Sunday, May 25, 2008

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 49:8-16
Psalm 131
1 Corinthians 4:1-5
Matthew 6:24-34

Here, moreover, it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.

An early Easter has meant an extra week of Pentecost this year, and so there are very few resources available on this lectionary and these texts are not used at any other time (except for the Gospel which is used at Thanksgiving.) So, this week’s text may be a challenge for many because they are completely fresh and new. The message is in its own way challenging because we are human and imperfect.

Except for the occasional festival Sundays during summer, the Church calendar goes green with “ordinary time” readings until the end of October. The first half of the Church year, which begins the first Sunday of November, goes through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week and Easter. During those months, we hear the story of God and His relationship with His people. We hear about Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. We hear about the people who were part of His life and His ministry. We hear about the prophecies pointing to Jesus and the fulfillment of those prophecies.

Our focus changes during the second half of the year. We don’t ignore the story of God, but we look at it from a different point of view. We look at it through the eyes of the Church. We have been given the Holy Spirit. Now what are we going to do? Where is this faith which God has given going to take us? It is called Ordinary Time because we aren’t standing on the mountain anymore. During the season of Pentecost, we take our gifts into the world sharing the good things that God has done. We are stewards and during Pentecost we learn how to take care of God’s gifts and share them with the world.

Paul writes, “Here, moreover, it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.” We are like little kids, beloved of our Father in heaven. He calls us to a life of joy and peace, a life of being good stewards of all He has done and has given. He calls us to trust in Him and to respond to His grace with graciousness to others. Unfortunately, we often fail. Take worry, for instance. Of course we know that God is faithful and that He will provide. That does not stop us from being concerned when we are facing financial difficulties. We know God forgives, but that does not stop us from feeling guilt about the things we do wrong. We know that God will ensure the well-being of those He loves, but that does not stop us from taking the situations we face into our own hands. We aren’t always faithful.

But even as we are unfaithful, God affirms His promises. He is like a mother who does not lose sight of her child, although even the most careful mothers have a story they can tell about briefly losing a child. I remember when Victoria was very small; we were at a department store shopping. The store was full of racks of clothing, the perfect place for a child to play hide-and-seek. I kept my eye on Victoria even as I searched through the racks. She was playing peek-a-boo with me, popping her head in and out of the clothes, always keeping an eye on me, too.

She was there one minute and then gone the next. She must have slipped into another rack and lost her bearings. When she did not find me, she went searching—in the wrong direction. I panicked. There had recently been a story about a kidnapping and every mother lived in fear of it happening to their child. I called out to Victoria, searched through every rack, asked every shopper. Several people, including some store associates and customers, helped me look. We eventually found her screaming in a dressing room across the store. While I might have been angry, I was far more grateful that she was safe and in my arms.

Over and over again God proves His love by providing for us despite our failures. Over and over again we relearn the lessons as God hopes that we will be more faithful each day. In the meanwhile, we are reminded of our own unfaithfulness so that we will not judge others by standards that are higher than our ability to judge. Only God knows the end. Only God knows the heart. And in the end, God will be pleased because He loves His children.

Paul writes, “Men should recognize that we are servants of Christ.” How many times have you heard, or even said, that another person couldn’t possibly be a Christian? Christians are seen not by the words we say but by the things we do. Unfortunately, we don’t always do what is right. We don’t always do what is good. There is a joke about a woman who was crazily speeding along a road that got stopped by a policeman. The cop came to the window with gun in hand and demanded the woman get out of the car. After he checked her papers and saw that she was indeed the owner of the vehicle, he apologized for the harsh way she was treated. “I saw the Christian bumper stickers on the car and the erratic driving and assumed that the car had been stolen.”

We don’t know the circumstances that might lead someone, a Christian, to do what is not right. We should always be aware of our actions and the witness we are giving to the world, but we are human, imperfect. We fail. Unfortunately, we are quick to see another’s failure and assume they couldn’t possibly be a Christian. We judge and we are judged, often without the knowledge necessary to make such a judgment.

Paul reminds us that we are stewards of the mysteries of God and even though God’s stewards are expected to be trustworthy, the opinions of the world are not always true. The criticism we hear is often based on one failure, without the judge seeing the hundreds of good works a person does. We should not be concerned about the judgment of other human beings because we rest in the promises of God. He sees all and knows our heart. He forgives us for our failures and helps us to grow out of them. He transforms us daily by His Spirit, leading us into the paths of righteousness.

Isn’t it interesting that the last verse in this passage tells us that when Christ comes, each man shall have his praise from God. Humans are quick to judge, but God will give commendation in that day because He knows that which has been hidden. So, we are called not to pass judgment until the right time, and in that time God will reveal the purposes of the heart. When judgment comes, it need not be of human origin because God is the righteous judge over His creation.

