A sermon text, based on Matthew 9.35-10.23, video-recorded and shared with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, June 14, 2020.
The first disciples Jesus called were brothers. Simon Peter and Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. Fisherman all. No surprise, then, that Jesus sharpened his word of summons to speak to their hearts, saying, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
However, there was a prefatory word with which Jesus proclaimed the point of his, therefore, their ministry and unfurled the metaphorical seine net with which his disciples were catch people: “The kingdom of heaven is near.”
The realm, the life, the being of God is this close – at hand – in Jesus himself! This is the same message, this same good news that Jesus sends them as missionaries to demonstrate in word and in deed.
But his instructions are hardly as appealing…
A declaration dripping with danger: “I send you as sheep among wolves.”
Then a mystifying, difficult (impossible?) to operationalize message: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Huh?
Then a terrifying statement: “Beware…you will be beaten…and dragged before rulers.”
Then a consoling, but (in light what Jesus already has said) confusing word: “Don’t worry.”
Jesus, the way you treat your friends it’s a wonder you have any followers!
Now, in Jesus’ day and time and in the historical context of Matthew’s gospel, a half-century after Jesus when the church was under persecution, these words of warning were understandable and necessary. To go into the world with his message of the nearness of the kingdom (the realm, the life, the being) of God’s love and justice, unconditional benevolence and fairness at all times for all people, rich and poor, men and women and children, free and slave, Jew and Gentile – a message, therefore, fundamentally counter-cultural, contra-status quo – was to cause tension and to court tribulation with secular and religious authorities.
Even more, Jesus’ message of adversity was part of a prophetic tradition woven into the cultural and spiritual fabric of his people’s understanding of what happens when one stands up, stands out in God’s Name.
But what sense do we make of Jesus’ teaching about the hardship of discipleship? For mainline American Christianity, in which our Episcopal Church is firmly rooted, long has made peace with worldly society. Thus, we aren’t inclined to make bold proclamations that provoke persecution. Truly, many have been the historical moments of Christian refusal to stand in the public square and, even when there, Christian reticence to speak from the stance of faith to the raging cultural, political, and social issues of the day…
I digress. At the end of the Civil War, one of the reasons, I believe, that the Episcopal Church was able to reunite the North and South factions rather quickly is because our church, institutionally, refused to take a public stand of condemnation on the most essential moral issue of the day: institutional slavery; the bitter, spoiled, rotten fruit of which, racism, is with us unto our very day…
So, it is that the church, a non-profit institution, wholly justifiably, at times, has been criticized as a non-prophet organization!
However, in this day and time, in the light of a world, an America set aflame with viral and racial pandemics, tension and trouble have come to us. And if, as we take seriously Jesus’ instructions for the missionary journey, then there is an unmistakable call and an immutable claim on all disciples. A call to us, a claim that we stand up and stand out in God’s Name. A call to us, a claim upon us to go forth into the world and, in the concrete daily circumstances of our lives, through our profession in word and deed of God’s love and justice, proclaiming that the kingdom of heaven is near.
Last Sunday, Rob closed his sermon, reflecting on Jesus’ command in the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” saying:
We are being called into the actual task of being a Christian and proclaiming that to the world. And if we are to do as Christ commands us, if we are to be who we claim to be, it seems like perhaps the best time, the most right time to be a follower of Christ is actually in a time of racism and political unrest and anger and violence and hate and, yes, even pandemic. Because right now, at this moment and in this place and countless others, people of faith are needed most.
I could say more, yet I need not. Thank you, Rob.
Thank you, Jesus.
“Follow me and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4.19)
“The kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4.17a)
From the sermon, “Now is the time to be a follower of Christ,” by the Reverend Robert L. Brown, rector, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2020.