This morning I want to talk to you about the world that we want and the world that we have. The world we want is smooth and frictionless. It is a well marked four-lane highway that runs from the cradle to the grave. There are no detours, and traffic is never delayed. The world that we have is rough and filled with resistance. When we get off the four-lane, as we sometimes must, we find ourselves on a barely improved dirt road. It we see any road signs, they read, “Few have passed this way before.”
The world we want is filled with accolades like, “Atta boy!,” and “You, Go Girl!” The world that we have is filled with challenges like, “We have never done it that way before!,” and “Mr. Big Stuff who do you think you are?” I am not making this stuff up. On two occasions in the last two weeks I have received the gift of “the finger” (an obscene gesture) by two different young men in a hurry.
It was the collection of texts the lectionary sets before us this morning that started me thinking about “the opposition.”
The Psalmist was discouraged because he faced general opposition from all the people of his city. In Psalm 69:12 the Psalmist wrote, “I am the subject of gossip for (the important people) who sit in the gate (of the city), and the drunkards (who sleep in the streets) make songs about me.” The psalmist had no friends in high places, and unlike Garth Brooks he had no friends in low places, either.
Both the Psalmist and the prophet Jeremiah were discouraged because they faced personal opposition from the people they cared about. In Jeremiah 20:10 the prophet wrote, “All my close friends are watching for me to stumble…so they can take revenge on (me).” And in Psalm 69:8 the Psalmist wrote, “I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children.” It is pretty bad when your close friends plot against you and seek revenge. It is even worse when your brothers and sisters treat you like a stranger.
There is an opposition that is more personal and terrible still. It was Walt Kelly’s possum, Pogo, who said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us!” In Romans 7:15 St. Paul said exactly the same thing. He said, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, (instead) I do the very thing I hate.”
Nobody understood the opposition arrayed against us any better than Jesus. He knew that anyone who tried to do right and follow him would suffer. In Matthew 10:24-25 Jesus spoke about the general opposition saying:
“A disciple is not above his teacher, and a slave is not above his master. If (the opposition) (has) called the master of the house (the Devil!) how much more will they malign those who serve in his household!”
Then, in Matthew 10:34-39, Jesus spoke about the personal opposition saying:
“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.
Finally in Matthew 10:38-39 Jesus takes up the opposition we we throw up against him, and since he is for us, against ourselves saying:
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. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
In the the context of Matthew 10, those who find their life only to loose it are those who please everyone around them but fail to please Jesus; and those who loose their life only to find it are those put loyalty to Jesus ahead of all other loyalty, even family loyalties.
This is pretty heady stuff? Dare we go on? I think we must, for there are a few things we need to know.
1. We need to know that the opposition always gains power through the weight of numbers. E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist missionary and evangelist called the opposition the herd. It is the natural tendency of cattle and goats to follow the herd. Sheep follow the flock. Geese make up a gaggle. People are no different. We all have “the herd urge.” We all have love and belongingness needs. We all want to be a part of the crowd we care about. And we all want to avoid stirring the pot by calling attention to ourselves. I am one. You are one. The opposition may be one, or two, or two hundred, or twenty million.
2. We need to know that the opposition is tough to recognize, because it usually looks a lot like us. Let me give you an example that is either sublime or ridiculous, you decide. The Kent State massacre occurred in the spring of 1970, when I was a student at the University of North Carolina. At that time, my herd consisted of the students in Chapel Hill who grew our hair long, and stopped going to class to protest the shootings. It would not always be so. My draft number was 27. A little over a year later I was a newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marines, and my herd looked a lot different. At that time, we wore our hair high and tight, and followed orders without protest or question. Now let me be honest. I did not find it particularly hard to grown my hair long and skip class; nor did I find it particularly hard to wear a buzz-cut and follow orders. For better or for worse, I was a part of both herds.
