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Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 21, 2020
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Can you indulge a proud dad for a few moments? After all, it is Father’s Day, and my oldest son just graduated from high school last week. I promise what I am about to share with you is for the purpose of illuminating the gospel reading for today.
So, on the occasion of my son’s graduation from high school last Saturday I found myself flooded with emotion, or course, but also flooded with words, with things I wanted to say to him. We got him a graduation card, but there wasn’t nearly enough space on that card to write all the things I wanted to say, so I wrote a letter to tuck into it. Much of what I wrote is just for him and will remain private – but I would like to share two things I wrote about in that letter.
I told him there would be challenges ahead for him. He is going to Texas A&M for college, and as excited as he is for sunshine and sweet tea, he is going to be homesick at times. He is doing Air Force ROTC, which means he’ll be up super early in the morning to do his PT (physical training). He will be studying in one of the top engineering departments in the nation, so there will be academic challenges. I pointed out all these challenges NOT to discourage him. Quite the opposite! I pointed them out so he would be ready for them, so he could expect and prepare for them. I pointed them out in order to encourage him to not give up when things get hard.
But I didn’t just point out the challenges ahead, I also wanted him to know how much I love him. I wanted him to know precious he is to me. I wanted him to know that his mother and I are behind him 100%, that we’d be rooting for him. And I made him a promise: I promised him that as long as I have breath in my lungs, I will be there for him – no matter what.
Our gospel reading for this morning comes from a section in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus is flooded with words he wants to impart to his disciples, and a large part of what he has to say to them is to warn them about the challenges they will face in following him. He tells them that just as he was facing persecution, they could expect the same. The servants shouldn’t expect better treatment than their master! If Jesus got called nasty names like Beelzebul (which translated literally means “lord of the flies”), they could expect to be called something even worse! Jesus says he didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword. Now of course Jesus came to give us peace in a sense – he came to give us peace with God, the peace beyond all understanding – but following him does not necessarily lead to peace with others! The disciples can expect to be rejected and persecuted and ostracized. Some of this might even come from their own family members! There will be crosses to carry, Jesus says. There will be challenges.
Jesus tells them all this not to discourage them. Quite the contrary. He tells them this to encourage them! He tells them all this to prepare them, so they’ll know what to expect and not give up when the going gets rough.
But Jesus doesn’t just warn them about the challenges they will face as they follow him. He also gives them a promise. He speaks to them of their Heavenly Father, whose presence they enter simply by acknowledging Jesus, simply by having faith in him. Jesus tells them of this Heavenly Father who loves them and cares for them. Jesus points out how inexpensive sparrows are – two for a penny! And yet not one of these cheap little birds falls to the ground apart from this Heavenly Father. This Heavenly Father knows them so intimately and loves them so deeply that even the hairs on their head are all counted. “So do not be afraid,” Jesus tells them, “for you are of more value than many sparrows.”
As Jesus’ followers today we face challenges too. In fact, I think the best word you could possibly use to describe the year 2020 is “challenging,” right? (I suppose there are other words, but this is the nicest one.) I don’t need to list off all the challenges for you. I did that last week and it felt like I was crushing you under that weight, so I won’t do it again. You know the challenges facing our society today.
That’s hard enough, but Jesus isn’t talking about the perennial challenges of human life in a fallen world. He’s talking specifically about the challenges we face because we are Christians. We as Christians have enjoyed a privileged position in American culture for so long that this is hard for us to understand, but our brothers and sisters in other countries understand it very well. Try being a Christian in Egypt, where just a few years ago twenty-one young men were martyred for refusing to renounce Christ. A professor acquaintance of mine had a student from Iran who became Christian while studying in the U.S. and couldn’t return home because she had been ostracized from her family and even feared for her life. Jesus knows what he’s talking about, doesn’t he?
Thank God we don’t face that level of persecution here, but there are still crosses for us to bear. There are challenges for us too. I’ve known of plenty of marriages that have been strained because one spouse believes and the other does not. I’ve known of many friendships that have ended because one wants to follow Jesus and the other thinks it is prudish or silly or whacko. We face rejections, and, frankly, barring some new Great Awakening, I think we can expect to experience more rejections in the decades ahead of us. There continue to be divisions. There continue to be crosses for us to bear. There are certain places on social media where we are being called things much, much worse than Beelzebul!
Jesus has warned us about all of this, so we shouldn’t be surprised by any of it. Jesus has told us about the challenges we will face so that we can prepare our hearts for them, so that we can expect them, so that we won’t give up when the going gets rough.
But our Lord Jesus doesn’t just give us a heads up on the challenges we’ll face. He also gives us a promise. Jesus speaks to us of our Heavenly Father, who loves us and cares for us. Every child of this Father who acknowledges Jesus, Jesus says, will be welcomed into this Father’s presence. He tells us of a Heavenly Father who knows us intimately and values us greatly. This Heavenly Father keeps track of every sparrow that falls from the sky and every hair that grows on our heads! “So do not be afraid,” Jesus says, “for you are of more value to this Heavenly Father than many sparrows.”
Dear friends, we are facing many challenges indeed – in our world, in the church, in our lives. But Jesus tells us we have a Heavenly Father who knows us and loves us and cares for us. So do not be afraid.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church