in churches, where they are objects of beauty and devotion. And we Protestants often have in our churches plain crosses, empty crosses, crosses with no body on them. Sanitized. We wear crosses around our necks, where they are easy to sentimentalize them. Not so for Jesus and his people. The cross meant horrible torture. And all those paintings in which we see Jesus nailed high above the ground, with his mother and the disciples looking up at him? That was not the way it was. Crosses were pounded into the ground right at eye level, so that the person being crucified was right among the on-lookers or passersby as he or she suffered a terrible prolonged death, usually by suffocation as his lungs filled slowly with fluids, which, by the way, is the why blood and water poured out of Jesus’ side when the soldier pierced him with a sword. Bodies were left on the cross to rot or be eaten by dogs. For Jews, crucifixion was the ultimate horror, the ultimate uncleanness – a terrible form of expulsion from everything considered human, the curse of God.
It is hard to convey the shame attached to crucifixion. So great was the abhorrence of it than even the first Christians did not talk much about its details. In fact, the earliest Christian art never showed a suffering Christ on the cross, only a triumphant, risen Christ. It was not until the 5th century that Christian art began to display Jesus’s suffering body on the cross. Because the Messiah was supposed to be someone who came in power to make other people suffer – all the sinners and oppressors of the Chosen People. The Messiah himself was not to suffer. That wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen.
But Jesus says that this is the way it’s supposed to happen. He lived the life God gave him to live. He spoke the words God gave him to speak. He was not accepted, but even that he had accepted. He turned away from everyone who told him he should not have to suffer.
He gave his entire being to God. It was all offered, all given.
And he did not do this with some kind of stoic resignation whereby his death was made more dignified or easier than the countless deaths by violence and terror that God’s children suffer right now, all over the world and here in our own country, as victims of racism and terrorism and relentless poverty. Jesus’s death was not different from those. As our liturgy says, he lived and died as one of us.
Think about your life for a minute. How do you meet the world? Do you live in the world as it really is, the world of crucifixion, or do you live in the world where suffering is sanitized and minimized and where you insist that if only everyone behaved themselves and played by the book, the world would be a more pleasant place? Do you live in a world with an empty cross, a cross with no blood on it? Are you a person who hungers for truth, or are you one of the people who like Pilate says, “Oh come on, what is truth? Get real. Grow up. It’s all dog eat dog. It’s all relative.”
I ask you that because living in the world as it really is is where you find your cross. Or let me say it this way. If you resist seeing the world as it really is, and inhabit an anesthetized world of your own imagining, a virtual world, a Facebook world, a world with no vulnerability and no mess and no injustice and only a passing interest in the daily dehumanizing struggle of the people Jesus died to save, you will never find the cross that Jesus asks you to take up. You will never find it. All your life, even if you are in church every Sunday and are the so-called model Christian, you will always wonder in your heart of hearts what this take up your cross stuff is all about.
So your cross is not your difficult in-laws. Your cross is not someone or something outside you. Your cross is you. Your cross is your life. Other people are not your problem. You are your problem, especially if you refuse to become the kind of person who sees the world as Jesus saw it – so broken, and yet so incredibly precious and beautiful, filled with the possibility of love and healing and justice and connection and resurrection.
Open your eyes to the suffering of others and don’t think (like the disciple Peter) that all of it could have been avoided if everyone had been more sensible and prudent. Think of the refugees, thousands and thousands of them, wandering the earth. Think about the 22,000 kids who live in shelters in our own city, about the 1 in 5 kids in our city who go to bed hungry every night. On this Pride Day, think about people who are persecuted on account of their sexual identity. Think about the racism that still rages in our country. Think about the elderly people here in this parish and everywhere, disempowered by ageism despite their great wisdom. Think about the daily crucifixion of someone without a dime in his pocket. Think about everyone who lives in fear, all those who hunger for God. Think of the person you have persecuted by shaming them or trying to make them over in your image.
If you do this, it will change you. If you do this, you will be walking the way of the cross with Jesus. You will be keeping company with him as he decided to die for the truth rather than survive in some kind of touched-up world that has never really been. Your will find your cross, your heart will be pierced, your life will open up. You will find your place in this world that needs each of us to save it from its ongoing crucifixion.
That’s why Jesus said he came to us with a sword in his hand. He wants to pierce us with his sword, just as we pierced him with ours. The blood and water from his body became life for the world. We can be life for the world too.