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June 28, 2020 is Pentecost 4A, Proper 8A, Ordinary 13A

Genesis 22:1-14 – God tests Abraham, by calling him to sacrifice his son Isaac.
Jeremiah 28:5-9 – Jeremiah’s response to the prophet Hananiah, who prophesied peace, and release of the captives from Babylon, and who took the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and broke it as a sign of how God would break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar’s oppression. Later, God responds: Not for 70 years!” (29:10)

Psalm 13 – For the Director of Music: How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me? But I trust in your unfailing love… I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18 – I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever. Blessed are those who rejoice in your name all day long… for you are their glory and strength.

Romans 6:12-23 – Do not be a slave to sin. The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Matthew 10:40-42 – HOSPITALITY. Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me… And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.

Prayer of the Day
O God, you direct our lives by your grace, and your words of justice and mercy reshape the world. Mold us into a people who welcome your word and serve one another, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a | holy nation,
in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his | marvelous light. Alleluia. (1 Peter 2:9)

Exile, Pilgrimage and Liminal Space

This text won’t make any sense to the congregation without considerable explanation. The story covers several chapters.

The prophet Hananiah tickled the people’s ears, telling them what they wanted to hear: that their exile would be over soon. King Nebuchadrezzar would release them from captivity in Babylon.

Jeremiah delivered the hard news: He said it would be several generations before they would be released. Prophets prophesy. Some are true prophets; others are false prophets. Only time will tell.

When they met in person, Jeremiah listened to Hananiah’s prophecy and responded, basically, “Well, I hope so. That would be nice.”

And the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak.

In the reading appointed for today (Jeremiah 28:5-9), we hear neither Hananiah’s prophecy (28:1-4) nor Jeremiah’s (29:4-9), which was basically, Get comfortable, you’re in for a long wait:

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

This time of pandemic feels like a kind of exile. We have been exiled from our routines, our church buildings, our community gatherings and much more. We long to return to the familiar, and so we are susceptible to the prophets who tell us it will all soon be over, and even now we can start returning to the past. Jeremiah would say, “Build a house in this new reality. Plant a garden. Marry and have children. Make a home in this new reality. You’re going to be here for a while.

Pastor Don Carlson, who helped with the preparation for this post,  preached a sermon based on a similar text from Isaiah, quoting from Embracing the Exile by John Fortunato.

Fortunato believes times of exile are threatening to faith because they expose what he calls The Great Myth under which many people live out their faith. When the realities of life attack “great myth,” faith is attacked too!  Here’s what he says:

The uneasiness of our human condition presses upon us. The anxiety just sits down there in the pit of our stomachs. We want it to go away, but how? 

We try to make it go away by telling ourselves, “We are in control; we are not helpless.” Then we take the anxiety we have denied and project it out into the world where we create a myth for ourselves to shore up our self-deception; and an elaborate myth it is.

We create a world of systems that we can manipulate and control to hide from ourselves the fact that we really control nothing.

We spend our lives nurturing our systems and making them work for us: economic systems, social systems, government systems, family systems, communication systems, defense systems, and medical systems.

The systems are unfair. They benefit some more than others. Nevertheless, they give us promotions to grub for, benefits to grab, ladders to climb, power to be gotten, and security to be secured.  And then we take out insurance on the whole thing: health insurance, life insurance, and deposit insurance.  We have pacts, treaties, service policies, and guarantees. There are backup systems, second teams, and alternate plans.  All in an effort to nail down our security and reinforce our myth of being in control.

The great myth demands some basic beliefs: I must believe I am in control. I must believe I am the center of the universe. I will be happy and blessed if I live right. Life is rational and reasonable. Evil is always punished. And, with Jesus in my heart, everything will be hunky dorry.

The myth demands that we put on blinders.  We aren’t allowed to look at reality that life’s a mixed bag over which we have little or no control and that the universe can be a very indifferent place to live.  Justice does not always triumph and evil is not always punished. Life is not always fair and nor does it always make sense. God’s will is not always done on earth as it is in heaven.

With our myths are smashed and our selves exposed, what do we do?  Some angrily ask, “Why did this have to happen?”  To which there is no sure answer, and even if was an answer, it wouldn’t change things. Some people try to insist that they have no fears, pains, or frustrations; while others decide to suffer through their exile; resigned, angry, resentful, and fearful every step of the way.  Fortunato, however, suggests an alternative.

Since avoiding it, fighting it, or suffering through it don’t seem to be very helpful ways of dealing with one’s exile, there seems to be only one way left to go: deeper! 

Exile isn’t negotiable so it might as well be embraced. Affirm it with your whole heart and soul! It may not make sense.  It may not seem fair or just. But, if embraced, it may become a God-given invitation to growth.  It may be turned into a blessing in disguise. It might just be an opportunity.

There is no way out of our exiles; there is only the way through; embracing life as it is, forsaking our myths of power, and simply letting God guide us through the wilderness.

