(a sermon for June 21, 2020, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 10:24-39)
Let’s talk for a moment this morning about paradox.
As the dictionary defines it, a paradox is a statement or proposition that contradicts itself and may even sound absurd in nature, but in fact is true. It’s a statement of fact that goes totally against the grain of how we usually understand and interpret things. It is a paradox, for instance, that a creature as small and seemingly insignificant as an ant should be able to carry some 50 times its own weight, or for that matter, that a tiny mosquito has the ability to cause so much discomfort when we’re outdoors this time of year! It’s a paradox that sometimes it’s the people with everything that money, power and prestige can provide who end up with nothing but misery and heartache in their lives, while those who by worldly standards have next to nothing at all can claim happiness without hesitation.
In other words, paradox is what happens when what happens is not how we expect things to go; it what boggles the mind by defying our way of thinking and yet stands there as undeniable truth! No wonder that the great G.K. Chesterton once defined paradox as “truth standing on her head to get attention,” because these are the truths that require from us inside out, upside-down thinking!
And if that’s true, friends, then I think it can also be said that the Christian faith is actually a pretty topsy-turvy religion!
Think about this with me for a moment, because the truth is that in a great many ways Christianity is very paradoxal in nature! It’s a paradox that at the center of our faith is one who was the Son of God – Jesus Christ by name – yet who was not a political ruler nor a powerful leader of the religious establishment of his time; but rather a lowly carpenter. It’s a paradox that this one who healed the sick, raised the dead, and brought goodness, joy and salvation to a hurting world would be, in fact, summarily executed in a horrific fashion at the hands of the very people to whom he brought that goodness, and that he should be executed with the tools of his own trade: nails and hammers and cross-beams of wood! And perhaps the greatest paradox of all, that the instrument of Jesus’ death, the cross, remains for us a symbol of life abundant and everlasting; that to this day we “cherish the old, rugged cross!”
And then there’s our text for this morning from Matthew’s gospel, a series of admittedly less than uplifting teachings of Jesus: “I have not come not to bring peace, but a sword.” What? “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.” Well, then, Happy Father’s Day, everyone! “One’s foes will be members of one’s own household… whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Not exactly a celebration of family here! And for the moment, let’s not even talk about that verse about fearing the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” But then there’s this, which seems to sum the whole thing up: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Friends, if you came online this morning hoping to hear some words of comfort from the Bible, this might not be your day (!) because what we have here is confrontation, pure and simple; for the same Jesus who assures us that “even the hairs on [our] head are all counted” by our Heavenly Father and that we need not ever be afraid then goes on to warn us that “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
And that, folks, is paradox.
But then, that is the nature of faith, isn’t it: it’s grace coupled with responsibility; forgiveness that goes hand in hand with repentance; the call to follow Jesus that leads to true discipleship and a brand life that comes with risk as well as reward! The idea that glory comes out suffering, that victory is won out of defeat, that gain comes in our loss: these are the paradoxes that lay at the very foundation of Christian belief! And yet it’s precisely in these kinds of upside-down, inside-out truths that we gain our greatest insight into things like love, courage, strength and faith itself.
What we can take from Jesus’ words to us this morning is that there is indeed a cost as well as a joy in discipleship, but amidst all the difficulties we are loved and protected by God. And we know this because of Jesus, who says, “everyone… who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” But keep in mind there’s a flip side to this promise as well… and a warning: “…but whoever denies me before others,” Jesus goes on to say, “I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”
Again with the paradoxes (!); unconditional love on the one hand but the need for complete accountability on the other! But that’s what Jesus’ words about families set against one another for the sake of discipleship is all about. Bottom line is that when it comes to our faith we need to ask those difficult questions that Jesus sets forth: like, have we denied Christ before others? Do we, in fact, love others more than Christ? Have we, at some crucial moment of life, refused to take up our crosses to follow Christ where he would lead us? At the crossroads of life and living can it be said of you and me that we are worthy of Jesus and his “acknowledgement;” or is the truth of it that we’ve been so all-consumed with doing what we want to do for our own edification that we’ve risked losing everything that truly matters?
What we’re talking about here, in the words of Clarence Jordon, is the difference between being “an admirer of Jesus and his disciple;” the difference between those whose faith stumbles at the first sign of challenge, struggle… or paradox (!)… and those who are willing and ready to bring a sword of righteousness against that and those who are wrong; those who are willing lose something of themselves and their lives for the sake of everything that can be gained.
Is it risky to acknowledge Christ in these strange times in which we live? Sometimes; but then, true discipleship has always proven to be risky in some circumstances. But as Jesus makes clear in our text this morning, the stakes involved are high; no less than life itself. It seems to me that what you and I need to be doing, especially now, is cultivating within ourselves the ability to live faithfully while standing upside down; to embrace the glorious paradox that when we risk ourselves to the Lord – when we lose our life – we discover is that the old is made new, the lost is found, the weak are made strong, the hurts in our lives and those in others are made healthy, and that we find sight in our blindness, hope in the midst of hopelessness, and love and power in times and places we never thought could ever be. Because when “truth stands on its head to get attention” – when we are willing to live faithfully while standing on our head – then the maze and craze of human life becomes a pathway to the kingdom.
Some years ago when they were still quite young, another Dad and I packed up our kids one night to take them to see a double-feature at a nearby Drive-In movie theater. We always loved going to the drive-in, but as I recall, the two of us taking all these kids to the movies required preparation only slightly less than a 3-day camping trip! We had to find the perfect spot, then back up the mini-van up and lift the rear hatch up and fold the seat down so the kids could lay in the back and watch the movie in comfort, while tying down the hatch enough so not to block anyone else’s view. (I know, this sounds excessive, but this is what you do when you take a bunch of kids for an outdoor movie!)
As you can imagine, this all took quite a while to get set up properly, but just as we had finished here comes one of the managers of the drive-in who asked us, very politely, if we might move. It seemed that this rather stern looking couple in a Toyota Celica in back of us couldn’t see, and complained to the management. Now I looked back at that this car and saw that there were probably six slots to their right and three to their left, each one empty free and with a clear, unobstructed view of the screen; never mind that all the while we were setting up they’d been parked behind us and never said a word to us. And I’ll be honest here; I looked down at all this little makeshift campsite that would now take several minutes and a goodly amount of effort to pick up and move I thought to myself, “Well, that’s fair!” But please, the manager said, we’re sorry, and we hate to ask, but those people are being very, very difficult. So I looked at my friend and he looked at me and, well… we picked up and moved the whole shebang over ten feet; not particularly happily, I must confess, but we did it.
But then a strange and interesting happened: the owner of the place comes over to personally thank us for being helpful and “so reasonable.” The kid at the concession stand recognized me, and pretty much talked my ear off about how much they appreciated what we did, and how some people were just hard to get along with (apparently this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened)… as I remember, he even snuck an extra bag of popcorn in with our order! As I headed back to our car to watch the movie feeling that not only had we done the right thing in that situation, but perhaps a good thing as well; maybe even the faithful thing! And I suddenly realized that I could no longer grumble about the hassle of what we’d been asked to do because my perspective had changed. I’d just seen things differently; the way you see things differently when you’re standing on your head!
Was this some great and heroic religious experience that furthered the cause of Christ? No, of course not… but it was in some small way acknowledging our faith by our actions and through our attitudes. And I tell you about it because every day each one of us has countless opportunities, both large and small, to do the same thing: to offer up some word of kindness and support even if we risk something of ourselves, our comfort and even our own valued sense of tradition and propriety and to do it. Truth be told, most of the time faithful living simply requires from us the ability to see things and understand circumstances in an entirely different way than we have before. Our challenge always is to do as Christ would do, and that can be difficult at times, to be sure; but the rewards are most certainly worth the risk. For the gospel holds true: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.