Life is a wilderness

Matthew 14:13-21 (Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21, Romans 9:1-5) 

I came across a story told about Fr. Michael Renninger, a Catholic priest.  Back in his days as a college student, he came home to visit his grandparents.  His grandfather had suffered a series of strokes, was bedridden, and was under the care of Michael’s grandmother.  I am sure you can imagine the scene into which the young man walked: the sounds, sights and smells of such an all-too-human predicament.  Michel turned to leave; discretion being the better part of valor, and wishing to spare his grandparents any embarrassment.  As he walked towards the door, his grandmother’s voice bellowed out: “Don’t you dare.  Don’t you dare leave.  Sometimes this is what love looks like.” (Baptist News Global, July 23, 2020.)

Sometimes, life is a wilderness.  It can take the form of a barren dessert, such as that through which the Hebrews walked on their journey from slavery into freedom.  At such times, scraps of nourishment such as manna and quail, keep folks nourished enough to complete a journey from death to life.

Sometimes the wilderness is simply a place apart from the busyness of life, as is the case with Jesus and the feeding of the multitude.  Here it was a portion of countryside that was neither his hometown, which had rejected him (Matthew 13:54-58) nor the land of Herod, who had John the Baptist executed (Mathew 14:1-12).  This wilderness hints at the alternate world, or way of being, that Jesus was instituting.  The food promised to Moses (Exodus 16) and the food provided by Elisha (2 Kings 4) served the people for a day or a season, but Jesus’ banquet points to the Last Supper; the “medicine of immortality” as Ignatius of Antioch describes it.  Here, on a grassy slope the multitude is invited to not just sit, but to recline (anaklinomai) – for this is a banquet, not a snack!  Herod’s banquet lead to death; but Jesus’ banquet will lead to abundant life.  

The wilderness is backdrop to an incredible feeding.  A one-sided affair in which the Ancient-Near Eastern model of patron-client and its quid pro quo, is set aside as Jesus provides without strings attached: No reciprocity is expected nor possible.  In this wilderness, the people are not sent away (vs. 16).  Instead, they are to be a new community together in sight and touch of  Jesus’ teaching and feeding.  They are the Church; the assembly of the faithful gathered around Word and Sacrament.  

The feeding of the five thousand is merely a beginning – and a rather small beginning at that, despite the numbers involved.  5000, out of all Creation?  Out of all that was, and is and ever shall be?  Truly, this meal seems to have more in common with the mustard seed and the yeast (Matthew 13:31-33) than it does with the heavenly banquet.  Yet, notice what led to this banquet: “[Jesus] saw a great crowd; and he has compassion for them…” (vs. 14).  Love does that, you see.  It looks like a meal shared; a glass of water given. It looks like tears shed during a wedding dance, and in grief at the end.  It looks like sleepless nights waiting to hear a key in a front door and the refusal to give money to the same child for fear of what it will buy.  Love looks like a bloodied corpse nailed to rough wood. And, love looks like a spouse washing clean the love of their life, who cannot even remember their name.  Sometimes, this is what love looks like.



Weeds

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 (Isaiah 44:6-8, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25)

“Some of the members of our Church are as useless as weeds: How and when are we to rid ourselves of them?”  That is the implicit question that this week’s Gospel text explicitly answers.  Scholars argue that Matthew’s Gospel was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD.  So, Matthew’s Church (the community of the faithful) had experienced considerable growth as the Jewish diaspora spread throughout the Mediterranean. Soon thereafter, the Church noticed that these Christians were not – as at first glance – identical in beliefs and practice to the existing community.  This is one explanation of the “field” in today’s parable:

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.  So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well (Matthew 13:24b-26).

