The Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, 2017 – Matthew 9:35-10:8
In the great sweep of the Christian year, Easter moved into Pentecost Sunday, with its celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. Then Pentecost opens up to Trinity Sunday – last week. Trinity Sunday announces God’s life as Father, Son, and Spirit, something the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus displays. What now? Now comes the “rest” of the Christian year until we begin again in Advent (December 3, 2017). This long period, from early summer to late Fall as it were, is often called “ordinary time”, the “season after Pentecost”, and our Scripture readings during this season focus on the life and teachings of Israel and Jesus and, by association, on the ongoing life of the church, our lives, our service as disciples. We’re entering a season in which to deepen our lives as the followers of Christ.
Today, on the first Sunday of this “ordinary” season, our Gospel reading sets us on our path: Jesus sends out the apostles to do his work. That is, he sends out the church, broadly; and quite specifically, Jesus sends us out. We have work to do that he gives us, work in our lives, in our contexts, in our world. It’s standard to say this, of course. But it’s hard, in practice, to figure it out: we are not apostles, after all, going about from town to town preaching. We have families, jobs, projects, concerns, health issues, worries. “Every one has a ministry” sounds good; but why would that actually be the case, given all we have to do just to be normal people? More than that, the very notion of a “Christian” ministry doesn’t fit the vastness of our, to be honest, non-Christian lives, with all their compelling demands. It’s not surprising the Christian ministry tends to be specialized, taken up by a few who have both the time, focus, and peculiar (perhaps even somewhat aberrant) passions for preaching, teaching, talking about Jesus, worrying about religious practices and beliefs. Yet, we are told rightly by Scripture and Church: you have a ministry.
So, what is the basis for our common ministry – yours, quite frankly, and not just mine as a priest? The answer is actually simple. It is this:
Everything we do – everything – is bound up with the very presence of God – God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Our daily life, our family members and encounters, our work, our bodies, the whole landscape of our lives, from birth to death, every minute and second of existence: it’s all bound up with God, utterly and inescapably. Hence, to fail to be a minister, to fail to serve and announce and engage God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit, is to forget who we are and in a real way to deny the truth of everything, ourselves and others around us most immediately.
Let me try to tease this out a bit. Somewhere after I became a Christian when I was 14, someone told me: always give money to beggars. Always. Of course, Jesus says that: “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you” (Mat. 5:42; cf. Lk 6:30). I grew up in Berkeley, California at a time when the city was covered with drug uses, drifters, hippies and the rest. There were beggars on every street. Like the homeless of Toronto today, multiplied several fold. And people would – rightly, I guess – point out that half of these folk would likely spend the money you gave them on drugs or drink or what have you. To offer them money was a waste. Yet I was told, as a Christian: give to every beggar, because that beggar, for all you know, is Jesus himself, come to meet you in the flesh. The idea goes back to St Francis, and before him to St Martin of Tours – who give things to beggars who then turned out to be the Lord. And, of course, it goes back even further to the words of Jesus himself:
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Mat 25:37-40 RSV).
You did it to me. It’s a claim made throughout the Bible in fact.
You don’t know who it is you are really talking to, or encountering, or helping. It could be God himself, for all you know.
So, in Genesis today,
“And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on–since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” (Gen. 18:1-5)
These three strangers whom Abraham welcomes and serves – three of them – are in fact “the Lord”, we are told, something repeated in v. 13 and afterwards. God has met Abraham, face to face in this form. The Letter to the Hebrews says this quite explicitly: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Heb. 13:2) So: all around us, today, in this person or that: God. Our life itself.
In this morning’s Gospel, we hear that “When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt. 9:36) Were they really “without a shepherd”, these lost and helpless crowds of people, so much like ourselves? Hardly! For there he was! And, like those who later asked, “when did we see you hungry or a stranger or in prison?” – and one might also add, “when did we see you as our Shepherd?” – Jesus’ answer might well be, “when the least of these came before you, there I was in the midst of you”. Always there.
Now, I am hardly trying to say that “everyone we meet is God”. We are not God. But everywhere we go, in every corner, there is God waiting for us, speaking, asking, perhaps even demanding.
