12th Sunday in Ordinary time, 6-25-17; Jeremiah 20: 10-13, Ps 69, Romans 5: 12-15, Matthew 10: 26-33
Counting Hairs and Making Choices
Our readings this morning start with Jeremiah. Jeremiah was only 13 years old when God came to him and said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you….I set my words in your mouth.”
The call to be God’s prophet was a heavy burden for Jeremiah because the nation of Israel was worshiping idols, again. God’s words were harsh, urging the people of Israel to repent of their sins and seek forgiveness. If that wasn’t enough, the vicious Babylonian army was coming. The power of God was Israel’s only real defense against that army. But then loud men with great influence appeared; they mocked Jeremiah and bragged that Israel could defeat Babylon. They thought their positions and their power would be enhanced by silencing Jeremiah. So, Jeremiah was threatened and betrayed, he was put in the dungeon, left in a well, and had to flee to Egypt when Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians – all for doing God’s work, warning Israel and offering God’s forgiveness and protection.
Likewise, our Psalm today is a lament, a cry of anguish. It is the prayer of a man who is exhausted, an outcast from family& community, falsely accused, the butt of jokes & mean-spirited gossip. He says, “More numerous than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause.”
So it’s against this dark background that we turn to the Gospel of Matthew. We read from the 3rd section of Matthew, where Jesus commissions the 12 apostles and prepares to send them out to heal, drive out unclean spirits, and proclaim the Kingdom of God. After all, “apostle” means “one who is sent.” Let’s look closely at this first commissioning.
It starts with “Fear no one.” In fact, Jesus says this 3 times in this one paragraph. I have been told that “Fear not” and “Do not be afraid” are commands that occur more than 300 times in the Bible; and it is a command, not some silly attempt at providing comfort – like the “Now, this won’t hurt a bit” that you might hear in the dentist’s office. The Lord is telling us not to let ourselves be afraid. We can’t afford to be scared. It just gets in the way of us doing whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing. Fearlessness does not come from being patted on back. It means making a conscious decision not to indulge ourselves.
Everyone gets scared. It’s okay to feel scared. There are some mean dudes out there. But you can’t let it run your life. If you’ll just mind the Lord on this one thing, you won’t need any courage. Just mind Him in this: “Do not be afraid!”
Next Jesus advises the apostles (and us) about the freedom of preaching the Good News. There is nothing secretive or hidden about the announcement of the Kingdom of God. Of course, we must know and study the truth of Our Lord’s teachings. You are so fortunate to have Bishop Ron with you, because he is so attentive to teaching the Word. The truth Jesus taught can be preached from the housetops; it is timeless, besides, it brings hope into a world that is otherwise sad and scary.
The next verses can be accepted as truth from Jesus, because he showed us how to do it. The 2nd “do not be afraid” is about those who can kill the body but not the soul. Surely we can testify to the life of the soul of Jesus after crucifixion. The resurrection is our proof. Oddly enough then, Jesus tells us to fear the one who can destroy both the soul and the body in Gahanna/hell. But this is not “scary” fear – this is the “awe-some” fear that we have of God. The awe that leaves us with our mouth gaping, our eyes big, our mind overwhelmed and stunned at the immensity, the power, the authority, the knowledge, and so many other qualities we have no words for or the ability to grasp; the “fear-some” awe we should rightfully have for God and our desire to be in God’s kingdom.
Jesus gives us then a concrete example of why we should trust God with our very lives and souls, and claim the freedom to declare the Kingdom. Jesus describes God the Father as having such minute knowledge of his creation that he sees each tiny bird, a creature we would hardly assign any value. Jesus says (in his 3rd “do not be afraid”) that we, even when we feel our most vulnerable and insignificant, we are worth much more than many sparrows. Unlike the Psalm writer, who felt he had more enemies than he had hair, Jesus says God knows the count of the hairs on my head. (God must love us more as we age, since the counting is easier.) But we live in a world and a society that is quick to view some of God’s children as worthless throw-a-ways, and if we choose to be God’s people, we must remember our value, and the value of each life.
Finally, Jesus brings us to the importance of spreading the Good News and the Kingdom. By doing so, we are publicly acknowledging Jesus. To declare his teachings from the housetops, we must believe those teachings. When we publicly act out those teachings and are fearless by choice, we publicly acknowledge Jesus. When we stand up for vulnerable and fragile people, and treat them with love, we publicly acknowledge Jesus. Then Jesus will acknowledge us before God the Father.
So we have two examples of people from the Old Testament who lived out the commission of faith, suffering all kinds of abuse, but who never lost their faith in God’s goodness. Then we read how Jesus prepared his apostles for similar trials: to know and teach the Truth that Jesus taught; and to focus on the God who knows and loves us intimately instead of focusing on our fears. We live in times that could make us constantly fearful. Many people are suffering greatly around the world as battles of greed and power are being fought with no respect to the innocent. Religion is being used as a feeble cover for terrible and senseless violence. We can work ourselves into a frenzy of fear, or we can accept this commissioning along with the apostles. We can save our awe-filled fear for God alone and hold tight to the value God gives us. We can let go of our fear for the cowards who try to act vicious and instead do what we were commanded to do- that is to live our lives publicly in the light of truth and love.
It is a very real choice.