Proper 7A Revised Lectionary

22 June 2008

Saint John’s Episcopal Church

Memphis, Tennessee

When I preach I read the lessons and then let my unconscious, which I hope is in conversation with the Holy Spirit, work on the mix.  Then some notions begin to ferment. After more study and reflection I sit down to write.  This is somewhat like watching sausage or cheese made in that dealing with the product is better than experiencing the process.  However, that being said, here is the product.

·        In Genesis we encounter the story of the Sarah-Abraham-Hagar triangle.

·        The Psalm tells us that the mercy of God extends even to servants and their children not just the special and privileged.

·        Paul tells the Roman Christians just what is it that we have in our baptism

·        Matthew speaks to the price and promise of following Jesus.

Whether we know it or not we come at life with expectations.

A woman is walking down the street with her two grandchildren. A friend stopped to ask her how old they were. She replied, “The doctor is five and the lawyer is seven.”  Trust me the children already knew her expectations.

There are many in the Christian church these days that will tell you that if you are a Christian that means that you will automatically prosper because you are special.  To that I say that no we are not special rather we are chosen and that is not the same thing at all.  As Woody Allen put it in an interview in Rolling Stone in 1976, “We were not put here to have a good time and that’s what throws most of us, that sense that we all have an inalienable right to a good time.”

What is my point?  Life is complicated. We find ourselves in circumstances beyond our control; with people we wouldn’t choose and often assume that we are helpless and hopeless.

The scriptures today allow that life complicated but that God is present to us in the circumstances beyond our control; works with the people we wouldn’t choose and in Christ assures us that we have resources and hope.

I believe that God wants humans to mature and that people mature by facing challenge.  If we are following Jesus to amuse ourselves, become successful and popular then we are in for a surprise.

The story of the triangle between Sarah, Abraham and Hagar is an interesting one.  A triangle is the basic geometry of human relationships consisting of three people or two people and an issue. There later kind is where we begin.  The triangle is Abraham – Sarah – The Promise that Abraham will be the father of nations complicated by Sarah’s infertility.  Sarah must have made herself crazy worrying and trying to find a way out of the box. But nothing did it.  She wasn’t getting any younger and she wasn’t getting pregnant either. Then one day it came to her, the solution, it was simple and elegant, this way out of her shameful dilemma: Hagar her good looking (I assume) Egyptian maid.

Abraham did as she asked and Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael and once she was pregnant she got a little uppity.  It was then that Sarah realized that her expectations of solving her problem were not working as she planned. She made Hagar miserable but she needed her so in her frustration she took out her anger on Abraham for doing what she had asked him to do.  The triangle began to vibrate vigorously and they began to do the triangle dance that is familiar to us all.

Woody Allen in his film Annie Hall says, “I thought of that old joke, you know, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, `Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, `Why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, `I would but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships. You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd … but I guess we keep going through it because most of us need the eggs.”
Annie Hall, 1977 

So on they dance but the steps are too much for Hagar and she runs away from home.  Out in the wilderness she is met by an angel who tells her to go back and put up with Sarah’s abuse.  She went and in the going she grew up, matured, facing the challenge of living with this neurotic threatened woman.  In last week’s Genesis reading the three men tell Abraham that indeed Sarah will have a son, named Isaac, meaning laughter because Sarah laughed at the news of her maternity.

Fast-forward to today’s reading where Sarah threatened by the very boy whose birth she had manipulated into being demands that he and “that woman” leave for good.  Abraham is upset but God tells him to let them go and out they went.

In my background I always read this story with the idea that Hagar and Ishmael were disposable because the covenant was through Isaac.  I no longer think this is so.  God says, “I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”  Hang on to that thought.

Again in the wilderness Ishmael and his momma run out of water and Hagar goes a little way from the bush where she has left her son so as not to see him die.  And she cried out and God called to her and told her to buck up for her son would be the father of a great nation and as he spoke he opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.

God did as he said and Ishmael became a great archer and his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.  This is the only time in the Old Testament that a woman got her son a wife filling the role of a man.  Hagar has become a woman with attitude in the best sense.  In facing challenge she has endured, matured and prospered.

She is remembered in the Psalm for today, “Give your strength to your servant; and save the child of your handmaid.  Just how are we saved?

