Sunday, June 29, 2014
Psalm 89:1–4, 15–18
Last week’s Scripture texts were all about how dangerous and risky it is to follow Jesus, so you might be hoping that today’s readings are going to counteract all that negative stuff about suffering for the sake of the Gospel. And at first glance, it does look like Jeremiah the prophet might be saying in today’s first reading that that a prophet who brings good news is a true prophet. And it might seem that Jesus is telling his disciples to expect to be welcomed with hospitality. But in fact, both Jeremiah and Jesus are continuing their cautionary tales about what it costs to follow the way of Jesus. (Steven, consider these warnings, before your baptism, what you are getting yourself into!)
In order to understand what these texts mean we need to look beyond what we heard today. The OT reading is part of a longer story that needs to be unpacked to grasp what today’s excerpt means. At the time of today’s story, the people of Israel have been living under the occupation of the Babylonians. The prophet Hananiah has announced that in two years, the Israelite exiles will be free from the Babylonians, and that all the holy articles that have been stolen, and all the people who have been in exile, would return to Jerusalem. This must have sounded like very good news to those who’d been left behind in Jerusalem. BUT….
That is when our text comes in. Jeremiah challenges Hananiah in front of all who gathered for worship, reminding him that the prophets who preceded both of them predicted not mercy but chastising for the unfaithfulness of the people. Jeremiah says that a true prophet would not shrink from telling people that they will be held responsible for their sins, or that they need to change their ways in order to be more like the people God designed them to be. Jeremiah tells Hananiah that raising the people’s hope, rather than holding them accountable for their sins, is irresponsible and unworthy of his calling as a prophet.
It was another seventy years before the exiles were returned to Jerusalem.
So maybe Jesus doesn’t want Jeremiah for a sunbeam, but I, for one, appreciate the fact that he’s being honest, and not trying to sugar-coat the truth. I appreciate Jesus’ message to his disciples for the same reason. This short passage is the end of a long speech Jesus has given to prepare his disciples to go out as his representatives all over the region. He cautions them that they will not be welcomed everywhere, that they can and should expect to experience the same hostility Jesus often did. A few verses before this one, Jesus tells them he is sending them out “like sheep into the midst of wolves,” and that they can expect persecution and trials, including perhaps the painful division of families. Remember this line from last week? “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master?” Jesus is simply trying to make it clear that the disciples are going to share not only in the joy of his ministry, but also in his poverty and homelessness, taking with them no money or extra clothing, and depending solely on the hospitality of others for shelter an . For all of this risk and suffering, Jesus promises, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
It’s important to remember that in Jesus’ time and place, the Middle East in first century, our modern concept of individuality was unknown. Humans had much more tribal sensibility. People were identified by the group to which they belonged. That is why Jesus talks about someone being received “in the name of a prophet” or “in the name of a righteous person.” When strangers met the disciples on their journey and welcomed them as guests, they were welcoming the whole group that guest represented. Jesus was telling his followers that they were going out as his representatives in the world, extending his ministry, proclaiming the same good news and performing the same works of healing that Jesus himself was doing. Whether people received or rejected his followers would indicate whether they received or rejected the God who sent them.
Jesus knew that to be welcomed as one of the prophets might mean esteem and honor, but it might also mean to be welcomed like Jeremiah was welcomed—which is to say, to be imprisoned, mocked and laughed at, rejected and discredited. Sometimes being a representative of Christ and the Christian community is not an easy role to play.
And as we acknowledged last week, the cautions Jesus extends to his disciples were equally relevant to the members of Matthew’s faith community, for whom he wrote this Gospel a few generations later, who continued to face struggles as they were sent out as laborers into the harvest, missionaries in a perilous world. And I think the same risks and issues are still part of being part of the Christian family (take note, Steven!). Now we may not all be sent off to Africa as wandering missionaries, depending on others for shelter and sustenance, but that doesn’t mean we are off the hook. All who are baptized are sent into the world to embody the good news of Jesus Christ. All are sent to bear Christ to others with humility and vulnerability, willing to risk rejection. The Great Commission, after all. Is “Go, make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” It is not, “Wait here, and make this building a comfortable place for converts to find you.”
So how do we respond? How do we “go and make disciples?” How did Jesus’ first band of missionaries do it? First of all, they did it with Jesus blessings and warnings. They did it by making themselves vulnerable with and to each other and to those they met on the way. Jesus sent them out with the assurance that they were acting on his behalf, and that he would go with them, wherever the path might lead.
Jesus’ dream is to invite everyone to be transformed, and our calling is to open that invitation. Jesus has forgiven all our sins and called us to be accountable for our actions, making our words gentle and our actions strong and compassionate. We are to make concrete the promise that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believes might not perish but have eternal life. God did not send Jesus (or Jesus’ followers) into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. This is the Gospel. Because we have been welcomed with such a deep and genuine hospitality in our baptisms, we are emboldened and empowered to go out and extend it to others.
But because it isn’t easy, Jesus makes sure that we don’t have to do it alone. Just as Jesus sent his disciples two by two, we are blessed to gather here to offer each other encouragement for facing the day, to remind each other that God has created us to be unique and beautiful representations of God’s imagination. We are here to help each other conceive of that vision and to help each other live into that vision.
I am reminded of a story my sister Carolyn shared about her time in Bethlehem with the Ecumenical Peace-keeping Committee a few years ago. One night her group received a phone call that the Israeli government had decided to bulldoze a house belonging to a Palestinian member of the community with whom she worked. The group went to that family first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, there was nothing anyone could do but gather together and watch a family’s home be decimated. At some point, either the grieving family or one of the neighbors walked among those gathered on the curb with tiny glasses of juice. The sense of hospitality in that area of the world is so pronounced that it seemed essential to offer refreshment to guests, even in the most horrific of circumstances.
But Jesus says it moments like that which illustrate what it means to be a baptized member of the family of God. Sometimes it is to offer juice to strangers, or to graciously receive it when someone wants to offer it to us. Little things, like a cup of cold water on a very hot day, is what ministry is all about. Sometimes our job is simply to show up and stand next to those who are reeling from life’s difficulties or pain. Sometimes it is to rejoice with those who are celebrating. I won’t suggest discipleship is easy. I’m with Jeremiah on that one. Life is tough, crosses are uncomfortable. But God has walked the broken way before us, and weeps with us when we are sitting on the curb or in the darkness of the tomb, waiting for our own personal resurrections. God gives us food for the journey, and has surrounded us with each other.
Now God beckons us to give one another a cup of cold water. Let us dare to go out to extend that cup of water to all the world in full light of the truth.