It’s the 4th Sunday after Pentecost and so far, since the since Pentecost, our gospel readings have challenged us to think about mission. Filled with the Holy Spirit, and now the question is: How do we move into the world to help bring about Christ’s kingdom?
The gospel stories from John and Matthew have been about the Great Commission and Jesus giving the disciples the power to heal and cast out demons and then sending the disciples out into a world with a message that threatens to divide friends and families.
This is our third week in Matthew’s tenth chapter, where we have been reminded to follow the apostles into the world, to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to move into the fields ready for harvest, and to pray for more workers. We have been warned that we will not be treated well on our mission and that it will create division even in our own homes.
Unlike Luke, Matthew makes no mention of the actual mission itself; we don’t know if the disciples went out
Or what their mission experience was.
Scholars believe the omission is to highlight Jesus’ speech as a direct address to the readers. We are included in the audience – left not so much with an historical report of what actually occurred in that ancient time, but with a description of ministry itself.
That description of ministry includes not just “doing” but “welcoming.” Jesus uses the word “welcome” six times in this brief passage of only three verses and points us to the importance of hospitality in furthering Jesus’ Kingdom. We are called to consider more deeply what it means to we a person of welcome.
Welcoming in this time of COVID is something that is quite fluid and starts to take on new meaning. When we think of welcome we think about the ways we greet those who come onto our campus or through the doors of the sanctuary. We would give them a lei and ask they leave their contact information on the visitors log. We would shake their hand and talk to them during and after the service inviting them to stay for refreshments and this is still a very valid and important form of welcoming. But now people are able to watch out livestream, they are, if you will, able to eavesdrop into our worship, and welcoming looks different and we don’t encounter strangers in the way we used to.
People check-in online and can participate in worship without having to identify themselves or even meeting a single person so it is harder for us to express welcome the “traditional” ways we have always done.
One of the outcomes of COVID and not having been in public worship is that the Church has been forced to leave the building. It just wasn’t possible for us to gather for worship as we are doing now and the Church has had to be more mobile, more flexible.
When we welcome people to Church we are not just welcoming strangers to this building, these pews and this altar; we are not just welcoming others to our Zoom channel or Face book page.. We have to reframe what it means to welcome.
When we look closely at verses 40-42, and remembering that our role in the mission is not only as those who are sent out but also as those who welcome and receive others along the way, we realize that acts of welcome can and ought to be practiced by us at any time, no matter what circumstances or crises we find ourselves in. We also come to realize that our welcoming does not need to consist of large, heroic acts. We can sit, listen, and pray with those call for justice in matters of race, gender, immigration, LGBT rights, and economics. Furthermore, any simple, basic acts of kindness we offer as genuine welcome for one another are all that God requires of us. We are not slaves to sin, Paul writes, we belong to Christ. And as followers of Jesus, we have been sent out to offer grace and healing and hope. All we need do is look around to see who is in need and try to do something about it.
A theology of hospitality reaches its fullest Christian expression in the final parable Jesus tells in Matthew’s gospel – the one known by most of us a as the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In that parable, Jesus reminds us that the way we treat those who are most vulnerable among us is, ultimately, representative of our response toward Jesus. Within the parable, Jesus refers to these vulnerable ones with whom he identifies as “the least.” Whether we are deemed righteous has a great deal to do with how hospitable we are toward one another, especially those who are most vulnerable among us. But more importantly, we are reminded that righteousness goes well beyond our relationship with God.
As people of faith, we are called to promote compassionate welcome that motivates us to trust, to be open, and to share. At the same time, we need to exercise caution to avoid manipulating others and seeking personal gain. We set out with good intentions to form caring relationships, yet when left to our own devices, we sometimes fall short of creating and sustaining the kind of relationships that help us to become the people God has called us to be. Often times, pride, ego, self-doubt, hopelessness, and other sentiments get in the way and keep us from truly connecting with each other, except in self-interested ways. We need God’s grace to help us with living into compassionate welcome with one another and extending genuine hospitality.