In truth, not much has changed in 2000 years.  The Church continues to be populated by a diverse group of sinners.  (Paul describes us more lyrically, as earthen vessels containing a rich treasure, in 2 Corinthians 4:7).  Certainly, we often fail to live up to our high calling.  (Or, as one scholar dryly puts it: “We wrestle with the paradoxical nature of the Church and the contradictory forces at work within it.”).  At the very least, we can agree that each of us are shaped by the changes and chances of our lives; that we are no blank slate, but rather wounded people seeking healing; and that our scar tissue often influences the way in which live in community, one with another.  (The following cartoon describes this reality a wee bit more bluntly!): 

Certainly, this leads to tensions.  But no more than those displayed in this week’s parable:

Waiting & Judgement

Gathering & Separation

Preservation & Destruction

The weeds which we are so intent upon uprooting are described as zizanlon, a weed now known as Darnal, which looks identical to wheat in its early growth period.  A few such weeds in a field are no problem.  Sure, you may lose some wheat while tearing them up (mistakes happen!) but no big deal.  However, a field full of wheat and weeds is another matter: The crop may be destroyed in the process.  In fact, such was the potential devastation of such a scenario that Roman law punished offenders severely for deliberately contaminating a field with such weeds.

Given the potential for the inadvertent destruction of the good along with the bad, Jesus’ advice is clear: Allow the Lord of the Harvest to take care of the weeds at the time of the harvest (the close of the age).  This eschatological approach has several advantages:

● Given our track record, leave it to the experts.  After all, look at what we did to Jesus! We can be pretty reckless when it comes to destroying those who are not like us.

● As the Rolling Stones might put it: Time is on my (our) side, yes it is! The old liturgy addresses this in the words of absolution: “May the Almighty and merciful Lord grant unto you pardon, remission of all your sins, time for true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit” (my emphasis).  In other words, given that we are, each of us, a “work in progress,” we should be appreciative of additional time in which to make such progress.  

● The sin and brokenness of the other ought to remind us of our shared brokenness.  (A mirror, not an occasion for schadenfreude.)

● As much as we would like to pretend that church is a social or country club, this shared brokenness reminds us – as Pope Francis would put it – that the Church is in fact a field hospital.  If we do not recognize this reality our wounds will go untreated; and our anger and frustration at the imbalance of the membership dues and membership benefits will rise.

● How else will Jesus recognize us, other than as broken human beings, struggling to live in community with other broken human beings, for the sake of the world?  I am reminded (thanks to Wikipedia) of the entombment of Otto Von Hapsburg, Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  He died in 2011 after a long period of public service following the fall of the empire at the conclusion of World War One.  The procession of mourners arrived at the gates of the Capuchin Church, under which lies the Imperial Crypt, and the Herald knocked on the door. A Capuchin asked, “Who demands entry?”  The Herald responded, “Franz Joseph Otto Robert Maria Anton Karl Max Heinrich Sixtus Xavier Felix Renatus Ludwig Gaetan Pius Ignatius von Habsburg, by the grace of God Emperor of Austria; Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia and Lodomeria; King of Jerusalem etc.; Archduke of Austria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Salzburg, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola and Bukowina; Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia; Duke of Silesia, Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Guastalla, Auschwitz and Zator, Teschen, Friuli, Dubrovnik and Zadar; Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, Gorizia and Gradisca; Prince of Trent and Brixen; Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria; Count of Hohenems, Feldkirch, Bregenz, Sonnenburg etc.; Lord of Trieste, Kotor and the Windic March, Grand Voivod of the Voivodeship of Serbia etc.”  The Capuchin responded, “We don’t know him.” The same procedure was repeated. On the third attempt, when the Herald responded with, “A sinful, mortal human being,” the gates were opened, and Otto was admitted into the Crypt.



Parable of the Sower

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13, Romans 8:1-11)

This week, we encounter the Parable of the Sower.  The issue at hand is this: How to account for the fact that while the Kingdom of God has broken into time and space (or “the present age” as Matthew would put it), some folks do not seem to acknowledge that fact (they do not “hear.”).