God’s blessing gave David every reason to believe that he was more important than others. He had everything going for him. He was king of Israel. He had great wealth and good fortune. He was well respected among the nations and loved by his people. He had enemies, but he also had God’s favor. David was attacked, rejected and harassed by his enemies. They said terrible things about him, accused him of evil. It did not matter to David. He knew that the words of others could not change what God had done. He lived in humble submission to God, trusting in His promises. He sought God’s help in his troubles and looked to God for provision. He thanked God for the blessings in his life and he turned to God in repentance for his failures. He was the king of a nation but also a very humble man.

Today’s psalm is attributed to David, but it is likely that the psalm was used by the people traveling to Jerusalem on pilgrimage. It helped the people put their hearts and their minds into the right place when approaching God’s throne. He loves us and it is easy to take that love and cross a line, thinking ourselves more blessed because of our relationship with Him. However, we are reminded that we are nothing but a smudge on the masterpiece that is God’s creation. No matter how good, how smart or how blessed we are, it is good and right for us to be humble in our confidence and modest in our position.

It is tough living in the world. The work we are called to do in Christ’s name is often dirty and disturbing because it takes so far outside our comfort zone. Healing the sick, casting out demons, setting the prisoners free: these things are frightening and painful. Feeding the poor is tiring work because there seems to be so many who need our help. It is not enough to throw some money at the problems of our world. We are called to make a very real, very personal difference in the lives of those who are suffering. They need more than bread and water. They need Christ. They need to know God’s promises so that they too might rest in the reality of God’s mercy and grace.

We live far after the days to which Isaiah is referring, and yet these words are as appropriate for us as they were for the exiles. The story we heard for the first six months of the Church year brought us into a relationship with God for a purpose—so that we might shine His light into the world to be known by all. It isn’t always easy. There are even times when we think God has forgotten us. When we are facing rejection, oppression and persecution, it is natural to think that we have been forsaken.

God answers our fears, “I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands.” We have all written something on our hands, a phone number or message that we want to remember. That writing comes off easily with a little bit of soap and water. I know several people who had been imprisoned in German concentration camps. They have marks on their arms, identifying numbers. Though it is possible to have them remove erased with lasers or surgery, many of the victims want to keep the tattoos as a reminder to themselves and the world of what happens when we ignore injustice in the world. It is a badge of courage, a symbol of perseverance.

God does not write our name on His hand with pen that can be washed off. We are engraved on the palms of His hands. We are part of Him, He does not forget. He is faithful to all His promises. No matter what we might do, not matter how lost we seem to get while trying to live out our faith in this world, God remembers. We hear the same story over and over again, year after year, so that His promises will be written on our hearts. When we are facing the difficulty of life in the world, God’s voice reminds us that we are not forgotten. Everything He has done was meant to bring us to this moment and every moment that follows.

As I research for “MIDWEEK OASIS” and “A WORD FOR TODAY,” I often go back to the archives and see what I have written about the text in the past. As I did so this week, I discovered that the Gospel lesson is one that I have used many times in the past ten years. The devotionals are so often based on my own life and experiences, that many of the lessons are very personal. Obviously, worry is a subject about which I have a great deal of experience. I’m not sure much has changed with all those words of wisdom. I still worry.

There is a difference between preparation and worry. Worry is useless because it does nothing. There are those who might say (and this has been me, at times) that worry is what gives us the push needed to do what needs to be done. That is not really true. Worry is a distraction. It is not a positive attitude, but one of distress and aggravation. Worry does not add a day to our lives or solve our problems. As a matter of fact, when I worry, I’m less able to cope with the things that need to be done.

When we worry, our focus is entirely on our problem instead of looking toward the possible solutions. Jesus says that no man can serve two masters. I doubt that those who worry about money would ever say that they hate God, but hate in the biblical sense does not necessarily mean dislike. Hate is separation, when we turn to our own solutions, we turn our back on God. That is why worry is like hate. Does trusting in Him mean that we’ll win the lottery and have no financial problems? No, but it does mean that we are not focusing on our distress. Solutions are easier to see when we do not get buried by the problem. In our times of trouble, we need not worry. Instead, let us look to God and everything else will work out just fine.

As we begin our summer of Pentecost, learning what it means to be a Christian in this world, let us remember these lessons that have been unheard for some time in our lectionary. Let us remember that God loves us eternally. He cares for us even more than He cares for the rest of creation, so much so that He will ensure our well-being. Let us always remember that we can not be faithful, but God is always faithful. We should not worry because when we do, we show God that we do not trust in God. He knows what He is doing, and He knows our hearts. He has given us the most extraordinary gifts for a purpose, to share God’s grace with the world. Finally, let us remember to be humble. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. We can’t read the hearts of our neighbors. We can only trust that God is faithful and wait patiently for that day when He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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