Sermon preached by Fr Andrew Wilson
on Sunday 21st June 2020 (Second Sunday after Trinity)
Jeremiah 20.7–13; Psalm 69.8–11,18–20; Romans 6.1b–11; Matthew 10.24–39
“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the daylight. What you hear in whispers proclaim from the housetops.”
We are entering a few weeks of Sundays when the Gospel readings from Matthew focus on Jesus’ teaching. In today’s Gospel Matthew wants to encourage his own congregation, already facing opposition not only from the Jewish community, from which many of them have come; but also, increasingly from the wider Gentile population. Jesus sends out the twelve to share in his proclamation of the reign of God. He warns them about the implications of following him, the risk of opposition, even arrest and death, as they announce the arrival of a new world. But he assures them of God’s presence and strength.
Matthew sees this saying of the Lord about things being uncovered to be about the spread of Jesus’ message of healing and restoration across the world by the Apostles. Luke has a different take on it. Jesus warns the disciples that hidden amongst the apparently adoring crowds are spies. Pharisees infiltrate the crowd to collect evidence that will shut up this uneducated peasant and his movement for change for good. Both ring true for our present situation. There are people who want to cut short, or contain any exploration of the true state of affairs. But Matthew calls on us to follow the call from the Master whatever the cost.
Jesus’ teaching is always about getting us to take responsibility with him for the spread of the Good News. And the manner of his teaching reflects that dynamic. He cannot further the work of salvation alone. He is always challenging us to make our own decisions and choices in the present about how we respond to his call. Salvation becomes a cooperative work. In a wonderful book Jesus the Riddler (WJK), Tom Thatcher reminds us of how Jesus deliberately uses ambiguity in his teaching to nudge his hearers to think and respond. Thatcher quotes some words of Roger Abrahams, a writer on American folklore, about this riddling language:
“Every now and then, people need to say and hear things that challenge the social order, and violate ethical norms. Riddles use ambiguity to manipulate standard ways of talking and thinking.” (“Introductory remarks to a rhetorical theory of folk-lore”, Journal of American Folk-lore 81 (1968):149)
Thatcher suggests Jesus’ use of parables and puzzles ‘play with boundaries’, and that, of course, disturbs us. Jesus worked to break down the strict demarcation line contemporary Judaism and the Pharisees had set between those they saw as righteous and those who were sinful. The ‘sinful’ – people who were not rigorously keeping to the last letter of the Law – were usually the poor, working in menial jobs, struggling to survive, let alone practise piety. The Gospel message reveals an uncomfortable truth. We share with each other our brokenness and blindness, complicit in our prejudice.
One quote has haunted me in the plethora of comments and articles we have been bombarded with in the past few weeks. Martin Luther King spoke about the need for civil disobedience, but warned against the temptation of dismissing or judging when it erupts into aggression. “Riots,” he says, “are the language of the unheard.”
Looking at those who acted out their rage last weekend in London and Bristol makes us realise how diverse those crowds were, but what they had in common was the truth that they are the unheard, often unemployed, struggling to survive. The risk is that society, desperate to move on, tells them that of course they have been heard. We tell them that we know they “feel” unheard, but that this time we have listened. Fr John has spoken this week about the need we have in the parish to begin the work of really listening to one another. We will almost certainly hear some hard truths. Listening is only authentic when it bears fruit in change, and renewed relationships. Countless reports and commissions have met and recommended, but the sad truth is that poverty and alienation still stare us in the face.
Marcus Rashford eloquently reminded us that upwards from 4 million children (30% of the child population) live in poverty in the UK. The pandemic will only force that number up. 45% of children from black and minority ethnic families live in poverty. 26% of white British families live in poverty.
All too often in the last few weeks we have seen how people avoid, digress, or dismiss some harsh truths about where we are. When we look at today’s Gospel we might do the same. The temptation is to explain away, or even to minimize, the power of Jesus’ remarks by trying to make them more palatable, but Thatcher wants us to recognise Jesus’ ‘hard sayings’ are calculated to “play with His audience’s sense of order and values.” Jesus calls us to venture further than we ever dared to imagine in the ways that we relate and care to each other and to God. The hope of the Gospel is that our work to take risks with others may encourage them in turn to share with us in the redeeming of a fragmented and unjust world. Our calling as Christians to be prophets and priests will involve us in working with issues and situations that society at large often rejects as marginal, even ‘hopeless’.
It would be easy, faced with these hard challenges, to despair. Matthew is not alone in setting before us the cost of discipleship. Every Gospel speaks of it, not only at this point in Jesus’ ministry, but also more decisively when we reach the last week of the Lord’s life. But all four Gospels go on to repeat that word of encouragement, “Do not be afraid!” – that mantra that appears throughout the scriptures whenever God calls us to work alongside him in the daunting work of bringing in the kingdom of justice and peace.
Isaiah reassures the people of God that, as they deal with national collapse and restructuring, God is at their side:
“Do not be afraid, for I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand. It is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear’. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”