Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Fearlessness

Rev. Kathy Donley

07/16/17

 

Scripture Lesson:  Matthew 10:16-39

 

Two weeks ago, at the ABC Biennial, Jim and I went to a workshop led by Dan and Sharon Buttry.  Dan told about some Christian friends of theirs who live in Egypt. The family business is a store.  The family are Christians, which has angered one radical Muslim man.  That man has erected a stall directly in front of the entrance to the Christian family’s store.  Anyone wishing to buy something from the Christian merchant has to walk through the stall and endure verbal abuse, listening to the Muslim man’s rantings as they enter and exit.  Apparently, there is no legal recourse for the Christian business owner.  One member of the family is a young woman, who is about 24 years old.  The Muslim man has threatened to throw acid on her face.  Since that kind of assault is not uncommon, the family is taking it seriously.  But Dan told us, that the young woman had a specific request.  She said “Don’t pray for an end to the persecution.  Pray that our faith will be strong.”

 

I take two things from this story.  The first one is that I wish I had that young woman’s faith.  The second is that when American Christians complain about being persecuted in this country, they don’t have any real basis for judgment.

 

Today’s scripture reading is difficult.  It’s difficult because most of us don’t know much about real persecution.  It’s difficult because some of these words seem to contradict what Jesus says in other places.  It’s difficult because it is a long, dense reading, especially for the middle of summer. 

 

But it is often true that the hard readings are the most important.  So, I invite you to stick with me for a little while and in return, I promise not to attempt to say everything that could be said about this passage.

 

To begin, we should remember the context.  This is Jesus’ speech to twelve disciples as he sends them out on their first mission without him.  The first instruction we read was in verse 16, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

 

Often this instruction is said to mean that they (and we) should be smart and careful.  But perhaps it means something else.  Contemporary theologian James Alison suggests that rather than this being an instruction about prudence, as it is usually understood, that this is what acting out forgiveness in the world looks like: it looks like knowing that you are dealing with dangerous people, who are more than likely to be deeply destabilized by your innocence and because of that to seek to lynch you.[1]  It is knowing that and forgiving them anyway.

 

I am sending you out as sheep among wolves.  That’s a dangerous place.  Jesus acknowledges that right up front, but then, I notice that three times he tells them (and us) “don’t be afraid.”  That command “Don’t be afraid” is repeated more often than any other instruction in the Bible. 

  • I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves.  Don’t be afraid.

  • They will not treat you well.  They will hand you over to political authorities and beat you.  Don’t be afraid.

  • They will hate you.  Your family will hate you.  Don’t be afraid. 

I wonder if this was Jesus’ idea of an inspiring coaching message, intended to launch them on their way feeling upbeat and confident?  If so, there is a great disconnect between coaching methods then and now. 

 

Michael Leunig is an Australian cartoonist, writer, philosopher and poet.  He has offered political and cultural commentary in major newspapers there for the last 40 years.  One of his poems goes like this:

 

There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks,
two results.
Love and fear.
Love and fear.[2]

 

Fear is such a powerful motivating force.  We learn it early. 

“Don’t touch that hot thing . . . or that sharp thing.” 

“Don’t run – you might fall and hurt yourself.”

“Don’t talk to strangers.  They might hurt you”

 

Fear is the weapon of terrorists, abusers, dictators, and some politicians.  It pervades our lives, often without being recognized.  This week I mentioned to several people our upcoming trip to Mexico.  I was surprised at how many people’s first reaction was fear – their immediate response was to warn me to be careful.  And then I was delighted when one of you greeted me today with excitement about the trip.

 

Leunig says that there are only two feelings, two languages, two motives – fear and love.  If he is right, then the opposite of love is not hate, but fear.  As the letter of I John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

 

Perfect love might indeed cast out fear, but few of us have reached perfection.  We are still somewhat loving and somewhat fearful.  I wonder if it is equally true that fear casts out love? And so, we must choose.   Jesus offers us at least three insights into that choice with his three statements of “do not be afraid.” 

 

 

Verse 26 says not to be afraid because what is covered up will be uncovered, what is secret will become known.  Don’t be afraid because the truth will be revealed eventually.  The truth of the gospel is destabilizing to the status quo and that makes it unpopular and dangerous, but sooner or later, it will be recognized as truth.  Stay on the side of truth and don’t be afraid. 

 

Truth is transformative. Vs. 34 says “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  These are strange words to hear from Jesus -- Jesus who refused to fight against Rome, who kept his followers from fighting on his behalf, Jesus who also said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”  But if we read across many New Testament texts, we see that the only “sword” that Jesus brings is the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  Hebrews 4:12 teaches: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints for marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” 

 

The sword here is truth, not a weapon of violence.  The truth that Jesus offers has already destabilized the lives of Matthew’s readers.  The conflict is no longer just with Rome, but with their former faith family and with biological family members.  That culture had such a sharp sense of social stratification.  Everything depended on your social position and your beliefs and actions affected your whole family.  To associate with Jesus or his followers, to have fellowship with the “wrong” people (those who were socially inferior or foreigners or Gentiles or women or anyone else who didn’t know their place) meant to risk everything.  And if enough people took that risk, it would change everything. 

