Sunday, June 28, 2020
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 8)
Choosing a Braver Faith
Ruler of the universe, you call us to radical loyalty beyond all earthly claim. Grant us strength to offer ourselves to you as people who have been raised from death to life through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
All readings for the week:
Genesis 22:1-14 with Psalm 13 or
Jeremiah 28:5-9 with Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
1. Who has inspired you in the Christian journey?
2. What is the “little cup of cold water” that you offer to others?
3. Why might someone not welcome “the promises of God”?
4. How did the church move so far away from living in “a place of welcome”?
5. Are people “changed for good” by the life and ministry of your church?
by Kate Matthews
I look back on my Catholic school education with much gratitude, particularly for the influence of the nuns who taught us. They were so inspiring that I spent my childhood intent on entering the convent when I graduated from high school.
While God led me in very different directions (very different directions!), the desire to do something wholehearted with my life never went away. The way I (and they) saw it, those nuns didn’t just have a “day job.” They had given their whole lives, everything they owned, including their family (that was always impressed on us), to follow God’s call.
Stories of bravery
Perhaps more memorably, the nuns also told us colorful stories about martyrs and missionaries who gave up even more in response to God’s call, people like Perpetua, Edmund Campion, and Father Damien. It was a wonderful way to grow up, hearing those stories.
As an adult, I was heartbroken by the rape and murders of four women missionaries (three of them nuns) in El Salvador in 1980; I’ve been inspired by Sister Helen Prejean’s tireless work against the death penalty; I am moved by the “Nuns on the Bus,” who continue the beautiful tradition of lives consecrated to God, dedicated to sharing the gospel, and offered as a witness for God’s justice, compassion and peace, even in the face of opposition, judgment and a measure of risk.
Jesus took healing to the people
I remember the nuns when I read Jesus’ instructions to his disciples before he sends them out on a mission. His speech ends here with these three verses, but it really began back at the end of chapter nine of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus has been busy himself traveling all around, healing and teaching.
Obviously, he didn’t set up shop somewhere and let the sick and struggling just come to him: Jesus feels deep compassion for the suffering and need of the “harassed and helpless” crowds, so he heals them, restores them, and gives them hope. He also observes to his disciples just then that “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…” (9:37a).
Sent forth on paths of courage
So, what’s the first thing he does about that situation? He gathers his disciples and sends them out to be those laborers! And what does he say to them, and what does he empower them to do? He tells them to cast out demons and cure every illness, offering gifts of compassion to announce the reign of God drawing near.
Keeping that in mind as we come to the close of this speech (his sermon, perhaps?), we might understand our own call more clearly, and embrace it more wholly.
Instructions to his disciples in every age
Jesus was very clear in his instructions, as we know from reading this sermon-speech over the course of several Sundays. He told his disciples to “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.'” That’s what they were supposed to say, but then what should they do after that?
What does the kingdom of heaven look like? How will we know it when we see it, or feel it? Jesus’ keynote address, the Sermon on the Mount (which took three chapters, beginning with chapter five in Matthew), tells us a lot about the Reign of God.
Participating in God’s Reign
The speech that ends today has given us even more information about how we can participate in that reign, now that we’re inspired by Jesus’ words and the way he lived his life. Along with those disciples, we’re told to offer gifts of compassion: to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons.
Isn’t it interesting that there seems to be far more emphasis on healing and raising than on the exact words and teachings they (we) should use? (Church councils would address the words–and–teachings issue much later, but for the time being, the Holy Spirit would be enough.) More emphasis, it seems, on the doing than on the saying, more emphasis on doing good than on holding the “correct” beliefs.
Have an undivided heart
And then Jesus focuses on two things: have no fear, he says, and have an undivided heart. As Soren Kierkegaard noted, to be “pure of heart” means “to will one thing”; we remember Jesus’ words about “the pure of heart” back in chapter five of this same Gospel.
You probably need to be fearless if you’re going to have an undivided heart, because you’re likely to risk a lot for the sake of the treasure that lies in your heart: perhaps you’ll even risk the loss of social standing, family support, physical safety and financial security.
Are we willing to pay the price?
There have been Christians in every age and place who have known something of that kind of loss, but many of us in the mainline churches in the United States find it harder to relate.
We recall Barbara Brown Taylor’s apt description of the temptation we face: “Sure, it is the gospel, but there is no reason to get all upset about it. Being a good Christian is not all that different from being a good citizen, after all. You just stay out of trouble and be nice to your neighbors and say your prayers at night. There is absolutely no reason to go make a spectacle of yourself…” (Her wonderful sermon, “Family Values,” is in Gospel Medicine).
Getting out of our comfort zones
However, Charles Cousar recognizes what we face if we get up out of our comfort zones to follow Jesus, if we “discover that the announcement of the dawn of a new age is forever risky business….” Indeed, part of this speech warned us that the same things that happened to Jesus could happen to us–be ready, Jesus says, to experience the same resistance I experience, to be called names and to be misinterpreted.
We recall the shocking sight of people with disabilities being carried out of the halls of power, when out of desperation they protested the loss of support from the wider community (yes, that happened right here, in the United States of America). We wonder whether others were there who were willing to offer their solidarity, even if it meant being misinterpreted and manhandled. We hope that they were willing to run that risk, for the sake of compassion and justice.
Will we work for healing and justice?
Consider, for example, the current protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks (and countless others) by police officers. How many people are finding the courage even to speak up in family gatherings or in conversations with friends, when the subject of racial injustice arises? How many are setting out, or continuing, on the journey toward understanding and education about the racism that thrives in and undergirds our culture?
