This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 7/9/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Matthew 10:24-39. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
I had a really tough time working on this sermon, because I could not find a clear line of relevance between the situation into which Jesus was speaking then, and the situation we find ourselves in now. In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus is preparing his disciples as he is about to send them out on their first solo mission among the towns of Judea. They are about to travel without Jesus, preaching to their fellow Jews in each place. They’ll proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom and seek hospitality from those who have ears to hear in each place they visit.
Jesus predicts that the disciples will face great difficulties and find themselves rejected in many cases. Looking into the future, Jesus predicts that his disciples will be persecuted, judged by magistrates, and even martyred for preaching the gospel.
In anticipation of the hard days and hard years ahead, Jesus reassures the disciples that God stands with them, that just as God is aware of every sparrow that falls, he is even more aware of the needs of human beings. Despite all the challenges, God stands with those who seek to follow Jesus, and especially with those who face trials and suffering for the truth.
Jesus encourages the disciples, but he also warns them: Following Jesus will mean being separated from society, and even from their families. In a time when membership in an extended family was the ultimate form of security and identity, to be divided from father, mother, sister, brother, was the most disruptive, frightening thing imaginable. I try to think of something similar today, in our vastly more individualized society. Imagine if following Jesus could mean losing your US citizenship. Imagine if being a Christian put you at risk of fines, imprisonment, even execution?
It’s hard to imagine. And that’s a big reason that I’ve been struggling with this passage, how to preach it in our own context, today, at Berkeley Friends Church.
In many ways, objectively speaking, we live in one of the freest societies in human history. We, and hundreds of millions of other Americans, are free to practice our religion without fear. We have enormous latitude in what we are able to believe, profess, and live out in our lives. We have generations and generations of followers of Christ, our spiritual ancestors, including many generations of American Quakers, to thank for this religious liberty. In so many ways, times have never been better for those who want to live out their faith.
So it’s hard to imagine what real persecution would be like. It’s hard to envision a country where our faith would radically separate us from society. Where confessing our Lord would mean real, dire consequences. In so many ways, we are free to do just about anything we want.
And while this is so different from the context into which Jesus originally preached the words of the Gospel of Matthew, our time is not without its own challenges. If the early church lived in a time of great religious tumult, we live in a time of a soul-numbing religious irrelevance.
Sometimes I wonder if the reason that we are able to have such great religious liberty, such expansive freedom, is that our faith no longer really matters to the ordering of our society. There was a time, not so long ago, that questions of religious doctrine were considered quite consequential in this country. There was a time when holding fast to a certain view of who God is and what Jesus has done for us could cost you a great deal. There were Quakers who were executed in the American colonies for refusing to back down from preaching the gospel. There were Quakers who died for refusing to serve in the American Civil War. There are today Quakers and other Christians of conscience who have been imprisoned for disrupting the American Empire in its development of nuclear weapon systems.
But when I turn my eyes to my own life, and when I look around at much of the American church, I don’t see anything like that landscape. I don’t know where to locate a faith that truly brings a sword, as Jesus put it. I don’t see a Christian faith that separates us from society, that draws a line between us and the people and institutions that define us. I don’t know where to go to find a gospel that forces me to choose.
The great struggle of my life as a Christian has increasingly become grappling with the apparent irrelevance of my faith. The fact that American society seems perfectly capable of accepting my faith, and my practice of it, and simply continuing on, unfazed, without any need to challenge me. Because I am not a challenge.
Jesus warned us not to fear those who threaten us, but rather to trust in God for protection, identity, and ultimate vindication. But I don’t feel threatened. My faith doesn’t seem threatening. It seems invisible.
What to do about this? Certainly, it can’t be that we are called to seek out conflict for its own sake. Just because society isn’t attacking us doesn’t mean our faith is invalid; even if people did persecute and mistreat us, it wouldn’t necessarily make our faith true. Yet there is something suspicious about a Christian church that fits so comfortably in the land, that faces so little resistance from a society filled with homeless encampments, gleaming towers of commerce, and stockpiles of nuclear weapons. What business do I have being a follower of Jesus who manages to fit in?
How do I respond to the assumption that Jesus seems to have in this passage, that the public expression of our faith as Christians will often lead to rejection and even persecution from the society around us? Where am I being sent? Who am I to be received by? What is the message that God is sending through me, and what is the message that I need to hear – even if it is a message that threatens my ability to get along in this society of steel, silicon, and polite isolation?