Proper 7a, June 25, 2017

June 27, 2017

The Battle For Life

Matthew 10:24-39


24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; 25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted. 31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 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; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.


Last Monday, Sharla and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary, and we decided to mark the event by going to a movie. We copied the idea from our daughter and son-in-law who had celebrated their anniversary the week before by going to see Wonder Woman, and we decided to do the same thing. And I’m telling you, that’s about the best anniversary present we could have given ourselves – the price was right and it was totally satisfying. I won’t ruin it for you by telling you what goes on in that movie, but as you might imagine, the forces of good triumph over the forces of evil, and they do it in a clever and entertaining manner. I shouldn’t build it up too much. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it was good in so many ways. I rate movies in terms of how they compare to the movie that in my opinion set the standard for greatness, and I have to say that Wonder Woman is better than Rocky.


It’s fun to watch a fictional portrayal of the clash between good and evil – especially when the characters who represent the good prevail over the clearly defined representatives of evil. I love a movie with well-motivated main characters who go up against powerful villains. But it’s not so much fun to deal with these things in the reality of the world. We rarely see this conflict play out in such a satisfactory manner in the world we actually occupy. Most of the time the battle between good and evil is just not so well defined, and other times it emerges in terribly tragic ways.


This passage of scripture raises the issue of the way powerful forces are engaged in battle. These words come to us in response to the hostility that Jesus experienced from powerful people, and he spoke to his disciples of the hostility that they would experience because of their association with him. This conflict between the presence of God in the world and the embodiment of evil does not play out as nicely in the world as it does in Hollywood productions, but Jesus didn’t want us to be confused about the ultimate outcome. Jesus spoke these words in order to bring awareness to us for what to expect and how to interpret the events of the day. He didn’t want us to lose confidence in the power of God to transform the world when it appears that evil is prevailing.


These are some serious words we are getting from Jesus today. He was speaking of the battle between good and evil and how it leads to life and death. These aren’t easy words to hear from Jesus because they identify the consequences of making the wrong choices with our lives.


He told us not to fear those who can kill the body, but to fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell. This is a powerful message from Jesus, and we need to hear what he’s saying. Jesus made it very clear that we can make choices in this world that send us to the dump. The word hell is used here in place of the word gehenna, which is the word Jesus used, which referred to the most awful place to be found around Jerusalem. Gehenna was where they took and burned all of their refuse. Jesus wanted us to know that there is this possibility of living in such a way that we are making ourselves available for life in the city dump.


I’m not a person who has a clear understanding of how God sorts us out after we die. I can tell you I’m hoping for a lot of mercy, and this leads me to be optimistic about what happens to us when we die, but that’s about as specific as I can get. I have a close friend who is a fellow United Methodist minister who isn’t counting on as much mercy, and he’s much more concerned about the judgement we’ll face in the afterlife. He hopes I’m right, but he isn’t counting on it, and it’s probably accurate to say he’s a more fervently religious person in his life and in his preaching. My feeling is that there isn’t much hope for any of us if we don’t encounter a good amount of mercy and grace when we depart this world, but what I do see very clearly is that we find ourselves in hell on earth when we give ourselves to the wrong agenda.


I take these words about heaven and hell seriously, and I’m inclined to believe that we step in to these places before we depart from this world. I’m sure they extend in to the next world in some way, but what I know to be true is that we sometimes manage to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and we find ourselves in that place of heavenly peace, and sometimes we associate ourselves with the embodiment of evil and we find ourselves in hell.


And the scary thing is that it’s not always easy to see the ways in which we are making the choice between serving God and serving evil. I think evil is very insidious in this way, and the relative state of civility within our society sort of masks the way in which evil is in our midst. We don’t always see the impact that some of our choices and our appetites have on other people in the world.


I just finished listening to a book about the British explorer, Percy Fawcett, who spent a lot of time in the Amazon basin in search of the mythical city of El Dorado – sometimes referred to as the city of Z. The torturous conditions that he encountered made me wonder why anyone would have done what he did, but he was driven to explore and to record what he saw. This was in the early 20th Century, and one thing that happened around that time was the discovery of rubber in that region of the world.


