Worry less about appearances
Second Sunday after Trinity Matthew 10: 24-39
Many of us will remember the UK TV sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, whose heroine Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced "Bouquet"!) took the activity of being seen to be doing, wearing or saying the right thing, to new heights. The reason it was funny, of course, was that nearly everyone knew someone with a bit (or a lot) of Hyacinth in them. How many of us, as children, were exhorted by our mother always to wear a clean pair of underpants in case we were knocked down? Surely children everywhere have puzzled over this concern for our underwear. Was keeping up appearances more important, perhaps, than our health and safety?
We may feel we live in a less formal society now but, in honesty, I expect we have all felt the pressure of keeping up appearances from time to time, whether it's trying to say the politically correct thing, or being seen by our friends to have the right type of organic, fair-traded or non-airfreighted food in our cupboards. Of course these are all good things, but let's be honest - there is a fine and rather blurry line between being a decent and upstanding member of society and being seen to be one. The pressure to keep up appearances is still here; and I suspect will ever be so.
It was certainly evident in first-century Palestine. There were strict codes of behaviour that had the double-edged effect of both helping people to operate as good citizens by defining what was bad and what was good, but also excluded and labelled those who fell short or broke any of these rules. Jesus upset the apple-cart, by his forthright preaching and as a result many labelled him a lout and troublemaker. His behaviour was seen as defiantly anti-social, and he suffered both verbal and physical persecution as a result.
We join the story today at the point where Jesus begins to prepare his disciples to carry on his work (a foretaste, of course, of the task of every Christian), and to suffer the same things that he suffered. To the people they were going to meet, the disciples were going to seem like fools, crackpots and inciters of antisocial behaviour - appearances were definitely not going to be kept up. The very fabric of society would be threatened, and, as a result, they would suffer the same verbal and physical persecution that Jesus did.
Jesus' message to the disciples is that appearances are the least of their concern when the integrity of their soul is at stake. Sounds simple enough, but although Jesus' words are straightforward - retain your respectability and lose your soul - his call not to be afraid shows that he knew that this was not a simple or easy thing to do.
The story about the sparrows is surely one of the tenderest in the Gospels, and one that assures the disciples of their worth in a community that would regard them as worthless. I am sure I have told you of the day I had been praying in Repps church, I was upset and feeling very alone. As I left the church I went out via the road, which I did not usually do and there in the road was a sparrow. It had been hit by a car and was still warm. As It lay in my hand this story came to mind and I was reminded once more of how much God loves us.
Sometimes it seems that we can't win. We do our best to be decent, upright and adhere to the rules of society, and we find ourselves having to face the challenge that all we are doing is keeping up appearances. We try interpreting the Gospel to apply it to our life and time and we risk watering the message down; if we take the teaching of Jesus at face value it seems impossibly disruptive.
There are no easy answers to this, and our challenge as Christian communities, filled with God's Spirit, is to work it out for ourselves. If there is an answer it comes from the uncomfortable place between being a Christian today and keeping up appearances – the pressure to conform to societies norms. but the loving tenderness of our saviour is stronger.
There is one person who didn’t bother about keeping up any appearances – he told it as it was – the apostle Peter.
Perhaps it is his very humanity and his ability to admit his mistakes that makes him the Rock; the foundation of the church built on an ordinary chap better at using his mouth than engaging his brain, fallible and imperfect
Peter, probably the disciple we know the most about from the Gospel accounts – and perhaps the disciple we relate to the most:
But possibly not the one who would be voted as “the disciple most likely to succeed.”
Possibly not the one who springs to mind as a role model for Christians.
Peter was the enthusiastic visionary, the one jumping up and down with all the ideas “let’s do this, hey look at me, I can walk on water”
Peter was probably the one who when he spoke the others rolled their eyes or thought, oh no, what has he said now?
Peter was also the disciple who failed spectacularly, denying three times that he knew Jesus. But Peter was also the disciple who knew more than anyone the restoring power of God’s love, and forgiveness.
Peter gives us all hope ~ because he is not some kind of perfect Saint. To the other disciples, and probably to us, Peter is hardly the one who might be called the Rock. If we are honest he is as flaky as the Cadbury’s chocolate bar. . But this Peter is seen by Jesus not with all the human flaws but as a Rock, the foundation on which to build the church.
As we give thanks to God for him, we also give thanks to God, who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, can take each one of us, rocky as we are, and build us into the body of Christ, the church founded on the rock which is Peter. Amen