Today’s readings represent a big change for Christ’s followers in how they look at life. Jewish life in Israel was very much a life born out of a culture of tribes and family and later small villages. Marriages were often between first cousins and always strangers and outsiders while reasonably treated were viewed with suspicion and remained apart. Without the familial connection, a person was alone, set apart. Yet, Jesus says today that his followers must deny family and friend and follow him. Family and familial relationships are to become secondary to following him. He is proposing a whole new way of life, one of giving and service and thus in life sharing in a relationship with God. It is a whole new concept of relationships. Paul goes even further today as he says we are baptised into Christ’s death and must ourselves die to the sin and evil of the world. Remember, baptism was full immersion in water and symbolized dying to this world and coming to new life symbolized when the newly baptised emerged from the water. In this new life we are called to relate to all whom we meet and to spread Christ’s word wherever we go and share our special relationship with God. Christ’s call is one that goes beyond a tribe or region or family. It is universal and needs to be shared everywhere. Through all this, Christ will share his love with us.
Gains or Loss?
Our Gospel reading is a continuation from last Sunday. Jesus is commissioning the apostles as they begin to minister. Jesus not only gives them authority, but he also prepares them with good advice and what we would call “full disclosure” of the hazards and dangers of the task. They are not to pack all kinds of supplies, but should accept the food and shelter offered to them. They are told not to fear, but instead trust in God’s care. Now, just 5 sentences remain in what Jesus has to say.
The first two sentences are conditions of discipleship. First, he says, “Whoever loves father or mother or son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” This would make an unlikely ad for a job opening. This was a particularly outrageous idea in the 1st century Middle-East. “Family” at that time meant extended family, all living together in the same compound. The idea spouse was a cousin. Should you turn your back on the family, all financial and emotional support was withdrawn, and you would lose any claim to the family land or the produce from that land. In short, you would find yourself homeless, without food, shelter, clothing, or love.
Now we better understand why he says his disciple must take up their cross; this discipleship will endanger their relationships, their future, and their lives. “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” suggests danger, while also promising rewards.
As I wrote this, I couldn’t help but think of thousands of people who have gone to war or signed on to high-stakes adventures hoping for rewards. Why did men rush to Alaska when gold was discovered? The possible monetary rewards somehow out shadowed the probable frostbite and death. Why do soldiers still become paid mercenaries, if not the reward of money, adrenaline rushes, and glory? What is the difference here between these people and the apostles?
Well, the apostles would sleep under trees, go hungry at times, depend on benefactors. Peter’s denial of Christ was based on having the kind of fame no one wants. Their material possessions would be minimal; they would endure ridicule. They would fear the collaboration of the Jewish leaders with the brutality of the Romans. But above all else, they believed Jesus to be the Messiah, who taught and led and healed like no one else. They witnessed his miracles, and innately sensed his authority, both of which were unquestionably divine in origin. They were seeking –not rewards- but the privilege of his presence.
The last three sentences of Jesus’ closing remarks to the apostles are about rewards. Oddly enough, it’s not about the rewards for being an apostle, but the rewards people would get for the hospitality and receptivity they offered the apostles. Matthew wrote, “If you receive a prophet as one who speaks for God, you will be given the same reward as a prophet.” To “receive” prophets is to listen to their teaching, to entertain them generously; and show them respect because they are faithful ministers of God.
What is the reward for doing this? The prophet may interpret the Bible to you, or share wisdom. Besides , there is God’s reward: a place in the kingdom of God, a reward of grace; since both prophet and host, in their own ways, serve the Lord.
A righteous person is kind and good, and you show respect to them purely because you recognize the Spirit of Christ within. And the reward? The righteous person will not fail to pray for you, to bless you, and share their faith with you. And both of you gain eternal life.
What about the cup of cold water? It seems a little thing. But think of the climate and geography of the Middle East. A cup of cold water even today can literally be the difference between life and death. Pope Francis recently wrote, “Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.” Put in such terms, it no longer seems a little thing.
But Pope Francis makes a good point, in that he brings Jesus’ teaching into the light of 2017. Perhaps you would want to explore how drinking water is provided to areas with none, and what agencies or foundations do this. That could be our national charity next year. We are accustomed to donating money as a way to share our faith and care for our needy. This is good; funding is crucial.
We cannot walk the ancient road of Judea with Jesus, but we can walk in Food cupboards, soup kitchens, recreation centers, ESL classes, in prisons, in nursing homes and hospitals. We can walk in our own neighborhood, especially as this church is so close to subsidized housing and struggling schools. We need to learn about the Muslim faith, and build relationships with the Muslim families we live near and work with. Nothing brings peace better than one-on-one friendships. This is the way we put Jesus ahead of bias and counteract the hatred and violence that puts the innocent on crosses.
We have two copies of this book*, which I highly recommend. It is easy reading, and answers a lot of questions about multi-faith interaction in a changing world. I would ask that you circulate these books so everyone has a chance to read it, and then maybe we can have an after-Mass discussion group after Labor Day. I don’t think Matthew was thinking about the 12 apostles when he wrote this teaching about discipleship. I think he was thinking about us.
*Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? (Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World) by Brian D. McLaren, 2012, Jericho books ISBN 978-1-4555-1395-6 (pbk)
Today’s gospel is about death and peace. Fear is the opposite of peace and Jesus is telling us that we should not be afraid of anything unless it can kill our soul. We know that if we believe in Christ and walk with him, we have life already and it will continue on even after death. With that life we should have peace and have confidence in God. Yet, I ask you as we live in this world, when everything is well and we are at peace, does it not seem that there is some kind of uneasiness or doubt that something could go wrong. In many ways this is true because we are still in a world and time that sin and evil are still around and we can be effected by it. However, God knows and watches and our faith ultimately prevails as long as we keep faith and weather any storm or hardship on the way. Jesus pointed out that the common sparrow or pigeon simply lighting on the earth is known by God. How much more is he not aware of his human creatures? So that Jesus is saying is that death is not to be feared for it is not an end in itself if we are truly men of faith and at peace, the true peace that knows God embraces us and awaits us as we finish our earthly journey. No matter what we face, it is a step or a moment to a final peace and union with God. All of us have seen loved ones go before us, and it is difficult to know why and understand. But let us all remember we are God’s creatures and we live in his time and in his kingdom. Certainly, we have questions and concerns at times, but his peace, his way is fully ours if we surrender ourselves and realize all our doubts and questions will be satisfied when we are fully embraced into his love at the end of our time.
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.