A Pep Talk from Jesus

Pep talks inspire. They make us want to be more than we can. Often the rhetoric is a bit inflated but it’s to bring out our best. Jesus, on the other hand, hasn’t been schooled in the right way to give a pep talk.

Or has he?  My sermon from Sunday.

Proper 7A — Matthew 10:24-39

Almighty God, through the written word and the spoken word may we know your Living Word: Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen

Pep talks have been given a prominent place in movies.  A group of rag-tag individuals has come together and their leader wants to inspire greatness from them.  Often these inspiring speeches comes mid-way through the film after we’ve learned something about these characters and know what they are up against.  Sports movies nearly have the market, of course.

If you’ve ever seen “Remember the Titans,” you’ll remember the powerful scene of that newly integrated football team under the direction of Coach Herman Boone (played masterfully by Denzel Washington) running together in the pre-dawn hours through the woods only to come to a large field.  “Anybody know what this place is,” Boone asks his players who have been fighting against one another due to race throughout the first part of the movie.  It’s Gettysburg.  A field that saw the loss of life a hundred years before in a fight over slavery.  He tells his players to stop fighting the same tired battle and come together in order to play football.

They do, of course.  They hear the words of their coach and they become a team.

You may not have noticed without the aid of dramatic music in the background, but Jesus gives his disciples a pep talk this morning.  It’s not anywhere near usual when it comes to these things—these seem to be harsh words from Jesus.  But the disciples are on the brink of heading out on their own for a missionary trip, they’re going out to share the good news.

In the verses before these he’s told them not to bring anything with them and to rely entirely on the hospitality of strangers.  If they’re rejected, they need to head out of the village and shake the dust off their feet—and, Jesus says, it’ll be worse for that place than it was for Sodom and Gomorrah who went up in smoke for their lack of hospitality to messengers from God.

And then Jesus gets to the part we heard.  About how they shouldn’t be afraid because if people maligned him calling him a chief among demons, they would malign his followers even more.  And if the disicples want to fear something, it’s the ones who don’t just kill your body but destroy your soul in the process.  And then he gets to that climatic moment when he declares that he didn’t come to bring peace but a sword and that families would rise up against one another because of his kingdom message.

Rather than a powerful swelling of orchestral music, if this were a film, we’d be cuing the crickets.

Say what, Jesus?  Aren’t you the prince of peace?  What’s this about you getting called Beelzebul, the prince of demons?  And what do you mean if you got harsh treatment, it’ll be even worse for us?  Are there really people out there who can crush our souls?  And are you sure our families will become places of hurt rather than wells of deep comfort?  Because of your message, Jesus?  Is this really a pep talk?  Don’t you think you need to talk to some Hollywood screenwriter, ‘cause this thing is really not working?

Is it any wonder then that Jesus says, “Have no fear,” “Do not fear,” “Do not be afraid,” in the midst of this inspiring speech? He’s telling them flat out that they will face hardships as the go off in pairs spreading seeds for the kingdom.  And not only that, but the first ones who are hearing this story read to them, the community to whom Matthew writes, is likely experiencing rejection and hardship themselves as Jewish followers of Jesus who have been pushed out of their synagogues and families.

All of this leads theologian David Lose to ask, “Are the hardships we face things to fear or opportunities to exercise our faith?”[1]

That’s what it comes down to, doesn’t it?  If we choose to live into and spread the message of Jesus’ kingdom, we will face hardship.  Jesus’ message is threatening to the powers that be, and that’s true both then and now.  While as Martin Luther King, Jr. declared the arch of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice, getting to that justice sometimes includes great obstacles including potentially the lose of credibility or the loss of relationships or even the loss of life.

But are these things to fear or opportunities to exercise our faith?  Fear is certainly the opposite of faith and belief.  Fear of what could happen of what might be said or the cost of following Jesus can paralyze us.  When we allow fear to creep in, to take up residence among us, we neither grow nor become mature people of faith.  We stay on the sidelines afraid to engage.

In “Remember the Titans,” the defensive coach, Coach Yoast, had been overlooked for the head coaching position.  He nearly resigns his position, but changes his mind after some of the senior players say that they’ll quit if he left.  He stays on, in spit of the blow to his ego of having Coach Boone as the head coach, to help those boys get scholarships.  As depicted in the film, townspeople had decided that if Boone lost even one of the games, he would be removed, and Coach Yoast would be put in charge.  Near the end of their season which had been to that point perfect, Yoast is told he has a spot on the High School Coaches’ Hall of Fame, but only if he throws their last game.  He refuses to do so.  While the Titans go undefeated and win the state championship, Yoast is denied entrance into the Hall.  He stood up for his values and his friendship with Coach Boone, even though it cost him a great deal.

The same can be true for us.  Maybe your call from Christ includes standing up for the more than 40,000 unaccompanied children and teens from Central America who have entered our country over the past year and are being held in detention centers in the Southwest that has come to our attention this past week.  Perhaps you feel called to help curtail violence in Boston.  Christ’s call may be leading you to tackle the education gap between wealthy communities and poorer communities.  Injustice still abounds, and so you might feel led to take part in addressing the systems in place that lead us to injustice.  Maybe the call of Jesus is for you simply to share his message of love with a hurting friend, to show that person where the bread of life can be found.

All of those things could cause others to get upset with you.  Whenever we push up against those who wish to control others, or if we rock the status quo in our families by promoting the gospel of Jesus, we will get pushed back.  But these are times for our faith to grow.  Any time of difficulty is.  Not because Jesus causes these things to happen—Jesus doesn’t willingly bring us pain—but his message of love and true peace—not the supposed peace our world brings—will inevitably lead to conflict until his kingdom fully comes.

Jesus’ message truly is good news.  His desire is for all of us to find true life, even if that means losing what we cling to in this current life.  It’s in letting go that we truly discover what we most desperately need.

I cannot sugarcoat these sayings of Jesus.  They can bring us fear just as they brought distress for the disciples.  But just like them, following Jesus can in fact be an opportunity for the continued growth of our faith rather than an opportunity to be overcome by doubt and fear.  The disciples take Jesus’ command not to fear, and they go out and spread the good news and heal the sick and bring hope to the lost.  They bring life.  And that life, while intimidating to some, cannot be crushed.  It keeps moving forward, spreading in ways completely unimaginable, unable to be thwarted.  And we will one day fully see the beauty of Christ’s kingdom when all those who lose their lives and face the demons of fear and doubt in order to respond with courage and hope will find eternal life.  Amen.


[1] David Lose. “Living Beyond Fear.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3259 Accessed June 18, 2014.

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