Sunday, June 15, 2008

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 19:2-8a
Psalm 100
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8 [9-23]

But when they deliver you up, be not anxious how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak.

Sunday, June 15th is the secular U.S. holiday honoring fathers. I’ve always joked that it is a useless holiday since every day is Father’s Day around our house. It was created as a compliment to Mother’s Day and is meant to celebrate fatherhood, not only the fathers of our flesh but also our forefathers. Many other countries also celebrate Father’s Day on the third Sunday in June, while some countries have set aside other days to be special for Dad. It seems like we’ve been celebrating Father’s Day for as long as I can remember, but it was not officially recognized until 1972. The first celebrations happened early in the twentieth century, perhaps inspired by the celebrations honoring mothers. Like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day was first celebrated in a church.

The timing of the lectionary is sometimes very odd, and we see that today in part of the Gospel lesson. In the optional text, Jesus says, “And brother shall deliver up brother to death, and the father his child: and children shall rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death.” So, on this day when we honor our fathers, we are also reminded of the difficult task we have in sharing the Gospel with the world. Our faith and the work we do in faith can be the cause of family disagreements, as fathers or brothers do not agree or approve of our religious choices. In the ancient societies, the family was the most important institution. It was the primary relationship for people and loyalty was expected in every aspect of life. Even marriage was decided by parents. A child did not choose a different lifestyle or believe in a different God. Jesus’ expectation that the disciples would reject the family to follow Him, thus becoming part of a new family, was radical and dishonorable.

It would be no surprise then that the families of believers might turn their children or siblings or parents in to the synagogue. They would not do it out of spite, but out of love. It is like the father today who will practice tough love for a child that is addicted to drugs. Tough love saves a person from wrong choices, restores a person to the family that cares. Jesus established a new familiar relationship, but in doing so called His followers to turn against the most important network in their lives.

As important as our families are, however, there is a greater Father to whom we owe our loyalty. He is the one calling us to service, to witness and to ministry. He is the one who has gifted us to do so His work in this world. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus sends out the twelve apostles on their first missionary adventure. The disciples were new at doing this work. It was a training mission, a time to test their power and prove that the authority of God was passed on to them.

These disciples were sent into the world not only with the power to heal, but also the authority. There is a difference, although they seem to be very much the same. Power is the ability to achieve certain ends. We can see the difference in the life of Matthew. There must have been something special about Matthew that he had the power to collect taxes. The job was like any other—he probably had to interview and prove his worth to the government that hired him. He had to accomplish the task, not only receiving the taxes due but also managing to squeeze out enough money to earn his own living. He had power, the ability to do the job, but he could not have done it on his own. I doubt the Roman government would have stood for a guy collecting taxes without the authority, especially since a freelance publican is not likely to share his take with the government.

Matthew not only had the power to collect taxes, he had the authority to do so. The Roman government gave Matthew the right to exercise his power. Roman authority made his claim of vocation legitimate. The disciples not only had the power to heal the sick and cast out unclean spirits, they also had the authority. Jesus’ authority was given directly from God. Jesus passed that authority to His apostles.

The twelve apostles would never be enough to continue the work of Jesus Christ in the world. The mission on which Jesus sent them was just the beginning. They were just learning how to be His messengers, how to use the power and how to handle the authority. They had a great deal to learn and Jesus would spend years teaching them. For that moment, however, it was just twelve men going out into the world to share the Kingdom of God with others. Jesus said, “Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send forth laborers into his harvest.” Even today we need more people to share in the work of Christ. The world gets bigger even as it gets smaller. There are more and more opportunities to take the Gospel to others, and never enough laborers. It isn’t an easy task, but God gives all that is necessary. Then He calls us, as He called the apostles, to share freely all that He has given.

Jesus sent the disciples into the world with nothing. They weren’t to take extra money or clothing, not even an extra set of shoes. The apostles were commanded to enjoy the hospitality of the people in the towns they were visiting, staying in one place for a time so that they could meet and teach the villagers. I know people have traveled this way for thousands of years, but I can’t imagine not knowing where I will sleep or find a meal on my journey. They didn’t have a LaQuinta or a Denny’s where they could stop when they were tired and hungry. They had to rely on the hospitality of the people. Sometimes the people did not welcome them.

The apostles were not to force themselves on the people. If they were not welcomed, they were not to stay. Jesus said, “Shake off the dust of your feet.” Then He told them the consequences of rejection. “It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.” This does not seem very merciful. However, we have to remember that this was a training mission. The disciples, though gifted and authorized, were inexperienced. How could they convince people when they were not yet really convinced of everything Jesus would teach them? Unfortunately, those who reject the disciples might not have the chance to hear the good news again, and so the consequence of their rejection was a day of judgment against them.

The work would not be easy. Jesus said, “I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Some people will not only reject them, some might even threaten them for the things they would do and say. The crowds were often afraid after Jesus; miracles. When He sent the demons into the pigs, the crowds begged Him to leave them alone. Jesus was able to get through those tough times. The disciples might not have been so lucky. It was better for them to leave the places where people rejected them than to face spiritual, emotional and physical harm. Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.” They were not being sent into the world to be hard or harsh. Wisdom in this case meant leaving unbelievers behind.

Though the work they were being called to do was difficult, Jesus reminded them the source of their power and their authority. “Be not anxious how or what ye shall speak for it shall be given you in that hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father that speaketh in you.” Sharing the Kingdom of God is not something we can do by our own power. It is His power that brings healing and restoration. He approves those whom He calls and gives them (us) the authority to do the work. He speaks through us. The word that saves is His. When we face those tough times, we need not worry for God is with us.

