Sunday, June 22, 2008

A: Proper 7 (22 June 2008)

Matthew 10:16-33
Jeremiah 20:7-13
Psalm 69

I’m sure you’ve heard this “thought question” before, but let me ask it once again, and invite you to think about it: “If it were a crime to be a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” In America—so far, at least—we haven’t had to worry about that question being anything more than abstract. But for Christians in, say, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Indonesia or Sudan, it is concrete and real on an everyday basis. They are very familiar with the “cost” of Christian faith. And the notion of faith in God coming with a “cost” is not anything new. Listen to the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, "Violence and destruction!" For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.

Becoming a laughingstock. Being mocked. Being scorned. Suffering reproach and derision. Strangely enough, the human ego is put together in such a way that many of us would endure bodily harm, deprivation of civil rights and social status, even death, more courageously than we would endure being made fun of, being the butt of jokes, the object of ridicule. It is an altogether unpleasant experience. Maybe you remember the opening scene of the first Spiderman movie about six years ago. The character who eventually becomes a superhero is shown as a bumbling, nerdy teenager, with these really thick glasses, who can hardly walk in a straight line. All the kids he goes to school with make fun of him without mercy, and the viewer—this viewer, at any rate, who was sort of a nerdy kid himself—the viewer feels tremendous pity for him, virtually as much as if he were being stretched out on a rack and tortured.

For whatever reason, the way you and I are wired emotionally makes us think and act as if scorn—derision, ridicule—we act as it it’s a sign of failure and a source of shame. So we go to great lengths to avoid being made fun of—being made fun of at home by siblings or spouse or parents or children, being made fun of at work by supervisors or peers or subordinates or clients, being made fun of at school, and especially being made fun of in romance. Most people who are otherwise single and eligible and looking would rather shut down their love life completely than suffer embarrassment or humiliation in a relationship.

So it’s no wonder that, while we would like to think we would bravely stand in front of a firing squad for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, let there be the slightest hint of ridicule or scorn, let the jokes start flying about us, and we start hemming and hawing and hedging. We do so with a guilty conscience, but we do it. Our prayer is that of Psalm 69:

Let not those who hope in you be put to shame through me, Lord God of hosts; *
let not those who seek you be disgraced because of me, O God of Israel.

We become gunshy about being an open disciple of Jesus. Why act as though we've been recruited into the “Christian CIA,” where we can be a covert operative and always maintain plausible deniability. Rather than being bold witness for the gospel, we become mute whenever an opportunity to make a witness for Christ might result in our being made fun of.

Well, Jesus would like—politely, of course—Jesus would like to challenge that way of thinking. Listen to what he says to his disciples, right after he’s gotten them to sign on the dotted line to follow him:

I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…

I send you out … in other words, this is not by accident, this is by intention. He means to do it. But wait, there’s more:

They will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them.

It would seem that scorn and ridicule are not merely the by-products of true Christian discipleship and witness; they are veritably the authenticating marks of true Christian discipleship and witness. In others words, we should be concerned if we’re not being ridiculed. We should be worried if we’re not the laughingstock, the butt of jokes. If we’re completely comfortable in the world around us, if we just fit right in, if our faith in Christ doesn’t make us stand out from the crowd in some way, then we might plausibly question whether there would indeed be enough evidence to convict us if it were suddenly against the law to be a Christian.

There is a cost to discipleship. Part of this cost is public. We experience this cost when we take political action that is based on our Christian convictions. Now, this cuts across ideological lines: One could take to heart the biblical command to be good stewards of creation, and as a result join an environmental protest, and become subject to public derision or even arrest. Or, from the opposite end of the political spectrum, one could become deeply conscious of how pornography degrades women and damages the men who are addicted to it, and join in organizing a conspicuous public boycott of a retailer that carries pornography, and thereby become subject to public ridicule. In both instances, it is Christian discipleship that motivates the action, and those who engage in such actions learn the cost of discipleship.

The cost of discipleship, however, is also private. We experience this cost when we make a decision, and then make a subsequent effort, to honor the spirit of the fourth commandment by keeping the Lord’s Day holy. The world doesn’t care about the fourth commandment, you see. The world laughs at the fourth commandment, and schedules staff retreats and Little League baseball games and Girl Scout car washes—all of which are in themselves very good things—the world schedules these things on Sunday morning and assumes the only competition is from the lure of sleeping in or mowing the lawn. A faithful disciple of Jesus Christ will decide that being with the with Lord’s own people on the Lord’s own day is a higher priority than those good things. Such a decision will invite ridicule and derision from those who do not know Jesus.

Of course, merely knowing that public and private scorn is the authenticating mark of true discipleship doesn’t necessarily make it any more pleasant to endure. So Jesus offers us an incentive to hang in there:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father's will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.

Fear not—we are of more value than many sparrows! The one who numbers the very hairs on our head will have the last word.

By the end of Spiderman, the awkward nerd who was the laughingstock of the school bus at the beginning of the movie had turned into a confident and secure and focused young man who knew exactly who he was. You and I know who we are, and we know Whose we are. We know that if we follow him—authentically and courageously—our decision will not go unrewarded.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

1 comment:

us300 said...

It took me a few days to get to this post, and, I think there is a reason. Now how do I share?