Supreme Importance

Message for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A (6/25/23)

Matthew 10:24-39


On the one hand, I’m grateful that Jesus is realistic about the cost of discipleship. I wouldn’t want to follow a Teacher and Lord who didn’t tell the truth about the risks involved. And of course, his warnings about conflict and suffering are not prescriptive, but descriptive; Jesus doesn’t intend to afflict his followers with hardship, but he knows what’s bound to happen if we throw our lot in with him:

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.


Jesus is clear that discipleship will rearrange our priorities according to the reign of God on Earth as in heaven,[1] and thereby impact our other loyalties.

On the other hand, I wonder how seriously we take Jesus’ words here. I wonder if we’re a bit removed from his first-century context, and therefore detached from the religious and social and political implications of his movement. I have to ask: What does it really mean to love Jesus more than our parents and children? What does it mean to suffer willingly on behalf of his countercultural vision for life in the world?

Our Gospel from Matthew today reminds me of author Annie Dillard’s observation that church folks tend to look too casually on our own discipleship, that we underestimate the stakes:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[2]


To be sure, the Gospels bear witness to the depth of Jesus’ love, the divine compassion he showers on the multitudes who are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”[3] We are acquainted with his boundless grace and mercy, so we know that he has come to comfort the afflicted. But, today’s Gospel reveals that Jesus has also come to afflict the comfortable. As soon as we stop noticing the radical challenge at the heart of his call– as soon as we stop being affected by it– we’ve stopped listening.

I’ll never forget a story William Willimon tells about a confrontation he once had while serving as Dean of the Duke University Chapel. Near the end of one academic year, he received an angry phone call from the father of a graduating senior who had been active in campus ministry. She had recently turned down a job offer from a respected engineering firm in order to work on a clean water project in Haiti.

Her father wasn’t pleased, and he blamed Willimon. If my daughter hadn’t been so involved in campus ministry, he contended, she would never have entertained such a crazy idea. Willimon responded to the man’s tirade by reminding him that, in fact, he had first introduced his daughter to Jesus; he had brought her to church throughout her childhood to hear the sacred stories; and so he had exposed her to God’s radical, risky love for the world. Speechless for a moment, the father confessed, “But, we just wanted her to be a Presbyterian.”[4]

The young woman in this story understood something of our Gospel today. Discipleship is not a secondary call; it is not meant to sit neatly alongside our other allegiances. Jesus insists that the reign of God takes precedence over all other priorities, and therefore demands an unwavering commitment from the faithful. And, that commitment is liable to affect our relationships, even rupture some.

In other words, discipleship means rubbing people the wrong way for the right reasons. When the poor are blessed, when peacemakers refuse to abide by old battle lines, when justice seekers insist on meddling in public affairs, someone is bound to get upset. And so, discipleship carries a cost.

The promise that accompanies the cost, however, is that “the hairs of your head are all counted.” To borrow the words of one interpreter, “God comes first… not only in priority, but ontologically, ‘in the beginning.’”[5] And, since God is our maker– since God is the source of all grace and mercy and steadfast love– we trust that in joy and suffering, in doubt and confidence, in life and death, God holds us tight. And for that reason, we’re free to take chances for love of God and neighbor.

“God is of no importance,” wrote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “unless [God] is of supreme importance.”[6] So, put on your crash helmets, friends. Don’t be afraid, but make no mistake, the call of Jesus is a weighty one.[7] If we’re attentive to the hazards, it’s because our lives are consequential[8]– discipleship is supposed to make a difference. So, what risks are you willing to take for the sake of Jesus and his dream for the world? How might your commitment to follow in his footsteps reorganize your priorities? And come what may, what resources will you count on to keep you going?

[1] See William Goettler, in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, 168.

[2] Teaching a Stone to Talk, 40-1.

[3] Matthew 9:36.

[4] Related by Terry Brandt, on the occasion of my installation at Sharon Lutheran Church, Grand Forks, North Dakota, September 8th, 2013.

[5] Sundays and Seasons Day Resources for Sunday, June 25th, 2023,

[6] I Asked for Wonder, Ed. Samuel H. Dresner, 1.

[7] Ken Sikes, Preaching Peace Tacoma table, June 20, 2023.

[8] Robin Crawford, Preaching Peace Tacoma table, June 20, 2023.

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