 

Family is supposed to be the place where we learn and practice love, but Jesus says that Christian family members will be set against each other.  How can that be?  An atheist philosopher named Slavoj Zizek describes it this way: “Jesus isn’t saying that I have to love him more than my mom and my dad and my kids. Rather, mom, dad and child stand for the social structure of Jesus’ day, which is rooted in hierarchy, power-dominance relationship and patriarchy. The conclusion being that Jesus isn’t coming to wreck your family, he’s coming to wreck your society.”[3] 

 

Truth is destabilizing and transformative, but transformation is also how God heals and reconciles.  Don’t be afraid of transformation.   

 

The third “do not be afraid” is in verse 31.  I’ll get to the second one in a minute.  Verse 31 says “do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  In context, this means that God cares tenderly even for sparrows and God cares for you far more than for sparrows.  This is the deepest, hardest truth we have to grasp. God is merciful and just, tender and nurturing.  God’s love for us is unfathomable.  This is the perfect love that casts out fear.  Don’t be afraid because you are known and loved by the Creator of the Universe. 

 

And then there is the one I skipped, verse 28 “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.”

 

The first part of this one is about death.  Don’t be afraid of death, Jesus is saying.  Disciples are not above their masters.  If they kill me, your teacher, then they will probably kill you too.  Our fear of death and pain is strong.  That’s where terrorists and dictators get their power. So, by itself that one is very hard.  Only as love is perfected, I think, do we lose our fear of death, and maybe we don’t even do that.  Maybe we just learn to exercise courage over fear, which is the power of love.

 

The first part, “don’t be afraid of death” is hard enough, but the second part of this verse is the hardest.  “Do not fear those who kill the body, but rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul and in hell.” Now that he has said not to be afraid several times, Jesus says here “Be afraid.  Be very afraid.”

 

A common understanding of this verse is that Jesus is saying, “Don’t fear humans, just fear God.”  This interpretation rests on the idea that “the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell” is God. To push it to the absurd, Jesus would be saying, “Don’t be scared of human violence and atrocities, because God is so much scarier than the most violent people.” [4]

 

If that’s what Jesus meant, then we are back to fear as primary motive again.  And if fear is what God wants from us, if fear is the way that God relates to us, then what Jesus says about our value compared with sparrows cannot also be true.   

 

I stake my life on the belief that God loves us with a perfect love that casts out fear.  Which means that Jesus is not telling us to fear God.  So, who is the one to be feared in vs. 28, the one who can destroy body and soul?  It must be the one that the Bible calls the accuser, the adversary, the satan.  My Australian Baptist colleague, Nathan Nettleton, says, “Whether or not [Satan]has an existence as an individual personal being is irrelevant, because he has an existence in our collective hearts and minds whenever we get sucked into his finger pointing and his purity crusades and his border protection. He exists in our collective desire to protect us by casting out them, to pass laws and erect walls to again cast out [the other, those who are not like us, those whom we chose to fear]”

 

Nathan goes on, “When we hear ultra-nationalists saying that Islamists driving a van into a crowd on London Bridge is evil terrorism, but a British nationalist driving a van into a crowd of worshippers outside a mosque is not terrorism but a justified revenge attack, we are hearing that same satanic lie wrapped in a different flag. Be afraid of that lie, of that belief structure, says Jesus, because if you get sucked into it and become a part of it, it will consume you and dehumanize you and destroy you, body and soul. If you resist the system and refuse to participate in it . . .  then you may become a victim of it and be killed by it.”[5]  A disciple is not above the master.

 

There are only two feelings.
Love and fear.
There are only two languages.
Love and fear.
There are only two activities.
Love and fear.
There are only two motives,
two procedures, two frameworks, two results.
Love and fear.
Love and fear.
[6]

 

Sisters and brothers, don’t be afraid, the transforming truth is being revealed.  We are known and loved by the Creator of the Universe – don’t be afraid.   Choose courage because we know the love of Christ and that love has overcome the world.  Amen.

 

 

 

 


[1] James Alison, On Being Liked excepted at http://girardianlectionary.net/year_a/proper_6a.htm

[2] http://www.leunig.com.au/works/prayers

[3]https://web.archive.org/web/20141206081859/http:/www.questionthetext.org/2014/06/16/what-would-zizek-do/ 

[4] This idea and much of the framework of this sermon comes from the Rev. Nathan Nettleton and his very fine sermon To Fear or Not to Fear.  http://southyarrabaptist.church/sermons/to-fear-or-not-to-fear/

[5] http://southyarrabaptist.church/sermons/to-fear-or-not-to-fear/ 

[6] http://www.leunig.com.au/works/prayers

 

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