Paul Olsen

on the way…not there yet

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth…

Will you pray with me please?
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference…. Amen.

A lot of you probably know that little prayer,
often called The Serenity Prayer.
You may have learned it in AA, or Al-Anon, or off a greeting card;
you may not know that you have only learned half of it.
As the story goes, it was written by
theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1934 for a church service;
after the service, a neighbor requested a copy of it,
and later published it.

But as I say, the part most of us know is only half of it;
the rest of it goes like this—
but wait;  first, back to the words of Jesus:
I did not come to bring peace [or serenity!], but a sword.
God, grant me the serenity—Jesus did not promise that to you.
Oh, and by the way, Jesus also says,
Whoever loves father or mother more than me
is not worthy of me….

The Serenity Prayer continues,
God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and the wisdom to know the difference;
living one day at a time;
enjoying one moment at a time…
And Jesus says,
Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me
is not worthy of me.

But, the rest of The Serenity Prayer:
…enjoying one moment at a time;
accepting hardship as the pathway to peace;
taking, as [Christ] did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that he will make all things right
if I surrender to his will;
then I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with [Christ] forever in the next.  Amen.

That’s it, that’s The Serenity Prayer:
not just about ‘serenity,’ or peace,
but about living with hardship,
in a sinful world, surrendering to Christ,
trusting God for the happiness that is so illusive in this life.
It’s prayer that assumes
Jesus did not come to bring peace on earth…but a sword;
that life and peace is found in surrendering one’s life for Christ;
and despite everything else it brings,
discipleship is worth it,
and the faithful never lose their reward.

But, oh, the kingdom of God is a strange place to live:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth;
I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.
That’s not Christmas, when we sing the praises of the Prince of Peace.
Hundreds of years before that gentle Baby Jesus was born,
the prophet Isaiah had announced God’s promise:
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us…and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace….
And the expectation was that when the Messiah came,
God would fight for us,
and he would defeat all our enemies
and nobody would ever threaten our happiness again.
And it was true enough, as far as it goes,
because God hates evil and will heal us and this world of it,
surgically, with a sword, if necessary.

But despite all you’ve heard about End Time battles
and ‘prayer warriors,’
and fighting for Christian values,
or fighting for justice and equality,

or defending your ‘Christian liberty,’
and God knows what else—

never, ever is the sword in our hands.

Never, ever, in all the words of Jesus,
are you called to do battle with your enemies,
no matter how evil they might be.

Your call is to put your sword away,
and love your enemies
and pray for them like you would your own family.

The struggle is rather in ourselves, with ourselves,
and the battle is not to defeat our badness,
but to surrender to the goodness of God,
who loves us in spite of our sins.

That is the first strange thing Jesus says.

The second is Jesus’ revolutionary ‘family values’:
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother … and one’s foes 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….

Jesus isn’t preaching what the preachers preach.
There was a time when Jesus’ brothers
brought his own mother to see him,
and Jesus response was,
“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
He treats his family like outcasts
and his disciples like brothers and sisters,
and outcasts like God’s children.

Of course, at other times Jesus love of his family is equally clear.
When he was suffering on the cross,
John tells us he had the presence of mind
to ask one of his disciples to take care of his mother for him.
It’s not that family isn’t important to Jesus,
it’s just that family isn’t all-important to Jesus.

Nobody can live without family;
you need your family close to you,
and if, like me, your family doesn’t happen to live close to you,
you still need them,
and you also need to find people in your life
who will be like family for you
and for whom you can be like family.
Those connections, those commitments, those relationships give us life;
but Jesus says, even what is life-giving to us is not all-important.

Children, honor your father and mother
and parents, care for your children and share your faith with them.
(cf. Ephesians 6:1-4)
But do not make an idol even of family;
worship only God, and love Christ above all things.
That’s the second strange thing.

Jesus’ sword is not about vengeance,
or getting even with your enemies, or payback for bad people.
His sword is about cutting through all the distractions
and your own self-absorption;
the way we get so caught up in our own fears and anxieties,
in our needs and wants and must-haves;
so driven by our lusts and appetites and hungers and wishes
that we can’t face the truth about ourselves
or our deep, deep need for something and someone
bigger than ourselves,
bigger than our needs and wants
and bigger than our fears—
  our deep need for God;
our deep need to cut away all of that stuff,
uncover the poverty within us that longs
for the God who was there all along,
and welcome it.

