Faith and Anguish Will Meet

19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.

As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration.  Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans.  As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News.  Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people.  Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic.  It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation.  It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born.  While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.

Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people.  When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33).  He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah.  Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown.  It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols.  Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice.  The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect.  Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones.  Then he ran.

For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him.  Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains.  God asked him why he was in hiding.  Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God.  But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead.  I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.”  That is the voice of anguish.  God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain.  God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.

Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever.  They want God’s love and glory to return.  They imagine kindness and truth meeting.  When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet.  Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven.  Being holy people is difficult.

So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either.   Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party!  It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief.  But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food.  Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs.  Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.

Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake.  Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them.  They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt.  There it is again, “Do not be afraid.”  If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be.  As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.

What did we learn?

1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.

2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.

3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.

4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.

 

Lights, Sounds, Visions: Transfiguration

Transfiguration 8-6-17

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Ps: 97:1-2, 5-6, 9; 2 Peter 1:16-19; Matthew 17:1-9

In 2017, Americans are not ones to talk about visions. In fact, if someone even talks about a dream they had, it seems kind of odd.  We like scary books, we like science fiction, and we like our movies loaded with special effects.  But when we mention visions, or the mystical, or we mention a Saint who had visions, someone inevitably rolls their eyes or starts making woo-oo sounds, like a silly old ghost movie.

Our Gospel today has that one little word that I never really noticed before, and hadn’t really taken into account. The last sentence was Jesus saying, “Don’t tell the VISION to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I can’t think of ever hearing a homily that didn’t treat the Transfiguration as an actual event, the kind of thing you could calendar, google a map for. For sure, Matthew collected every bit of symbolism he could from traditional sources. Examples: the mountain (being higher up makes you closer to God- mountains are almost always the site of important theological events); brilliant lights and white garments (found in most near-death experiences); overshadowing cloud (protecting you from seeing God).  Of course, Moses is the symbol of the Law, while Elijah is the prophet of all prophets.  There are 3 apostles, symbol of the divine Trinity, and a repeat of the voice of God from when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.  Peter suggests 3 booths, or tents, to bring Jewish liturgy of the Feast of Tabernacles in to the mix, recalling the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.  You can find all this and more in Matthew 26:37, Exodus 24: 12-18, 1 Kings 19: 8-18, Daniel 10:6, Revelations 4 and 9, Leviticus 23: 39-42, Matthew 3: 17, Deuteronomy 18: 15, Daniel 10: 9-19, as well as in historic Jewish writings on the Last Days which were not included in the Old Testament.

I think it is crucial that we are able to accept that some religious experiences are not the same as “normal” every day life. Perfectly sane and stable people have visions, which are a way for the brain to interpret events and facts beyond their imagination in ways they can relate to.   It is really important to not expect that the Bible gives us a detailed video-style account in every passage.  The Gospel writers, like Matthew, had a purpose for writing – to record the oral history of Jesus as the eyewitnesses died out AND give us certainty for our faith.  The object as stated in our second reading, is to let us know that Jesus was not a “cleverly devised myth”, but real, and the Christian message is “altogether reliable.”

So our primary job is to determine the message the Gospel writer wants to give us. Just from the words used to describe the scene, I think it is fair to say that Matthew wants us to know that while Jesus was a humble itinerant Jewish preacher to his contemporaries, Jesus is also the Son of God; his teachings are divine wisdom, and his miracles are acts of God.  Also, since Matthew has placed the Transfiguration in between Jesus’ 1st and 2nd predictions of his suffering, death and resurrection, we need to take special care to view those events in the light of Jesus’ divinity and God’s plan for his people.

By extension, the crucifixion is not shameful, but instead becomes a divine gift and an entryway to holiness for all people who are fully aware of their sins, their un-retractable actions of hurt and pain to others, their crimes and failings. Crucifixion was supposed to put an end to the idea that the actions and teachings of this unique and charismatic teacher could be implemented.  Crucifixion was designed as a powerful barrier to following Jesus’ teachings.