There are two ironies in this text that ought to be acknowledged right away.  The first is that the despite its title, the parable does not tell us as much about the sower as it does about the soil.  The second is that the crowds around Jesus are so great that he must board a boat and teach from just offshore: So, the crowd is representative of the very soil that he describes.  (Some will hear, and others will not.)  

The scholar C. H. Dodd once described a parable as, “intended to tease the mind into active thought.”  And so, in a mixture of story and riddle, Jesus describes a powerful reality.  While the seed is good, and the sower is well-intentioned, results may vary.  The great variable is the “soil.”  As Jesus explains, the evil one, shallow faith, and the cares of the world can destroy or inhibit the crop.  On the other hand, some soil can produce an unexpected – indeed, a superabundant – yield.

There are at least two distinct interpretations of this parable.  The first was described above – the kingdom faces real obstacles which inhibit people from hearing/believing the proclamation.    However, there is another meaning – one that ought to give us great hope.  The parable teaches us not to focus solely on defeat – those instances where our faithful efforts fail.  Instead, we are to celebrate instances of success.  Rather than dwelling on defeat, we can instead rejoice at the harvest. We are thus called to be a people of abundance not shortage. 

The promise inherent in Mathew’s Gospel (as one scholar points out) is that the kingdom of God has broken into the present age and will continue to grow towards consummation in God’s own time.  Such growth and consummation will come – come hell or high water – never fear.  Resting on this promise of God in Christ Jesus, we can be people whose lives are the embodiment of abundance.  Abundant love, mercy, humility, kindness, gentleness, service, grace, and faith.



I will give you rest

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 (Zechariah 9:9-12, Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-25a)

My childhood was pretty low tech.  I remember playing outside a lot (Scottish weather permitting!).  I remember playing “connect the dots,” and being amazed at the hidden object thus revealed.  I find my self connecting the dots once again with this week’s Gospel text: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.  The words are so familiar:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (vs. 28-30).

After listening to Jesus talk about the cost of discipleship – the price to be paid for picking up one’s cross and following him – one can reasonably ask, “What’s so light about that burden? what’s so easy about that yoke?”  Well, Scripture interprets Scripture, so let’s look at Matthew 23:2-4:

 [Jesus said] The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.

Things are becoming a wee bit clearer now.  The Scribes and Pharisees are the educated, religious leaders.  They are the sophoi and the synetoi referred to by Jesus in verse 25: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”  These are the same leaders who find it impossible to respond faithfully to the call of John the Baptist or of Jesus.  John came with great sobriety and a life typified by abstinence; and the authorities said he was demonic.  Jesus came with a message of joy, and broke bread with all; and the authorities said he was a glutton and drunkard.  Jesus compares these responses with two children’s games: the wedding game and the funeral game: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn” (vs. 17).  Instead, Jesus lifts up the nēpioi – the infants, the lowly: they know how to dance and to mourn.  They respond to the call of the Baptizer and the Messiah.  They have ears to listen.

It is then that Matthew – uniquely amongst the Gospel writers – shares Jesus words, shifting now to the positive (vs. 28-30) from the preceding negative.  I will refresh you, Jesus says (an alternate translation of “give you rest”).  My burden is easy and light compared with that of the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says, because they do not practice what they preach.    Jesus however is what he preaches: he is servanthood and love (those are his commandments); he is gentleness and humility (as his passion and death illustrates).  Jesus is the embodiment of his teaching, his torah.  

In Hebrew, the Torah are the Books of Moses, the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture: Genesis through Deuteronomy.  However, the word literally means teaching, direction, and guidance; not just “law” (which is how most Christians translate the word).  The lightness of Jesus’ burden is that it is love.  And then Jesus shows what love without limit, and life without end, looks like.  



What’s the reward?

Matthew 10:40-42 (Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6:12-23)

This week’s Gospel text is so short, it can be shared here in its entirety.  

[Jesus said to the twelve:] 40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10:40-42).

