21 June 2020

St Dunstan's Anglican Church Camberwell

Pentecost 3A 20

Matthew 10:24-39

This week is Refugee Week. Last week I had a conversation with a friend who heads up the Refugee Action Committee in Canberra. He was feeling very discouraged. This year began with fires that made the whole nation think about the problems of the environment. All we who are concerned about Climate Change became preoccupied by that. Then before we had recovered we began experiencing the Covid 19 virus and our attention as a nation turned to our health, the lockdown and the economy. That was succeeded before it was over by the Black Lives Matter campaign and people with a social conscience have turned their attention towards that. And in all this, refugees have been largely forgotten. And at no time in recent history has the plight of refugees been more dire. Social distancing does not happen in refugee camps and we have no idea of how the pandemic might be affecting those most marginalised because they don’t make the news. Borders are closed and movement restricted. For those in detention centres there is constant fear of infection and for those living in our community there is the desperation of no financial help from the government. The agencies who care for people living in the community with no status are reporting a threefold increase as people have lost their jobs and are receiving no benefits.

As followers of Christ ought to be helping both practically and through advocacy but many of us are worrying about our own concerns at this time.

Being a follower of Christ calls us into uncomfortable places. And this brings us to the passage from Matthew that we read this morning.

These words, spoken by Jesus are not encouraging words. They follow on from last week’s passage when Jesus sent out his disciples. Jesus is trying to tell them that it will be difficult for them if they follow in his footsteps. 

Jesus explains to them the kind of persecutions that they are going to experience if they follow him and are his disciples. And it is still true today. We don’t have a choice- we are sent out- however, some of us don’t do much that brings us into conflict with others. Whatever we do or don’t do we are Christ’s witnesses here on earth.

Jesus tells us that it will be the same for us as it is for him, that when we tell the truth and bring things into the light it may cause division. Let me just point out that when he says that he comes, “not to bring peace, but a sword,” it is not a call to war, as of course, it has often been used. Rather, it is a reference to division, a sword being the machete of Jesus’ world. 

No, the sword here is a symbol of the divisiveness that comes when we speak truth into our world. There are many things that need to be said, at this moment and if we are people who choose to ignore injustice so that we don’t cause any ripples, we are not doing what Jesus asks of us here. If we love father and mother, son or daughter more than we love the righteousness that God calls us to, then we have a problem. 

This is not about self-righteousness. The difference is that Jesus always wants us to act in love, to be kind and helpful to people. The real problems are the kind where the needs or wants of one group are being put above another group. At the moment we are as a nation helping many in our society, but there are nonetheless many who are excluded, refugees among them. The cost to vulnerable human beings, the little ones, as Jesus calls them, is enormous. There are complex consequences of the decisions that people are making, and sadly the decisions are being made on the basis of ‘getting the economy going again’, or on the basis of popularity, with the next election in view.

We have been encouraged to applaud the government for its management of this difficult situation and indeed I am very glad for any assistance being given to those in need but someone must speak for those who are not being helped. Christian leaders have often been told to stay out of politics. The problem that confronts me is that Jesus seems to expect me to speak out, just as he did, about injustice, and about things that are wrong. He tells us that the things that come out of the darkness into the light will cause trouble. He himself found trouble when he spoke out politically. Jesus even seems to be preparing us for death, if we speak out. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear more the one who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” And it is true that people, in our world are killed for speaking out. Not so frequently in our society, of course. But, Jesus tells us that if we acknowledge him before others, he will acknowledge us before God. It is far more important to be right before God than to worry about what someone here might do to you. And the reason is that human life is very valuable. God cares even for the sparrows that seem to be of little account, he sees the death of every one of them. And as for us, every hair of our heads is numbered. The point Jesus is making is that all life, everything that he has created, is precious to him. And each person, you and me living in comfort in Camberwell, is no more or less valuable to God than the person who lives on the streets of Melbourne, or in crowded accommodation, in a refugee camp, or on the rubbish dumps, or Gehennas of this world.

And that is the bottom line. We need to both speak and act to protect God’s precious creation, humans and the other animals, the plants and the atmosphere. God values every bit of it.

And this is potentially divisive. We do face criticism by all sorts of people who want to protect their own power base or wealth. These people might be our children, or our siblings, or our friends. But we have to take up the cross and follow Jesus when it is a matter of justice for the little ones, the human beings that the world sees as about as valuable as a sparrow, or indeed the sparrows themselves and their habitat.

The difficulty for many of us is that there are so many problems that it’s difficult to know where to put our energy and at this particular moment in history very difficult indeed to do anything to help. On this particular Sunday at the end of Refugee Week, I am encouraging us to advocate for the fair and just treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, particularly in this terribly difficult time. These are the little ones that Jesus has encouraged us to see. We are also aware of other issues in our society particularly that of climate science, and the implications of where our greed is taking us. I am also very concerned for the plight of our home grown homeless, and other disadvantaged and marginalised people, particularly our indigenous brothers and sisters. In fact, there are not enough hours in the day to advocate for all the different causes. Jesus, when he was on earth dealt with each person as they arose, and indeed even Jesus was overwhelmed at times by the need he saw all around him. We are fragile and limited as individuals, and cannot always achieve the outcomes that we perceive as being in the best interests of other people or of our equally fragile world. That is where the strength of our brothers and sisters come in. Even though I can’t do it all, I can support those of Jesus’ followers who are dealing with the other things.

Jesus left the temporal sphere in order that the Holy Spirit might come amongst as and make us into the body of Christ. And when you think of us as the body of Christ, it becomes even more obvious that we have to act in a way that brings God’s agenda to the fore. God’s agenda is always to be caring for other humans and for the planet. So let me encourage you to pick up the burden of the courage of your convictions. Let me encourage you to take up your cross, regardless of what it might cost you, because, “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.”

Vicar Roberta Hamilton