But now all can draw strength and courage from his suffering and death. The Transfiguration would be that vision that would be forever burned in the memory of all as God-given proof of who Jesus was and what he had done for us.  Matthew presents it as the pivotal point of change in lives and attitudes.

Jesus, then, has foretold his resurrection, and dies making clear that death itself has been overcome. If Jesus had such confidence in God’s desire and ability to turn senseless violence and suffering into triumph, then why should anyone else fear to follow his footsteps?

The Transfiguration is so very much “not normal”; it is so very much designed to startle us and get our attention. It is like a gigantic heavenly spotlight, giving us light, sound, and visuals; we get a clear view of who Jesus is. It sets our understanding straight.  St. Peter’s letter makes a point of testifying to the power and coming of Jesus as real; His majesty and divinity are real.  Those moments of seeing Jesus in Glory were designed to provide confirmation, certainty, hope and proof.  God has the last word: Listen to him!

Cash, Kings and Kingdoms

17th Sunday Ordinary time, 7-30-17 , at a 1st Cmmunion

1 Kings 3:5-12;Psm: 119:57, 72, 76-77,27-128, 129-130; Romans 8:28-30; Matthew 13:44 -46

I’d like to ask you all a question. If you were walking down a sidewalk, and you saw a penny on that sidewalk, what would you do?  It’s just a penny, not even a shinny one, which really won’t buy anything.  How many of you would stop and pick it up, raise your hand?  Let’s go all the way with this.  What, instead of a penny, you saw a $100 bill, just there on the sidewalk, and people just walking around it.  How many of you would you pick it up?

What’s the difference between a penny and a $100 bill? They’re both money, but the bill is worth a lot more.  It has more value.  I can think of a lot of things I can get with a $100.  For a few minutes, anyway, it makes me feel kind of rich.  I could go to a fancy restaurant and get a lobster dinner, and even have desert!  I could buy new clothes, or a game.  Even after I had spent it all, I’d still feel like I’d had a really great day.

In our first reading, King Solomon dreamed about God asking him, if he could have anything he asked for, what would it be? Hmm, that could be a really hard choice.  What to ask for??  Solomon had an answer.  He said to God, “You made me a King over a big country, with lots of people.  I don’t know how to be a good king.  Make me wise, that’s what I want.  Help me know right from wrong, and help me understand how to make good decisions for all these people.”  Well, God was very happy with what Solomon asked for.  God replied, “I will make you so wise and so understanding, that there will never be anyone else as wise as you. And that’s not all –   I will make you rich and powerful, too, even though you didn’t ask for that.” Being wise is more valuable than money!

Then we have the stories that Jesus told about two men who found something very valuable. One man found buried treasure in a field, probably lots of gold.  Another man found a beautiful special pearl.  The men thought, “WOW!  What fantastic treasure and WOW!  There will never be another pearl as beautiful as this one.”  But they weren’t rich men, and they had to sell every single thing they owned to buy the field with the treasure and to buy the perfect pearl.

You might think that they would be sad to sell everything they had. But oh no, they were so happy, so filled with joy, they couldn’t stop smiling and they couldn’t stop yelling, “Yahoo.”

Why did Jesus tell these stories? Jesus started the stories by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…”  Jesus is giving us clues, hints, little ideas about God.  What is God’s kingdom like?  It’s a very good question to ask this special day when Tyler takes communion with us for the very first time, because taking communion is one way to start being part of God’s kingdom.  God’s kingdom isn’t a country, or a castle that we can drive to. We need to know more.

We know that being with God and learning to be more like God is very important, very valuable, more important and valuable than anything else we ever do or that we ever have. If you are wise like Solomon, you want to get to know God and love people like God does. You can’t buy the Kingdom of God, but God’s kingdom is so very much better than we can even imagine.  When we are in God’s kingdom, the Bible says, there will be no more sadness, no more crying, no more pain.  Being with God means being full of love and joy, for ourselves, for others, and for God.  Fear and worry will be forgotten.