I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked, “What’s the reward of a prophet?”  A reasonable question.  Having been promised a gift, one does not have to be a wee kid to become excitedly curious as to what that gift might be.  But still, I chuckle a little at the mental image that question conjures up.  I imagine a prophet standing on a doorstep proclaiming that he had a gift to give. The householder looks excitedly behind the prophet, and down the lane.  Where is it, the person inquires?  Here I am, the prophet replies: I am the gift.  The homeowner deflates in stunning disappointment.  Oh, whoop-de-doo.  Our ability, as human beings, to overlook a blessing that is before our very eyes is substantial.  This is but one example.  

The Biblical references to “one who is sent,” are considerable.  The Hebrew word shaliah and the Greek apostle, describe that person.  And, behind the words lie a powerful image, which comes from a time and place in which telephones and Zoom videoconferencing did not exist.  An envoy, steward, or plenipotentiary was used instead.  The one who was sent as a representative was no mere underling.  Instead – to use a phrase in popular use at the time of Jesus – the envoy sent by a man is like the man himself. When the envoy was welcomed, one was welcoming the one who sent him.  

Now we are getting to the heart of the meaning of “reward” (misthos).  Notice the words “Whoever welcomes…” (vs. 40, 41).  This phrase literally means “receives into one’s house.”  It is not simply a friendly hello, it is a welcoming in.  So, whosever allows into one’s home (think also, heart, life, etc.) a prophet/disciple, is welcoming Jesus, just as surely as if Jesus himself were there.  There is the reward: One is rewarded by the prophet/disciple with the presence of the Savior.

And so, this text poses a question – a test, if you will – of the person’s attitude to God.  Will you leave the visitor on your doorstep, unwelcomed, unreceived, rejected?  To do so is to turn away Godself.  It is to return the misthos unopened and unwanted.  



Remember Constantine?

 
MUSIC NOTES
Sunday, June 21, 2020
 
Our opening hymn this Sunday is “Lift high the cross”, one of the most well known processional hymns coming to us from the Anglican tradition. Originally written with 11 stanzas, the hymn was written in 1887 for a festival liturgy in Winchester Cathedral by the cathedral’s Dean, George William Kitchen. The texts were altered by Michael Robert Newbolt for inclusion in the Supplement to Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1916. This is the version that has gained prominence in the English-speaking world.
 
“Lift high the cross” incorporates an important feature of processionals: the crucifer (cross-bearer) leads the stately procession down the long nave, lifting the cross high. This ritual use of the cross is a sign of the victory of the resurrection and finds a biblical basis in John 12:32, “And I, when I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (RSV). 
 
Another influence comes from the fourth century, based on a story of the Emperor Constantine’s vision as told in Eusebius’s Life of Constantine, in which he saw a cross inscribed with the words, “In hoc signo vinces” (“in this sign [of the cross] you will conquer”). Constantine recognized Christianity officially as a religion of the state, providing a basis for further spread of Christianity. Raymond Glover calls the hymn text “a possible twentieth-century replacement for ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers'” and says that “the thrust of the text recalls the words of the Emperor Constantine’s vision”.
 
The hymn did not find voice in the United States until it was published in Hymns for the Living Church (1974), edited by hymnologist and professor Donald P. Hustad. Since that time, “Lift high the cross” has become a staple of many hymnals.
 
Michael Bodnyk
Minister of Music
 



What would you do …?

Matthew 10:24-39 (Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69:7-10 [11-15] 16-18, Romans 6:1b-1) 

“What would you do for a Klondike Bar?”  Remember those iconic commercials, starting in 1982? They are on a par with, “Hey, Mickey likes it!” and “Where’s the beef?”  

Matthew 10:24-39 asks the same question: What would you do…?  

It begins with an ethical exhortation: The disciple or slave is not above the teacher or master (vs. 24).  The followers must be prepared to suffer as much, and possibly more than Jesus.  What would you do for a savior?  