And so Jesus points to yet another strange thing:
the reward of welcoming the strange gifts of God
that come from such surprising, unexpected places.
Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.  Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward…

That makes sense, that’s not so strange.
One might just welcome a prophet;
they confront us when we get lost in all that distracting stuff
and call us back to what is really important.
They teach us God’s Word;
they promise us God’s steadfast love
and God’s faithful forgiveness.
Prophets are wise,
they bear good news,
they challenge us but they comfort us,
they assure us that God has a purpose
and nothing will stand in the way of God’s purpose for us.
We could almost welcome that.

…and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name
of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous…

Those righteous people, that’s next on Jesus’ list.
Not the goody-two-shoes, holier-than-thou, self-righteous people,
so sure they’re right and we’re wrong,
so caught up in their religion they are no good to anyone who isn’t.
But the truly righteous,
the ones who are righteous and don’t even know it
and would never believe it if you told them.
The ones who light up a room,
not with their bubbly joy, maybe,
but with their humble kindness,
the way they see you, really see you,
and can stop caring about themselves
long enough to care about you.
They are the healers we long for, their touch brings life.
They do everything in Jesus’ name,
never in their own name,
never to call attention to themselves,
but you are thankful to God for them all the same.

These prophets and righteous persons,
we may think we could never be like them, but we’d like to be.
They have our respect; anyone would hold them in high regard;
anyone would welcome them, almost;
indeed, we pray God for such people to come into our lives.

But who is this, next on Jesus’ list?
Of what value are they?
….whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.

Little ones—that’s actually a rather technical term;
Jesus uses it all the time to refer to the poor, the powerless, the weak;
in a word, to refer to those who have nothing to contribute to our lives.

They bring nothing we need, because they have nothing we need

So why would Jesus tell us to be sure to welcome…these little ones?
Because they need what we have,
and because we need to have their poverty,
because they are Christ to us.

Who wants to be like these little ones;
who wants to be hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison?
But they are the messengers of God to us;
we exist as a church to be a welcoming place for them,
because in them we welcome Christ himself,
and who among us doesn’t want Christ to be here?

Who are they?
They are the strange, the odd,
the too-quiet, or maybe the too-loud,
the lonely, the new.
They’ve always been around,
but you don’t recognize them and you never learned their name;
you would walk past them after church
to have coffee with someone else.
They are not popular, or beautiful, or strong, or handsome,
or anyone you want to hang with.
They are always getting into trouble, like as not;
they are hard to deal with sometimes.
They are the homeless, the alien, the illegal immigrant;
they love guns or think nobody should carry one.
They are gay or lesbian or transsexual or straight as a board,
and they night not welcome you even you are to welcome them.
They are black if you are white, or white if you are black,
and you don’t understand their actions at all.
They are not like you, they are not like me.

Did I leave anyone off the list, anyone that might make you cringe?
Because odds are, if I did, they are on Jesus’ family list.

They may seem worthless to us,
but they are precious to God.
They are the closest thing to Jesus, closer than we ever are.
They are Christ in our midst,
and we are to welcome them as Christ himself.

We have spent three weeks in this tenth chapter of Matthew.
For three weeks Jesus has instructed us
on what it means to live in the world as a follower of Jesus.
We are to ask God for the sun and the moon and stars,
and be healers to one another, and to a hurting world.
We are to speak openly to others about our faith in Jesus,
and not be afraid.
We are to know that God is God, and God is present;
and if God cares even for the sparrows,
then surely God can take care of us.

We are to find peace not in power but in love.
We are not to make an idol even of family;
but love God above all things,
and draw the circle of family large enough
to include these little ones.

And your reward is not that you have been
good enough or righteous enough or self-sacrificing enough
to get everything you always wished for.
But rather to know that you, like all God’s little ones,
have always been of eternal worth to God,
whose steadfast love is worth singing forever.


TIME AFTER PENTECOST A (Lect 13) – JUNE 28, 2020 – KING OF GLORY LC, BOISE, ID – MATTHEW 10:34-42 – © Paul R. Olsen

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