But the part I like most about the Kingdom of Heaven is that it is already beginning.  The Kingdom of Heaven even now breaks through the bad times like sun breaks through the clouds after the rain.  How does the Kingdom come?  Well, we are part of it.  Remember that $100 dollar bill?  If you bought food with that $100 for people who were hungry and had no money, then you could show them a little bit of what God is like.  When you are kind to someone who is sad or scared, then they see a little bit of God.  When you pray to God about your needs and your problems, there’s more God.  When you read your Bible, more God.  As we love God more, we find God more valuable than any treasure, any pearl, or anything else.  We welcome you, Tyler, to be part of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

 

The Weed Problem

16th Sunday, 7-23-17

Wis 12:13, 16-19; Ps: 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16; Romans 8:26-27; Matt 13:24-44

 

It couldn’t wait any longer. My hair had grown out, and was on the verge of going completely wild.  It was time to go see my favorite stylist.  She’s in her thirties, rather conservative in her dress and behavior.  We don’t discuss religion or politics.  Somehow though, she slipped single sentence into our carefully benign conversation about her brother who was a heroin addict, and now in prison.  “We won’t go into that”, she said softly.

But suddenly, with great need to tell the story, she was sharing with me the details of her brother’s descent into darkness. Nice guy with the usual amount of youthful immortality and desire for a social group.  He was a highly trained and skillful pastry chef. Tried drugs along with most the other people he worked with.  Arrest. Rehab. Overdose…. 2nd Arrest…retraining to be away from the drug infestation in the food industry.  One semester away from a Master’s Degree.  Slipped.  Needed money, sold drugs, used drugs, arrested and convicted for his third felony drug charge.  Now he must attend classes every day for 18 months in prison.  Then be in impatient rehab for 3 years.  Then half-way house for 2 more years and find employment.  Then parole, never allowed a single bad drug test or one missed appointment.  Failure means a 25 year prison sentence – losing most of his adult life.

If Jesus was here today, he might tell this sad story instead of using an agricultural example of wheat and weeds. Weeds, Jesus said, were planted by the evil one.   Illegal drugs are, no pun intended, one of the weeds of our time.  When evil entered our world, the problem was not just with one woman and one man and one tree with apples on it.  The problem was that people began to disobey, to choose badly, to do what was wrong while still knowing and wanting what was right.  Drugs, those fiercely invasive and destructive weeds, make the apple incident look like forgetting to pay the electric bill on time and facing a small late charge.

Oddly enough, self monitoring has never worked well.  We ignore or excuse our own bad behavior and loudly proclaim and condemn the wrong others do. We spend billions on weapons and guns and rockets and ammunition to kill and destroy, and yet manage to find reasons, which I don’t quite get, why God should bless us for this.  Politicians and press of all stripes work to convince us who is an enemy and who is our friend.  Most of us, in return, say we have too little time to verify their statements and moan about our “helplessness” in changing things.

Maybe you have had the same experiences as I have. I watch the evening news or read a newspaper or an on-line news article and wonder.   I wish I could stop this insanity.  I wish I could stop Christianity from being an excuse or even a silent bystander to this evil.  I wish I could make my own little life clean and pure or even brave enough to make changes in my own little garden of weeds growing in my heart.  I would get right in there with a hoe, I would yank those weeds out so fast, that garden would be clean and I would plant good seed to feed the needy!  But that is not reality.  That is a fantasy that leads right back to where we started, for evil is still here, with weeds and drugs and lots of other bad things that look pretty desirable sometimes.