The apostles were taking a message of hope into the world. The people to whom they were taking that message were probably not very hopeful. They were an oppressed nation, oppressed not only by the Roman government that ordered their secular lives, but also the religious government that were merely puppets to Rome. The Law was a burden they could not carry and they saw the leaders who should be their examples living self-righteously without mercy or grace. They had no control over their lives and they had no hope for tomorrow. They were relying on the things that fail—human beings, human rules, human government—and they had lost touch with the God who gives a hope that does not disappoint.

Hope comes from character. Character comes from perseverance. Perseverance comes from suffering. We might wonder how suffering can produce hope. None of us are perfect. We fail and we suffer the consequences of our failure. We make mistakes, but faith brings us through our times of suffering, as we persevere through tough times with God’s promises as our firm foundation. We know that even though times are bad today, tomorrow will be better because God has promised. The hope we have in Christ is true, it will not disappoint. It is ours even though we did not, and do not, deserve God’s favor. Living in that hope is a life that is seen in the character of the faithful, in the way we meet the needs of others in this world.

The priests of ancient Egypt had an extraordinary vocation in their place and time. Modern priests (this is true of many different types of religions) are called and separated by their god to serve as mediators by offering sacrifices and teaching. This often means more than just religious service. Along with their religious duties, the Jewish priests practiced medical and judicial duties. They also were the teachers, providing both religious instruction as well as practical life lessons to the students. The priests were considered servants of God because they were doing the work God called them to do. That work often included very temporal duties for the sake of God’s people.

The priests of ancient Egypt were servants of their gods in a much different way. They did not serve the people. They did not preach or teach. They did not act as doctors or judges. They were set apart to meet their god’s every need, from sun-up to sun-down. At the break of day, the Egyptian priests sang a hymn calling their god to awake for the day. The priests then opened the sanctuary door, the place where their god slept, say a prayer over the image of the god so as to bring it back to life again. The god’s image was bathed, anointed and purified. Linen clothes were removed and fresh garments were put on the image. The sanctuary was cleansed with incense, perfumes and cosmetics were applied to the image. Food was laid out for the god. The sanctuary was sprinkled with water, natron (which is a salt mixture harvested from dry lake beds) and resin. The doors were closed and sealed. This ritual happened three times a day. The priests spent their lives serving the physical needs of the god of their temple, whatever it might be.

In the Old Testament passage, God promised that His people would be a kingdom of priests if they kept His covenant. The covenant at Sinai was a conditional pledge from God that He would act as protector over Israel and assure for her a blessed place among the nations as His treasured possession. The people were being called to separation as a priesthood, servants of God, a holy nation. After time the people lost touch with this idea that each person was called to live as a servant of God, creating a priesthood that was separated to act as mediators between God and man. Even in our Christian understanding, priests are set aside to do the work of God serving mankind by teaching and offering the sacraments.

Though our understanding of God is much different than the ancient Egyptians, who had no traditional religious theology (each temple served a different god and had different, sometimes contradictory doctrines), there are similarities about our Christian vocation as a kingdom of priests. Instead of serving mankind, teaching them the ways of God, the priests served the god by meeting all his needs. Of course, we see God from a much different perspective. Our God does not need to be aroused in the morning. He does not need to be cleansed and clothed. He does not need meals laid at His feet or baths of water, natron and resin. We do not give God anything because everything we have is His.

In other words, as priests we do not serve others, we serve God by serving others. Perhaps that sounds confusing, but it is all about our focus. There are a great many people in this world who do great and wonderful works for others. There are people who feed the hungry and clothe the poor. People who have no faith in God or Jesus have compassion on those who need shelter and companionship. There are non-religious people who are concerned about justice and mercy. They are good people. However, God was calling the people of Israel to be a kingdom of priests, to be people who served God. Keeping the covenant meant living as God had called them to live, with Him as their King. We are called to do the same, to do everything we do for the sake of God, to serve Him with all our hearts.

As a priest in the Kingdom of God, we have one focus and that is our Father in heaven. While it is good and right that we should honor our fathers, just as we have honored our mothers, it is good to remember that there is someone who is greater who deserves our loyalty. Father’s Day is a day to commemorate those men who have given us all that we need to survive in this world, but God is calling us to turn our loyalties to Him and Him alone. This may sound harsh, but God’s way is never easy.

Today’s psalm reminds me of the wonderful songs that we sing with the children vacation bible school and in other children’s ministry programs. The songs are simple, easy to remember, with catchy tunes so the children learn them quickly. Those same songs often drive the mothers crazy the rest of the day because they are so catchy that the children sing them over and over again.

Music is a wonderful way to learn. When we were little children, we learned so many things through music. Sesame Street taught, and still teaches, valuable life lessons through the song. Which child did not learn their letters by singing the Alphabet Song? Every child in Sunday school learned about the love of God with the classic, “Jesus loves me.” Music is not only fun, but it also writes the words and ideas upon our hearts. They become so much a part of us that we find ourselves humming our favorite songs or hymns as we go about our daily task. The music in our soul keeps us close to the things we love.

So, as I read this psalm for today, those old Sunday school songs come back to me. I can hear us singing “I’ve got the joy down in my heart” and “Enter his gates with thanksgiving in my heart.” These songs remind us of the joy of living in relationship with God, of being joyful in His presence. It is in the power of music that we are able to remember the simplest, but most important, things about God. He has written His Word on our hearts, and we can easily reach for those words in the songs that we hold dear. In our singing or humming or words of praise, we keep God close to us, remembering His truth and sharing them with the world. Shout for joy and sing joyful songs, give Him thanks and praise His name! Jesus loves me, this I know and I’ll sing with joy and thanksgiving in my heart because He has made us and we are His!

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