A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 22, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Matthew 10:24-39 and Romans 6:1b-11
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I was chatting online with a friend in Seattle this past week as today’s gospel lesson bubbled in the back of my mind.  Joe has had two careers, one professional, the other volunteer.  His volunteer career has included helping with various youth programs that serve lgbt[1] kids and young adults.  I asked him to share a story with me.

I’ll call the boy Juan.  He was living in Yakima, Washington, when in mid-November, his father caught him chatting online with another boy in a gay chat room.  “His incensed father threw him out of his home, with only the clothes he could gather within 30 minutes and stuff in his school backpack.  His father threatened him bodily harm if he remained in Yakima with other family members or friends, forbidding him future contact with his mom, siblings, or other relatives of his extended family.”[2]

Apparently, Juan wandered the streets of Yakima that night and managed to get a bus ticket to Seattle.  Wandering, lost, not knowing what to do, Juan spent at least one more night on the Seattle streets with nothing to eat.

The next day Juan approached Jim Aiken, one of Joe’s friends, who had had an accident that left him disabled.  Jim lives in an Assisted Living Residence and gets around on a scooter, typically traveling with “his trusty mongrel dog Sunny perched on his lap.”  It was a blustery, dreary, wet, chilly day – in other words, a normal Seattle November day – when Juan approached him.   Disabled, “Jim is on a limited income, but is regularly accosted by street people asking for a handout.  As this teen approached, he brusquely said, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything to give you.’  Juan was taken aback, commenting that all he wanted to do was pet Jim’s dog.

“The fastest way to Jim’s heart is to like his dog, so he melted, and permitted the boy to pet Sunny.  The dog responded with tail wagging and happy sounds – which clued Jim in that the boy was ‘all right.’”  It didn’t take Jim long to sense “something was out of place.  The kid looked tired and haggard, not the normal kid on Seattle’s streets, so as they chatted Jim began fishing for this Juan’s backstory.”

When he learned the details, Jim sprang into action.  He called his caseworker who connected them up with Child Protective Services, and Juan got placed in a foster home with a lesbian couple.  What a difference in environment.  Knowing he was on his way, his foster moms made sure there was a hot meal waiting for him.  “He had a chance to take a hot shower, and was bundled up in robes and blankets. They stayed up for several hours getting acquainted.  Then he had a warm bed, in what was now his bedroom, in which to sleep.”

Juan’s foster moms have created a sea of love for him and he is thriving.  He is enrolled in school and should be graduating in a year.  Things are looking up for Juan, but Child Protective Services has advised Juan that he not reveal his location or his school to his birth family.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  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; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  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; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”[3]

This is one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus, one of those sayings one wishes he hadn’t said, or at least that it didn’t get written down.  And I have a tendency to suspect that the harder the saying, the more likely it is to be authentically Jesus (as opposed to the community’s remembering or creation of a saying of Jesus).  It is a saying that I suspect Juan and his father hear quite differently.  How sad that Juan’s father thought his hating the fact that Juan is gay was a faithful act that led him to reject his son.

The sword that Jesus brings is not a literal sword.  When Jesus is arrested and a literal sword is drawn, he tells his disciples to put away the sword.[4]  This sword is figurative.  It represents the conflict that discipleship can create – be it discipleship that embraces Jesus’ message or somehow corrupts it.

Leaving Juan’s father aside, I want to focus on discipleship that embraces Jesus’ message of love, on ministry that turns social norms on their heads and embraces the outcasts and the marginalized.  As one commentator put it, “Readiness for this kind of ministry requires a fair amount of fire in the bones.  Decisions about parlor carpet only require us to be practical.  The ministry … encompassed by Jesus depends on resolve that can sustain a person even from the bottom of a well.”[5]

If you’ve ever been at the bottom of a well, you know what you want.  More than anything else, you want the people who are supposed to love you.  You want the community and the family that you have called home.  Jesus is saying that if you really follow him, if you really allow your first allegiance is to him, you may not have that home any more.

Kari Jo Verhulst points out, “To follow the one who loved unto death is to embody the one whose radical redefinition of who belongs and what matters denounces all previous sets of priorities.  To hold up this ‘dangerous memory [of freedom]’ is risky business.  By doing so, we are reminded that perfect love takes sides, and that it demands nothing less than our lives.”[6]

Remember, Matthew’s gospel was written to Jewish followers of Jesus, probably about the time these Jesus-followers were getting kicked out of the synagogue.  Following Jesus had real consequences.  Much like Juan experienced for embracing his identity, Jesus-followers could get kicked out of their families for embracing their identity.  We’ve heard about the martyrs of old, people who were killed because of their faith, but we forget about the “lesser-known Christians, the everyday, ordinary ones like most of us, who suffered loss of family, place, security, ‘respectability,’ because they embraced a faith that challenged social structures.”[7]

Paul writes, “we have been buried with [Christ Jesus] by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”[8]  “To be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in Paul’s thinking, is to die to one’s previous identity in order to be reborn into the ‘newness of life’ (Romans 6:4).  The Greek baptizestai literally means ‘to drown.’  It was used in Hellenistic Greek to describe death-by-shipwreck.  For Paul, baptism is a far more radical thing than even the ‘remission of sins’ …  Though we ritualize this incorporation into the body of Christ at a given moment of dedication, experientially we are forever being drawn more fully into the life of God, which, in turn, draws us more deeply into the world.”[9]