3. We need to know that it is never easy to break off from the herd and follow our own path.
For instance, many baby-boomers in this congregation grew-up in middle class families and our families expected us to go to college. Our families were already on the four-lane of success, and we simply followed it out of high school down to State or Carolina. Or we took 421 up to Appalachian. It is different for the son of a third-generation welfare family. He has to avoid drugs, and gangs, and work nights to finish high school. If he is just average and cannot win an an academic or athletic scholarship, before he can go to college, he has to join the Army or take off a few years and work so as to earn his own way. If he wants to succeed in life he will have to get off the expressway his family is on, for it leads nowhere, and build his own road. It is hard.
Or what about this? If we grew up in a Republican family, chances are we are still voting Republican. If we grew up in a family of Democrats, chances are we are still voting for Democrats. If you want to know how difficult change will be, just think what it would be like in your family if you switched your vote, and told your family at Thanksgiving Dinner.
I used political parties not religious denominations to illustrate how our families influence our choices, because many astute observers of our culture suggest that Americans no longer think of ourselves primarily as Baptists, or Methodists, or Moravians, but as Republicans, and Democrats, and Libertarians, and Independents. Writing more than 50 years ago, the Pulitzer Prize winner Bertrand Russell said that Christians have quit fighting over our denominational loyalties, because “politics and economics have taken the place formerly occupied by religion.”
That is a direct quote, and it is a disturbing development, because those of us who make politics and economics more important than our faith, run the risk of making Jesus our servant rather than our Master. Let me tell you a little about my politics.
I ache for our present political system. One party promises to uphold the Ten Commandments but sometimes fails to champion the needs of the poor. Another party champions the poor and dispossessed but sometimes seems to ignore basic moral imperatives. For my part, I would like President Trump a lot more if he would insist a more equitable tax structure, pushed green energy, and saved our national parks for our grandchildren. And I would like the Hillary Clinton a lot more if she would work, as she once promised, to make abortion “rare,” and had a better understanding of people of faith. I would like both parties more if they better balanced taxes and spending, and learned the art of compromise.
Now let me make a confession. I look at politics as an Independent, and we all know that Independents are the most troublesome folk of all. We belong to a herd, but our herd resembles a herd of cats. We find it easier to criticize the work of the parties, than to propose solutions of our own.
Now I have just mentioned politics. Some say that pastors should not. If President Trump has his way, that will change. I am not sure I want that change. Jesus commented on politics and was crucified for it. He took the side of the poor, and the lame, and the blind, and stood up against the powers of Jerusalem and Rome, and the powers fell on him like a ton of bricks. From God’s perspective, Jesus died for our sins—I believe that from the bottom of my heart; but from a human perspective, he was crucified as a political revolutionary.
In the same way, Saul of Tarsus—later the Apostle Paul, suffered because he turned his back on Jewish doctrine which awaited a conquering Messiah/King who would drive out the Romans, and embraced a Messiah who was hanged on a cross. Unlike many Jews, Paul did not stumble over the cross, he embraced it. In Philippians 3 the man we came to know as St. Paul writes about the four-lane highway he was traveling, and exchanged for a way that was narrow and hard. He writes:
4 If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, 6 as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
After Paul embraced Jesus as the Messiah he suffered for it. Once he was stoned, three times he was beaten with rods, five times he received forty lashes, less one. He endured jail time, treachery on all fronts, and privation of every kind. In all this he did not complain, rather, he boasted. In Galatians 6:17 he said, “From henceforth let no one trouble me: for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” I celebrate forty years in the ministry this August, but I cannot make that boast. Can you?
It was this kind of risk-taking and faithfulness that Jesus was getting at when he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him take up the cross (His cross!) and follow me.”
Jesus never told us to seek suffering; Jesus did tell us to expect it.
And how in the world can we bear with it when it comes. When it comes from family, when it comes from friends, when it comes from those who are closest to us, those we love the most. What can we do? Where can we go? St. Paul says we can. In Romans 6 he says that we who have been baptized were buried with Christ through baptism into his death. So, that “as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.” This happens to us individually, but more than that it happens to us as a group, it happens to us as a people. In baptism we are one. We are united. This has to be the place where when we have to come here people have to take us in. This has to be the community when we can talk with each other, and disagree, and love one another. This has to be the place where the seeds of revolution are sown that will turn the world upside down yet once more.