June 6, 2021
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“Lost and Found”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 10:34-39
“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. 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.”
A few months after my father died we started to go through the photo albums. They were filled with images of him being a grandfather. He loved to be there for the kid moments, especially the fun ones.
I remembered a cluster of those photos this week and smiled each time I thought of them. It was a trip we shared to Disneyland. The memory that came to me was of the sword and the stone. One photo was of our eldest atop the stone. You could see in his face and his taunt ten-year-old muscles a sincere belief that just maybe this sword is coming out. He strained and pulled with all his might. The next photo was our eldest daughter Laura. She too was perched atop the stone grasping the sword. But the look on face was “haaahaaa, take the picture already.”
The difference of those pictures is what I keep coming back to. The one was a real effort, a belief in possibility; the other was a recognition of how responsible my daughter Laura is. I am sure in her eight-year-old brain she had already deduced that the liability for Disney was too great for this sword to go flying. They would make sure this sword was going nowhere, king or no king.
Audacious hope and grounded responsibility. It was as if you could see their lives lived forward.
The sword in the stone is a fun legend. Only the true king can draw the sword, Excalibur, from the stone. It is a much less creepy story than the lady of the lake version where the spirit woman who lives in a deep loch is summoned to rise and hand the true king his sword. I am pretty sure Disney didn’t debate for long over which version of the story to build at the theme park.
Although they are obvious and terrible instruments of death, we love to give children swords. Give a child a kind of death dealing blade for fun? Of course. Kids love swords. And if we balk at such encouragement of war games, kids don’t mind. Empty holders for wrapping paper: a sword; thin branch on the ground: sword; just about any long item you can swing about: a sword. Kids may prefer and cry out for the light saber that is illumined red, blue or green and makes swishing sounds when swung; they would prefer the battery-operated Jedi model, but they can make the sounds on their own with just about any rod or stick. And they do. Kids love swords.
And admit it! No matter how old you are there is still an impulse to swing the stick and thrust and parry. How many of us have had an awkward moment where we were seen being one of the musketeers or a pirate when such activity was not really age appropriate?
The bible speaks of swords. The word sword appears 364 times. That is a lot for the bible. Yet, the use of the word is a bit lopsided in terms of the Testaments. The New Testament speaks of swords 27 times. If you are trying to do the math to compare it to the Old Testament, it is 337 opposed to 27. The New Testament is shall we say sword-lite in terms of sword references.
The New Testament has two types of sword references. The literal reference to swords, like Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave with a sword. There is warning of dying by the edge of the sword. But then there is a lot of metaphorical or symbolic references.
Our reading today falls into the second category. Jesus says I have come bringing a sword, not peace to the earth. But this sword is not Excalibur or a magical sword or even a jedi light saber. Although, that would be cool. No. It’s a sword of truth, a sword of the spirit, a sword of the word of God, which is how Paul and Hebrews and the writer of Revelation interpret it.
The sword Jesus brings is truth.
Before we get to this though I want to spend a bit of time on the rest of the passage. This is a tough one. In fact all of the passages in the 10th and 11th chapters of Matthew are tough. Tough and important. In fact, we may be so mesmerized by the sword reference . . . Okay, it may just be me who is mesmerized . . . we might miss that Jesus has introduced three of his greatest teachings in a row.
You must love me more than all else.
You must pick up your cross.
You must lose your life in order to gain it.
You might be like me and get lost in the sword reference or the idea that Jesus is bringing discord, division in families. This is tough. But this challenge though really hinges on the sword. All of these are interpreted through this image
The sword of Jesus is truth.
If Jesus is the way the truth and the life as John proclaimed, then Jesus is telling us, you must love truth more than all else. You must love truth more than anyone or anything or any moment.
Then, the next teaching, the cross: you must sacrifice yourself for the truth. You give your life to what you love. You risk everything for true desire.
And the kicker: unless you love truth more than all else and sacrifice your life for it, you lose life. This is the hardest truth of the gospels that Jesus offers again and again. It is the hardest part because it demands we let go of control. To give your life away for truth means you cannot control the truth. And we love control almost as much as young children love swords.