The Roman Christians are informed by Paul just what we have in our baptism. The important thing is not just the pouring of water but participation in the resurrection of Jesus.  Luke Timothy Johnson in his work on Romans says, “Baptism is not just a sign like a stop sign; rather it is a symbol that participates in that which it signifies. A loaf of bread is a symbol of fellowship; …the reason is that bread gathers diverse members together, literally “inhabiting” them simultaneously. Bread symbolizes fellowship because sharing is what fellowship is. In similar fashion baptism is such a symbol, an event that activates within the community the experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection.”

What is that experience and what is to be our expectation? Matthew tells us in three comparisons:

1. disciple/teacher

2. servant/master

3. head of the household/household

WHICH means two things:

1. Jesus’ followers ought not to expect better treatment than Jesus.

2. Disciples are privileged members of Jesus’ own school and household – they are his intimates.

We will have conflict and it will erupt even in families.  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”  Jesus is not threatening anyone with violence but tells us what to expect.  So what do we know?

Life is complicated. We find ourselves in circumstances beyond our control; with people we wouldn’t choose and often assume that we are helpless and hopeless.

The good news is that like Hagar we can take courage knowing that neither we nor anyone else is disposable.  That when facing challenge and the water skin is empty and the milk of human kindness has curdled like Sarah – when we cry out to God we are heard and in our crying our eyes are opened to see a well.

For we do travel in the desert but there is always a well of sweet water.  Along the way we do grow up even if we don’t know we have and we mature – knowing that in Christ Jesus – we are his intimates, disciples of his school, folk of his very household.  And like Hagar we will find wives from Egypt when we must and become women and men of attitude, in the best sense of that word.

As someone has said, “Jesus promised his followers only three things that they would be absurdly happy, entirely free and always in trouble. And so we are.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.


15 June 2008

Saint John’s Episcopal Church

Memphis, Tennessee

Today Jesus sends the disciples as his apostle/agents proclaiming the Kingdom of God.

In my long academic career I had occasion to take many psychological tests. The one I remember best is the Minnesota Multi-physic Personality Inventory. It had a question, “Do you consider yourself to be God’s agent?” We were warned that the answer was no, even though as a Christian seminarian we certainly felt called. But being called was not the same thing as hearing the voices for which the Minnesota Multi-physic Personality Inventory was testing.

Frederick Dale Bruner translates the Gospel reading this way “And Jesus was walking around all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, heralding the wonderful news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. And when he saw the crowds of people, his heart really went out to them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘the harvest is huge, but there are hardly any workers. So pray the Lord of the harvest to thrust out workers into his harvest!’”

The four verbs of this opening verse should catch our attention: walking, teaching, heralding, and healing.

1. Jesus wandered around – not only in cities but also in villages wherever the people were. Those who follow him also will wander around. We expect people to read our signs and enter our places. When we must read the signs of the times and enter the places where people are. It is the ministry by wandering around. It’s amazing the folk you can meet and what you can hear and the relationships that can grow if you just get out there and do it.

2. Teaching – A woman began to read the Bible and said to her priest, “You know it is the most fascinating thing – the Bible is just full of quotes from the Book of Common Prayer.” —- We can no longer afford a genteel and benign ignorance of what we believe. Jesus taught and so must we.

3. Heralding – People were amazed at the authority of Jesus as he spoke. What was true then and there is true here and now. Let us proclaim the Kingdom with enthusiasm as we now have the hope of the resurrection!

4. Healing — every sickness and every disease – the verb healing here is therapeuo. All human pain is a call to mission and there must be a therapeutic dimension to our ministry.

“When Jesus saw the crowds he had compassion on them.”

Jesus’ heart really went out to these people who were [harassed and helpless] is the usual translation but a good one would be, his heart really went out to those who were [barely making it]. Here we find our mission, why? Because Jesus’ heart went out to these people therefore we who are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection are to develop enlargement of the heart.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is huge, but there are hardly any workers… The task looks hopeless and Jesus says as much… it’s huge and there are hardly any. What are we to do in response to such overwhelming need?

Two things usually happen:

1. We look desperately for additional data plus a new technique that will be the answer to our problems.

2. We ask our clergy and staff to use said technique to get the ministry done cause they were hired to be the professional Christians.

If I may take up the second first, look at the Letter to the Romans we just heard read. “Therefore having been justified then on the basis of faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Therefore – in the grammar of the original the tense of the participle signifies that the action has already happened. Being in right relationship with God is not something Paul and his readers long for, but is a present reality.

