Lord, Make Me A Laughingstock
For audio, go this link: https://soundcloud.com/emsworthup/june-22-2014-11-12-46-am/s-CC2ss
24“A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Let us begin with prayer: God of grace and love, we seek to not only know your will, but also to have the courage and strength to do your will. Fill us with your Word this day, and let the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and redeemer. Amen.
I confess that I spent much too much time this week staring at my computer screen, watching the proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I attended the last two assemblies in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, so I felt sort of pouty and left out of all the fun taking place in Detroit this week. Many of people who go to General Assembly refer to it as a big Presbyterian family reunion, and that’s a pretty good description. Although the denomination has almost 1.8 million members, and more than 1000 attend GA, it does feel like everyone pretty much knows everyone. And as is typical when big families get together, this year there were a few issues that caused a few tense conversations at the Presbyterian dinner table. Perhaps you’ve already read reports of these disagreements in the newspaper.
But it has ever been so with our Presbyterian clan. In fact, let me put it this way. If Jesus really meant it when he said he came to “… set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” he is probably not shocked by our family feuds at General Assembly this year. Or any year. It seems that every Presbyterian family gathering since 1789 has had at least a few moments of people going at each other’s throats. And every assembly seems to end with at least a few good and faithful Presbyterians threatening to file for divorce or cut the rest of us out of their wills. Even a report which called for “Peace, Unity and Purity” in the PCUSA stirred up another hornets nest a few years ago.
People get upset when they read the reports about General Assembly. People see fellow Presbyterians having disagreements on issues that strike at the heart how we see ourselves as Christians. And it’s easy to forget that everyone at General Assembly are just ordinary people doing the best they can to follow Jesus and be faithful to the teachings of the Bible and our confessions. These fights are hard to watch. I am a generally conflict-averse person, so I there are times when my stomach churns as I see my brothers and sisters accuse each other of heresy or anti-Semitism or worse. I am certain that many of the harsh words are soon regretted. But I admit I sometimes watch General Assembly proceedings the way some people watch horror movies. With my hands over my ears and my eyes squeezed shut.
Life is hard, and we want our life together in the church to be as peaceful, pure and unified on earth as we hope it is in Heaven. We want church to be a place where we can avoid divisiveness and anxiety. But our Kumbaya dreams are blown to bits when Jesus drops this bomb on us: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
As a conflict averse Presbyterian, this is a sword-swinging Jesus I’d rather avoid. What I want is peace. What I want is the one thing Jesus said he couldn’t or wouldn’t bring. Peace. Peace is what we want. We’ll even settle for a false peace if it means we can avoid unpleasant conversations and bitter disputes. We’ll do pretty much anything to maintain the illusion that everything is hunky dory.
And here comes Jesus, ruining everything by telling us that he is not only the Prince of Peace, but also the king who’s going to cause trouble for all of us. So what do we do with that? What have we gotten ourselves into?
This sword-wielding Jesus makes me wonder if even his first disciples knew what they were getting into. When he picked them out of their fishing boats, all Jesus said to them was, “Follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” That’s all they knew at the beginning – fish for people. But at this point in the gospel we read this morning, the focus is beginning to shift away from Jesus and toward the disciples who are going to take up the work Jesus has begun. And the future Jesus promises to the disciples is anything but secure and peaceful. He says: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues…and you will be dragged before governors and kings and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Mt. 10:16-17, 22a).
Wolves and flogging and hatred? Sort of makes your average General Assembly sound like a Sunday school picnic in comparison, doesn’t it? I wonder if we can even begin to imagine what we’re getting into when we sing, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” No turning back. No. Turning. Back.
Following Jesus clearly isn’t about “going along to get along.” We cannot follow Jesus and bury our heads in the sand. If we are whole-heartedly invested in our faith, if we are serious about justice like Jesus is serious about justice, we will run into opposition. And the hardest part will be disagreements within the family circle. There will be situations that set us back on our heels and make us wonder if we ever truly knew our brother or sister in Christ because what is coming out of their mouths sounds like complete nonsense.
And, worst of all, Jesus says that we don’t dare avoid conflicts, even to keep the peace. Because as much as we love our family, we can’t love them more than we love Jesus. We can’t put our desire to keep peace in the family above our commitment to follow Jesus.
But here’s the thing – we also can’t walk away. We can’t stop loving our brother and sister even when we are in conflict. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say in this text to hate our mother or our father or our son or our daughter or anyone else. He doesn’t tell us to walk away from them. All he says is that faith will lead us into conflict. And we will occasionally be forced to bear the awful cross of living with people with whom we disagree. That’s the hardest cross of all. Walking away would be so much easier. As one of my seminary professors once said, “Jesus is a handful.”
This text from Matthew reminds us that Jesus was much more than a predictable do-gooder. Nor was Jesus merely a bothersome moral scold. This texts reminds us yet again of the challenges and complexity of Jesus’ teaching.