The industrial revolution in Europe fueled demand for rubber, and that gave rise to terrible abuse of the natives of that region who were forced by unscrupulous contractors to extract raw rubber from wild rubber trees. Percy Fawcett was very sympathetic to the plight of those South American Indians and he documented the abuses in his journals. That region became known as the devil’s paradise because of the terrible evils that were perpetrated on those people. And those evils were largely unknown to the people of Europe who were enjoying the benefits of that terrible trade.


I think we all probably engage in a degree of willing ignorance about the far removed consequences of our behaviors. It would probably be paralyzing to live with perfect awareness of the various ways in which we cause harm to ourselves and others by the lifestyles we enjoy, but I think this message from Jesus is that we need to have a reasonable amount of fear of living lives that are complicit with evil. We don’t need to fear the things that threaten our bodies or our cherished lifestyles – we need to fear those things that threaten our spiritual wellbeing. Those things aren’t as easy to see as the things that threaten our lives, but those are the things Jesus wanted us to see and to avoid.


Of course sometimes the presence of evil becomes all too clear to us. As we all know, evil has recently reared it’s ugly head in our community in a very real way. The shooting death of Lt. Weatherford can’t be explained apart from the presence of evil in our world. Evil was at work on that day, and it left a wake of death and destruction. It’s a terrible thing that occurred on that day, and it’s hard to know what to say about it, but I think we need to seek some understanding of what transpired. I’m not saying we need to know more details about the crime. I’m thinking we need to understand why crime is more attractive to some people than honest work. And why does a young person think that a gun is going to help them get what they need?


There are spiritual roots to these life and death problems, and these aren’t problems that are going to be solved without some spiritual renewal. I’m not saying we need a tent revival to solve our problems. Certainly there’s always room for us all to hear the good news of God’s love and presence effectively communicated and exhibited. What I am saying is that before we can know how to go about fixing the brokenness of our community we need to be in prayer for our own brokenness and need for spiritual renewal.


Jesus didn’t want us to live in fear of people who can kill us. Jesus wanted us to live in fear of those things that do harm to our souls. What happened to Lt. Weatherford and his family is about as terrible as anything that can happen, but it can get worse if we don’t guard against the other tragedies that can come from this terrible act. We’ve been slapped by the hand of the devil, and we need to respond by reaching out for the hand of Jesus.


And this isn’t an easy thing to do. As I said earlier, evil is an insidious presence. Some of the worst things can have the façade of goodness. Who would have known that the rubber ball children in England were playing with in 1900 was filled with the blood of innocent people?


We need to keep in mind that people didn’t reject Jesus and call him the devil because they knew what they were doing. Nobody in their right mind ever decides that they would be better off by standing in opposition to the son of God. There were a lot of seemingly good people who couldn’t see who he was and where he had come from. They were confused about who he was and what he was doing. Jesus wasn’t easy to understand and to follow because he didn’t lead people down a familiar path.


Jesus recognized that he was going to create terrible conflict within families and within communities because the ways of God don’t generally match up with our most immediate needs. Watching out for our souls is different than watching out for our bodies. It’s often easier to know what we need to do to protect our physical lives than it is to watch over our spiritual lives.


This is a critical moment in the life of this community. An evil event has occurred, and I have no doubt that this can fuel the growth of further evil, but this can also serve as an opportunity to express our trust in the presence of God. It’s not going to be easy to discern what to do or where to stand. I think we are all feeling pretty helpless to know what needs to happen. We aren’t on the set of a Hollywood production, but we are in a place that needs for us to be faithful followers of Jesus Christ.


There’s some specific pain in our midst, but we’ll always be waking up to some form of tragedy and loss, and it’s rarely easy to see the path of faithful discipleship. Many times, the very people we care the most about are encouraging us to sidestep the arduous journey of faith, but it’s the voice of God as it was revealed in Jesus that we are called to follow, and it’s down that path that we will find true life.


Life and death. Heaven and hell. Love and hate. These are real possibilities for each of us. How we choose to respond to the immediate challenges that face us will determine where we go and what will come. It’s a critical time to proceed with prayer and with care. This is a hard time, but it’s an important time, and by the grace of God we will get to a better place.


Thanks be to God.




One Response to “Proper 7a, June 25, 2017”

  1. Earl Says:

    Wonderful sermon for me, the hell references brought me back to my Baptist upbringing with all that baggage. The move to a Methodist pew occurred in Texarkana and Ed Dodson’s sermons brought peace to my soul as did yours here in LR and now via my IPad. Peace be to you also.

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