Thus they are in peace, things being as they should be, and this state of “rightness” is possible by the actions and person of Jesus the Christ who reconciles us to God. It is though this act that we have access to grace.

This is the state of all who are in Christ Jesus therefore any and all are to be workers in the harvest that is before us. All the baptized are in the harvest force. Even then the harvest is huge and workers are few.

A shepherd was herding his flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW advanced out of a dust cloud towards him. The driver, a young man in a Brioni suit, Gucci shoes, Ray Ban sunglasses and YSL tie, leans out the window and asks the shepherd:

“If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?”

The shepherd looks at the man, obviously a yuppie, then looks at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answers: “Sure. Why not?”

The young man parks his car, whips out his Dell notebook computer, connects it to his AT&T cell phone, surfs to a NASA page on the internet, where he calls up a GPS satellite navigation system to get an exact fix on his location which he then feeds to another NASA satellite that scans the area in an ultra-high-resolution photo. Then the young man opens the digital photo in Adobe Photoshop and exports it to an image processing facility in Hamburg, Germany.

Within seconds, he receives an email on his Palm Pilot that the image has been processed and the data stored. He then accesses a MS-SQL database through an ODBC connected Excel spreadsheet with hundreds of complex formulas. He uploads all of this data via an email on his Blackberry and, after a few minutes, receives a response. Finally, he prints out a full-color, 150-page report on his hi-tech, miniaturized HP LaserJet printer and finally turns to the shepherd and says: “You have exactly 1586 sheep.”

“That’s right. Well, I guess you can take one of my sheep,” says the shepherd. He watches the young man select one of the animals and looks on amused as the young man stuffs it into the trunk of his car.

Then the shepherd says to the young man: “Hey, if I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my sheep?”

The young man thinks about it for a second and then says, “Okay, why not?”

“You’re a consultant,” says the shepherd.

“Wow! That’s correct,” says the young guy, “but how did you guess that?”

“No guessing required.” answered the shepherd. “You showed up here even though nobody called you; you want to get paid for an answer I already knew; to a question I never asked; and you don’t know anything at all about my business. Now give me back my dog.” ——- So dies the hope of all new salvation techniques.

We are tempted to run around to make ourselves feel better living out the adage don’t just stand there do something. But Jesus seems to be calling for the counterintuitive move, of don’t just do something stand there or in this case don’t just do something pray!

The theology of mission in Matthew 10 is preceded by the theology of prayer in Matthew 8-9. Jesus tells us to pray that the Lord of the Harvest, the one whose harvest we gather, will send out – actually the original word is exorcise, as in cast out spirits, literally pray that the Lord will cast or thrust out workers into this harvest.

The story is told of the man who got a permit to open the first tavern in a small town. The members of a local church were strongly opposed to the bar, so they began to pray that God would intervene. A few days before the tavern was to open, lightening hit the structure, and it burned to the ground.

The people of the church were surprised, but pleased until they received notice that the would-be tavern owner was suing them. He contended that their prayers were responsible for the burning of the building. In a strongly worded deposition the church denied the charge.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge remarked, “At this point I don’t know what my decision will be, but this appears to be the situation: The owner of the tavern believes in the power of prayer, and these church people don’t.”

When we invoke the power of God, are we prepared to live with the consequences?

The way forward is to be as much prayed as planned. Our plans must grow organically from our prayer, the cycle of daily offices, corporate and personal centering prayer, healing prayer, intercession, praise and joy filled worship.

Pray that when God visits us we will like Abraham and Sarah greet the Holy One with joy and generous joy.

Pray that we will accept what is already ours in Christ Jesus, knowing that God loves us without exception.

Pray to the Lord of the harvest that workers will be thrust into his

harvest realizing that those workers are you and me.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

The Father of Nations

In the Book of Genesis Abraham is promised by God that he will father many nations. Many things from the earliest literature is debatable but this promise has come true in spades. Jews, Christians and Muslims claim the old man of Mamre as their father.

As is often the case there is a lot of sibling rivalry going on and the descendants fight over the will and the dividing of the patrimony. There are emotional cut-offs which prevent healing of wounds. Such is our lot and yet we have quite a lot in common.

In Abraham we have a hopeful ancestor who would better for us than we have chosen for ourselves.