The Jesus the first disciples followed is a trouble-maker, a rabble rouser, who was called appalling names not suitable for a Sunday sermon. The disciples followed a flesh and blood Jesus who upset the established order in families and communities, challenged the powerful and privileged, threw the church into chaos, and ended up on a cross for his trouble. In other words, Jesus did not lead the disciples to a peaceful, predictable and boring place. Jesus never attempted to reach a polite consensus. Jesus led his followers headlong into a place of conflict and danger where literally losing their lives was a very real possibility.
And since most of us haven’t been able to break the habit of actually kind of liking our lives and our churches and our family relationships the way they are, we need to think really hard about how committed we are to following Jesus. Are we really ready for a faith so interesting it might kill us? How uncomfortable are we willing to be for the sake of the gospel? How willing are we to risk people not liking us? And how willing are we to stick with and love the family members we don’t like?
There’s a line in the text from the Old Testament reading this morning that hits even closer to home. Jeremiah had the distinct misfortune of living in a time of great social upheaval and unrest, just like us. In fact, Jeremiah is mightily ticked off that he’s been given the task of being God’s prophet in an age when prophets are the least popular people at any party. Nobody is very much interested in what Jeremiah has to say which makes Jeremiah’s job pretty difficult. As a result, Jeremiah has made clear to God that he’s doing this impossible job under protest.
And Jeremiah’s friends can’t wait for him to give up and become a reasonable person. They keep rooting for Jeremiah to fail. What Jeremiah is suffering is the most horrible fate anyone can suffer. Jeremiah is a laughingstock. People make fun of him. And it’s hard to imagine anything worse than being ridiculed. I don’t mind people ignoring me. I don’t even mind people arguing with me. But there’s nothing worse than playing what looks like a fool. And that seems to be Jeremiah’s chief complaint about his job.
But Jeremiah can’t help himself. He cannot stop speaking God’s word. Even when people laugh at him. Even when he feels absolutely alone and alienated from friends and families who wish he would just shut up already and go along to get along. Jeremiah can’t help it. The word of God has sunk into his bones and his heart so deeply that he cannot remain silent. No matter the cost. No matter the embarrassment. No turning back. No turning back.
So, I will not deny that there’s a part of me this morning just itching to pick a fight. Or preach from a housetop. Or at the very least make you feel a little bit uncomfortable. Because I take my faith very seriously. I take these words Jesus speaks in Matthew very seriously. I take Jesus so seriously that I pray every day that I may be fearless enough to become a laughingstock like Jeremiah.
Because what we Christians have to say to the world is laughable. The Gospel stands against everything that world holds dear. Give your stuff away to people who probably not deserve it. Give your life away to people who will probably not appreciate it. Keep loving people who hurt you the most deeply. Forgive all the time, every time, especially when every fiber of your being just wants to hit back. Forget about success and security and survival. Focus instead on how spectacularly you can fail. You won’t be able to fail as beautifully and completely as Jesus did. But don’t let that stop you from trying. Because it is only in losing our lives that we will find them. That is the outrageous resurrection promise at the heart of our faith. And through any other eyes than the eyes of faith, it is ridiculous.
None of us have cornered the market on truth. Jeremiah didn’t corner the market on truth. The disciples would go on to stumble and fall and fail. Not one human being is immune to hypocrisy, short-sightedness, greed, fear or just plain meanness. So in order to the people of God, we need each other. We don’t do this alone. We cannot know anything that is real and true without one another. And there are times when like Jeremiah we will be compelled by the Spirit to speak, even if our voice shakes, and our knees tremble, and we risk the laughter of our friends or the rejection of our families.
I read a piece yesterday written by a very conservative Presbyterian about what he observed at General Assembly this week, and I think he came pretty close to getting it right:
I still believe that God reveals “big-T” Truth to us. But I’ve also come to realize that we, as sinful and limited creatures, aren’t going to get the full picture this side of eternity. In fact, the whole reason that we come together as a ginormous group of rag-tag Presbyterians every two years is because we can’t make decisions on our own. We need each other to make well-informed, wise choices for the health and well-being of our church. Is it going to get messy? Yes. Are we going to come to issues and situations with incredibly different perceptions and presumptions? Absolutely. Will there be conflicts of opinion and practice? You betcha. But the simple fact remains: we need each other. Even the inept committee moderator. Even the jerk who keeps hogging the paddle. I firmly believe that God puts people in our lives for a reason – and as we figure out those reasons, we gain wisdom and insight that will serve us in all areas of our lives.
So, while I’d be lying to say that the decisions that we made this week haven’t affected me, I also can’t help but relate the joy I’ve found in the experiences I’ve had and the relationships I’ve been able to cultivate. I’ve learned more about myself, and I’ve seen God at work in countless ways and through countless people. My love of Jesus has grown deeper, and my vision of what his Church can be has grown broader. I, for one, don’t believe that God has forsaken us. God is still at work in the PC(USA), and I pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and empower us to be faithful participants in that work.
May it be so for us. Thanks be to God. Amen.