We are sent by Jesus, who was sent by God, so we’re associated with Jesus, identified with him, and granted his authority, but along with the authority comes risk, as David Bartlett warns us.
Is that risk too daunting?
M. Eugene Boring draws this hard and uncomfortable conclusion about our discomfort with “talk of witness, persecution, poverty, and martyrdom,” because “our own version of Christianity” may be so comfortable, an accommodation so suited “to our own tastes,” that we have to wonder if it can indeed “remain Christian faith.” A hard and uncomfortable conclusion, indeed.
We could focus on the lesson about hospitality (a “holy welcome”) in this short text, the last three verses of a much longer speech by Jesus. Hospitality is a very good thing, of course. In the United Church of Christ, we claim “extravagant hospitality” at the heart of our vision for the church, and we commit to embody that virtue, that spiritual practice, the best we can.
Jesus, interestingly, doesn’t speak of “extravagance” here but of just one little cold cup of water. Even that small gesture, he says, will be rewarded. If he was arguing from the lesser to the greater (as he so often did), we can imagine, then, how pleased God is by an “extravagant” welcome offered in God’s name.
This is good for both of us
However, offering that welcome and the gift of compassion is as good for our spiritual health as it is for the well-being of the one welcomed. It’s one way we experience the Reign of God drawing near.
Evan Drake Howard writes, “The more extravagant the welcome, the greater the refreshment, the deeper the grounding, the clearer the enlightenment, the stronger the inspiration that will flow from it. The welcome must be extravagant in sincerity and persistence….” Howard says that Jesus lived in a “place of welcome,” and one story after another from the New Testament confirms this.
It seems, of course, that Jesus’ “place of welcome” was able to travel with him wherever he went, as he made people feel at home wherever and however they met him. How did the church move so far away from living in “a place of welcome” to be perceived by many as sitting in a place of judgment instead? Why don’t more people feel at home when they come to church?
Courage to trust
We can always count on Richard Swanson for a fresh perspective on the text: he brings together the hospitality (the “chief necessary act” in a nomadic society) and the risk of discipleship. The ancient stories in the Bible about welcoming strangers strike a deep chord within us of “delight that arrives when human beings treat each other as human beings, with honor and respect, and perhaps a little food….This old sign of Torah faithfulness is taken as a sign, house by house, of who expects God to keep the old promises.”
In any age, comfortable or not, it takes courage and tenacity to hold onto the promises and trust in the One who has made them, rather than trusting in our own devices and resourcefulness, or even worse, in the security of “empire” and the powers that be.
According to Swanson, “empire” and “welcome” don’t seem to go together well, because empire doesn’t trust in the promises of God. Empire prefers its own cunning authority, girded with brute strength.
Called together and sent out
Thus, when someone opens their heart to the promises of God and their door to one who bears those promises (the “sent” ones, the “little ones” who are small and humble but speaking with the authority of the One who sends them), it does not escape God’s notice.
God pays attention, after all, to small things and humble acts. We remember hearing about God’s attentive care for little ones, sparrows and faithful disciples both, last week.
Now there is a tension here between the necessity to go from being hospitable (where we are) and knowing ourselves as sent out into the world, as on the move, because Jesus calls us together into the church but more importantly sends us back out again. (“Vocation” means calling, of course, but you could also say that it means sending, if we’re called out into the world.)
Providing and receiving God’s love
No one reminds us more eloquently than Barbara Brown Taylor that we are not “consumers” but “providers of God’s love”: we’re not supposed to seek a place of safety and reassurance in the church–it’s not “a hideout,” she says, not “the place where those of us who know the secret password can gather to celebrate our good fortune,” and we are not simply “chosen people who have been given more good gifts than we can open at one sitting: healing, forgiveness, restoration, resurrection.”
Instead, “the Holy Spirit comes knocking at the door, disturbing our members-only meeting and reminding us that it is time to share” (This sermon is in Bread of Angels; Taylor’s sermons are wonderful resources for our spiritual lives).
Agents, not assistants
There is so much more in Taylor’s beautiful sermon on this speech of Jesus, about “agents,” not “assistants,” of God, traveling light and sharing what they themselves have received: “What must it be like not only to talk dependence on God but to live it everyday for a year, understanding that reliance on God equals reliance on the hospitality of others? That kind of knowledge,” Taylor writes, “could change a person for good….”
It could also inspire a young person to want to grow up and give her own life, wholeheartedly, to the promises of God, even if that takes her places she could have hardly imagined, sitting there, in Sister Perpetua’s first-grade classroom, hearing stories and listening for the sound of God’s call.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, 20th century
“Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, 20th century
“True hospitality is marked by an open response to the dignity of each and every person. Henri Nouwen has described it as receiving the stranger on his own terms, and asserts that it can be offered only by those who ‘have found the center of their lives in their own hearts’.”
Letty M. Russell, 21st century
“Hospitality is the practice of God’s welcome by reaching across difference to participate in God’s actions bringing justice and healing to our world in crisis.”
John Wesley, 18th century
“One great reason why the rich in general have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them. Hence it is that one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it–and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.”
Martin Luther, 16th century
“Where there are no good works, there is no faith. If works and love do not blossom forth, it is not genuine faith, the gospel has not gained a foothold, and Christ is not yet rightly known.”
Frederick Faber, 19th century
“Mercy has converted more souls than zeal, or eloquence, or learning or all of them together.”
William Blake, 19th century
“Mercy is the golden chain by which society is bound together.”
Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, 21st century
“The world will give you that once in awhile, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.”
Francis Xavier, 16th century Jesuit missionary
“Be great in little things.”
G.K. Chesterton, 20th century
“The Christian faith has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried.”