6/25/17 – PUTTING GOD FIRST by Lynn Naeckel +

PROPER 7, A, 6/25/17

Matthew 10:24-39

John Dominic Crossan, probably the greatest living expert on the life and times of Jesus, has speculated that it’s quite possible that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, but even if not, he learned from John the importance of preparing his followers to carry on without their teacher. John did not do that, so when he was killed, his followers scattered and were not seen or heard from again. Last week and this week we hear Jesus teaching his disciples about the work they have been called to do, and warning them about what they will face when they do it.

The word disciple means “learner.” So Jesus takes every opportunity to be the teacher. Last week he even sent them out on their own to try to do what he has been doing. He tells them, “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons… See I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” He warns them of how badly they might be treated, beaten, dragged before the authorities, etc. But if they treat you badly in one place, just go on to the next.

In our reading today Jesus continues his teaching in the same vein. He warns that the authorities who accuse him of being the devil will treat them the same. He then encourages them by telling them not to be afraid – not once, but three times. The crux of the matter is that God will be with them, so there is nothing to fear.

Fear in this instance is the kind of fear you feel when the bully corners you in the school yard, or when you glance up as you cross the street and see a truck bearing down on you, or your boss has started criticizing you in front of others.

Do you remember another Biblical line? “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Fear in this statement is not the same. It is more a matter of awe, which leads to reverence, and to humility and to obedience. This sort of fear of God is what gives a person the courage to be fearless in this life.

Jesus takes the commandment of his Jewish faith literally: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your strength, and with all your soul. This is the first and greatest commandment…”

We have to remember this when we come to the final passage of today’s lesson: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword… Whoever 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.”

I expect that most of us found this reading jarring. I suspect that was its intention, but also that it would make people stop and think. If we become disciples, if we become life-long learners, we are going to change and that creates conflict with the people who want everything to stay the same – or even return to some golden age of the past. It’s inevitable!

And if we are not afraid to put God first, to love God more than anyone or anything else, we will come into conflict with people who don’t. Those people may well be family members as well as authority figures.

On the other hand, I’m convinced that if I could succeed in always putting God first, it would make me a much better parent, child, sibling, etc. It would make me a better family member, a better community member, and a better citizen.

Notice that I can still love others, even all others, just not MORE than I love God. To love someone or something else more is a form of idolatry.

Have you ever had any contact with a family in which the children are in charge? When the parents make a decision, the children whine and fuss until they get their way. How pleasant is it to spend time with such a family? What kind of adults will these children become?

How about parents who love their children so much that they act as though their children can do no wrong? I’ve met a few and it’s quite bizarre, because what they see and what I have seen are almost opposite behaviors. They seem to think that protecting their children in this way is helpful, but it only leads to more bad behavior.

I have had several friends who have severed all ties with close family members, and I was truly shocked by their action, but on closer inspection, it became clear that they were taking such action to save themselves from abuse.

It takes a special kind of courage to go against the norms of your community, but it may be the right thing to do. As a young person I did not have this kind of courage; I was too dependent on my parents. And then going along to get along becomes a habit that’s hard to break.

If you recognize God as the one in control, rather than yourself, you gain the courage to do what needs to be done, and you will do it with love and compassion. You can love yourself and love others freely, without becoming a doormat. You can take a stand without hurting or hating those who disagree. Because the second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. That is: all your neighbors. And what part of “all” don’t we understand?

As I’m sure many of you know, a central tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous is that the key to staying sober is to turn your life over to your “higher power,” however you understand that. The AA members I’ve known readily claim that that teaching was central to saving their lives.

And that is what Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples. You have to lose your life to find it. You have to trust in a higher power to have your back, which gives you the courage and freedom to be the best you can be in all of your relationships, whether to family, community, country or universe. It frees you to become a life-long learner because it frees you from fear, and guides you toward becoming: becoming more loving, more compassionate, less attached to the rules and regs that separate us, more open to new experiences and new people.

While following this way of Jesus we will certainly cause conflict within the existing structures of society around us. However, it will also give us the tools to help in the transformation of our society into a fairer, healthier, and happier place for everyone. AMEN

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