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Sunday, June 21, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.

The Marathon of Faith

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 86:1–10
Matthew 10:24–31

I realize that the bulletin lists that I was going to continue reading in Matthew chapter 10 for eight more verses. I could have. I could have continued reading, and you would have heard Jesus’ startling words about whoever denies him before others, he will also deny. Or the part of Jesus’ teaching in which he announces he is not here to bring peace but a sword and how he was inevitably going to end up being a figure of division in families, setting one against another. The whole section ends with Jesus’ pronouncement that disciples must take up their cross and follow, being willing to lose their lives for his sake in order to fully gain life abundant. I could have kept reading those additional eight verses, and you would have heard those challenges zing from Jesus’ lips right into our hearts.

So why did I stop where I stopped? I have a couple of reasons. One, biblical scholars whom I trust see this particular section of Matthew chapter 10 as one that does not necessarily hang together very well. As one seminary professor stated, “All of these statements can be grouped together under a heading like ‘Other Things Jesus Said’” (Matthew 10, “Sermon Brainwave” podcast, I agree with his assessment. These various sayings, one right after another, do sound like Matthew collected a bunch of Jesus’ early teachings and chose to put them all together in this part of Jesus’ story, listing them one right after another, like a bunch of bullet points.

If that is indeed true, perhaps Matthew arranged it this way because he felt called to make the point that following Jesus is not easy. He wanted to make sure that those in his church community realized that being a disciple of Jesus, trying to walk on his Way, complicates one’s life. Actively choosing to follow Jesus, deciding to live out the claims of your baptism, means that you are unable to just decide to forever tune out the rest of the world with all its troubles in order to create a kind of bubble around your personal existence.

Now before we continue on, allow me to be clear about what I mean. Should you make space for respite from the troubles of the world? Absolutely. God commands us to take sabbath rest each week, in part so we might remember we are not God, as well as that our productivity is not what gives us life. Indeed, it is imperative that we find days and ways of opening ourselves up for God to refuel us with God’s Spirit and courage. We must find days and ways for play, for laughter, for joy. Self-care is not selfish.

I hope you let that sink in, that self-care is not selfish, because I know many of us are tired. We have been firing on all cylinders for a good while now, trying to keep our heads up above the chaos, running to try and catch up with ourselves. A preacher friend of mine here in Chicago has been involved in a variety of different Juneteenth protests and celebrations over the last few days. When I reached out yesterday to ask how he was doing, he texted me to say that for the rest of the weekend his plan was to sleep, read, and then sleep some more. Again, self-care is not selfish. We must honor the image of God within ourselves and treat our bodies and our spirits with gentleness.

But then—after we are filled back up, after the time passes during which we have been able to rest and be replenished—in order to live fully as disciples, in order to keep actively choosing to follow Jesus, in order to live out the claims of our baptism, we are then encouraged to dive back into the world with all its troubles and get back to God’s work. For when we say yes to being a disciple, we are saying yes to God’s invitation to be a co-laborer with God in God’s work of justice and compassion. And that co-laboring work requires engagement—messy, complicated engagement with the systems and the people of this world.

As I said earlier, I think that call, that demand of discipleship, might be the primary reason why Matthew arranged Jesus’ teachings in this way, one right after the other. Perhaps Matthew knew his congregation might be tempted to turn its head away when the going got tough, so he wanted them to be aware up front about the cost of discipleship, about the reality of conflict, about the expectation of trouble they would inevitably face as they followed Jesus on the Way.

That leads me to the other reason I stopped reading Matthew 10 with verse 31 today. I stopped reading when I did because even in the midst of speaking of all the demands of discipleship, listing the myriad of ways life could be tough for those who followed him, Jesus promises his disciples that even though those things are true, they do not need to be afraid. Did you hear him say that? Three different times, in just six verses, Jesus tells us to not be afraid. “So have no fear of them,” Jesus declares, speaking of those who might malign us for who we are. “Do not fear,” he says again, referring to those who could do physical harm but who cannot touch the breath of God’s Spirit within us. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus reminds us one more time, speaking clearly of God’s deep care and love for us.

