Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Sermon: Does Jesus Hate Families?

Matthew 10:24-39

One of the challenges in reading the bible is that sometimes it rushes us through a bunch of teachings in a very short period of time. So we barely have time to absorb one teaching before we are on to the next one. At first glance, the passage from Matthew today is almost that style of scattershot teaching. Jesus talks about greatness, he talks about being called names, he talks about secrets and revelation, fear, and assurance that we are valued, he talks about acknowledging or denying him, about bringing a sword, dividing families, and picking up our crosses and following him. Whew!

But if we really look at his conversation, Jesus seems to have a central purpose.  Essentially what Jesus is doing is teaching the disciples about the religious conflict they would face in following him.

He doesn’t want them to think that they won’t face persecution, or that they won’t make enemies, or even that they won’t be killed for their beliefs. That’s the overall message, it is just the specifics that are all over the place. So all of those smaller teachings are specifics ways that Jesus encourages us to stay strong in our faith and to hold onto him even if we face persecution, discrimination or death threats.

So does that make sense and help bring it all together? Now I admit, you might not like the message, because in general we don’t like the idea of suffering for our faith.

But here is the thing, even though it makes sense, there is still one section of Jesus’ teaching that makes us particularly uncomfortable. Even when we know he is trying to encourage us to hold onto the faith. It is Jesus’ statement near the end that he has come not bringing peace, but a sword; and that because of him people’s enemies will be members of their own households. It is a disturbing and problematic teaching for most of us, who in general believe that Jesus is pro-family.

What makes it difficult for us is that we forget that the realm of God that Jesus proclaims is essentially such a radical shift from the norms of his time that he expects it to cause disruption.

I have been reading a book called The Power of Parable, and in it John Dominic Crossan explains how paradigm shifts work  

Do you know what a paradigm is? It is a way of viewing the world that organizes how we think about things. For example, long ago people thought there were only four elements in nature: earth, air, water and fire. But then chemists came along, and they began to understand that there were atoms, and there were a lot more than four types of atoms. That breakthrough allowed people to explore chemical reactions, and even create new chemicals that have changed our world.

Another example was the idea that the sun went around the earth. The idea that our world was the center of everything. Eventually science realized that this was wrong, the earth went around the sun. This was a paradigm shift.

But paradigm shifts are tricky because people don’t like to change the way they think about the world. It doesn’t matter if we are scientists, religious leaders, or politicians – once we see the world one way, it is very hard to change our mind. Max Planck, one of the originators of Quantum Physics, said in his Scientific Autobiography, that “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grow up that is familiar with it.”[1] The same is true with religious paradigm shifts.

What Crossan points out in The Power of Parable is that none of the conflicts that Jesus mentions in this passage are conflicts between members of the same generation, in other words, Jesus expects that the older generation will reject his teaching and it will take a new generation to accept it.

He understands the pattern of change. Jesus was not going to convince his opponents, and he knew it. They didn’t like what he had to say, and nothing he said would change that. Rather he was appealing to the new generation of young people to accept what he was saying, and he was telling them, that they may face conflict with their parents and other elders in their community.

Of course, that helps us to understand why Jesus would say this to his disciples, but what does that say to us though? Certainly there are still places in the world where the gospel message is so new, that its reception is very much the same as it was for the disciples. Those who accept Jesus’ message are making very definite splits with family tradition and are likely to face conflict with the older members of their families. I am sure that John could attest to that. And there are a few times when this happens even here in the United States where a family is so new to the gospel message that a person who comes to faith faces strong opposition from their family.

But for most of us – who live in a relatively comfortable Christian culture, where the older and younger generations should both be holding to his teachings, there should no longer be family conflict, right?

Well, not necessarily. One thing that happens is that over time society often blinds us to parts of Jesus’ teachings, or we get caught up in the way we have always done things that we aren’t open to change. But then someone rediscovers the power of one of Jesus’ teachings and its application for today, and there is conflict between the generations again.

Let’s look at one example. In late 19th century many Christians looked around at what was happening with industrialization.

They saw the “economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war.”[2] One pastor, Washington Gladden, began to read Jesus again, and realized that a lot of what Jesus teaches is not about heaven, but it is about earth, and how we treat one another. He wrote a book in 1877 in which he said that “Christian law covers every relation of life,” including the relationship between employers and their employees. But although what Gladden was pointing out was true, people didn’t accept it right away. Pastors like Dwight Moody said that preaching about social issues would distract people from the lifesaving message of the gospel.

It really took at least a generation for Gladden’s work to be heard. Groups like the Salvation Army, the YMCA emerged. World missionaries no longer just preached the word, but brought medical help with them. Christianity regained its social message. That was a paradigm shift, that challenged the “status quo Christianity” to re-look at what Jesus stood for and consequently challenged the whole social structure of our nation and how we reached out to other nations. You have to believe that this pitted generation again generation as they talked about what it meant to be Christian. It had to be too easy for people to say, “these new teachers and preachers are trying to change what Jesus said, don’t listen to them. Stick with the old, with what we know and trust.” In fact some of that conflict still exists today as some people think Christianity shouldn’t talk about social issues.

So I hear Jesus encouraging his followers not to just hold on to the old religious views and practices simply because they are the old religious views. He was challenging Jewish belief that had stood for at least 1000 years. He expected it to cause intergenerational conflict. I suspect he is also reminding us along the way that there will come new issues, new challenges to faith, and that we may have to re-evaluate things that we have done for 1000 years.

I do think that Jesus gives us some guidelines in evaluating these changes in paradigm:

Does it acknowledge God? For he tells us that “everyone who acknowledges me before people, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven. But everyone who denies me before people, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

Is it open to evaluation or does it try to claim secret knowledge? Jesus reminds us, “don’t be afraid of those people because nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed, and nothing secret that won’t be brought out into the open. What I say to you in the darkness, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, announce from the rooftops.”

Don’t give in to fear-mongering or threats.

Jesus instructs us, “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

Finally, when we look at the changes in thought and approach, Jesus final statements in this teaching are: “Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” I think he is telling us the kingdom of God turns things on their head, and we must look for that which is truly the world-changing and  builds of the realm of God. True change requires deep risk.

We live in a time where religious practices are quickly shifting, along with that, many religious beliefs are also being challenged. I believe that Jesus understood that process of change, and that he would remind us that when generational ideas clash, families suffer. It isn’t that he hated families, he just understood the dynamics. He would also remind those of us who are parents, grandparents and great-grandparents to listen carefully to what the next generation is saying, it just may be that they have heard Christ more clearly than we have, and they are calling us into faithfulness in a place where we have lost track of what is important.

And one last thing, I know that he would also comfort us, although we are told that we are going to be at odds with even our family,

“Don’t be afraid. Even as every sparrow is known, so are you. Your thoughts, your worries, your love, your faith. God knows all of these. Yes, you in all of your completeness are known by God. And you are loved and valued. Even when everything else is changing, this does not.”

[1] The Power of Parable, p. 132.

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