Barbara Brown Taylor offers this reflection:  “I am a daughter, a wife, a sister, an aunt, and each of those identities has shaped my life, but none of them contains me.  I am Barbara.  I am Christian.  I am a child of God.  That is my true identity, and all the others grow out of it … [Y]ou are God’s child first.  That is no role.  That is who you most truly are …”[10]

Paul’s point, and Taylor’s and Jesus’, is that “claiming that identity, and living faithfully into it, can have consequences in a world of empire and fear, in the first century and the twenty-first as well.  As much as we all long for family, in whatever shape or form that takes …, Taylor says that ‘Jesus’ demand remains the same.  We are to love him above all other loves, and if that means losing those we love, we are not to fear, because buried in the demand is a promise:  that what we lose for his sake we shall find again, returned to us more alive than ever before.’”[11]

Jesus invites us into the waters of baptism not just to clean up our act, not just to wash away the residue of sin from our lives.  We’re invited to step into the waters and drown, to drown in a sea of love that will not leave us as we once were.

I can’t imagine the death that Juan has experienced (and probably still is experiencing) by needing to let go of his attachments to his birth family.  Yet I know that the sea of love that his foster family has created for him has led to his transformation.  He once was lost, but now he’s found.  He once was a street kid, rejected, pushed aside, chased out of his hometown.  Now he’s a leader in his school and is thinking about colleges.  That’s what the sea of love can do, if we’ll let ourselves drown in it and allow that love to raise us to new life.

Joe finished telling me this story by reminding me that there are an estimated 1,000 teens and young adults living on the streets in Seattle, doing whatever is necessary to survive, and that about two-thirds of these homeless, mostly boys, are gay, kicked out of their usually fundamentalist Christian homes upon discovery of their sexual orientation.  “This is happening now, it is real,” Joe said.  “Juan was one of the fortunate ones.”

I checked online last night for Bay Area statistics.  “In addition to the 6,436 homeless adults counted during one night last year [just in the city of San Francisco], a separate daytime count specifically of homeless youth found 914 children and young adults living in San Francisco without parents or guardians and without a roof over their heads.”[12]  San Francisco has just 350 beds available for homeless youth on any given night.[13]  I wasn’t able to find statistics about homelessness in the Tri-Cities last night.  I’d like to think that the number of youth living on the streets of Fremont without a parent or guardian and without a roof is miniscule, but I suspect I’m wrong.  And I bet there are kids who are couch surfing because living at home isn’t safe.
Are these readings meant to be reassuring?  I think so, though at first blush they aren’t.  Who wants to lay down their life?  Baptismal death is comfortable if it’s just symbolic.  But to really let a part of ourselves die – whether it’s letting our sense of self that comes from our family ties die or something as basic to the spiritual journey as letting our egos die – that’s scary.  No wonder Jesus keeps saying, “Fear not.”  I like the way Eugene Peterson translates these verses in The Message, reinterpreting “fear not”:

“Don’t be intimidated.  Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are.  So don’t hesitate to go public now.
“Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies.  There’s nothing they can do to your soul, your core being.  Save your fear for God, who holds your entire life – body and soul – in [God’s] hands.
“What’s the price of a pet canary?  Some loose change, right?  And God cares what happens to it even more than you do.  [God] pays even greater attention to you, down to the last detail – even numbering the hairs on your head!  So don’t be intimidated by all this bully talk.  You’re worth more than a million canaries.”[14]

“To really lay down our lives,” writes Shelley Douglass, “we risk what is most precious to us.  It is a real risk.  Marriages end, parents and children are estranged, livelihoods are lost or damaged – not to mention jail sentences served, beatings endured, lives lost.  Jesus doesn’t promise to keep our lives comfortable.  He promises just the opposite:  We will walk into the wall.

“The comfort is not that we won’t die, but that if we die for his sake we will live again.  Like Jesus we will live a transformed life.  We cannot know as we begin to act what the outcome will be.  We can only know that as we respond to the mercy shown us by showing mercy, we invite the death of our former selves.  And we believe – sometimes barely – that when the dust has settled we will be acknowledged by Jesus, and will regain our lives.”[15]

So step on in to the sea of love with me.  The water’s fine.  Amen.

 

[1] LGBT is an initialism that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.

[2] The quotes I use here are direct quotes from Joe Hopkins’ retelling of the story of this boy.

[3] Matthew 10:34-38, NRSV.

[4] See Matthew 26:47-54, NRSV.

[5] Jennifer Copeland, “Living By the Word,” Christian Century, 11 June 2014, 20.

[6] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Love Takes Sides,” Sojourner, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/love-takes-sides (accessed 17 June 2014).

[7]Kathryn Matthews Huey, “Sermon Seeds,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/june-22-2014.html (accessed 19 June 2014).

[8] Romans 6:4, NRSV.

[9] Kari Jo Verhulst, op. cit.

[10] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Learning to Hate Your Family,” God in Pain: Teaching Sermons on Suffering; quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, op. cit.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Heather Knight, “S. F. homeless youth count nears 1,000 despite spending,” SFGate, http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/S-F-homeless-youth-count-nears-1-000-despite-5307431.php (posted 12 March 2014; accessed 21 June 2014).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Matthew 10:26-31, The Message.

[15] Shelley Douglass, “Walking into the Wall,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/walking-wall (accessed 17 June 2014).

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