Members of early Christian communities were called “little ones,” and regardless of their origin, the disciples of Jesus were encouraged to identify themselves with the little ones in the world, who in turn, are called to serve other such little ones. Our efforts to welcome and love the little ones are important because Jesus sees it and receives it as worship. According to Jesus, there is no small gesture. A cup of cold water is the smallest of gifts – a gift that almost anyone can give. But a cup of cold water is precious to a person who is really thirsty – in some instances, the gift of life itself. When we love others, we love Jesus. In welcoming one another into our hearts, Jesus tells us that we are welcoming him— welcoming God into our hearts. It’s the old paradox, that it is in giving that you receive. It is in losing your life that you find it. It is in welcoming others that you experience Jesus’ welcome.
We are all called to be Christ to each other. Jesus sends us to share the Good News, alleviate human suffering, to meet real needs, to work miracles of love and healing through acts of kindness… cups of water. We are called to remember that we, too, are to go as people willing to receive those same acts of kindness. When we welcome one another, we discover the reward that comes from the deep hospitality found in God’s welcome of us.
Whoever gives you even a cup of cold water… will most definitely not lose their reward.
Let’s just be real for a moment. We are afraid. Without a doubt, no matter how well we articulate that our COVID measures and procedures are the lving thing to do – and they are- we are still afraid. WE are afraid because we are already seeing an uptick in Corona virus cases on our island. We are afraid because we don’t want to get sick or can’t afford to do so. We are afraid because our job has been affected which affects our income which affects everything.
And a little fear in the right amount and at the right time can keep us on our toes and protect us from danger. And so when it comes to fear, is there more pervasive or powerful force in the human experience?
From the moment we are born, we learn to fear the world around us, we are taught to fear the stranger, sometimes to fear even those who are closest to us. Our political leaders are good at making us feel afraid- afraid of what the other party will do; or will not do. Fear protests because it challenges long standing “norms.” Politicians have long recognized the power of fear in ensuring our conformity to the structures this world, even when doing so does not serve our best interests or the interests of society as a whole. Fear is the driving force behind vast segments of our economy as we open up and go back to business or to work.
Jesus understood fear. He saw that fear will also cause a failure of discipleship. Jesus’ disciples courageously leave the security of their homes and families to follow him as they proclaim the advent of God’s reign, but they, too, will know and ultimately bow before the power of fear. Faithful proclamation and practice of the gospel inevitably puts disciples on a collision course with the powers of this world.
So, as Jesus prepares his disciples for their mission to the “lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he is starkly realistic about the threats they will face, at the same time they should not let this fear master them or hinder their witness.
Jesus is real with them too. On the one hand, the disciples are granted remarkable powers to heal, exorcise demons, cleanse lepers, even to raise the dead. But he also denies them money, pay, extra clothes, a staff for protection, even sandals. They are to undertake their mission in complete vulnerability and dependence on God (10:8-11), even knowing that they go as “sheep in the midst of wolves,” face arrests and beatings, opposition even from family members, and hatred and persecution (10:16-23). Doing the work of God and following in the Way of the Cross is not for the faith of heart. The late Country Music legend Johnny Cash is credited with this quote though his language is reflective of his time but he is talking about both men AND women: “Christianity is not for sissies. It takes a real man to live for God- a lot more than to live for the devil.”
When it comes to us living into our baptism, Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat the dangers of the mission; he gives it to us straight: “Some folks will welcome the Good News, others won’t. Some will resist the message and the change that comes with it. And you’ll be the target of their resistance.” Then, like a good pastor, he reminds us that our Heavenly Father is both incredibly powerful –pronouncing judgments that yield life or death – and incredibly tender – noticing every sparrow that falls and counting every hair on our heads. By remembering the character and faithfulness of God, the we are reminded that we have what we need in order to endure- we have when we need to go beyond the fear, beyond the rejection. beyond the violence.
Jesus is showing us the twelve: who we truly are – children of God- children who are called by Jesus to follow him AND are sent by him out into the world. And just because we are chosen by Jesus to be messengers of the gospel doesn’t mean that we have a corner on God. Our Old Testament story of Ishmael is a not so sublte commentary on the ntions of choseness and election.
God’s love and care is not limited to us.