The Way (Jesus, and his commandments) are not a secret, kept for the benefit of the few; they are public property (to be proclaimed from the rooftops [vs. 26-27]). What would you do for a savior?

Keep in mind that which is ultimate (the soul – psychē) which cannot be destroyed; compared with the body (sōma) which can easily be destroyed, but which is a distant second to the soul.  Understand that, and you will have no fear.  This concept is so important to Matthew that he quotes this exhortation three times in five verses (vs. 26, 28, 31).  What would you do for a savior?

And then Jesus delivers a powerful illustration of the cost of discipleship: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (vs. 34-39).  Matthew’s Gospel reveals that the peacemakers are blessed (5:9) and that we are to love our enemies (6:44). Clearly, Jesus speaks of the persecution that his disciples will have to endure when, in a society in which kin and community define the person, they are instead called to find a new family and new kin, in the community of The Way.  What would you do for a savior?

What would you do for a savior?  Would you follow his call for a radical abdication of possessions and family ties?  Would you endure persecution, and embrace costly discipleship?  Would you do so without fear, knowing that your soul in kept secure in God’s hands?



Don’t miss verse 36!

Matthew 9:35–10:8 [9-23] (Exodus 19:2-8a, Psalm 100, Romans 5:1-8) 

In any other time, I would not have seen the importance of verse 36.  It simply would not have registered with me.  I likely would have preached on the image of the disciples heading out to the mission filed without sandals; or shaking the dust off of one’s feet if not welcomed; or the mention of Sodom and Gomorrah.  (I probably would not have dwelt upon serving as a minister of the gospel without seeking any payment, for fear of what might happen at the next Congregational Meeting.)  Regardless, I do not think that verse 36 would have leapt of the page and smacked upside the head, were it not for times in which we live.

Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness.  When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest (Matthew 9:35-38, vs. 36 underlined).

The phrase “harassed and helpless” literally means “oppressed and thrown to the ground.”  Jesus’ teaching, preaching and healing is therefore motivated by the suffering and injustice that he sees: the sheep need a shepherd.  Jesus’ ministry of care is itself a powerful manifestation of the Kingdom of God which he proclaims.  The problem of oppression is an opportunity for deliverance, as one scholar points out.  The disciples are to be Jesus’ representatives in care-focused deliverance.  Matthew 19:7-8 describes this ministry in action: “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”  And this ministry of giving is in response to an experience of having first received: “You received without payment; give without payment” (10:9).

In Matthew’s Gospel there are descriptions of those who are oppressed and thrown to the ground:

The poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; the merciful; the pure in heart; the peacemakers; those who are persecuted because of righteousness; those persecuted and slandered because of their relationship with Jesus (The Beatitudes, 5:3-12). And,

The hungry; the thirsty, the stranger, the naked; the sick, the imprisoned (the Sheep & Goats, 25:31-46).

Add to that the Old Testament focus on the Quartet of the Vulnerable (orphans, widows, aliens, the cripples/infirm, and one has a fairly comprehensive list of the harassed and helpless, the oppressed and those thrown to the ground.

A contemporary list would have similarities and differences.  I’m sure that countless hours of “fun” could be had discussing varying opinions on this matter! However, what is of the essence is not only those who are vulnerable but why they are considered vulnerable.  Widows, orphans, aliens and the infirm, have no one to stand beside them and speak up for them.  They are voiceless and alone, in an ancient society in which homeland and family provided not only roots but life-sustaining support.    

So, who are the vulnerable of our time?  And here I do not mean those who in very particular contexts experience vulnerability from time to time (in other words, everybody).  No, I mean those who are excluded, disposable, pushed to the margins, overlooked, powerless.  Go make a list.  Pretty quickly you will discover a category of folks who are very unlike the majority.  Some you may never hear about or from.  Some may have found a voice only recently, and a number of folks may confuse “newly empowered” with “powerful” – but their voice is fragile: That which was recently given may be easily taken away.  And some may confuse those who when they make a noise make a loud noise; but who are ignored when that voice quietens (a cycle of speak up-shut up).  