His thrice-repeated injunction to not be afraid is critically important for us to hear and take seriously, for as William Sloane Coffin once preached, “If your heart is full of fear, you won't seek truth; you'll seek security. [But] If a heart is full of love,” Coffin continued, “it will have a limbering effect on the mind” (William Sloane Coffin, sermon preached at Stanford University, 2001). Oh, how I wish I had thought of that myself. Both of those things are so true, and they reflect what Jesus was trying to get across to his disciples. If our hearts are full of fear, we will not seek the truth, and we will not have the resilience to do the hard work of truth; rather, we will only seek security, we will only seek any escape we can find from being afraid, regardless if that escape is based in God’s truth or not.

But when our hearts are full of love, that love will have a limbering effect, a freeing effect, on not just our minds, but our spirits, as well. And friends, from where I stand today, I strongly believe that if we want to keep living out our baptisms into this world, we need to be reminded of the kind of freedom, the kind of liberation from fear, that God’s love can bring. If we are determined to be Jesus’ disciples for the long haul, doing the work we need to keep doing as church long after the protests have stopped, long after the threat of the coronavirus has subsided, long after the news and media have chosen to focus their energy and attention on different crises, we need to do the spiritual work of centering our hearts in God’s love and rebuking the power of fear and its control over us.

If we are going to keep working on being actively antiracist, keep shining as brightly as we can as a light in this city, keep building partnerships with organizations and congregations who are also determined to chip away at the disparities and segregation that have existed in Chicago for generations upon generations, if we are going to keep moving in the way of the five strategic directions Session adopted last fall, then we need to draw on God’s love and its limbering effect on our collective mind and spirit.

Like those first disciples, like Matthew’s own congregation, it is essential for us to continually remind ourselves and each other who and whose we are. Who holds power over us and who does not. Who gets to define us and who does not. Who gives us our true security and freedom and who does not. Jesus tells us three different times in just six verses, six verses sandwiched in between very frank words about the demands of discipleship, that we do not need to be afraid, that he is with us, that he cares deeply for us, as does the one he called Father.

As my friend the Reverend Gary Charles has written, in this section of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus takes the time to remind his disciples of “this breathtaking theological intimacy” that we share with God. “The God whom Jesus reveals is unlike any sovereign in Rome or any other sovereign at any other time in history. . . . This God of the sparrows is a God who not only numbers all our days but numbers the hairs on our head.”

In the middle of this section full of the demands of discipleship, full of stark pronouncements about the cost following Jesus could exact on his disciples’ lives, Jesus makes space to remind his disciples that their lives matter to God. The troubles they face matter to God. Their struggles and their celebrations matter to God. Just as a little sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God noticing, Jesus says, God notices us, notices you, even more. And God’s attentive care to and for you is meant to free you from any fear that might keep your baptism from shining brightly.

In these days of struggling with, as Pastor Otis Moss III puts it, the global pandemic of COVID-19 and our national epidemic of racism, I am convinced that if we rush by Jesus’ promise of God’s all-encompassing love and care for us, not allowing that truth to soak into our spirits and to be absorbed into our bones, we might not be able to make it as lifelong disciples. If we rush by this affirmation of the way God pays attention to each and every single one of us, no matter what, we could burn up or burn out, dimming the God-given spark of creativity and faithfulness God has planted deep within us because we will forget who and whose we are.

And if that happens, if we forget that the life of faith is a marathon and not a sprint, then we might be tempted to play it safe for security’s sake rather than to take risks driven by love. Yet God calls us to do more than just play it safe. More as a congregation and more as disciples. We know that, don’t we. We feel that calling, even when we get tired and are tempted to just hunker down and tune out. After we receive our replenishment we know in our bones that we are to tune back in and to get back out there, because we are some of those who follow God in the way of Jesus, our flesh and blood holy promise of “Be not afraid.”

Since I have already invoked his name once in this sermon, allow me to finish by offering you the charge that William Sloane Coffin always used at the end of each worship service he led. I believe it gets at the heart of what Jesus might have hoped we would hear through the words we encountered today: “May God give you the grace never to sell yourself short; the grace to risk something big for something good; the grace to remember that the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.” May it be ever so. Amen.