Now to you and me that may seem like such an obvious statement, but in the way issues of race have played out in the history of this nation, the claim has been made that God’s love and favor is reserved for a blessed few. Perhaps they have forgotten about the expressions of love in Prodigal Son, and in this Old Testament lesson. Even though Isaac is the brother through whom the Israelites will emerge, It is clear from our Scripture that God makes the same promise to them both. God also says that Ishmael will be the father of many nations. And even when Ismael and his mother are out in the desert- near certain death from lack of water- God will preserve them. Ishmael and Isaac both experience God’s presence and blessing. This story shows God’s grace working in and through a very divided family.
Returning to fear and the mission- it is probably the divided family that we fear the most when it comes to the gospel. We tend to idealize the nuclear family in our culture and thus, often idolize it. Many of us downplay family conflict. We are embarrassed by it. Admitting that our families are imperfect can feel sacrilegious. Not everyone had a “difficult childhood,” but enough do such that it seems to be a cultural norm, rather than an exception.
The peace that Jesus brings- the peace that we strive and long for causes division and incites resistance. This is not forever, but for now, in this in-between time when values of the “Old Self,” which Paul discusses in Romans, still have sway. We all have an Old Self – our sinful, fear-filled, greedy, prideful nature – and in our baptism we leave the Old Self left behind, crucified with Jesus on the cross. Then we are re-born, freed from sin into a new life.
I have no doubt that there were fears and apprehensions by the disciples as they were sent out into a new era. We have our fears and apprehensions as we engage in our Eucharistic celebration. We get wrapped up in the fears and can lose sight of what Jesus also says in this gospel:
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
Jesus is certainly not asking us to be reckless when it comes to our health and protecting ourselves and caring for one another as we gather together as a community. Like the disciples, we are sometimes sent out on risky missions, warned and equipped to face the danger. Other times, like Hagar and Ishmael, we are cast out into the wilderness without any choice. But even there, we discover God’s grace goes before us. Amen.
Last week young men and women from ‘‘Iolani, graduated. All over the state at high schools have sent off with great ceremony, in their own modified ways thousands of graduates. Marking for them a rite of passage and a new chapter in their lives.
And then they go off to college or the workforce. Many of these graduates will head off to schools on the continent, East Coast, West Coast and places in the middle some large schools, others much smaller. There they go, on to new places and experiences that God only knows. Their lives are filled with expectant hope.
We often talk of hope as wishful thinking, “I hope it will rain” or “ I hope the quarantine will be lifted and I can travel to the mainland again. But Paul introduces a different context of hope in his letter to the Romans. For Paul, hope isn't wishful thinking but certainly on the about a future because it is grounded in God’s faithfulness. In other words, what God WILL do is grounded in what God HAS DONE.
Abraham's Story in Genesis is long but the fun short version is this:- God has promised Abraham in establishing a covenant, that he will be the father of nations. And despite the years, he and Sarah have not had any children. He is in his 90’s she in her 80’s well past the age when biology tells us we should be able to bear children. The travelers arrive and in according to the custom of the time, Abraham offered them the hospitality of his home.
The three that show up in Abraham’s neck of the woods, however, are no ordinary guests. And while the reader is aware of this—being told at the beginning of the narrative that “The Lord appeared to Abraham”—it is not clear that Abraham knows the identity of his guests. Finally, in verse 13, the strangers reveal that they have mysteriously “overheard” Sarah laughing to herself from inside the tent, even though from where they are standing, this would be humanly impossible.
But it is not until verse 14 with the comment, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” that whatever suspicions Abraham may have had about the identity of his guests are fully confirmed. These guests don’t operate by the rules of the natural world. What is humanly impossible, given Sarah’s stage in life, is possible with God. And that is the big take away from Genesis this morning. No matter the conditions we think exist in our present time the impossible can happen.
Else where in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that we will hear of wars and rumors of wars and to not be afraid, for God is present. the world in which we live has that and more. COVID 19 has seriously changed our world and the way in which we live. As if that alone is not enough, the events of last two weeks in North America have been a rude awakening. The mythology of America as the land of the free and the home of brave has been laid bare. Hawai‘i is no exception despite being the Aloha State that to deny that there isn’t racism in paradise would be a sin. The United States where, as it says in our founding documents says that all are created equal and are endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights, has revealed its darker side. We see the politics of greed, practices of fear mongering, and empty promises to the poor resulting in the imbalances in health care, education, and employment.
