Sunday, June 26, 2011

Lectionary 13A
Jeremiah 28:5-9
Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

I will sing of the lovingkindness of Jehovah for ever: With my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.

Poor Zack. I think he feels a little like a slave this summer. He just graduated from High School and is looking forward to going to college in just a couple months. He’s tried for weeks to get a job, just a part time summer gig to earn some money to take with him, but the job situation is impossible. He’s applied to dozens of places and has heard from only one. He was told his application wasn’t even being considered at the one place we thought was a guarantee. His one interview went very well, but they decided to go with someone else. The jobs typically given to teenagers for summer work have been taken by older workers who have to fall back on part time work in a market where there are none in their fields. College graduates are working in fast food and retail because there simply is nowhere else for them to go.

So, because he wasn’t able to find a job, we have been relying on him to do more around the house. I find small jobs that I would normally accomplish, but I give them to him so that he’s not just sitting around on the computer all day. I’ve also told him that he must apply for at least one scholarship a day. Unfortunately, the scholarship situation has been hard, too. There just doesn’t seem to be any money available. Even the one scholarship we thought was a done deal didn’t come through. Since Zack didn’t get a job, he’s also volunteering and will compete in a couple of city golf tournaments, but every day I find work for him to do. In the morning I give him a list and depend on him to get those tasks done.

I’m sure he’d rather just hang out. I’m sure he is frustrated by having to clean the cat box and take out the garbage and do those other tasks I find for him. I know he’s tired of cleaning his room. I’m sure he feels like a slave because he’s doing all this work for no pay and feels trapped by his disappointment and lack of job. That’s not like the slavery that haunts our American consciousness, but in many ways it is similar to the slavery many have suffered. Too many people work for little pay and too many hours, and the work is often beneath their talents and abilities. Imagine what it must be like, perhaps some of you know, to be a college graduate who has had to take that job at McDonald’s until the job market gets better. It feels like slavery, especially to those of us that live in a country where people have the freedom to follow their dreams. After applying for dozens of jobs, hope fades and job hunters settle for whatever they can get. That lack of hope is what it must feel like to a slave. And too many are trapped in lives where there is no hope.

Of course, the person working at McDonald’s is not really a slave, but people are still being bought and sold in our world. Millions of people are being held against their will and forced to do things they would not do. This happens, even in America.

Personal stories of people who have been forced into slavery are told in the “Trafficking in Persons Report 2010” put out by the US State Department. Here is one, “Katya, a student athlete in an Eastern European capital city, dreamed of learning English and visiting the United States. Her opportunity came in the form of a student visa program, through which international students can work temporarily in the United States. But when she got to America, rather than being taken to a job at a beach resort, the people who met her put her on a bus to Detroit, Michigan. They took her passport away, and forced her and her friends to dance in strip clubs for the traffickers’ profit. They controlled the girls’ movement and travel, kept keys to the girls’ apartment, and listened in on phone calls the girls made to their parents. After a year of enslavement, Katya and her friend were able to reach federal authorities with the help of a patron of the strip club in whom they had confided. Due to their bravery, six other victims were identified and rescued. Katya now has immigration status under the U.S. trafficking law. She works in a health club and hopes to finish her degree in kinesiology. The traffickers are in federal prison.”

And another, “A recruiter in Jamaica promised Sheldon a visa through the U.S. federal H-2B seasonal worker program. The processing fee was hefty, but the prospect of working in America seemed worth it. Sheldon arrived in Kansas City eager to work, but he ended up at the mercy of human traffickers. Along with other workers from Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines, Sheldon cleaned rooms at some of the best-known hotels in Kansas City. The traffickers kept Sheldon in debt, constantly charging him fees for uniforms, transportation, and rent in overcrowded apartments. Often, his paychecks would show negative earnings. When Sheldon refused to work, the traffickers threatened to cancel his immigration status, and which would render him illegal in an instant. In May 2009, a federal grand jury indicted the leaders of this trafficking ring – including eight nationals of Uzbekistan – on charges related to forced labor in 14 states.”

And one more, “In 1991, a 6-year-old boy was working parttime as a house boy for a fisheries officer. The officer was reassigned to a different region and promised the boy an education if he accompanied him. But instead of being enrolled in school, the boy was forced to tend cattle and serve as the homestead’s security guard. The officer changed the boy’s name to Charles and over time, the boy forgot his native language. Charles, now 26, still works for the fisheries officer but has never received payment and relies on the officer for everything. When Charles requested a piece of land to build a house so he could marry, the man instead forced him to work as a fisherman and turn over the profits. With the help of a local anti-trafficking committee, Charles moved into a rented room in a nearby town but continues to be abused by his trafficker. Charles does not know who or where his family is.”

