Texts: Jeremiah 20:7-13 ; Psalm 69:7-18 ; Romans 6:1b-11 ; Matthew 10:24-39
In a previous life, the one that came before church council and other committee meetings, Saturday mornings were for HGTV and TLC. Home and Garden Television (HGTV) and The Learning Channel (TLC) are for grown-ups what Saturday morning cartoons are for kids – one big, long commercial. Both feature episodic installments featuring likeable characters, happily resolved storylines, and tie ins to merchandise – be it power drills or action figures – that you can purchase for yourself.
On Saturday mornings my ex and I would get up, make breakfast, and settle into the couch for at least two hours of HGTV. The warm up show was usually something like “Trading Spaces” or “What Not to Wear,” but the main event, for me, was a show called “Clean Sweep.” On “Clean Sweep” families would invite a team of interior designers into their homes to help them reclaim areas that had been taken over by clutter and junk: spare bedrooms, garages, rec rooms. Working with the designers, the family would have 48 hours to sort through all the junk that had accumulated in their lives, to get rid of what was no longer needed, and then to move back into their homes, which – in the meantime – had been transformed by the designers into lovely, functional space.
Clearly this show was tapping into plenty of people’s wish-fulfillment fantasies that someone might someday come and do all their housecleaning for them, but between the daydreaming and the commercials there was something valuable, some good therapy, going on for most of these families as they re-evaluated their relationship to the clutter in their lives.
One of the toughest exercises the designers would make the families do was to sort through all of their possessions and divide them into piles labeled “keep,” “give away” and “discard.” Entire rooms would be emptied out onto driveways and front lawns and then sorted through while neighbors and passers-by looked on. This was the image that came to my mind during the gospel reading this morning, “so have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Mt. 10:26)
It was amusing to watch couples fight over whether or not to keep the ratty old Lazy-Boy armchair, or a collection of Precious Moments figurines, but what was real about the whole process was when someone would start talking about why the things that looked like clutter to everyone else were important to them. It was almost always the case that these treasured objects were a reminder of someone from the past. A Hot Wheels collection was a link to a childhood friend. An unused sewing machine was associated with a dead aunt. People’s homes, filled with memories of the past and no room for anything new to enter their lives.
All of a sudden “cleaning house” went from a literal activity to a metaphor for helping families decide how to truly honor the memories of important people, and how to let go of clutter. Those Matchbox cars might be displayed in a case and mounted on a wall. The sewing machine might go in a rummage sale, while a photo of the aunt was hung in the spare room. By the end of the episode, families moved back into a house with newly redecorated rooms full of reminders of loved ones, but also now functional rooms that could be used for everyday life.
It is this process of letting go in order to make room for something new that Jesus refers to when he says, “do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt. 10:34). People who take this verse as a sanction for violence or a justification for war are reading it out of context. This passage from Matthew’s gospel comes after the beatitudes, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Mt. 5:9) and after the teaching on retaliation, “you have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Mt. 5:38) and finally “you have heard it said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your [parent] in heaven” (Mt. 5:43-45a).
No, this passage is no justification for war. In fact, it has nothing to do with how we relate to outsiders and everything to do with how we relate to those we think are closest to us.
If you remember last week’s gospel, then you’ll recall that Jesus has just sent the apostles out into the world with the words “go… to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go proclaim the good news. ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment” (Mt. 10:5b-8) Jesus sends his followers out – not to the Gentiles, but to the nation of Israel, to family and friends and countrymen of the apostles. Jesus sends the disciples to the people from whom they would have expected the warmest response – and prepares them for the worst. “If anyone will not welcome you,” he says, “shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town…See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves” (Mt. 10:14,16).
Jesus’ warnings to his disciples about the reception they would receive among their own countrymen reveals the conflicts that were active around the time the gospel of Matthew was composed. Written about fifty years after Jesus’ death and fifteen years after the destruction of the Temple, and in a style that shows Matthew to have been a Jewish Christian, this gospel was a response to the reality of a household divided. For centuries the Temple had been the heartbeat of Jewish religious life, but when the Romans destroyed the Temple in the year 70 A.D. everything changed. For some the answer was a turn away from sacrificial worship in the temple and towards a keeping of the law in daily life, led by the Pharisees, the roots of Pharisaic or Rabbinic Judaism as we know it today. For Matthew’s community and the early Christians it meant life centered on the person of Jesus – whose death and resurrection brought an end to the need for sacrificial worship at the Temple, and whose life reinterpreted the law and fulfilled it with acts of healing, mercy and reconciliation. Matthew’s community, and the communities that gathered around word and table to hear the writings of Paul and the other gospels, laid the foundation for the church as we know it today. But in that time families were divided. Parents and children, sisters and brothers, each might have reacted to the destruction of the Temple differently. Choosing to follow Jesus in that first generation after the Temple’s fall might literally have meant choosing to leave your home and your family behind.
For us the choice is both simpler and more difficult. We live in a day and age and place where religion is viewed largely as a matter of personal choice. Like choosing between Raisin Bran and Frosted Flakes. I may like Raisin Bran, but if you like Frosted Flakes that’s fine too. Scratch beneath the surface however and we find that even in the United States people still associate religion with nationality and culture on a very deep level.
A poll published this morning in the Washington Post reveals that 30% of Americans acknowledge feelings of racial prejudice. We remember that within the last century the symbol used by racial supremacists was a burning cross. We remember that at the start of our current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq our president called these military operations
a new crusade. For we who call ourselves Christian in the United States, the choice to use that name is simpler than it was for Matthew. It connects us to the mainstream of our culture.
And, it is more difficult. In times like these, living in the world that we do, coming out of the traditions that have brought us to this point, taking the name of Jesus – calling ourselves Christians, can feel like swimming upstream in a culture of violence and materialism and individualism. All around us, even within our own families, the pressure to conform is so strong. You can wear a cross around your neck, and still hate your neighbor in all the neighbor’s many forms. If living as a disciple of Christ means being a peacemaker in our homes and schools, in our churches and neighborhoods; if being a follower of Jesus means turning the other cheek, loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you; then we have a difficult task in front of us. We may have to let go of old hurts and old prejudices. We may have to let go of rules and laws and ways of thinking that we have been taught by people who loved us, who were trying to protect us, by people as close to us as our families.
The process of letting go can feel like dying. We wonder what kind of life there is on the other side of such a radical departure from the lives we have known. It can feel like a betrayal of our past, our traditions, our identity. But Jesus promises us that life on the other side of a commitment to God is fuller and richer, is more rewarding than life as we’ve known it so far. He says, “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt. 10:39).
The life of discipleship, a life we grow into gradually, sweeps through our homes – our lives – replacing memories of life with real life, lived here and now with each other. It is not easy, sorting through ourselves like this. But if what we want is a relationship with a living God, a God whose desires for the world take shape in Jesus Christ, a God who wants to draw us into God’s own life through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, then we need to make room. We need to clean house.