Politicians, the police, all those in power, wear the clothes of Christian faith, they are like wolves dressed in the name of the Lord. They wave a Bible in the name of politics, try to seduce the flock because they say the things other wolves want to hear. The powerful say they want to make life better and more prosperous, behind their talk is a system that plunders the poor the indigenous, and the earth, treating women and children as objects; creating embedded systems that paint a white ceiling above the efforts of people of color.
In the 6th month of the third decade of the 21st century, the conditions compared to the ancient time of Jesus have changed only in the level of sophistication. For those early disciples, the times under Roman rule were no less oppressive. There were struggles for power- from the Romans and from the Jewish authorities. From the gospel stories of the poor, the outcast, and the women who crossed the path of the Jesus and the disciples we see their struggle for recognition and daily living.
I wonder if that was what it was like for these disciples being sent out by Jesus? Last week’s gospel was the great Commission: go and make disciples of all nations. Today the scene recorded in Matthew’s gospel, before the resurrection, makes it very clear that the places to which the disciples go are among the wolves that are not out among the Gentiles.
Here Jesus is saying that among the children of Israel, among the people of God, among our tribe, are those who are lost. The followers of Jesus bear witness to the risen Christ not to the strangers in a strange land but to our much closer relations.
As followers of Jesus, we are a peculiar people. Like Abraham who heard the voice of God, we too hear and obey God’s commands. Not everyone who hears them obeys but we can. Not everyone that suffers - endures, but we can. And not every one who endures has the character of Christ- but we can. We can endure with a character as Paul says, that produces hope because God’s love has been poured into us by the Holy Spirit.
And it is with that hope that we carry on. And like the disciples we have been summoned by God to work in the fields. The work is plentiful. The work is difficult. The work is necessary. In every city, In every village. We go among the sick and diseased, the harassed and the helpless never knowing who might be ready for a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
It is difficult to ignore that these are chaotic days. And in the chaos, it only takes a bit of silence to capture our attention. The Prince of Peace has come. And he is sending us into the chaos. And Jesus knows not every house will receive us. Go anyway. He says that there will be trials, and we will be brought before those in power so be wise while remaining calm. We can also expect that those who claim to be among our ranks will be the very ones who ignore God’s voice.
We will be hated. Not because of our race, our gender identity, our employment or political affiliation. We will be hated because you practice the self-denying, radical non-violence of a vulnerable God.
We follow the One whose steadfast love endures. Forever. Because Christ died for us, while we were yet sinners. And this, this is the chaotic world into which God continues to send Spirit-filled agents in the name of Jesus. If we do the transforming work that heals, restores, and reconciles, our labor will not be in vain. Amen.
To say we have a lot going on on this Sunday is an understatement. I’ve been thinking about what to say on this Trinity Sunday as we return to public worship while in the midst of a global pandemic all the while our islands and our nation is in the grips of a reckoning on the issues of race following the murder of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis Police officer.
His death has sparked peaceful protests in many cities including Honolulu where upwards of marched on Friday and Saturday with signs that read Black Lives Matter, chants of “No Justice no Peace”, and calling for reform in police practices. Without a doubt we find our selves in the midst of history- a defining moment from which we and our children and grand children will mark in their lives. There was a time before COVID when we sat were we liked, hugged, shook hands, ate at any restaurant, traveled with relative ease and impunity. There were no masks to hide our smiles or quarantine when we wanted to visit family, friends, or to take a vacation. In a relative instant, it seems, life has changed and now I am speaking to you from behind a mask and a face shield and there is tape on the floor at 6 foot intervals. We wait in lines to enter stores because of something called social distancing and the list goes on and on. How can we even begin to think of any talk about the Great Triune God?
And yet- the God Triune, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is most relevant in this very time of struggle and strife, pestilence and protest, even in riot and rebellion. very One we pray to and is the one who in our gospel tells us “I will be with you until the end of the age.”
Trinity Sunday invites us into the life and transformative power of a God who is one the move since the very moments of creation and into the here and now.
