Year A — The Second Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 8)

Commentary for June 26, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Genesis 22:1-14
I’ve often wondered why God felt the need to “test” Abraham. I mean, geez, just take a gander back over everything that’s happened to him since God called him in chapter 12. What else does the man need to endure in order to demonstrate his faith in God’s plan?

Okay, there was that little white lie about Sarah being his sister, and the dalliance with Hagar that produced a  soon-to-be mortal enemy of Issac, the child of promise. But, other than that….

I suppose God doesn’t need a reason to allow a little testing in the lives of God’s people of faith; this story certainly sets the bar at the impossibly high level of willing sacrifice of one’s own child. The other thought I have often had when considering this story is that it would have been much more tolerable for Abraham to offer his own life than it must have been to consider placing Isaac on that altar.

There is the issue in this text of violence to children, and it seems awfully harsh to our 21st-century sensibilities. Certainly, I cannot justify a hermeneutic that would make such actions the norm or desirable for “faith-testing” in our day and time. I cannot speak for God on this one.

All I know is that Abraham trusted and God provided. Isaac survived, as did the promise of God.

Sacrifice and deliverance never dwelt more closely together than at the moment God’s command stayed Abraham’s hand on Moriah — that is, until the cry of the Christ at Calvary.

Psalm 13
“How long, O Lord?”

Countless lips have breathed the prayer, before and after the psalmist set this text. There are those moments in life that we feel that God has certainly forgotten about us — or, at the very least, that God is not paying attention!

With darkened eyes and shaken soul, it is still the song of our salvation that lifts from a trusting heart. Is it naive to remember the goodness of God from our past in hopes that God will hear our prayers yet again in our next time of trouble?

Naive, maybe; faithful — certainly.

Jeremiah 28:5-9
“Not so fast, my friend!”

Jeremiah throws down a bit of a gauntlet before his colleague, Hananiah, who was most likely trying to soothe some political feathers with his prophecy about Israel’s soon redemption from the oppression of Babylon. Jeremiah, fit with a wooden yoke about his neck, was all for Hananiah’s optimistic prediction.

But, he knew that there was a lot more to this prophetic gig than fancy words and popular remonstrations against an unpopular oppressor. In order to proclaim, “the word of the Lord, ” it is helpful for one to have actually gotten a word from the Lord!

Preachers, we had best take note.

Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Sometimes, it’s just good to know the secret handshake and be a part of the club. Verse 15 is one of my new favorites: “Happy are the people who know the festal shout, who walk, O LORD, in the light of your countenance….”

Romans 6:12-23
In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of “slave and master” language in the Bible. This is just one more bit of biblical anachronicity that tends to make us uncomfortable. But, in this instance, I think it’s worth it to try and get past our cultural misgivings in order to understand the power of the image.

We do tend to offer our allegiance to causes outside of ourselves, don’t we? We can become “slaves” to all sorts of things in life: our work, our play (are you ready for some football?), our desire for success or acceptance.

The Apostle here writes about our slavishness to sin, pretty much a done deal if you accept the theology that underlies the rest of Romans. We’re chained to a sinful lifestyle, and it ain’t pulling us nowhere but down!

In Christ, God offers us the chance to become slaves to righteousness. We “surrender” and “present” ourselves as “living sacrifices” (see Romans 5:1-2, a powerful image when coupled with the Isaac story, above.)

This slavery, however, has a much different result: not death, but instead the free gift of eternal life in Christ.

Matthew 10:40-42
Four sure-fire ways to reap a heavenly reward: 

  • offer a cup of cold water to a child (I suppose juice or even Kool-aid might do) 
  • welcome a righteous person
  • welcome a prophet
  • welcome the one who comes in Jesus’ name 

