This week at St. Peter Lutheran in Greene, we had a “Sunday of Hope” (actually, it was a “Weekend of Hope” to include the Saturday service). We raised just over $700 for the American Cancer Society by selling luminary bags to be used in July at Butler County Relay for Life. During worship (in the fellowship hall space this week), we lined the walls with luminaries and included victims and survivors of cancer in the prayers.
For this Third Sunday after Pentecost in Year A, the sermon texts are Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11
Grace and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As you’ve obviously noticed, one of the themes of our worship service today is cancer. We’re remembering people who have fallen victim to cancer, remembering those who have died and honoring those who have survived or are still fighting.
Our service today is about hope, but before we get to hope, we need to talk about fear. Some of the most scary words in the English language are “You have cancer.”
Cancer causes fear. So do a lot of other things in our broken world. So what are you afraid of?
One of my fears is – no joke – a tree falling on a building I’m in. When I worked at summer camp, it used to keep me up at night during storms. Ironically, it didn’t bother me that much a few weeks ago when a tree actually fell on our house.
Maybe for you it’s being afraid of the dark, or spiders or something like that, but on a deeper level, what keeps you up at night? Is it losing your job? Losing your independence?
Is it something happening to your children? Is it sickness? Or with today’s theme, maybe it’s cancer, you or a family member getting sick? There’s a lot to be afraid of, and fears can be paralyzing. Fear of loss can keep you from enjoying life. Fear of forgetting can keep you from moving forward.
In today’s reading, Jesus talks about the kind of fear that can keep you from standing up for what’s worth fighting for, a fear of conflict.
Last week in Matthew’s gospel, you heard about Jesus sending his disciples out into the world to proclaim the good news that God’s kingdom is near. We pick up today as Jesus continues giving them their marching orders. When they go out into the world, Jesus tells them, not everyone is going to welcome their message.
Jesus’ followers are bearing good news, but not everyone will want to hear it. For some people, the good news of the gospel is threatening. Some people don’t want to hear about God paying attention to them, because they’re doing just fine on their own.
Some people like the idea of God coming, but only if God’s going to judge the people they don’t like. They’re threatened by the idea of God loving and forgiving their enemies. Some people might think it’s all a scam. Whatever the reason, not everyone is going to receive the disciples as messengers of good news.
So before they head out, Jesus gives them some encouragement. He tells them, “Have no fear” because even if others reject them and their message, God still sees them as precious and valuable.
This is Jesus’ pep talk to the disciples. Now, in my mind, this is not the greatest pep talk. I like the part about God caring about us so much that even the hairs on our heads are all counted, but Jesus doesn’t stop there.
Instead, he says something I’m not really comfortable with. He says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
I like talking about Jesus coming to bring people together, being a God of peace. That’s a lot more attractive than Jesus talking about bringing a sword and tearing families apart. This is a challenging passage.
The way I understand what Jesus is saying here is to look at who he’s talking to, the disciples. I started by asking what you’re afraid of. The disciples, apparently, are afraid of conflict. What if the people we talk to don’t listen? What if someone gets angry? What if we get attacked for what we’re proclaiming, what if we get driven out of town?
For the first people reading Matthew’s gospel, this was a huge problem. Remember, the first Christians were all Jewish, and believing Jesus was God in the flesh meant going beyond the boundaries of their Jewish faith.
If they claimed Jesus as Lord, they’d be kicked out of their community. Later, as Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire and challenged its authority, being a Christian could mean being physically attacked, even killed as a martyr.
Today, in this country, we don’t take the same risks by coming to church, identifying as Christian, or even telling others about Jesus. A little later we’re going to watch a video about how our church is working in South Sudan, one of the places where being a Christian and doing ministry is still dangerous.
But even for us here today, talking about God especially in public still feels risky. Proclaiming the Gospel message can still be controversial.
And here’s the thing – it should be controversial. As Christians, we’re making the case that a man who was killed for disturbing the peace, for threatening the powerful, is the Son of God. Christianity is not meant to be a “nice” religion. Our message isn’t supposed to be safe.
We’re saying that the God who created us has the right to tell us how to live. We’re telling people that the way we live on our own leads to death, and that life only comes through God. That challenges people.
When you tell people they need a savior, that means you’re telling them there’s something they need to be saved from. We’re saying we can’t save ourselves, or even contribute to our own salvation.
We’re saying God’s love doesn’t have anything to do with how good of a person you are, that God loves even people who don’t deserve it.
All of that’s going to make people upset. Every so often, it’s going to cause controversy. Don’t be afraid of stirring up a little controversy, Jesus says. In fact, even losing your life for Jesus’ sake means finding real life.
Jesus talks about setting family members against one another. That doesn’t mean he wants to destroy family relationships. Remember, part of the way God has told us to live is to honor your father and your mother. Jesus isn’t arguing against family; he’s pointing out the reality that family is not ought not be the most important thing in your life.
Jesus makes a claim on your life that we believe is actually more important than your family. In baptism, you are claimed as part of the family of God. We actually dare to believe that God’s claim on you is more important than your family’s claim.
Your family will let you down. In fact, I dare say all of you have had moments when your family has let you down. I was at a family wedding last week, and my family certainly isn’t perfect. Your country will let you down. Politicians and political movements will let you down.
Relying on yourself, on your intelligence or knowledge, on your athletic ability, on your stuff, your house, your car, all of that will fail eventually. You’re not good enough on your own.
And this is where we get to the hope part, because the good news of Christianity is that it’s not up to us; it’s up to God. God does all the work for us. That’s our hope.
As Christians, we are set free from all that fear. We have something better. We’re set free from worrying about what could happen, set free from those paralyzing fears of conflict and loss.
As Paul explains it in Romans, the worst that can happen is death, and in baptism, we have already died to ourselves. We have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
When you are attacked by those fears, by the world telling you some situation is hopeless, or that you don’t matter, remember your baptism. Remember that you have been drowned in the waters of baptism and raised to new life with Christ. Remember that you have been claimed by God. Baptism doesn’t save you, but it is a tangible, physical sign of God’s love. It’s something God does.
Martin Luther spent a year as an exile, hiding in the Wartburg Castle from people trying to kill him. While he was there, he translated the New Testament into German. During this time, Luther was depressed, crushed by doubts and fears, constantly feeling under attack. But instead of being paralyzed by his fear, he would shout back at the darkness, “I am baptized! I have the promise that God loves and saves me.”
We gather today as people claimed by God, people made members of Christ’s body through baptism, people whose ultimate, eternal hope is in Jesus Christ. God’s promises supersede all of our fears.
Listen to the encouraging part of Jesus’ pep talk to the disciples and to us. “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
You are precious to God. You are a beloved child.
The God who cares for the whole creation knows who you are, knows everything you’re going through. God knows whatever it is you’re afraid of, and has put it to death on the cross. Even when everything else in life lets you down, you can still have hope, because your hope comes from God.
As we remember today those who have died from cancer, survivors, and those who are still fighting, we remember this promise: In the midst of whatever suffering our broken world can throw at us, God is present, loving you. Hold on to that promise.
Jesus was with the disciples as they went out into hostile cities and villages. He was with the early Christians as they suffered for their faith. He is with Christians in parts of the world where they still suffer real persecution.
And he is with us as well, at our side when we are afraid, when we are sick, when we are mourning, in our fears and joys, and in every part of our lives. Amen.