We hear the story of creation itself. Of the way the Spirit moved over the waters of creation; of the way the creator spoke, “let there be…” and that all that was created was declared good”. Of the way the triune Creator said, “Let us make human kind in our image.” And then how you and I inherit in our bodies the very breath of God- the Holy Spirit that gives us life. Which is why when the sin of racism strikes blind the fact that, regardless of the amount of melanin in our skin we are all children of God, and disregards the dignity inalienable to our brothers and sisters and to every one of us, or denies them the very right to breath itself- it should offend and horrify us.
Sure we can look up in the history books for the thoughts of ancient scholars and saints on the finer points of hypostasis (being) and ousias (essence) from the Cappadocian Fathers, but we must not forget that even this early and ancient thinking on the nature of the Trinity originates in the human experience. I came- and still comes- from live encounters with a God who shows up in, among, and always for the sake of humanity.
Matt Skinner, a Biblical commentator said,
If our theology cannot speak directly to the real, lived experience of people and if our theology cannot clearly amplify God’s declaration of human dignity and cannot boldly magnify the love of God, a love committed to be among those who live with dignity denied and love withheld, we need to rebuild it.
The word Trinity never appears in the Bible. Yet, in passages like our reading from the Great Commission in Matthew’s Gospel, we read of baptizing new followers of Jesus in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We read a different Trinitarian formulation in Second Corinthians, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
We find that the Christians were less concerned about doctrinal formulation than in following the way of Jesus. They patterned their daily lives in prayer and fasting, in service to others, and gathering for worship. Into that community, they baptized new followers using that same Trinitarian formula. In time, they came to think through what it meant to speak of a God who is both one and three.
The image and understanding of the Trinity is an image and understanding of God that is more than we can wrap our minds around. Yet the Trinity is not a mystery in the sense of a puzzle we cannot solve. The Trinity is a mystery in that we see and LIVE n our experience of God the truth of it, but there is more than we can fully comprehend. We can and do know of God from God by the reading and revelation of scripture, from the way God is revealed in the nature, and in and through that most perfect revelation of God- Jesus Christ.
It is Jesus then that tells us to Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself. In other words, we were created to love- to love upwards to God and outward toward humankind. That web of relationships is interconnected- Loving God more fully helps us to love others more fully and loving people more fully means seeing them as GOD sees them and so loving people can draw us to back to God. Round and round it goes.
In the final words of Jesus in our gospel today is this great commission to go make disciples of all nations, baptize, AND teach all that he has commanded us. St. Timothy’s as congregation takes to heart Jesus’ words in our own mission statement “bring the Lord to others and bring others to the Lord.” We are to take the love of God out into the world; we are witnesses to the very love of God. In our baptismal service we say we are filled by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. As the Church, St. Paul teaches us that we are the Body of Christ. We can see through the tens of thousands of voices that have turned out calling for a systemic, national metanoia on racism the creative and renewing force at work desiring to make real the values of the kingdom of God where, swords will become plowshares, and spears become pruning hooks (Isaiah), where justice will flow like a river (Amos), where we will do what is right, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah).
My point dear friends is that the Trinity is not some far off, distant, unknowable thing. The Trinity is not a God who sits up there in heaven and allows all the terrible things to happen in the world like a Wizard of Oz behind a mysterious curtain. Such a god is not the God who became flesh and walked this earth; who poured himself out completely on the cross of Jesus Christ.
God is not distant- God is social. Love cannot be distant. It draws us together and has us continuing to care for each other through the measures you see and experience here in church. Love must be present and continue to reveal the true nature of God.
The Trinity, at its heart, is a way of pointing to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the new life that comes from this. In doing so we are saying that is what God is most truly like.
The Love that moves the sun and the other stars is the same love that poured itself out in the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. It is the same love that created us in God’s own image
And if we are created in the image and likeness of God, then we are to find our true selves not in being aloof and alone and apart and above it all, but rather present here and now beign the community that hears the salvation story and how God is acting in history and continues to act in our lives as we recognize that all created in God’s image; that we live the resurrected life of the risen Christ and be the welcoming and inclusive community that Jesus calls us to; that we who are empowered by the Holy Spirit in baptism - live boldly to proclaim the good news of God dream for us and for this world bear the marks of the Trinity itself in the giving of ourselves in love.
(May the grace of our lord Lord Jesus Christ…)
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of god and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all now and forever. Amen.
The Rev. Daniel L. Leatherman is priest in charge of St. Timothy's Episcopal Church.