The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 10:16-33
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
25 June 2023
Do not be afraid. Jesus speaks these words to his disciples three times in our Gospel reading from Matthew today. Some of you may have heard that this phrase or its variant “fear not” is found 365 times in the Bible, one for each day of the year. If you look online, you’ll find a lively debate about whether there are exactly 365 references or a lesser number. Among the different claims, I’ve seen anywhere from around 100 to 365. Part of the reason why it’s difficult to get an accurate count has to do with the translation from Hebrew and Greek, as well as the different meanings of our word “fear.” Lucky for us, we have a resident Biblical expert, my Hebrew and Greek teacher, Richard Liantonio, who is our subdeacon today. So, maybe we should put him to work. Let’s have him go through the Bible, count the number of times “do not be afraid” occurs, and settle the debate once and for all. Richard, can you get on that right away, please?
However many times “do not be afraid” occurs in the Bible, what is clear is that it is central to God’s message to us. In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks the words, “do not be afraid,” as he gets ready to send his disciples into the world to proclaim the Gospel, in the so-called “mission discourse.” He warns them of the trials and tribulations to come: “they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me…” (Matthew 10:18). And, Jesus further warns, their commitment to Christ may even cause division and strife in their families: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name” (Matthew 10:21-22). I don’t know about you, but if I had been one of the disciples and heard these dire warnings, I might have had second thoughts at this point about staying with Jesus. Who wants to be beaten, humiliated, hated? Who wants to cause conflict in their families? But in the midst of the fears the disciples must have been experiencing, Jesus tells them, “Do not be afraid.”
I doubt that Jesus saying these words, even three times, erased the disciples’ fears. We know that when Jesus was later arrested, tortured, and killed, most of them fled rather than face the persecution that Jesus had foretold. But that isn’t the end of the story. In the end, they came back and courageously endured the persecution, and most of them died a martyr’s death. They overcame their fears. Moreover, their apostolic witness has inspired countless others through the centuries to do the same for the sake of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
While I was preparing the sermon, it dawned on me that today, June 25, is the anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War. In 1950, on a sunny Sunday morning such as today, North Korea launched a surprise attack on the South. President Harry Truman – of Independence, Missouri – sent United States and United Nations forces to help the South Koreans defend themselves. My parents were children at the time, and they joined their families in the long line of refugees fleeing the carnage and destruction. Among the bare essentials that my maternal grandmother packed was the Bible. She was, however, afraid that if she were to get caught by the communist North Korean troops, she might have to pay the price for the Bible with her life. And, sure enough, during their long journey, they were apprehended by North Korean troops. One soldier held a bayonet to her neck as the others rummaged through their belongings for food and valuables. Fortunately, they missed the Bible.
As I recall my family’s war stories, I cannot begin to fathom their fears during the war – my grandmother’s fear of being caught with the Bible, the fear of hunger and starvation, the fear of poverty, the fear of injury, the fear of death. When I think about my own fears today, they pale in comparison with what my parents and grandparents experienced in the Korean War. They pale in comparison with the trials and tribulations suffered by the disciples and the early church. But my fears are no less real, and I have to deal with them every day.
What are your fears? Perhaps you’re afraid of losing your job? Are you afraid of relapsing into substance abuse? Are you afraid of getting sick? Are you afraid of getting old? Are you afraid of dying alone? As for my fears, I think some of you already know one of my biggest fears – the fear of change. I shared with you a few weeks ago that I may be moving. Well, that’s still up in the air. And recently some changes – and potential changes – in my work life have suddenly surfaced. This is turning out to be quite the eventful summer, a season of major transitions, stirring up a host of uncertainties and anxieties.
But in the midst of all our fears, we remember Jesus’ words, “do not be afraid.” And we find the courage and strength to work through our fears because we are not alone. We have the help and support of family, friends, our faith community. Above all, we have God’s love and care. We read in today’s Gospel: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
As you know, we have Bible study based on the lectionary each week before this service. Today, I heard the most powerful and beautiful testimony about how these verses transformed a life. During the discussion, I also remembered Ethel Water’s classic, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” God cares for us in a way that we can never fully appreciate. We are never alone. God is always with us, granting us strength and guidance.
Every Sunday, before our 10 o’clock service, the clergy, altar party, and choir gather in the chapel to pray the Office of Preparation. Among our prayers is Psalm 43, and the most striking verse for me in that psalm is verse 5: “Why art thou so heavy, O my soul, and why art thou so disquieted within me?” “Why art thou so heavy, O my soul, and why art thou so disquieted within me?” For me, this moment provides an opportunity to name the things that burden my heart and mind – my fears and anxieties, my sins and transgressions – and to lay them at Jesus’ feet. The words, “why art thou so heavy, O my soul,” call me to purge myself of the things that stand between me and God.
Dear friends, Our Lord Jesus invites us to come to him and lay all our burdens down. In this sacred hour of worship, as we offer up our prayers and supplications, we find relief and refuge from our daily cares and worries. And as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, we are nourished, refreshed, and renewed. And when the service is ended and we go back into the world, we will carry within us no less than the presence of God, empowering us to face whatever comes our way with courage and strength. God is with us. God cares for us. Do not be afraid.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!