What does this parable suggest we do? Well, Jesus, like the wise man who sowed the wheat, seems amazingly patient with us weedy-garden-hearted people.  Don’t tear out the weeds, for if you do, you will damage the crop that you rely on for food.  Be gentle as possible with those who are struggling with evil. Start with yourself and forgive yourself for the times a little meanness comes out of your mouth, or a little greed seizes your check book.  Then move onto the addicts.  It takes money, it takes –dare I say it- health insurance to get help with addictions, it takes lots of dedicated practitioners, of which we have far too few.  It takes employers with zero tolerance for drugs in the work place but willingness to employ those who are rebuilding their lives.  It takes treatment facilities, maybe in our own neighborhoods.  In short it takes a commitment to focus on re-building a gentler world, and we need to love and forgive our selves and our churches and our society for pretending the causes of addiction can be fixed by just saying “no”.

Where to start? By proclaiming the love and faithfulness of God, the forgiveness of God? There is enormous power in the Gospel and the Christian story.  By the courage to realize our own wheat crops aren’t in very good shape, either?  By acknowledging that there is no us (holy) and them (evil)?  By admitting that judgmental assumptions are bad behavior?  If I read this Gospel correctly, the harvesters are God’s angels, and they will sort the good and the bad correctly.  Good news: we can take judging people off our to-do list!  Yes!

I learned a hard lesson once, many years ago.  I had a minor car accident, and was unable to get my car back on the road.  I had been ill, and I was coming back from a doctor’s appointment.   I was stuck and had no resources to help myself.  Who helped me?  A young immigrant man who spoke no English, who had no job, who I had seen loitering around a business of bad reputation- he helped me.  I would not have spoken to him in other circumstances.  For all I know, he was an angle, sent by God to open my eyes.  It made me think of Jesus, close to death on the cross, offering eternal life to the men on either side of him, who admitted to “deserving” their terrible death.  And I knew then that I too am capable of the bitingly sarcastic response of the one who jeered Jesus.

So, what’s the take-away? First, I am so very proud of everyone who has been part of the effort to supply food for the children at our local Elementary School.  I get tingles down my spine when I think of the extra effort the fine people of Holy Trinity made to supply treats for the end-of-school-celebration there in June.  I smile when I remember the gift cards you purchased to reward the children.  Well Done.  Those kids may live in weedy circumstances, and you offered them love without judgment.

Last, there are those who will never choose God, it would seem. I might be wrong about that.  I suspect I’m pretty blind to my own weedy-ness at times. But I think that most people would like to live good lives. I’m sure the power of Love is always and drastically underrated.  I am absolutely positive that God is always ready to forgive us for being weedy, either a little or a lot, and that Love, not Round-up herbicide, is the way of God.

Lessons from Creation

15th Sunday Ord Time, 7-16-17 Isaiah 55: 10-11, Ps 65, 10-14, Romans8:18-23, Matt13: 1-23

 

I first read today’s scriptures sitting at my desk, which overlooks a beautiful green open space, with trees and wild flowers, and chirping birds. It felt like heaven was close by.

Our 1st reading is from the 55th chapter of Isaiah.  I find these readings to have much more meaning if I read the whole chapter.  You might label this chapter “an invitation to grace”. God starts by offering water to the thirsty. Then God offers food to the hungry, those with no money to buy food, those facing starvation. Plentiful, rich food is offered, food which satisfies.  Next God says, “Come to me, that you may have life.”  The symbolism has faded away and we have arrived at the heart of the message.  Come to God for the food of mercy, for God is always ready to forgive. Isaiah says, “Like the heavens are far above the earth, so are God’s ways above our ways.”

We understand about rain freely coming down from the sky to water the earth; mercy rains on us in the same way. Anyone who has seen a drought understands the life-giving impact of rain, changing dried clumps of earth into a growing field and producing the crops that give food. In the creation story, God’s Word was the source of earth and sky and sea. Now God’s Word comes to us, comes to us like rain and gives us life. God’s wisdom grows in our hearts.

Our Psalm is a very similar message; it begins with praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy. We are overcome by our human failures; it is God who pardons them. It is God who set the mountains in place.  God sends the rain, makes the crops grow; God fills the meadows with flowers. We can do none of those things.