The Church is called to serve the powerless, the voiceless, the oppressed, the despised, the overlooked.  The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few (vs. 37).  Will you stand with Jesus and the harassed and helpless, the oppressed and those thrown to the ground?  Do not expect fame and fortune to come from these acts of servanthood and solidarity.  Jesus warns his disciples:  

See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.  Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you… and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me… 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. (10:16-22).

Yet there is a word of promise: “But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (vs. 22). 



A state of uncertainty

 

I love the Greek word distazō.  It often gets translated as doubt, but it has a wee bit less negative meaning – “a state of uncertainty.”  (Some folks compare it with being “in two minds” about something.)  

Now, if ever there was a word to describe the COVID-19 era it would distazō – the whole world is in a state of uncertainty.  When will life ever be the same again?  And, indeed, will life ever be the same again?  As if that were not disorientating and traumatic enough… as if that was not a enough of an existential crisis… America is burning.  Literally.  And where it is not burning, it is in that most fundamental of conflicts: a house divided against itself.  

Division can be disturbingly stark.  African-American parents, some of whom I know, frequently find themselves teaching their children how to survive an encounter with law enforcement.  And, the spouses of law enforcement officers, some of whom I know, find themselves explaining to their children why their parent might never come home again.  

As human beings we are quick to choose sides, based upon our personal situation.  This week I saw a cartoon in which one character said to another, “That’s strange.  I remember it differently, in a way that aligns with my world view and casts me in a positive light.”  And so, we live our lives within a state of uncertainty.  And yet we know that black men ought not be suffocated in the process of an arrest.  And police officers ought not be gunned down at routine traffic stops.  We know that peaceful demonstrations are foundational in the birth of this nation.   Yet looting and arson are not cries for justice but rather theft and destruction.  We are in a state of uncertainty.  

One thing we can agree on is that the “other side” is not only wrong, but evil.  We reach that point by making the other person into something “other,” which robs them of their humanity.  Unworthy of our love, they are ultimately disposable.  However, the Gospel of Jesus Christ shows us another way.  

On a mountain top Jesus shares his message.  It is on mountain tops that we learn so much: Jesus’ response to the devil (4:8), his great sermon (5:1-8:1), healings (15:29) and his transfiguration (17:1).   And here we are again with so much to learn – or be reminded about – in the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus has the final word.  In his resurrection, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me” (28:18).  His universal Lordship requires a universal mission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (vs. 19).  Suspicion of the Gentiles raised elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel (6:32, 10:5, 20:25, etc.), has ended – the Gentiles are included without qualification.  Matthew’s Gospel may begin with the return of a refugee family after the persecution and violence that threatened them has passed.  But the Gospel ends with resurrection glory.  Threat has become promise.   And there is a mission for disciples (read also, the Church).  Yet it is not the Church’s mission, it is God’s mission into which the Church is called:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (vs. 19-20).  

Suspicion, exile, and exclusion ends.  It turns out that “all” means all.  All flesh, all peoples, no exception.  And this love is not to be shown by God alone, as if God loves all but we get to add an asterisk (them, but not them…).  Wonderfully, it is when all seems so dark, where all seems so lost, and where sin and death seem so powerful, that we remember that it was never more so than at Golgotha.  Yet, the defeat of Golgotha has become the triumph of Galilee.

The state of uncertainty, it turns out, is not the final sate.  It is not even the dominant state, for in Matthew’s Gospel it exists alongside worship: in this Matthew text (28:17), and in the account of Peter sinking beneath the waves after first having walked on the water (14:22-33).  Now, in the Great Commission, the disciples/the Church are to baptize and to teach.  They and we are to baptize in the name of the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit (vs. 19).  And we are to teach all that Jesus has commanded us (vs. 20).  And what has Jesus commanded us?  That we love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34).   Thus, we are to see the face of Jesus in the other; and seek that which is in the best interests of the other; and do so in a posture of servanthood.  

