2nd Sunday after Pentecost; June 22, 2014; Year A
Jeremiah 20.7-13; Psalm 69.7-10 [11-15] 16-18; Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the One who knows and loves us, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
I have spent time very afraid this week. On Wednesday joy quickly turned into uncertainty, grief, and fear when my nephew, Jaxon, was born to my brother, Eric, and sister-in-law, Janessa, in Fergus Falls, MN. My sister, Jessie, and I were together in the waiting room, knowing that the birth was taking an abnormally long time. We both knew something was wrong.
In the hallway nurses were running and whispering to one another, as if they were debating what needed to be done. Finally Janessa’s mom, Tammy, came out of the room to speak with us.
Her eyes were filled with tears as she said, “Janessa had a really hard time with the birth. Jaxon’s shoulders could not get through, so to save them both the doctor broke Jaxon’s right arm. He was not breathing when he came out and there is a lot of blood pooling in his head. He is breathing now, but he has suffered a lot of trauma and is in shock. Janessa has lost a lot of blood and is in a lot of pain.”
Jessie and I looked at one another with fear and disbelief. We woke up that morning so excited and joyful knowing that we would have a nephew at the end of the day. Now Jaxon was in critical condition and we did not know if he would live. The thought of the possibility of my brother losing his wife and baby in one day was almost too much to bear.
For hours we waited for Janessa to recover and tried to steal glimpses of Jaxon from the other side of the glass window. He was so cute and had so much hair! Finally, my brother came out of the room, eyes swollen and red, wet with tears. I watched him see his son breathing for the first time. It was precious and beautiful.
Janessa eventually was able to see her son with the aid of a wheelchair. They held Jaxon’s hand as the doctor set his right arm and wrapped it. Tears streamed down their faces as there was nothing they could do for their son to save him from the pain.
That evening things took a turn for the worst and it was decided to have Jaxon airlifted to Fargo. The big concerns were the bleeding in his head, his broken arm, and his breathing. The people caring for Jaxon on the flight asked Eric and Janessa if it were to look like he would not make it, would they want Jaxon baptized. They could not go with them and Janessa was not well enough to leave the hospital. We found out that Jaxon needed to be resuscitated twice on the flight, but made it to the intensive care unit in Fargo where he would have a better chance for care and survival.
All of us were very afraid…afraid of the unknown, afraid of Jaxon not surviving, afraid of such grief. We tried to remain hopeful, but every time I looked into the eyes of one of my family members I could see the worry and fear. I knew if they looked in mine they would see the same.
In our Gospel reading Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” This is not the only place in Scripture Jesus says these words. He says them all the time, especially when speaking about scary things to come like suffering, torture, betrayal, and death. The most quoted commandment (over 200 times) in all of Scripture is: “Do not fear.” I know this, but sometimes being told to not fear is like being told not to breathe…we can’t help it.
What may cause us to scratch our heads in our Gospel reading is hearing Jesus say, “So do not be afraid…” and yet right before he says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Interestingly enough, this verse in Scripture is one of my mother-in-law’s favorite verses, which I will share with you why in a moment.
First, an explanation: Our Scripture today indicates that there is more to you and me than just our physical bodies; we have what is called a “psyche” or soul. It is what makes you, a living you. It is hard to explain and understand, but Brian Stoffregen says, “it refers to breath, life-force, personality, and the self (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt10x24.htm).” There is more to us than what we see.
This is really Greek thought. In Hebrew thought, body and soul and never separate or given two different explanations. So, there are those in this world for whom it is easy to kill the physical body, but Jesus says we are not to fear physical death by the hands of anyone.
Okay, now a couple questions: Who do you think this one is we are to fear? Who can destroy both soul and body in hell?
I will tell you right now that it is not the Devil. The Devil has no power to throw you into hell and destroy your body and soul. No one else does either, not even your own self, or anyone who tells you that’s where you are headed. We are to fear the only one who truly has the power to destroy body and soul and that is God. You might at this point be thinking: “Why on earth is this one of Pastor Renee’s mother-in-law’s favorite verses?! How does it work to love and fear God at the same time?”
Fear can be understood a few different ways. One is a sense of awe and reverence for the one who has brought all things into being. In this we come to understand the incredible power of God. If God did not will your existence, you would not be here today. The One who has created all that is can certainly end all life; and no one and nothing else can. In our realizing this, God is the only one to fear.
We are not to fear anything else in this life: not death, illness, loss of a job, safety of our children, the dark, enclosed spaces, war…just insert whatever you are afraid of here. We are not to fear these things because the only One we are to fear has sent the Son and has died on the cross for you. This same one we are to fear even cares about the death of an insignificant bird like the sparrow.
This is why this is one of my mother-in-law’s favorite verses: Fear has the ability to keep us in bondage, always afraid. Jesus frees us from all fear by helping us to understand that we have nothing to fear in this world, only God, who knows you as well as the hairs on your head. God is the only one who has such power…the power to bring life into existence, the power to end all that is, and the power to raise it all again to new life if God so chooses. In this knowledge we can begin to understand what it means to both fear and love God.
What Jesus is saying is that there is nothing that happens in your life that God does not know about or care about. God says, “I care about the death of an insignificant bird; I certainly care about your life and your death. I know you from the tips of your toes to every strand of hair on your head. I knit you together in your mother’s womb and I love you.” Nothing is ever lost in God and the one we are to fear has already died for you.
The night Jaxon was airlifted to Fargo I was so afraid he would die. I prayed and prayed, not knowing what would be. I thought of our Gospel reading for today, in which Jesus says, “Even the hairs of your head are all counted.” I thought of Jaxon’s hair on his head, knowing that Jesus loved him, was with him holding him close, and caring for him. When I could do nothing else I rested in this knowledge. Jesus’ words: “Do not be afraid,” kept echoing in my ears. There was nothing any of us could do, only pray, trust, and wait.
The next day my whole family made their way to Fargo. On the way we found out that the bleeding in Jaxon’s head was superficial, there were no brain bleeds and his head simply needed time to heal. We learned that his arm would eventually heal on its own in a few weeks. His breathing was inconsistent, but was nothing to worry about. Over the course of a couple days we went from seeing Jaxon clinging to life, to steadily improving. We were able to go into the intensive care unit for babies and see him. He will remain in the hospital as long as he needs to, but we have been told that he is going to be just fine.
I know this story could have turned out much differently and I am so thankful. We are all born in which there seems to be much to fear. Perhaps this is why the Word of God tells us over 200 times in Scripture, “Do not fear,” for your life and death are held in the loving hands of God who counts every hair on your head and loses no one and nothing.