Many of us now are so removed from agriculture and food production that we can easily forget about all this. In our Gospel, Jesus taught people who lived fully at the mercy of the rain and the fields and the flocks. But like us, somehow they managed to hear but not listen and look but not see. They too refused to change, to listen to God’s Word, or to be healed with God’s wisdom.

Jesus described some people as the dry, hard packed dirt of a busy road, where the seed of God’s Word fell. The seed could not break thru to put down roots and grow, and the birds came and ate the seeds.

Other people were described as thin soil on rocky ground, where the seed sprouted but had too little nourishment to flourish. Such people have nothing to ground their lives; they pay any attention only to the crisis of the day. Still other people are described as thorny ground; they are worried about things they cannot control, and put all their efforts into gaining wealth and power, crowding out the seeds of virtue and wisdom. But those who treasure God’s Word, they are like good soil, will grow a large crop of blessings and have a full harvest of eternal life.  It’s a beautiful parable of possibility and choice.

St. Paul takes a different approach to the images of creation.  His goal is to instill hope in us.  He acknowledges that suffering is part of this life.  He speaks to those who are disheartened and discouraged.  He tells us that the worst suffering is a small price to pay for the glory of eternal life.  He understands failure, and shares our frustration with our inability to be the strong and faithful people we want to be.

Creation was put under human control by God, and therefore it fell from glory along with Adam & Eve when evil entered the world. Paul uses expressions like “subjected to futility, and “slavery to decay” to describe creation now.  But the entire creation, Paul wrote, has been groaning as if in the labor pains of “childbirth”.  We have the Holy Spirit as a “down payment” on our redemption, so we, along with creation, also groan as we wait for our final adoption as children of God.  The Spirit, too, Paul adds two verses later, “intercedes (for us) with inexpressible groanings.”  Paul makes our universe sound like a giant Labor & Delivery Unit!  Suffering, he says, is not a threat to our salvation, but a sign that “birth” is close at hand.  Our second birth, our “delivery” as believers comes in the form of resurrection.

This is a reminder that we live in a time of “already”, since Christ has already come. At the same time, we live in the time of “not yet” as we still await the return of Christ.  In 2nd Peter, we find this: “With the Lord 1 day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like 1 day. The Lord does not delay, but he is patient, not wishing that any should perish.”

So we found four lessons in creation; what do we do with them?

1. God rains down mercy and grace on us all.  With these two gifts, God will create new and eternal lives for us.  Since mercy is forgiveness, we must make amends then move on.  Grace is generosity and love for all, creating new paths after failure.  We accept grace and mercy; we offer grace and mercy to each other.

  1. God created a beautiful and fruitful world for us. God does what we can’t, and we should praise God for his goodness and the abundance he gives us. So, let’s take time to marvel in God’s power and the mysteries of nature. Take time to be thankful.
  2. We can be blind and deaf to God’s goodness. We must choose if we will receive that abundant goodness. The Word of God has immeasurable power in our lives, transforming power, available to all who nurture that Word which God sows freely. Bible study (reading God’s word), prayer (talking with God) and meditation (listening to God) change us.
  3. Hope and comfort is found in all that God created. Suffering and a sense of futility will pass. The Spirit is with us, and we will soon enough know the glorious freedom of being children of God. So, focus on what is right and good.  Spend your time on things that are positive, generous and loving.  Seek out God.

It occurred to me that if each day, we took time to focus on these 4 lessons, our lives would become more righteous. That isn’t just something that Saints do, but something that we all can  do.  It simply means that we develop a right and good relationship with God.  We become more closely aligned with God and our lives look and feel like we reflect God’s ways.  Let me challenge you with this: try for the next week to take a few moments at the beginning and end of each day to review these 4 lessons, and really act them out.  See what happens.

13th Sunday – Gain or Loss?

13th Sunday Ord time, 7-2-17; 2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a; Ps: 89:2-3, 16-19; Romans 6:3-4, 8-11; Matt 10:37-42

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)

Counting Hairs and Making Choices

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.