Sometimes this series of teachings is confused with being serious about truth, serious in the sense of defending doctrine or tradition or orthodoxy. We have all seen the images of martyrs for the faith, people who are willing to die for their faith. The heroic who are slain so to proclaim. The sword is an image of dying in a religious battle.
I was standing in a cemetery in Malawi Africa many years ago and the pastor who was giving the tour of the grounds, an early missionary site, called our attention to the graves of the young men and women who traveled from Scotland in the late 1800s and died on the shore of Lake Nyssa from malaria. So many young men and women came to the heart of darkness after David Livingstone to fulfill his mission, to risk, to pick up a cross as he did. They answered the call to spread the gospel to the people of Africa, and so many of them met an early demise to the fevers and palsy malaria brings before death.
The pastor pointed to the graves and said, “we need more people like these, people who will come to Malawi and die!” Eyes widened, mouths gaped opened, and there were a few mumbled gasped from our team. I cleared my throat and said, “perhaps, yes, it would be good if more people came and lived a long life, enjoying the beauty and people of Malawi and stayed to the end of their life and then died at a ripe old age always offering their gifts and skills to our brothers and sisters in mission.”
The pastor paused and thought. “Yes. That is exactly the point. Live a long life here and then die.”
The missionary graves in Malawi on the lakeshore are heartbreaking. So many of the markers have years not reaching thirty. There is one gravestone that haunts me. It just says, “baby.” They came to preach the truth of Jesus, to offer love and hope. They gave up their lives. Malawi was their cross and upon this cross they gave their lives. They left family and friends; they most likely sowed discord; most likely heard a mother or a father or a sibling say, “why are you doing this?”
The truth is a two-edged sword. The first edge is the need to be responsible, to keep your word, to speak the truth plainly and simply without fanfare or unnecessary embellishment. This is the truth of our everyday. Here the temptations are subtle and the devotion demands great art and skill. For how do you navigate the slight omission that tempts the lie? How do you speak to both sides if you only believe in one? Is the truth a measure of compassion or a measure of judgement? Well? It’s both.
Here is my daughter not trying to pull the sword from the stone. Her honesty is the admission: this is not supposed to work. Hers is the truth of the everyday, the slow play, the need for risk assessment.
The truth is a two-edged sword. The second edge is the need to risk, to sacrifice, to be willing to lose your life in order to gain it. There are moments where this edge of truth is all that there is. Moments of make or break; go big or go home. This is often misconstrued as bravado or bluster or some sort of belligerence. But the truth sometimes is very, very demanding. There is no art here, no subtlety. This is where you dare to speak, dare to be counted with those deemed unworthy.
This is what I could see in that picture of our eldest, believing, hoping against hope this sword would rise from the stone. He really tried; he really needed to try.
This is pride month. Gay pride month. I am ever in awe of the courage it takes for a young man or woman to speak to those they love and say, “I am gay.” To risk your life, your family, to sow seeds of such potential discord, to love truth more than anything else because to not come out means you live in dishonesty, this is an amazing moment of giving away life so to gain it . . . a moment of acceptance or rejection, a daunting maybe.
Because the moment of truth does not always yield a happy ending. It is a small world after all, but we live as if we can discard people and find others to love and cherish. We are not always welcomed if we are honest.
From time to time the church must find its voice and speak the truth, risking its very life. This is not the stuff of everyday. Most days the demand of truth is that you offer a measured, compassionate, patient response to what is asked and what is answered. Most days the sword does not come from the stone. Most days the truth is something we simply need to recognize, to appreciate, guard and cherish.
But then there are days the sword needs to come from the stone. You must speak the truth others do not want to hear; you must risk all that you hold dear; you have to rise in spite of the fear. I believe we are living in is such a time. We are living it today.
For me so much of what is true began by hearing and seeing people who are homosexual speak out instead of whisper. It was something I saw in a grocery store in California so many years ago. I often find it ironic that I, who am trained to speak and proclaim and declare the truth, have so little skill compared to those who had to speak the truth of their heart risking everything. I am ever in awe of this courage. That is what Pride Month means to me. I am proud of those who speak the truth so to not live in falsity.
I am not sure if there is a better example of this teaching of Jesus. Amen.
- Jeremiah 6:13 - 17
- Matthew 10:34 - 39