No Middle Ground

by | Jun 25, 2023

Matthew 10:24-39

PRAYER: Jesus our savior, when you sent your disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom of God, you told them – and by extension us – that it would be a difficult road. But you also told them – and by extension us – to not be afraid. And so be among us today, reminding us to not be afraid because while the cost of discipleship may be high, the rewards that you promise are not to be missed!

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Over the past few weeks, we have been working through Matthew chapters 9 and 10. Last week, we read in the beginning of chapter 10 about Jesus sending his disciples out to Israel to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near. If you were here last week, you may remember that Jesus very specifically told his disciples to stay within Israel because the people there are like sheep without a shepherd. And in today’s reading, Matthew tells us the names of who was sent: Simon, who is called Peter; and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee; and John his brother; Philip; and Bartholomew; Thomas; and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean; and Judas, who betrayed Jesus.

It’s important for us to know who Jesus is sending on this mission. He’s sending a disciple who is going to deny even knowing him. He’s sending a tax collector who was considered a pariah of the culture. Tax collectors were viewed as unethical and in cahoots with the Romans. He sent James and John, the sons of Zebedee. These two tried to convince Jesus to have them sit at his right and left when he comes into power. And he sent Judas. He sent the one who would eventually betray him. He did not require his disciples to be perfect; Matthew demonstrates for us that even the very first disciples were flawed in one way or another. We have no requirement of perfection in our faith, but it is something to which we can all strive.

Because ultimately, most of the disciples did learn to widen their vision and see humanity as Jesus saw it – with compassion, with grace, with love. They found their understanding of the world, the Kingdom of God come near to be ever-expanding, ever welcoming, ever embracing. They found that hope was possible, and they found that God’s creation (and all of humanity within it) is wonderfully and perfectly made in its vast diversity.

Today’s reading, however, contains a sharp warning to those disciples. Jesus’ words today are a little sobering. OK, they’re very sobering. The last 6 verses are a pretty blunt description of what’s going to happen when you choose to follow Jesus. Sons will be turned against their father; daughters will be turned against their mother. Those who love their mother or father, or those who love their sons or daughters more than me aren’t worthy of me.

We might choose to read this and think that Jesus is somehow trying to break families apart. The truth is that what he’s saying here is nothing new. That following God, that choosing to follow Jesus can lead to division within the family – the very people we love most. Michael Joseph Brown writes in his book True to Our Native Land, “The idea that family members would turn on each other says something quite radical. In the first century, one’s family deserved paramount loyalty and total attachment. To turn against one’s family was something almost unthinkable. Jesus’ words here anticipate an alternative family that he will outline later… Commitment will bring conflict.”

That sort of understanding goes as far back as Cain and Abel. When Jesus says in verse 35, “I’ve come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law,” he is quoting Micah 7:6. In Micah 7, the prophet laments at his isolation, that no one will hear his words.

What Jesus is saying here is that when you choose to follow Jesus, you must choose to follow Jesus fully even though the road may be difficult. There’s no middle ground here. “Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.” The disciples will learn – if they hadn’t already that they need to be devoted to Jesus above all else. Life as a Disciple means following Jesus in all ways and that includes being rejected – quite possibly by those you love most in this world.

One example of this is Oscar Romero. I’ve spoken of him many times. Romero was a Catholic priest in El Salvador, convinced that the best way to help the poor was to not ruffle the feathers of the wealthy and powerful. His silence however, only served to enable and embolden the wealthy and powerful. Many of his fellow priests were far more vocal in speaking out against the status quo that kept the poor in perpetual servitude. And Romero sat by in silence as those same priests were killed for using their voices.

Something stirred in him, and he realized that he had been taking the easy road, the safe road. His silence was complicit; his silence was only helping the powerful. In 1977, after one of his closest friends was assassinated, Romero found his voice. “Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.”

We all face moments in our lives – not necessarily as large as the one faced by Romero – but we have to choose whether its best to remain silent and therefore, in compliance with those who threaten or mistreat others. We might be afraid to speak out for what we believe is right.

We know that Jesus said, “Blessed are those who live without hope because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” But we don’t want to cause trouble when we hear people complaining about the poor, the immigrant, the lost, or the hungry.

We know that Jesus said “Happy are those who are humble because they will inherit the earth,” but we remain silent when the wealthy and powerful exploit them.

We understand and agree when Jesus says that those who show mercy will receive mercy, but then we all but applaud when powerful people criticize and insult, making verbal attacks on anyone who dares to show them up.

These are just some of the Beatitudes that Jesus says in chapter 5 of Matthew, but here’s one other; tell me if it sounds familiar. It’s from verse 10 of Matthew 5: “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of God is theirs.”

There is no middle ground between confessing Christ and denying Christ. You’re either on one side or you’re on the other.
When we stand in solidarity alongside those whom others want to reject or persecute, we may, ourselves, risk being rejected or even persecuted. When we refuse to participate in the acts of violence – and that includes violent language against others, we may be seen as turning our backs on our own people, maybe even our own family. Yet, if we fail to stand up for our convictions, we lose something of our own souls, and we contribute to making the world an unsafe and threatening place for anyone who is “different” in any way. That’s the measure of community and radical hospitality that Jesus was teaching his disciples.

Now, here’s what we must remember: while it may be difficult to live out the welcoming, forgiving, serving, peaceful, and justice-seeking values of God’s reign, when we miss the opportunity to do just that, it damages our own souls even more. This is why our reading today implores us to confess Christ above all else.

As challenging as that may be – as difficult a task that may be, Jesus says something in our reading not once, not twice, but three times that we must never lose sight of. In verse 26: Therefore, don’t be afraid. In verse 28: don’t be afraid. In verse 31: Don’t be afraid.

Don’t be afraid. Three times he says it; it’s safe to say Jesus knows the challenge that we face, and he assures us that God is with us. Don’t be afraid of those people because nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed. 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.

Bruce Sanguin writes in The Emerging Church that the church needs to stop spending its time telling everyone within earshot what it’s against, and a little more energy building the kind of world we stand for. We need to not be afraid to follow Jesus’ teachings in the beatitudes, to follow Jesus’ example of lifting up the brokenhearted and standing up for the poor.

Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one sparrow will fall to the ground without God knowing about it already. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Don’t be afraid. You are worth more than many sparrows. How much do you suppose an immigrant is worth to God?

This gospel message is one that challenges the status quo; it establishes a new family: the church as a network of radical hospitality. It speaks out against the trap of comfortable living in silence while others are being pushed to the sides by the powers that be. It warns us against the mistaken perception that the Christian church is somehow facing persecution because there are values out there that are not ours. Instead, it is a reality check that our job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Our job of radical hospitality is to be a source of comfort to those that the powers that be would rather be pushed away.

Each day of our Christian journey is both an invitation and a commandment to choose what path we will be on. Will we choose the easy path of silence that benefits those who really need no benefit at all? Or will we choose the difficult road of radical hospitality, of servant leadership, of using our voice on behalf of the voiceless? The difficult path is the one Jesus tells us to not be afraid about taking. I want to challenge you this week to prayerfully consider how your voice either supports those on the margins… or doesn’t. I want to challenge you this week to consider how we, as a church, proclaim and enact God’s kingdom that Jesus tells us has come near. How do we, as the family of God, view and understand the sacredness of the community around us, where all belong, where everything and everyone is connected, and every being is cherished?

This is an invitation to a transformational life that – Jesus himself told us – wouldn’t be easy. It is an invitation to make Jesus’ mission our mission. It is an invitation that has plenty of downside to it, but do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid! The rewards are unimaginably better!

To God be the glory