12th Sunday in Ordinary time, 6-25-17; Jeremiah 20: 10-13, Ps 69, Romans 5: 12-15, Matthew 10: 26-33
Counting Hairs and Making Choices
Our readings this morning start with Jeremiah. Jeremiah was only 13 years old when God came to him and said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you….I set my words in your mouth.”
The call to be God’s prophet was a heavy burden for Jeremiah because the nation of Israel was worshiping idols, again. God’s words were harsh, urging the people of Israel to repent of their sins and seek forgiveness. If that wasn’t enough, the vicious Babylonian army was coming. The power of God was Israel’s only real defense against that army. But then loud men with great influence appeared; they mocked Jeremiah and bragged that Israel could defeat Babylon. They thought their positions and their power would be enhanced by silencing Jeremiah. So, Jeremiah was threatened and betrayed, he was put in the dungeon, left in a well, and had to flee to Egypt when Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians – all for doing God’s work, warning Israel and offering God’s forgiveness and protection.
Likewise, our Psalm today is a lament, a cry of anguish. It is the prayer of a man who is exhausted, an outcast from family& community, falsely accused, the butt of jokes & mean-spirited gossip. He says, “More numerous than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause.”
So it’s against this dark background that we turn to the Gospel of Matthew. We read from the 3rd section of Matthew, where Jesus commissions the 12 apostles and prepares to send them out to heal, drive out unclean spirits, and proclaim the Kingdom of God. After all, “apostle” means “one who is sent.” Let’s look closely at this first commissioning.
It starts with “Fear no one.” In fact, Jesus says this 3 times in this one paragraph. I have been told that “Fear not” and “Do not be afraid” are commands that occur more than 300 times in the Bible; and it is a command, not some silly attempt at providing comfort – like the “Now, this won’t hurt a bit” that you might hear in the dentist’s office. The Lord is telling us not to let ourselves be afraid. We can’t afford to be scared. It just gets in the way of us doing whatever it is that we’re supposed to be doing. Fearlessness does not come from being patted on back. It means making a conscious decision not to indulge ourselves.
Everyone gets scared. It’s okay to feel scared. There are some mean dudes out there. But you can’t let it run your life. If you’ll just mind the Lord on this one thing, you won’t need any courage. Just mind Him in this: “Do not be afraid!”
Next Jesus advises the apostles (and us) about the freedom of preaching the Good News. There is nothing secretive or hidden about the announcement of the Kingdom of God. Of course, we must know and study the truth of Our Lord’s teachings. You are so fortunate to have Bishop Ron with you, because he is so attentive to teaching the Word. The truth Jesus taught can be preached from the housetops; it is timeless, besides, it brings hope into a world that is otherwise sad and scary.
The next verses can be accepted as truth from Jesus, because he showed us how to do it. The 2nd “do not be afraid” is about those who can kill the body but not the soul. Surely we can testify to the life of the soul of Jesus after crucifixion. The resurrection is our proof. Oddly enough then, Jesus tells us to fear the one who can destroy both the soul and the body in Gahanna/hell. But this is not “scary” fear – this is the “awe-some” fear that we have of God. The awe that leaves us with our mouth gaping, our eyes big, our mind overwhelmed and stunned at the immensity, the power, the authority, the knowledge, and so many other qualities we have no words for or the ability to grasp; the “fear-some” awe we should rightfully have for God and our desire to be in God’s kingdom.
Jesus gives us then a concrete example of why we should trust God with our very lives and souls, and claim the freedom to declare the Kingdom. Jesus describes God the Father as having such minute knowledge of his creation that he sees each tiny bird, a creature we would hardly assign any value. Jesus says (in his 3rd “do not be afraid”) that we, even when we feel our most vulnerable and insignificant, we are worth much more than many sparrows. Unlike the Psalm writer, who felt he had more enemies than he had hair, Jesus says God knows the count of the hairs on my head. (God must love us more as we age, since the counting is easier.) But we live in a world and a society that is quick to view some of God’s children as worthless throw-a-ways, and if we choose to be God’s people, we must remember our value, and the value of each life.
Finally, Jesus brings us to the importance of spreading the Good News and the Kingdom. By doing so, we are publicly acknowledging Jesus. To declare his teachings from the housetops, we must believe those teachings. When we publicly act out those teachings and are fearless by choice, we publicly acknowledge Jesus. When we stand up for vulnerable and fragile people, and treat them with love, we publicly acknowledge Jesus. Then Jesus will acknowledge us before God the Father.
