What are you afraid of? Take a moment and think about your fears. Our fears don’t have to make sense or be rational; because they grow and live in our subconscious. Because we are real, they are real. You may be afraid of clowns. For many years, I was terrified of butterflies. As a child, if one came near me, I would scream bloody murder. Rationally it made no sense, but the fear was tangible. When I was a little older, I had an elaborate fear of being kidnapped. I knew if I didn’t stay close to my parents or grandmother when we went to the grocery story, I would end up on a milk carton. I saw kidnappers on every aisle at K-Mart. Despite my father’s insistence that after a half an hour with me, I’d be promptly returned because I was too much trouble, I was afraid. Among my current irrational fears, I’m terrified of being locked in a Porta Potty.
Then there are the rational, real fears which impact my ministry. I, like many United Methodists, am afraid our church will split over issues relating to human sexuality. The decisions I’ll have to make when that time comes will impact our entire family. This causes some real fear, different from any I knew as an eight year old at K-Mart. Eight year old me wasn’t worried about pastoral appointments, health insurance, or pensions.
What are you afraid of? What keeps you up at night? Is there anything more powerful or motivating in human history than fear?
Jesus knew all about fear. In fact, he spent a great deal of the 9th and 10th chapters of Matthew’s gospel talking specifically about how disciples deal with, approach, handle, and work through fear. At this point in his ministry, Jesus has commissioned the disciples to go out and teach, heal, preach and spread the news of the coming kingdom of God. It’s gone from “come and follow me”, listen to my words, to watch me, to naming and empowering them as his disciples. All of this has occurred in a brief period of time. These 12 people are given the task of reorienting and redefining the direction of civilization. That’s nothing, right? No, that’s everything. Listen to the opportunity Jesus places before them:
“Then he called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to cast out unclean spirits and to cure every kind of ailment and disease.” (Matthew 10:1)
“And as you go proclaim the message, ‘The kingdom of Heaven is upon you.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out devils. You received without cost; give without charge.” (Matthew 10:8-9)
Then Jesus’ tone begins to change. While they are reorienting the world they must also reorient their priorities. This work, the mission, being a disciple, will be the most frightening, fear inducing thing they’ve ever done. Jesus wants them to know what they signing up for. They should be under no illusions. Discipleship, changing the course of human civilization, giving people free health care (remember they are to heal the sick and take no money-that’s free health care) and proclaiming a kingdom of God that turns the values of this current world upside down will make people very angry.
Listen to the Son of God, here’s what Jesus says:
“And be on you guard, for men will hand you over to their courts, they will flog you in the synagogues, and you will be brought before governors and kings, for my sake to testify before them and the heathen. But when you are arrested, do not worry about when you are to say; when the time comes, the words you need will be given; for it is not you who will be speaking; it will be the Spirit.
Brother will betray brother to death, and the father his child; children will turn against their parents and send them to their death. All will hate you for your allegiance to me.” (Matthew 10:17-22)
If you weren’t afraid before, you should be now. Did you catch what Jesus said to his disciples? When you “are” arrested, not you “might”, or if, “when you are arrested”. Jesus says it’s a certainty. Following Jesus will bring you into conflict with those who hold the levers of power and those who know you best. He’s telling them they are going to be arrested, flogged, and beaten for their allegiance to him.
Now would be a good time to walk away, wouldn’t you think. No sir, not me. I have to keep it real. I have my professional integrity. I need to get paid. Jesus says, “Provide no gold, silver, or copper for your purse.” Who is he kidding? This is not what I signed up for. An hour a week, that’s all I will do. I’m not going to be beaten, flogged, or arrested for anything. You can hear the crowd complaining.
No one likes the cost of discipleship; whether then or now. The early church is walking into certain death to change the face of the modern world. At some point, our priorities and perspectives have become skewed. Following Jesus became cheap and easy. We face no persecution, no obvious challenges to the existence of the church other than our own mortality, but the imperative to change the world is still present. The kingdom of God is still at hand. Jesus’ call on our lives has not wavered. So I return to my first question of the morning? Ocracoke Church, what we are afraid of? What are the fears which prevent us from continuing to build the kingdom when literally nothing is standing in our way? Nothing that is, except us.
Today’s lesson takes us about as far down the road of discipleship as it is possible to go. Essentially, Jesus says, it will get worse before it gets better. (And while that sounds harsh, that’s the essence of the Good News!) The terms and descriptions Jesus uses in these next verses are literal, descriptive, and specific. Sometimes we tend to borrow these phrases; when we do, they become general, metaphorical, and vague. There is a danger in playing fast and loose with graphic language. Let me give you an example. In Matthew 10:38, Jesus is summing up his remarks to the disciples with these words, “Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me.” That’s a pretty powerful statement. Worth is a weighty word. Those who don’t pick up their cross and follow Jesus aren’t worthy. Worthy of what: love, being saved, called a disciple? Worth points to an intrinsic quality, a hard to define, yet very personal idea about what makes us who we are. It stinks to be told you’re not worthy of anything, let alone Jesus.
What does Jesus mean? When Jesus talks about bearing a cross, you know what he is saying. He means being crucified. You bear your own cross to the execution site where you’re being crucified. Someone bearing a cross is about to die. There’s no ambiguity. Discipleship ultimately means death. Those are some stark terms Jesus lays out. On the other hand, when we talk about “bearing a cross” it’s usually a cumbersome or painful obligation. “We all have our cross to bear” goes the old expression. Our crosses to bear are not like Jesus’ crosses. To give you an idea how strange this should sound to our ears, how inappropriate would it be if you heard people saying, “We all have our concentration camps to stay in from time to time.” No, it doesn’t work. Our worst problems are nothing like a concentration camp. Maybe we need to rethink how we talk about crosses. Jesus is being specific. We’re being vague. There’s danger in our metaphors. If we carry Jesus’ cross we then have to acknowledge that Jesus is part and parcel of our work. Without Jesus, Ocracoke Church is just another well meaning community non profit organization
The ambiguity in our cross carrying language waters down the earth shattering importance of what Jesus is trying to tell his disciples. Discipleship requires whole life and whole heart commitment. It isn’t worth it if you do any less. Discipleship also demands a head on confrontation with those things we fear most: like death, grief, loss, self-worth, dysfunctional families, isolation, sickness, how I’m going to live, and what can I do to help people who are truly suffering?
The whole purpose of this 10th chapter of Matthew is to acknowledge the reality of fear. Jesus knows it’s not all rainbows, sunshine, puppies, and lollipops. Fear will meet your best attempts to be a disciple of Jesus Christ head on. Now what are we going to do about it? Will we shrink away and let fear win? Will we use the same tired clichés about all the crosses we have to bear, which are really excuses, to justify keeping the world at arm’s length? Or will we say it’s worth everything we have to give because none of this ours, it all came from God, the words will come, and the lost will be found.