Fear is a powerful, motivating force. Fear has been used as a tactic for getting people to do things—we might threaten a child with a whippin’ as a form of motivation. Tyrants use it to force those around them to do their bidding. Bullies threaten on the playground in order to feel powerful.
We are taught to fear the world around us from infancy. Mothers are afraid we will put our hand on a hot stove. We are warned not to talk to strangers; to look both ways before crossing the street; never go into a dark alley alone. Sometimes a little fear is good for us—it can help us to remain vigilante to danger and protect us from harm. Other times, fear can become obsessive and drive us to dark places in which we doubt the world or our ability to safely navigate it and devolve into anxiety-ridden paralysis or even worse a toxic state of paranoia.
Fear is a tool of the empire. There is a reason Darth Vader wears a mask and all of the storm troopers look exactly the same. The threat of star destroyers and sith lords alone are meant to cause people to act in a certain way and if they don’t…well, then they are to be wiped out. There are extreme political leaders who use fear like Hitler or Mussolini and there are those who simply hint at it as a way of seeding doubt in what might or might not be positive or transformative possibilities.
Fear has pervaded our society, even before COVID-19. Some people live in constant fear—maybe because of the color of their skin or maybe because they are in abusive relationships or are poor and don’t have enough or maybe simply because they have felt their grasp on the world slipping beyond their control. Whatever the reason, we live in a world that constantly feels threatened.
For most of us, there are things we trust in that help us overcome fear and make it out the door each day. There are our families and friends and the support we rely on from them. There is the sense of purpose and accomplishment we have in our work. There is the hope that a new day can bring. There is a willingness to face whatever comes our way with courage and determination. Most of us simply refuse to give in—even when we want too.
But when the things we trust in begin to devolve around us or, worse, turn on us; then our fears can sometimes get the best of us. If we know the possibility that a loved one might not support us—it may cause us to hesitate before acting, but it is less likely to devastate us or keep us from doing something we believe in. I think that is a little bit of what is going on with Jesus and the disciples in this morning’s Gospel.
Jesus seems to know that whatever is coming will be a hard and painful path of suffering and rejection and doubt. His focus may be on the cross and his trust in the resurrection, but the disciples is not. They have no idea what is to come or who might reject them as they follow this man, a carpenter’s son, a nobody from Nazareth. But Jesus knows. He names the suffering. In the passages immediately preceding these, he tells them to go out as sheep in the midst of wolves, that they will be beaten and arrested, and that their own family members will oppose them. Today, he continues to describe worst-case scenarios—he names Beelzebul, describes lies and scandals and murder, and even suggests betrayal in one’s own household. Jesus basically tells us to trust no one. And then he finishes it off by telling us that if we love our parents or our children more than him, then we will not be worthy. And that is a difficult teaching. Yet, that is exactly what faith is.
Jesus as the divine made manifest is simply love. Love is not passive it is active and even aggressive—though never violent. Love is that thing we know not because we have a heart that pumps life giving energy through our bodies but because we have a soul. Our souls can never be taken from us by man and our given us by God—a little piece of the creative goodness of God in every single one of us. The only way we can love our parents or our children or our spouses or anyone else is because of the love that God created us with and instills in us. To activate that love is to infuse one’s self with the sacrificial, redemptive power of transformative love. That kind of love defeats fear. That kind of love is what faith truly is. To love like that is to pour Jesus into every relationship you have—to pour Jesus into the world.
The kingdom of God is grounded in love and its foundation is a cross—an indictment of empire. It is not simply a symbol of salvation and forgiveness of sin; it is an end to the cycle of violence that empire will always perpetuate. There is no violent retaliation for Jesus’s death—instead the disciples transform the world through love. Before the cross was a symbol of Christianity, of salvation, of hope—it was a symbol of the threatening murderous power of empire. Jesus defeats empire and transforms the cross. Now the cross exposes empire for what it truly is—the empire kills those who threaten it, the empire silences those who speak against it, the empire kneels on the neck of those whose suffering is inconvenient. The empire is not the kingdom of God; it is not the way of love.
It’s a hard to hear Jesus say that he did not come to bring peace but a sword—but Jesus’s sword is not a sword of violence that is the sword of empire. Empire will always resist the act of peace making. Peace threatens the foundation of power and control and fear that the false powers of this world have built their empires on. When fear controls who we are, it will control how we love. It will demand a price for our love. It will define some of us as more valuable and more important than others. But the love that Jesus gives us, the love that he requires of us is a love in which we are all valued; one that the world cannot control or dictate; one in which every hair on our head has been counted and made worthy through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Pentecost 3A: Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Sunday, June 21, 2020