+In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit+
This past Thursday Ron and I attended a meeting of the Blue Springs Ministerial Alliance, which was held this month at the Assembly of God church by the north high school. As we ate, we were asked to give a brief introduction and share a struggle we had when we were teenagers.
I told the group about my relationship with my father. We were constantly at loggerheads and argued about everything…most of the time just for the sake of an argument. If he said it was black, I said it was white. I didn’t understand the way he thought and I didn’t understand why he did the things he did. We were poor, of the lower class…not hardscrabble poor…nevertheless, when I reflect on my youth I was never in want, I was never hungry, I was never cold……because of how hard my father worked to provide for us.
In the course of events I got married, moved away from home and had my first child. When Philip was born I had an epiphany about my father. It was then that I understood him and why he worked so hard to provide for us.
I remember driving north after Annie was born. We always traveled at night when the children were little…it made things easier for all of us. We pulled up in front of the house and my father was outside, waiting to greet us. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and he looked older…and smaller…and I didn’t like it. When we got home to Missouri, I wrote him a letter and told him that he looked like he needed to protected and held…it was the first time I had ever seen him in the vulnerability of old age. I thanked him for being who he was and how proud I was of him.
My father is now 82 years old, sharp as a tack, and, God be praised, in fairly good health. I see him in myself and I see him in Philip…I am at peace with my father…reconciled with the reality that I am the son of my father.
Today’s lesson from Matthew is one of those Gospel lessons that make us squirm. It’s a lesson, like next week’s lesson, that you can’t read alone…it has to be understood in the context of the entire 10th Chapter of Matthew. It’s a short chapter…only 42 verses…in a very interesting Gospel. Matthew was written in Greek for a mostly Jewish audience. This Gospel starts with a genealogy that places Jesus in Jewish history and develops a story of a messiah who faithfully upholds the Torah, fulfills prophecy and establishes a delightful model of leadership through service. It has an emphasis on Jewish history and uses the expression “kingdom of heaven” rather than “kingdom of God”, which clearly indicates that it was meant for a Jewish audience, as this use of “heaven” rather than “God” marks the typical Jewish avoidance of the sacred name, a practice which continues to this day. Of the four Canonical Gospels, it’s the only one to use the word “ekklesia”, the word “church”. Matthew is full of detail and is laid out for teaching purposes. It contains five extended discourses, or teachings of Jesus. The end of Chapter 9, and all of Chapter 10, which we’ve been reading for several weeks, and will conclude next week, is the second of the five discourses. It’s a discourse known as the Missionary Discourse. It starts with the calling and naming of Jesus’ disciples and continues with teachings on how disciples are to live, what their ministry is, what they can and cannot do, and concludes with some formidable warnings…which we began to read in today’s Gospel.
I don’t remember my baptism, and I don’t think that most of us here do…if you do it’s a wonderful thing to reflect upon. Our Prayer Book instructs us that Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into the Church…the bond which God establishes in baptism in indissoluble…that connection we all have with God can never be broken or severed. We practice infant baptism in the Episcopal Church. Imagine, though, if we could remember our baptisms…if we could answer for ourselves the call to follow Jesus. How would you react if you heard these words: “I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves…you will be handed over to be flogged…you will be dragged in front of governors and kings…when you have to explain yourself do not worry because the Spirit of your Father in heaven will speak through you…” I can’t speak for any of you, but if I heard these words I’d be wondering what in the world I was getting myself into and looking around for the closest exit.
The key to understanding this Chapter, indeed this entire Gospel, is that it was written for a specific audience in a specific culture in a specific time and place in history. Kinship and honor played a very important part in first century Palestine. Jesus warns his disciples that they could be killed for following him, that their following him would rip families apart. That was the reality of that place and time…and it continues to this day in the Middle East. Family honor is a fundamental tenet of Palestinian society; if an underage girl has sex or gets pregnant, the father or her brothers will kill her because she has dishonored her family name. This practice is known as “Honor Killing”…and a recent report cited hundreds of young women loosing their lives each year because of this practice…a quick internet search of the term will return too, too many reports of this awful practice.
It’s ironic, I think, that we hear this Gospel on Father’s Day. God was a lonely God. He made the world and said that it was good. He made us, in his image, so that he could have a relationship with someone. He knows the world so well that he feels the fall of a tiny brown sparrow. He knows us so well that the hairs on our heads are counted. I’m reminded of the last three verses of Bob Dylan’s wonderful song “Every Grain of Sand”:
I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.
I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.
I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other time it’s only me
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.
My friends in Christ…our father in heaven loves us so much! I hope you all know that. I hope you all feel that love as we gather around this table every Sunday to make Eucharist together. I hope you all can carry that love out into the world…that mission field…where you work and live when you are not in this place. The poet Thomas Wolfe wrote a wonderful poem called “For brother, what are we?” I paraphrase it, replacing “sons” with “children”, because I feel this poem speaks to all of us:
We are the children of our father, whose face we have never seen,
We are the children of our father, whose voice we have never heard,
We are the children of our father, to whom we have cried for strength and comfort in our agony.
We are the children of our fathers, whose life like ours was lived in solitude in the wilderness.
We are the children of our father, to whom only we can speak out
the strange, dark burden of our heart and spirit.
We are the children of our father, and we shall follow the print of his foot forever.