Proper 7A Sermon (2014)

Proper 7 (June 19-25)
Texts: Matthew 10:24-39;
Romans 6:1b-11


Aunt Marge and Aunt Elsie, my mother’s two oldest sisters, were born in 1918 and 1919, respectively. That means that when the attack on pearly Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II, they were 23 and 22 years old — a prime time for getting married. Instead, millions of men their age were off to war. When those men returned home from war — less 400,000 casualties — Aunt Marge and Aunt Elsie were past their prime. They never married.

But they were part of a generation of American women who had a very different experience. They stepped up during the war and began working careers. Aunt Elsie was a so-called Rosie the Riveter. She worked at a factory making tanks. I’m proud of my aunts as pioneers of the first generation of career women. It was their generation that led the way a few years later for the beginning of the Women’s Movement, and the world has never been the same.

Historians point to that strong dose of working outside the home during WWII as a major factor leading to the Women’s Movement. I would like to propose to you this morning the most important factor leading to the Women’s Movement, one that historians usually miss. I’m talking about the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the pivot point in history. It’s not one that takes effect immediately across all of history because it uses the patient power of love, not the more immediate results of using force. Jesus’ launching of the Kingdom of God as a force in this world, through the strange decision of dying on the cross, is also the only thing that helps make sense of the verses in our Gospel Reading today about Jesus coming to bring a sword of division, not peace.

Let’s unpack this a bit. To understand the cross we need to understand ourselves and the way we try to achieve peace. Since our beginnings, we human beings have had false ideas about the gods which justify our way of doing things. The gods of our creation give us order by backing the power structures that dominate a culture. They tell us, for example, that kings and emperors have the divine right to rule over us in our nations, and that fathers have the divine right to rule in families. And this is always backed by force or the threat of force. Rulers in nations, communities, and homes set up hierarchies of rule that keeps everyone in their place for the sake of order. And these hierarchies always include a good number of people at the bottom, those who are dispensable, those who are sacrificed, in one way or another. In short, our age-old human way to peace and order relies on privileging some, while sacrificing others. Men over women, for example. And this has always been kept in place by our gods, who assure us that things were simply created this way.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ, I fervently believe that the underlying Spirit of our Christian faith is one of the true God trying desperately to get through the veil of our false gods to show us another way of peace and order that isn’t based on such hierarchies backed by force. This God through the Hebrew prophets came with a message of paying closest attention to the people at the bottom of the pyramid. God wants mercy to the lowliest, not their sacrifice. (Matt. 9:13: Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’) God’s way is to build a community on the rights of the least, not the most powerful. All of our well-being is maximized when we pay attention to the needs of the least among us. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims this message from beginning to end. From beatitudes to the poor, grieving, and meek, to the eternal blessing on those who fed Jesus when he was hungry and sheltered him when homeless. The last words of teaching from Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

Well, do you see how inverting our way of order and peace might make for a time of less peace? Jesus came in full solidarity with the least, the last, and the left out. He took his place with them on the cross. And on Easter God raised him as the promise to give us another way to peace. But since God doesn’t force God’s way, we have this long time of transition between our way of peace and God’s way of peace. And in that interim time, there may actually be less peace, between the slow erosion of our way to peace and our increasingly choosing God’s way to peace. In short, the process of transforming our way of peace isn’t peaceful. The end result will be true peace. That’s God’s promise, and you can bank on it! But the transition will be less peaceful, as those who currently benefit from the false way of keeping peace will resist. And even a false way of keeping peace can seem better than out-and-out chaos.

There are still many who fight and resist the Women’s Movement as a messing up of our household peace. And what I’m suggesting to you this morning is that that is exactly right. Jesus came precisely to mess up our way to keep peace in our families that relies on force and a hierarchy of father at the top of the pyramid. As that breaks down and erodes, it can make for less peace. Father against son, and mother against daughter.

But Jesus came, of course, to ultimately give us God’s more perfect way to peace based on an equality that pays attention to the most vulnerable in our lives and families. It is a way of peace based on love and forgiveness that always seeks healing. When we die to the old self, and the old way to peace, we can begin arising to the new self, and the new way to peace. It’s something that can begin any day, any time, that we open ourselves to the power of God’s spirit in our lives. As Paul puts it, we might consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. It begins by renewing our lives, helping us to find healing for the weakest parts of ourselves. It will renew our families, giving us a different and more lasting way to peace, where everyone is given an equal chance to thrive and flourish.

And, yes, it can even begin to renew and heal our communities and nations and world. But that takes disciples sent out in mission — which is the context for our Gospel Reading today. At the end of Matthew 9, Jesus has compassion on the crowds because their shepherds, their leaders, have a sinful way to keep order and peace, a way which relies on keeping crowds of people in poverty and disease. So Jesus’ response is to begin to send out apostles, messengers, disciples. But he does so as sheep among wolves. Being a disciple sent out means risking those in power who still go by the old ways of peace and will resist God’s new way. Our portion of the passage today conveys that darker side of facing resistance. Pastor Bob Hannemann next week gets to share the more hopeful conclusion while I’m on vacation.

Since I drew the short straw on getting the darker side of Jesus’ message, let me finish with one more difficult verse, on the way to a hopeful ending. I’m talking about the verse that says we should fear the One who can destroy both our bodies and souls in hell. The way we might first hear this is that God is the one who can destroy both our bodies and souls. In fact, many generations of Christians have tried to gain converts to the Christian religion by teaching people to fear God sending their souls to eternal punishment in hell.

Brothers and Sisters, a full examination of this verse would take another sermon. So let me simply offer another way to hear this verse: the one that Jesus is referring to who can destroy both our bodies and souls in hell is not the true God who is trying to save us in love, but the false God of our creation who continues to try to get us to do things his way, by violence and oppression of the weakest. When we continue to get hoodwinked by these false gods of our making, we don’t just lose our lives in the ensuing hellish violence, but we lose our humanity. The word “soul,” as a Jew like Jesus would talk about it, names the part of us as creatures that sets us apart: we are made in God’s image to care for the creation and one another. When we get hoodwinked by our false gods, time and time again, we not only lose our lives but we lose our humanity, we lose that which we were created to be.

The Good News that we are charged to bring to others is that we have a Way of dying to those sinful ways of being human to arise as new creatures, alive and serving the One true living God. Let us once again come to the table of life to be fed, that we may be sent out as carriers of that peace. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, June 22, 2014

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