Our experience is not slavery, although that sense of hopelessness can become part of any person’s life. People live in relationships with people that rip away their freedom. Work can be overwhelming if we feel there is no way out. Many people are slaves to the debts we owe, slaves to homes that cost too much, slaves to even the leisure activities in which we choose to participate. Of course, we aren’t really slaves, because most of our bondage is caused by our own choices. Slavery is being forced to do or be something beyond our will.

Slavery was common in the Roman world of Jesus, Peter and Paul. Of all the ancient nations, the Romans held the most slaves. Some people became slaves because of debts. Many slaves were taken as prisoners of war, as was the case of the Jews in Babylon. Since the Romans were fighters and occupiers, they had many prisoners from vanquished nations who could serve in their homes, businesses and even the army.

Highly trained and intelligent slaves were worth the most money and often served as singers, scribes, jewelers and doctors. Slavery often meant a better life than they could ever have lived in freedom. The slaves were usually well cared for, often treated as family. Female slaves were often very close to their mistresses, serving as advisors and confidents as well as servants. Most military men were slaves. Treasurers were often slaves. Condemned criminals were sent as slaves into the mines since that job was so dangerous it meant early death.

Life didn’t always have to end in slavery. In Rome a slave could be freed at the mercy of the master. He or she could buy his or her way out of slavery with money they have saved, so at least some slaves were given a salary or gifts. Though they had no rights as citizens, they were acceptable witnesses in court. They were not allowed to enter into public buildings such as the bath house, but were not held prisoner. They had the freedom to move about the city, especially the domestic servants who went to the market and did other errands for the house. The Roman economy depended on slavery, but most of the slaves were well treated and many were able to get out and live as a citizen again. I suppose in many ways, the conditions in Rome were much like the conditions of our world today.

Many of the people hearing Paul’s words were probably slaves. The early Christians were the oppressed and poor, and the gospel message spoke to their difficulties. The slaves were at the bottom of the class structure and so were the Christians, since they refused to live and worship as the Romans. For many slaves, the Christian message was one of hope, one of equality, one of grace even for them. So, slaves found comfort in Jesus Christ and believed wholeheartedly in the Way.

The message of the Gospel speaks of a new kind of slavery. It isn’t a slavery to people or jobs or material possessions, but slavery to God. Slavery in God’s kingdom is like that of the best relationships of master and slave in the Roman world. The Good Master treats the slave well, like family, giving the slave more than enough to dwell in peace and joy. The relationship between a good master and slave needs not be without hope and the Gospel message gives us that freedom to live bound to our God and His kingdom.

Jeremiah was bound to God. In Jeremiah 27:2, Jeremiah tells the people that God has instructed him to wear a yoke like the oxen wear. Jeremiah was then to tell the nations that God was sending Nebuchadnezzar to rule over all people, and that they were called to live under his yoke. Jeremiah warned that prophets would tell the people of good times ahead and promise that they would not be slaves to Babylon, but Jeremiah told the people not to believe those prophets. Those who obey this word would be free. But those who believed the words of a prophet that promised freedom would be bound.

To prove his point, Hananiah broke the yoke that Jeremiah wore saying that God would break the yoke of Babylon. In today’s passage, Jeremiah addresses Hananiah’s peace prophecy. He says, “Amen! I hope it is true!” But he reminds the people of God’s Word about Babylon and tells them that the prophet who truly speaks God’s word will be proven. If a prophet’s word of peace comes true, then it truly came from God. Unfortunately, Hananiah died within months, proving that Jeremiah speaks the Word of God.

Jeremiah most certainly would have preferred speaking a word of peace to His people. Who wants to tell anyone that they will be enslaved? But Jeremiah willingly allowed himself to be yoked to God’s Word, to speak God’s Word to the people so that they might be free. Jeremiah had to speak the truth and in doing so he earned a prophet’s reward.

