3 Pentecost (Proper 7); June 21, 2020
Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
How is that for a Father’s Day Gospel reading? There may be less appropriate passages in the Gospels for Father’s Day, but I can’t think of any! So before I go any farther, I want to say to my own father, who may be joining us online, and to my sons, who are not because they are visiting their New Hampshire grandfather this morning, that sons loving their fathers is OK too!
Still, thinking about Father’s Day, I was struggling with our Gospel reading this week. Thankfully, I got some help from our vestry last Tuesday. We always begin our meetings with one of the passages for the Sunday service. We read the passage aloud. We sit in silence for a bit. Then we talk about what we heard, about what God is saying to us. Beforehand, I confessed that God wasn’t saying much to me with this one, that I needed a little help.
It turns out, I was just being dense. There was a message here. What several members of our vestry heard was “do not be afraid.”
Jesus says, people may call you nasty names. They have certainly called me [Jesus] some bad ones! But “have no fear of them.”
Jesus says people might hurt you or even kill you. Terrible things happen sometimes. But “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”
Jesus says, and this was where I had gotten hung up, your own family may turn against you. But, Jesus adds, “do not be afraid.” “Even the hairs of your head have been counted.”
Now, counting hairs isn’t very hard in my case, as my children routinely point out. I tell them, as my father could tell me all those years ago, “You are looking at your own future. So enjoy that big head of hair now, while you can!” But I digress.
It’s a good thing the vestry was paying attention to the Gospel last Tuesday because the message that we do not have to fear is a message we desperately need to hear right now.
Our specific concerns today are different than theirs. I have never been called Beelzebul, or threatened with real physical violence, or even had to deal with serious division in my family. But, in addition to whatever problems we each face individually, we are all facing pandemic, and potential financial meltdown, and an overdue racial reckoning. That is enough to get us down even if our personal lives are great.
And down we are. According to an article in the newspaper last Wednesday, surveys indicate that Americans are unhappier right now than at any time in the last fifty years. That’s going back to 1970.
Here are a few of the numbers the article reported. Right now, just fourteen percent of Americans say they are “very happy.” That number is down from thirty-one percent two years ago. The lowest that number has been in the last fifty years is twenty-nine percent, more than double what it is right now. As a people, we are not nearly as happy as we were just a few months ago.
There is more. Significantly fewer people than at any time in the last fifty years expect their children to have a better standard of living than they do. The number of people who complain about loneliness has doubled in the last two years.
Those statistics are based on surveys taken before the murder of George Floyd and all the unrest that has followed, so the numbers may well be even lower today.1 Certainly our collective stress is higher.
We are, all of us, carrying a heavy psychological load right now. People around us are anxious. Most of us are anxious. It weighs on our spirits, and it effects our behavior.
I think of myself as mostly pretty sweet. But Carrie can tell you, I have been a little cantankerous lately. Literally as I was writing this sermon, thinking about our collective stress and the way many of us are acting out, Carrie wanted to talk about a dilemma she faced. I was occupied. But I responded, with more sharpness in my voice than was necessary or helpful, that she was all wrong in how she was thinking about her issue. As you might guess, that conversation did not go well.
I can’t blame all of my cantankerousness in that moment on big social problems. But big social problems are not helping.
And so we find ourselves in a vicious circle. At a time when we need to come together, a time when we all need to be at our best, many of us are acting out. That happens on the national stage. That happens in our homes. We are stressed, so we act out. Acting out increases our stress. Because we are stressed, we act out even more. And so it goes.
And here comes Jesus, intervening, breaking the vicious circle, saying, “I know it is hard. But know this. Two sparrows are sold for a single penny. Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your [heavenly] Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Take that in. “Even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Now, the truth is, I don’t really want God to know everything about me. There are events in my life, parts of my character, that I am not proud of. I’d like God to number a lot of my hairs, but not quite all of them. I’d like God to turn a blind eye to the more disreputable bits.
But of course, God sees it all, the good and the bad. And here comes the good news. God loves us. God loves us despite the bad bits. God is working hard to love the bad bits right out of us.
In the midst of all our stress, all our anxiety, all our cantankerousness, all of our sin, both individual and collective, God is with us. God cares about us. God loves us. And real though our
challenges may be, we don’t have to be afraid because our heavenly Father knows all and remains faithful.
If we can hold on to that good news, if we can remember that God loves us, that God numbers the very hairs of our heads, then even when we are feeling anxious and stressed, maybe we won’t explain to our wives how wrong-headed they are. Maybe we won’t try to score cheap points in political debates. Maybe we won’t act like jerks quite so often. And then, maybe, we could actually grapple with our problems a little more effectively.
And it all starts with God’s love, which we know in Jesus Christ.
So here is my prayer, on this Father’s Day. I pray that all of us, that everyone in the United States, that everyone in the world, can hear the good news of our Gospel reading this morning. We are living in a challenging time. God knows that. And God is with us, helping us to be our best selves. May we each take that bit of good news home with us this morning, and may we share it with everyone who needs to hear it.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan