Pep Talks, Hardships, and Jesus’ Call

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

A sermon based on Matthew 10:24-39.

If you’ve ever seen “Remember the Titans,” you’ll remember the powerful scene of that newly racially integrated football team under the direction of Coach Herman Boone (played masterfully by Denzel Washington). While at a pre-season training camp, the team is running together in the pre-dawn hours through some woods and then come to a large field.  “Anybody know what this place is,” Boone asks his players who have been fighting against one another due to the color of their skin. 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 old 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 it without the rise of dramatic music in the background, but Jesus is giving his disciples a pep talk this morning too.  It’s nowhere near what we’ve come to expect from such talks; rather, these seem to be harsh words from Jesus. The disciples are on the brink of heading out on their own for a missionary trip, and Jesus wants to give them some words of encouragement and direction.  

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 which literally went up in smoke due to their lack of hospitality to messengers from God.

And then Jesus gets to the part we heard. About how the disciples shouldn’t be afraid of anything. If the people out there maligned him calling him chief among demons, then they would also malign his followers.  And if the disciples really wanted to fear something, it’s the ones who can’t just kill your body but can also 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 even family members would rise up against one another because of the message of his kingdom.

But 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 being 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 points of hurt rather than places of deep comfort?  Just because of your message, Jesus?  Is this really a pep talk?  Don’t you think you need to hire a Hollywood screenwriter, or were they on strike in your day, too?

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 we do well to remember that the first hearers of this story, the community to whom Matthew writes, is likely experiencing rejection and hardship themselves as Jewish followers of Jesus who have been rejected both by their synagogues and their families because of him.

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

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 indeed 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. put it, the arch of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice, getting to that justice sometimes includes great obstacles including potentially the loss of credibility, the loss of relationships, and possibly 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 about us for following Jesus can paralyze us.  When we allow that fear to creep in, to take up residence in our hearts, we neither grow nor become mature people of faith.  We stay on the sidelines afraid to engage. We do not become the people Jesus encourages us to be.

In “Remember the Titans,” the white 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 leaves.  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. But the Titans keep on winning. And through it, Yoast and Boone become friends. 

Near the end of their season, 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. The Titans go undefeated and win the state championship, and 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.  Injustice still abounds, and so Christ’s call might include taking part in addressing the systems in place that lead to inequity. Or maybe the call of Jesus is for you to share his message of love with someone, to show that person where the bread of life can be found. Or Jesus calls you to take a stand for integrity at your workplace

And these things could cause others to get upset with you.  Whenever we push up against those who wish to control others in the systems of our world, or if we challenge the status quo in our families by promoting the gospel of Jesus, we can count on getting pushback. But these become 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 peace for all will inevitably lead to conflict until his kingdom fully comes. It’s as if he brings a sword.

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

I can’t sugarcoat these words of Jesus. They can bring us fear just as they brought distress for the disciples. But just like them, following Jesus can be an opportunity for the continued growth of our faith rather than an occasion 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 cannot be crushed. It keeps moving forward, spreading in unimaginable ways, not able to be stopped. Jesus’ message of love and compassion and hope is for all people, and it will not be cut off by the powers that be. 

Do not be afraid. While Jesus’ way will at times bring division, know that it also brings a deep contentment. It allows us to fully know true and lasting justice and peace. And through it we will find everlasting life.

Image by lisa runnels from Pixabay.

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