The reward is not financial or the admiration of the world. As a matter of fact, prophets often suffer rejection and hardship. The prophet’s reward is a right relationship with God. That relationship is based on trust and hope, peace and joy in the reality of God’s blessing. The life of a prophet might not seem blessed, but when God has you in His hands, the blessings are abundant and real. When we belief the word of the prophet, we will experience the same blessings. If the people believed Jeremiah and received the word he gave to them, they might know a moment of suffering and hardship under Nebuchadnezzar’s rule, but they would also experience true peace and the hope of God’s promise of freedom. He is faithful and He will bring His Word to fruition.

I said that the slavery we experience in our modern world is often caused by our own decision making. We are burdened by debt because we choose to buy things beyond our means. We are burdened by our homes because we purchase houses that are more expensive than we can afford. We are burdened by our activities because we set unrealistic priorities and expectations. But when we are God’s slaves, we experience the freedom that comes with good choices and right priorities. To put God in front of everything is freedom. To put everything ahead of God is sin.

We have been set free. We no longer need be slave to sin. We have been given a much better choice, to willingly serve the Lord. We are still slaves, but we have been welcomed by a Master that will treat us well. As slaves to sin, we are bound to suffer the consequences of our sin. As slaves to righteousness, we will receive the fruit of His grace. As we live in His household, we grow closer to our Master and are transformed—sanctified—into the kind of servant He has ordained us to be.

I think the passage from Matthew for today is interesting in its point of view. Jesus is speaking to the disciples just as He is about to send them out on their first missionary journeys. He told them not to take anything with them, to rely on the graciousness and mercy of those to whom they are sent. They are to find a home in each town that welcomes them, that deserves to receive God’s peace. And then at the end of His instructions, He gives them these words, “None of these will lose their reward.”

Now, I have to admit that I’ve always read these instructions from the point of view of someone who is being told to welcome people as if I’m welcoming Jesus, to receive a prophet as if I am receiving a prophet of God and to embrace a righteous person as if I am embracing someone who is in a right relationship with God. Yet, the passage is being directed to the disciples, the prophets and the righteous ones. He is telling these disciples that those who welcome them will receive their reward. He is calling us the prophets and righteous ones. Those who serve us will not lose their reward.

How do we receive this Word? We have accepted our place as servants of God, recognized our calling and said “Yes” to God’s work. And now He tells us that those to whom we are sent, at least the ones that welcome us, will receive our reward. And all they have to do is give us a cup of cold water.

I wonder if we can look at this from the perspective of those who are trained to be employed in good jobs, those who have just graduated from college but need to settle into a less than appropriate job. We want to be the prophet, the righteous man, but what if we are called to simply give a glass of water? Will we feel it is beneath us? And if that is all we receive, will we believe that God’s promises are true for those who have given it to us? Do we want more? Do we demand more? Do we expect more?

And yet, we can also ask, “Do we allow others to serve us?” I’m a ‘giving’ person. I don’t accept help from anyone because I can handle everything. I serve others. They don’t have to serve me. But I have learned through experience that sometimes you have to rely on others. And through those experiences, I have also learned how great the reward is for others to have the experiences of serving. If I do everything, then there is fewer opportunities for others to serve. By stepping back, not becoming lazy but allowing others the opportunity, then they get to share in the rewards of grace.

The gifts of God, the blessings of faith, are not ours to give. God is gracious and merciful to all those who believe His Word. To receive a prophet and a righteous man means receiving a reward, but not a trophy or medal. It means gaining a stronger and more personal relationship with the God to whom they are bound. This is more valuable than any gold or silver, it is an eternal gift, one that will last forever. Receiving the prophet and righteous man is a manifestation of the faith which God gives, the faith which saves. The reward, the assurance of true faith, is priceless.

The psalmist sings, “I will sing of the lovingkindness of Jehovah for ever: With my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations.” Can we sing of God’s grace when we are suffering for our obedience to His Word? Can we praise God even when we are rejected and persecuted and experiencing rough times? Can we proclaim God’s faithfulness when it seems we have no future or no hope? The hope of faith is not based on what we have in this world but in God’s promises. His promises are not necessary of peace. His promise is for freedom, freedom from sin and the grave. Happy are not those who have everything they want, but those who rejoice in what they have in God. Even when our lot seems impossible, our hopes seem dashed, our dreams unattainable, God has promised and He is faithful. We have so much for which to be thankful. So, let’s drink that cold glass of water and thank God for the person who has welcomed us and heard what we have to say.

How much better will the world be as all come to share in the reward of faith, the salvation of our Lord Jesus Christ?

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