So we have two examples of people from the Old Testament who lived out the commission of faith, suffering all kinds of abuse, but who never lost their faith in God’s goodness. Then we read how Jesus prepared his apostles for similar trials: to know and teach the Truth that Jesus taught; and to focus on the God who knows and loves us intimately instead of focusing on our fears. We live in times that could make us constantly fearful. Many people are suffering greatly around the world as battles of greed and power are being fought with no respect to the innocent. Religion is being used as a feeble cover for terrible and senseless violence. We can work ourselves into a frenzy of fear, or we can accept this commissioning along with the apostles. We can save our awe-filled fear for God alone and hold tight to the value God gives us. We can let go of our fear for the cowards who try to act vicious and instead do what we were commanded to do- that is to live our lives publicly in the light of truth and love.
It is a very real choice.
Today’s readings are about food, manna in the desert and Jesus’ flesh and blood as food for us. Our food we call the Eucharist or communion, that is we come together as a community to celebrate Christ’s life and passion and death and resurrection and are fed his body and blood. John tells us today that whoever eats Christ’s body and drinks his blood will have Christ in him and will be able to have eternal life. As manna was meant for the Israelites as a people escaping slavery and without food and a need to reconnect not only with God but also with each other as a community and nation bound together. This need of coming together and acting as a nation is a strong reason why they remained in the desert for forty years as they bonded their lives together and became once again God’s people. So it is for us, that Christ’s body and blood binds us to him not only individually as he comes to us, but also a community that is bound together to look out for each other and to bring Christ’s Word to the world. It is a principle act of the church which brings us together frequently so as to be prepared to live out and proclaim our faith and love to the world. As our body craves and needs food, so does our soul need Christ’s special food which keeps us ready for the journey that we walk together. And so in this special way, Christ is present and comes to us and remains with us as he has remained with the church throughout the ages. His love is ever-present and remains in us.
Pentecost Sunday is a day as important as Easter and Christmas. What we celebrate is the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jesus’ followers and his new church. Our readings today tell us this is so, but at the same time we see different traditions and renderings of it. John places it on Easter night itself with Jesus appearance that first evening. Luke places it 50 days later. What we do know is that the early followers saw Jesus after his Resurrection and that in those times Jesus brought or sent his Holy Spirit to his Church and to the people of it. Luke and John saw the Holy Spirit as a powerful force in the church and community and for its members. The enthusiasm of the disciples and the spread and growth of the community was something they clearly attributed to the Holy Spirit. Even today we see and experience the Holy Spirit in the church and in our parishes and communities. Christianity continues today not because men believe and work to keep it alive, but because the Holy Spirit keeps the Word alive. Humanity, unfortunately, has made a mess as we can see in the splits and divisions. Yet, in spite of that, Christ’s word continues to be present because his Spirit remains on the earth.
The real lesson today of the Holy Spirit is to be open, to listen, to follow the promptings given out of sincere prayer. Like Christ, the Spirit moves and prompts us to move on to the way forward to His Father. As the world moves on, the Spirit prompts us to move with it. Over centuries of difficult learning the church and humanity has gradually learned the need to be open and to grow with the times and the unfolding of the wonders of creation as we get to know them better. Christ said the Spirit would teach them everything they would need to know, but first we must be open and listen and discern what the Spirit is helping us to understand. It is the Spirit who brings us to Jesus’ path to the Father. Like any path, it needs to be fresh and clear and ready for travel. Jesus led the way, and the Spirit keeps it prepared for us.
We are all part of an age unaccustomed to waiting. We get instant news from the far ends of the earth and can even view it on television. Even a soldier today in Afghanistan can actually call home on the phone or even make a video call. This is far different from families at home in past wars waiting for the mail person with that letter with “free” written instead of a stamp from a loved one in a war zone. Today we get impatient in lines we meet everywhere, always being in a hurry to be someplace. Today our readings are Jesus’ farewell to his disciples and the return to his Father. Remember the Ascension is the very last part of the Easter event of Christ’s Passion, Death, Resurrection and return(Ascension) to His Father. They know they are to go out to the world and preach, but they have many questions and much unbounded enthusiasm. But, what does Jesus tell them? He tells them they must wait for the Baptism of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who will teach them and inform them of their mission and how to carry it out. It is the Spirit who is the Father’s gift to us that enables Christ’s church to continue, to keep alive his Word and work through the centuries. Yet, in all their enthusiasm, Jesus said wait, don’t do anything until the Spirit comes.
For us, I think there is a lesson to consider in what Jesus said in telling them to wait for the Spirit. Often times in our lives, things arise whether a crisis or some other situation or event that we need to pray over and consider. As Jesus told his disciples to wait a few days for his Spirit, it would certainly be good if we allowed time for prayer and the Spirit to help with our decision. The Spirit has been given to the Church and also to each of us to help and enable us to discern and continue to follow Christ in every time and century. The Spirit guides and helps the Church as it marches through the centuries, assisting as humanity itself grows in knowledge and advances hopefully to the age Christ has prepared for his followers. So, we need to live our life in the church with his Spirit, waiting for his return and our own ascension to the Father.