Hananiah was myth-spinning; telling people what they wanted to hear.  God – and Jeremiah – would have none of it. “Settle in,” he said. “Embrace your exile and see what God will make of you in the midst of it all.” There is profound spiritual truth and Godly hope in that!

This might be a word for the many of us who struggle through chronic problems that won’t simply melt away. Those facing addiction. Those facing cancer. Those life changes that won’t magically improve. While God wishes no evil on us, we nevertheless find ourselves in the wilderness. It can be a learning experience.

Romans 6:12-23

Paul’s letter to the Romans deals with conflicts going on in the house churches of Rome.  (Picture is of Santa Marie Church, oldest titular church in the Trastevere section of Rome.)

Last week I laid out Ben Witherington III’s organization of Romans. John Dominic Crossan breaks the letter a bit differently:

  • Chapters 1-8 = unity of Gentiles and Jews
  • Chapters 9-11 = unity of Jews and Christians
  • Chapters 12-16 = unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians

Crossan defines some words:

  • Sin (not sins) = The sway of the empire and the normalizing influence of the world to bend and shape life according to power, privilege, and segregation.
  • Righteousness (justice) = Distribution, not retribution.
  • Justification (being made just) = Real-life transformation, not imputation.
  • Life in Christ (life together) = Participation with Christ, not substitution.

There are at least two places in Romans where Paul’s understanding and intent comes full bloom:

Do not be conformed [2nd person plural] to this world [age], but be transformed by the renewing of your minds [understanding, your way of thinking about things], so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect [τέλειον; complete – when things to reach their intended goal]. (12:2)

May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (15:5-7)

The second lesson will be from Romans for quite a number of weeks. (See my post from two weeks ago for the summer lessons-at-a-glance.) If you preach Romans this summer,  it will be helpful to dig into this letter and – setting Luther’s spiritual and existential crisis aside for the moment – get back into the world of Paul.

Matthew 10:40-42 

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 40“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

The gospel is a continuation from last week’s reading – 10:24-39.  Concerning that reading, Gulf Coast Synod Pastor Jim Giannantonio lifted up some comments from Warren Carter’s Matthew and the Margins.  Carter writes,

…Jesus’ words are a call to choose a way of life of marginalization, to identify with the nobodies like slaves, and with those some understood to be cursed by God. It is to identify with those who resist the empire’s control, who contest its version of reality, and who are vulnerable to its reprisals. It is to identify with a sign of the empire’s violent and humiliating attempt to dispose of those who threatened or challenged its interests. To so identify is not to endorse the symbol but to reframe its violence. As the end of the gospel indicates, it is to identify with a sign that ironically indicates the empire’s limits. The empire will do its worst in crucifying Jesus. But God raises Jesus from death, thwarting the empire’s efforts. And Jesus will return to establish God’s empire over all, including Rome (24:27-31 ). To not respond positively to such a call is to not be a disciple (not worthy of me; see 10:37).

Carter, Warren (2013-11-20). Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Bible and Liberation) (Kindle Locations 7534-7541). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

If, following the call of Jesus, we try to overturn or live contrary to the “normalizing influence of the world” (see above) we will run into a sword, not peace.  And so, we are back to the justice/righteousness and participation/transformation dynamic that we had in Romans.

A first thought: Jesus said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Instead of thinking about that in personal or individual terms, it’s helpful for congregations to consider what it might mean for their life together. How might a congregation find life by losing itself? Many congregations are struggling to save themselves. It is a fool’s quest. Jesus’ invitation is to give ourselves away for the life of the world.

A second thought: Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” In Thom and Joni Schultz’ book Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, the authors lift up four excuses people give, and how the church can counter them. It’s not quite that simple of course, but spoiler alert, here are the four acts of love they suggest:

Schultz, Thom; Schultz, Joani (2013-10-01). Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore: And How 4 Acts of Love Will Make Your Church Irresistible (Kindle Location 1126). Group Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

As congregations: Can we practice radical hospitality? Can we offer a cup of water in the name of Christ? Can we have fearless conversation?  Can we demonstrate genuine humility?  Can we live with divine anticipation; not knowing what God will do with our exile or anyone else’s, but trusting that God will bring life out of death?

“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes Him who sent me.” Jesus identifies “welcome” as a value of the reign of God. Is it a value for our faith communities?

One way to think about hospitality is creating safe communities. Is our neighborhood safe for newcomers? Immigrants? Is our congregation safe for newcomers? Immigrants? By “safe” we mean not just physically safe, but places where people are free to be who they are and live out their faith without being verbally attacked or pummeled by a host of verbal and non-verbal microaggressions. Creating truly safe communities is going to take a lot of work, but it emanates from the gospel itself: “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.”

One way to know is simply to look around. In these days of pandemic, that might mean scanning a screen filled with Zoom faces. Who is there? Who is not there? What segments of the community are conspicuously absent? Why are they not there? What might be going on?

Let us contemplate the welcome we ourselves have received in Christ, to understand the depth of love to which we ourselves are invited. Justice is love lived out in public. We are embraced with this love that will not let us go, and invited to extend that love to the world:

…and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.