If it walks like a duck...

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

That reading we just hear from St. Matthew’s Gospel is pretty hard to listen to.

“Nothing is secret that will not become known”.

“Whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

And perhaps the hardest of all to hear: “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.”

If you were under the impression that Jesus was all sweetness and light, think again. Doing the right thing isn’t always sweetness and light, and sometimes it’s messy and very often it will turn people against you.

Jesus is with his disciples, and it sounds like he is preaching at them: it sounds at first reading like he is spelling out some home truths for them and, to an extent, he is. But we need to know some context here.

Earlier that day, or perhaps that week, Jesus had been out and about with his disciples, on the road, doing what only someone consumed by God’s love can do: healing the sick, restoring the sight of the blind, making the deaf hear again, ridding a man of evil eating up his mind and soul. These acts are unambiguously good. I know that everything is relative these days, but I still do believe in absolute truths. Or, to put it another way in the context of what Jesus had been doing in the towns and the villages: “If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, what it in fact is, is a…. duck”.

Yet many of the religious authorities of the day are willfully blind in the face of this obvious good. And we may ourselves ask how it could possibly be that those religious leaders who could see the utter joy and relief in those Jesus has healed and think anything other than that this must be from God. Yet, they didn’t.

In fact, it got far, far worse than that. Not only did those religious leaders grumble, not only did they write the first century equivalent of an angry blog, but they went a big step further. They said that in order for Jesus to do the things he was doing, he must have been empowered by Beelzebub. 

Now, who was Beelzebub? Well, he was a Canaanite pagan deity, so, from the same neck of the woods as the Jewish people. Intermittently, he had and his pagan-God friends had been popular with the people. Jeremiah, who we heard from in our first reading, preached against them. By the time of Jesus, Beelzebub was synonymous with Satan. 

Beelzebub from a Russian icon of The Harrowing of Hell

Beelzebub from a Russian icon of The Harrowing of Hell

So the context of our reading this morning from Matthew needs to take this accusation into account. The Pharisees have accused Jesus of healing (an entirely good and loving action) through the power of Satan (the embodiment of everything that is evil and lacking in love). 

This is why Jesus says, at the start of today’s reading, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”. In other words, if they have accused Jesus of being, in effect, Satan, then imagine how they will then treat Jesus’ followers, the disciples.

What we then have here, in this harsh and uncompromising reading from Matthew, is Jesus at the end of his rope. Jesus, let us not forget, was as much human as he was divine. And getting to the end of one’s rope is something that all humans do at some time or other. I certainly do, and so do you. We all get to the end of our ropes in different ways: some involve elaborate emotional fireworks. Some are more muted. But get to the ends of our ropes we surely will from time to time. And so did Jesus.

He is, therefore, in this passage, predominantly expressing his frustration and his exasperation to his disciples, but he is also warning them that the task that he has just given them to do – the task that we heard in our gospel reading last Sunday, about sending them out to preach the good news – that when they do this, this obviously good thing – after all, it is GOOD NEWS – that the message will be received by many people in the same way as Jesus obviously loving healing was received by the Pharisees, and their willful misjudgment.

This explains a lot about the tone of this extract from Matthew – an account of a private meeting of Jesus and his disciples – a group of people with whom he was able to let his human vulnerabilities come to the surface. 

The fact also remains that the stark warnings that Jesus gives his disciples are true. They are as true for us as they were the disciples two thousand years ago. And if you want a straightforward example, here is one: the fact that very places that try specifically to focus on the good and the loving in our society, and the source of goodness and love, are marginalized, belittled and, at best, ignored as quaintly old-fashioned. I am, of course, talking about churches… oh, and mosques and temples, too. They are, of course, human institutions, and they get it wrong some of the time. But it genuinely astonishes me every time I think about it, that places like this, that exist solely to remind people of something as lovely, good and kind as God’s love are totally peripheral to most people’s consciousness. It turns out that if you have a message of love at all costs, then people are actually quite hostile to that notion. I find it hard to understand why. 

This is something that Jeremiah found, to his personal cost. He found that by preaching about goodness and love (which, let’s not forget, is not necessarily a message which is all sweetness and light, all sugar and spice and fluffy bunny rabbits) – by preaching about goodness and love and not self-indulgent self-interest, people tend to become quite antagonistic.

'Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem', by Rembrandt van Rijn, c. 1630

This is one of the reasons, I believe, why we – we the people who have signed up to this good news stuff – find the idea of sharing it with others, like family and friends and, even, strangers, such a scary prospect: because we know that by so doing we run the risk of making Jesus’ prophecy come true: about our potential alienation from family and friends. Speaking the truth is a risky and often lonely enterprise, but, like Jeremiah, can we really do anything other than that?

When the chips are down, we have glimpsed the love and the grace of God in our own lives and I pray that each of us – you and I – will have the courage to go out on a limb and speak that costly truth.

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