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Some things ought to be obvious, but apparently they’re not.  This is the reason we have government warning labels on everything.
I read one on a beer bottle once:  Consumption of large amounts of alcohol may impair judgement.
I was visiting an older parishioner once.  She asked me to help her sort her medicines.  On the side of her prescription sleeping pills I read; May cause drowsiness. 
Like I said, some things ought to be obvious.  Like the words of Jesus in our Gospel lesson; whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones . . .
Gee whiz, does Jesus think he has to tell us to be kind to little children?
Well, the alarming statistics about child abuse in this country would indicate that there are a large number of people who do indeed need to be warned and reminded about that.
And also, ordinary kindness and generosity to little children is only a part of what Jesus is getting at here.  There is a much more complex meaning in these three short verses.
The text comes at the end of a sequence in Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus has been preparing his disciples to go out into the world to preach the Kingdom.  He is telling them how to respond to the variety of ways their efforts will be received. 
When he says, whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me Jesus is drawing line from the disciples through himself to the creator God.  To welcome a disciple is the same as welcoming God into your home.  This is a twofold promise.
One the one hand it reminds the disciples to be humble about the reception they receive, for that welcome is not for them, it is for God.
On the other hand, it reminds them that they do not go out representing themselves and their own wisdom and power; they got out representing God.
We all need to remember this as we go about our business of being Christians, disciples of Jesus in the world.  It is not about us, it is about God.
Then in verse 41, Jesus drives the point home by reminding the disciples of the biblical stories of prophets and righteous person being received as a way of honoring God and serving God.
And in verse 42, He makes one of his classic reversals, turning things upside down and inside out; taking our expectations and rearranging them. 
Just as we’ve gotten used to the idea of honoring important people, like disciples and prophets and Lutheran pastors as a way of honoring God, Jesus switches to talking about children:  and whoever gives even a cup of water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple. –
See what he did? The disciples were feeling pretty good, thinking about being connected to the prophets and Jesus, and even God, and then the tables are turned and they are being compared to children.
The message of Jesus, the message of the Kingdom of God, the message that is the Gospel is a message of reversal, of upside down and sideways values, there those who are seen by the world to be on top are known to really be on the bottom, and those on the bottom are esteemed by God as the most important of all.
In this little text Jesus subtly moves the disciples through a sequence that leads them away from thinking about how important they are to thinking about how they can serve the least important people in the world in the name of Jesus.
A child can do no work, a child possesses no power with which to bestow favor, a child has no wisdom or prestige or significance to share.  To the ancient world, most children were nothing more than a nuisance, another mouth to feed, another brat under foot until they became old enough to work at the age of 5 or 6.
So when Jesus bestows upon them the same value as disciples and  prophets and righteous persons, indeed, if you follow the logic of the text, the same value as himself and God; when Jesus does this he has done an incredibly radical and unheard of thing.
And it is just this sort of radical and unheard of thing to which we modern day disciples and sent ones, 21st century prophets and persons who aspire to be righteous, have been called.
We have been called to go out in the name of Jesus Christ to share our stuff and God’s love with those whom the world rejects and turns its back on.
We have been called to give radical hospitality to illegal aliens and people who keep failing in life and to those unable to work and take care of themselves.
We have been called to look at people not with our own eyes but with the eyes of Christ.
We have been called to love the loveless, not with our cold and shriveled hearts, but with the heart of Christ which overflows with love for all.
We have been called to care for others whether they deserve it or not; because none of us is disciplined and righteous and prophetic enough to deserve the love of God; it has been given  to us as a gift, and we are called to give it to others free of charge and free of judgement.
Yes sisters and brothers, we have been called to the ministry of welcoming and receiving and giving and loving and the only question left is,
“How will we answer that call?”
Amen and amen.

4 thoughts on “Year A — The Second Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 8)

  1. I agree. But I have a person in my congregation who desparately feels the need to continue to enable someone's habit by giving them "water" time and time again. I'm struggling with how to preach this knowing that "the child" may be taking advantage of this woman, while also observing grace that is non-judgmental.

  2. K.T. well, not everything can be said in every sermon. Someone said all sermons are a little bit heretical because they center one one point to the exclusion of others. That said, being "non-judgmental," includes the judgment as to what is genuinely helpful to the other, a tricky but necessary decision. We don't judge who deserves God's love, but we do have to decide what action is loving in relation to particular others. And then we pray to God to fix our mistakes!

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