The mission into which we are called is one that turns the world upside down.  From the Magnificat of Jesus’ blessed mother (Luke 1:46-55) to the Beatitudes of her son (Matthew 5:3-13, Luke 6:20-22).  And it begins, through the grace of God, in the hearts of those called to carry the cross of Jesus.  It begins with us putting aside race, politics, self-interest, the comfort of familiar kin; and instead to listen attentively to the stories, fears, suffering and experiences of the other.  Such a posture is incredibly vulnerable.  It is at odds with all that the world teaches us.  It makes us look so very foolish in the eyes of those whose approval we often seek as a means of self-justification.  Yet it is no more foolish than to declare that God ,“Hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek… hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away” (Magnificat); nor to teach that they are blessed who mourn, are poor or who are meek (Beatitudes).  No more foolish than the images of police officers “taking a knee” in solidarity with protesters; or of protesters protecting a police officer cut off from his unit.  And no more foolish than to believe with all one’s heart, that upon the lifegiving cross hung the salvation of the whole world.
 
Pr. Ken Blyth
 
Matthew 28:16-20 (Genesis 1:1–2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13)


Les Miserables, Pentecost, and Hinge Moments

Acts 2:1-21 (Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 20:19-23) 

As for me and my house, we acknowledge two great musicals: Hamilton, and Les Misérables.  Quite a contrast, I know, but there is it.  Turning a huge book into a story that can be told in a single stage production means that corners have to be cut.  Take the moment when Marius and Cosette meet and fall in love.  In the musical it is a single happening: he turns, she is there, it is love.  In the book, Victor Hugo takes page after page to describe the first time Marius first sees Cosette and the time he takes to pluck up the courage to speak to her.  This is a hinge moment in their lives.  Marius begins to know love, and he commits to a cause.  And for the first time in her young life Cosette learns of life, love and affection beyond the strict protection of her foster father.  Their lives will never be the same again.  As Marius sings:

In my life, she has burst like the music of angels, the light of the sun.
And my life seems to stop as if something is over, and something has scarcely begun.

Now, that is a pretty good working definition of a hinge moment.  (Some may call it a “liminal” moment.)  We see such a moment in Christ Jesus.  As William Barclay describes: “With his coming, eternity had invaded time, and God had entered the human arena: life was never the same again.”

Pentecost is arguably the most obvious hinge point.  Our Jewish sisters and brothers spoke of the “present age” and the “age to come.”  The former is a time of suffering; the latter is a time in which God rules.  The “Day of the Lord” is the “between” moment in which God powerfully intervenes.  For the Church, Jesus ushers in the “age to come,” and his Gospel declares the Day of the Lord.  At Pentecost the Day is clearly seen – and more importantly – heard!  Pentecost is the hinge point between the ages.  A new age is dawning.

The new age is revealed through the Spirit, and the Spirit does something remarkable.  Scholars are divided between those who see here an example of speaking in tongues (glossolalia), and those who side with the text’s description of the ability to speak in the languages of the peoples gathered for the festival.  Regardless, something powerful is at work here.  Once again, I turn to the wonderful imagery that William Barclay offers:

For the first time in their lives, this motley mob was hearing the word of God in a way that struck straight home to their heart and that they could understand.

At Passover, the “first fruit” of the crops were offered to God.  At the Jewish festival of Pentecost (fifty days after Passover: a week of weeks) two loaves were offered to God as a remembrance of the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai, of the Covenant, and of the life-giving harvest.  And now, at the Christian holy day of Pentecost (fifty days after the day of Easter) the first Christian sermon is preached, the baptism of fire of which John the Baptist spoke (Luke 3:16) comes upon the Church.  A new day dawns.  Life is never the same again.