As the poet George Herbert wrote – and which we sometimes sing in a hymn in our hymnal: “Teach me, my God and King, in all things thee to see; and what I do in anything to do it as for thee.” Let me just say two things here – because I am not talking metaphorically, or allusively – I’m taking about reality. First, we do not know who we are, or what a human being “really” is: we live with our own thoughts and feelings, but we cannot get into anybody else’s body or brain, let alone heart. We know – though we don’t like to think about it — that human beings are born and then die and disappear into the dust. “What is man that thou art mindful of him? The son of man that thou dost care for him?”, the Psalmist asks (Ps. 8:4). Yet we have the highest thoughts, the deepest sorrows, the broadest yearnings, and brightest hopes.
Who are we? We are mysteries to ourselves and to each other. Made by God, yet we do not understand what this constitutes. When I see you, or someone on the subway, just who am I really seeing? If Abraham sees three men come to him, and they turn out to be the angels of God, the Lord himself somehow – somehow! – why should this surprise us?
We know so little of what it means to live in this world, given to us, and us to it, by the Lord himself! Let the theoretical physicists write their equations: we will not get beyond this.
And what shall then we say of God? No more – or less – than the great words of Psalm 139:
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. … How precious to me are thy thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18 If I would count them, they are more than the sand. When I awake, I am still with thee (Ps. 139:7-10, 17-18).
The conclusion is simple and awesome and mysterious and inevitable: “the LORD your God is in the midst of you” (Deut. 7:21; cf. Ps. 46:5; Lk. 17:21).
We are not God. Yet every place we go and every encounter in the mystery of this world and universe we have is a place that is God’s and an encounter with God. God in Christ. Jesus. The truth of all things.
We can call this an “enchanted” view of the world – a rather pejorative phrase that implies magic and superstition. Bumping up with angels, with beggars who are really Jesus clothed in rags and smells, with the Lord masquerading as our neighbor. But let us take the phrase in a more benign sense: enchantment means “singing into” a thing, God “singing” the world, God’s supple lines of presence and truth weaving themselves into every aspect of our lives. God is present in our lives not in a dully limited way, sporadic, here and there, when I manage to think about it because I am in either a good or horrible mood.
God is “in the midst of us”, because God touches everything we are and everything we touch – nothing too little, nothing too insignificant – no person, to place, no corner not indwelt by the Lord who has made heaven and earth.
Jesus looks at the crowds – that is us, my friends. And they seem to him to be like “sheep without a shepherd”. So our lives do in fact seem. I try to pray as I walk my 3 miles to school every day. But in fact, those 50 minutes are quickly dragged into my concerns and anxieties, my plans for the day, my duties and deliberations. Where has God gone? They say that we spend a 3rd of our lives sleeping. And probably, then, we spend less than 1 % of our lives aware even of God. So, as James writes in his letter, “do you suppose it is in vain that the scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us”? (James 4:5). God “yearns” for us in our forgetfulness and willful isolation. He comes to us in Christ Jesus, searching for us, calling us, shaking us, taking us by the hand – always and everywhere. The harvest is plentiful, Jesus tells his disciples (Mt. 9:37). That is: everyone is searching, everyone thirsts, everyone yearns in their own way to respond to the yearning of God. And God is, in fact, in the midst of us.
To be a disciple — you and I — is to recognize the truth of God-in-the-midst-of-us that is Jesus Christ, and to let that truth order our lives.
I became a Christian because, I suppose, one after another disciple shared that ordering with me, in one way or another: by giving me to drink, as it were, from their own hope in Christ – oh how many times I have needed that!; disciples did it by praying with me (I can tell you about it); by bringing me to church, literally, sitting beside me there and singing with me; by reading the bible with me, so that its words of truth and beauty could actually be heard; by speaking of the wonder of God to me in some fashion; by asking me to pray for them, and support their own flagging spirits. I became a Christian, that is, because people like you were ministers, in the midst of a “plentiful harvest” that is God’s allness in the midst of our lostness. And it was all grace, my friends, to have such people in my life. “Freely you have received, so freely give” (Mt. 10:8), Jesus tells his disciples today – that is, you and me. Literally, “you received it as a gift, give it away as a gift” – this gift which is the God-in-our-midst, the always-Shepherd, the Lord we meet when we give the gift of his life to everyone we meet.
There is lots to talk about in the weeks to come. This life we live right now, represented by this season of the Church’s year of “ordinary time” – this life is the season of our gift-giving to one another, to the world, of God’s coming into our midst in Christ Jesus. Every person, every act, every work, every moment: let us offer them our hope, let us announce the Lord to them in the gentleness of our faith, so that, in words of another hymn of George Herbert, we can “Let all the world in every corner sing, my God and King!”