June 14, 2020
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)||Psalm 116:1, 10-17||Romans 5:1-8||Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23)||Exodus 19:2-8a||Psalm 100|
by Paul Nancarrow
With the Second Sunday after Pentecost begins the Revised Common Lectionary’s offering of two “tracks” of readings. Track 1 reads from the Hebrew Scriptures in a “semi-historical” sequence, with a Psalm response to match; Track 2 offers readings from the Hebrew Scriptures thematically matched to the day’s Gospel reading, with a similarly thematic Psalm. It is generally expected that a local church community will choose either Track 1 or Track 2 and stay with it for the entire season, until the beginning of Advent.
Proper 5 (which we do not read this year due to the date of Easter) begins the saga of Abraham and Sarah with their initial call. Proper 6 jumps ahead in their story to the theophany at Mamre and the promise that Sarah will bear a child in her old age in Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7. While the promise of an heir, and the etiology of the name Isaac, is told in more than one story, it is part of the purpose of the Revised Common Lectionary to highlight the roles of women in Hebrew Scripture stories; so Sarah is really the focus of interest here. As patriarch of the household, it is Abraham’s duty to offer hospitality to passing strangers, and to wait upon them as they eat; but the text notes that it is actually the herd-servant and Sarah who do all the work. Accordingly, while they eat, Sarah is staying in the background, listening at the doorflap of the tent while the visitor promises to “return in due season” by which time Sarah will have a son. Sarah has heard this promise before, and has been disappointed in its lack of fulfillment; so much so that she took it upon herself to provide a surrogate son through her maid Hagar. It is bitter to her to hear the seemingly empty promise yet again, and she laughs in derision. But the visitor hears her laugh, questions Sarah, and asserts that “nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.” Sarah denies her cynical outburst; the visitor gently insists on the truth. Then, as the addendum from Chapter 21 indicates, the due season is fulfilled and Sarah does have a son. He is named Isaac, a pun on the Hebrew word “to laugh,” and Sarah’s laughter is changed from derision to joy. The story thus emphasizes God’s unfailing ability to offer new possibilities, new aims for the realization of good, even in seemingly impossible circumstances. And it shows in Sarah’s laughter the creative transformation that comes from accepting God’s aims and following through on God’s purposes, as her laughter is transformed from cynical resignation to delight in her son and her vindication as a mother.
This is echoed in the Psalm 116:1, 10-17 response, especially in the verse “I am your servant and the child of your handmaid,” as Isaac is the son of God’s chosen Sarah. Membership in God’s chosen family means being freed “from all my bonds,” and assurance that God “has heard the voice of my supplication” and “has inclined his ear to me whenever I called.” The proper response to such divine offer of creative transformation is to “fulfill my vows to” God, that is, to fulfill divine aims of justice and peace, and to “lift up the cup of salvation” in “the sacrifice of thanksgiving.” Divine provision of possibilities and human co-creative fulfillment of possibilities thus constitute being a “servant” of God.
The thematic Hebrew Scripture reading, Exodus 19:2-8a, recounts the most fundamental understanding of the covenant between God and Israel established at Sinai: “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” In this covenant, God sets out a unique relationship with the people, saying “the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” In this role as a “priestly kingdom,” it is Israel’s special vocation to know God’s commandments, God’s aims for justice and peace, and to enact those ideals in practical forms of community and individual life. The people accept this vocation when they answer Moses and Aaron “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” God’s sending of Moses to bring this covenant to the people is echoed in the gospel reading as Jesus sends his twelve closest disciples to tell the people “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
The response in Psalm 100 repeats this theme, proclaiming “God has made us, and we are God’s; we are God’s people and the sheep of God’s pasture.” The connection to Jesus’ mission for the twelve is echoed in the proclamation that God’s “faithfulness endures from age to age,” not only for those who gathered at Sinai with Moses, but those who seek God in any time or place.
Part of Paul’s larger argument in Romans that we are saved not through the law but through grace by faith, this passage in Romans 5:1-8 has a particular poignancy at this moment in world history. As I write this, many of us in the US, and indeed around the world, are living under lockdown or stay-at-home orders to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus and the Covid-19 disease it causes. By the time you read this, some of those lockdown orders may be relaxed or changed; but it is certain that the disruption brought about by Covid-19 will not be over. In addition to those who have actually fallen ill, many more are suffering the economic consequences of lost work hours, eliminated jobs, shuttered businesses, defaults on rents and mortgages, and so on. Health workers, as well as grocery store staff, delivery drivers, first responders, and other essential workers, are at risk from the virus as they go about the tasks that keep the rest of us alive and safe. Paul says “rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die”; these workers dare to put themselves at risk of disease and death every day. Some do this because they have no choice: their livelihoods depend on keeping jobs just as much as anyone else’s, and the risk of losing income might be as great to them as the risk of infection. Yet their work on our behalf is an objective sacrifice, whatever subjective nuance may accompany it, and we who put our faith in Christ can look at their work and see Christ, who put himself at risk for us ungodly, reflected there.
Those who are at risk and those who are locked down each face their measure of suffering in this pandemic. But Paul says that suffering can be put to a purpose: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” The brute fact of suffering can be the first datum of a process of creative transformation, in which the fact of suffering can be set in widening frames of reference, connected to new sets of prehensions, so that the original fact becomes one element in a pattern of “endurance,” or the ability to survive through suffering, and “character,” or the development of a sense of self that can admit but not be dominated by suffering, culminating in “hope,” or the operative trust that beyond suffering comes the possibility of a greater good. Nothing about this progression is automatic or guaranteed; there would be no basis for asserting “suffering is good for you because it always leads to hope,” as some strains of historical Christianity have seemed to do; what makes this progression possible is a gift of God, “God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It is God’s creativity, working co-creatively with our own expansion of prehensions, that makes it possible to transmute the contradiction of suffering into the contrast of hope. So in our present moment, we can be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in us that will transform the suffering of this pandemic into hopes for a new and more just “normal” when we emerge from this lockdown, to work together for more adequate healthcare, more just labor conditions, and a greater appreciation of the value of social connections.
Matthew 9:35-10:8(9-23) tells of Jesus’ selection of the Twelve and their first preaching mission. The central feature of this selection is to note that the Twelve are selected for the mission of spreading Jesus’ message and healing influence as widely as possible, not for any reasons of the disciples’ own piety or sanctity or accomplishment in themselves.
Jesus is traveling “about all the cities and villages,” teaching and curing, to the point that he laments that the people are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” It is for the purpose of “sending out laborers into God’s harvest” that Jesus summons the Twelve, and his charge to them reflects just that purpose. They are given “authority” over demons and to “cure every disease and every sickness”; they are to proclaim that “the kingdom of heaven has come near” and to demonstrate that proclamation in concrete acts that “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” These powers at work in them are not for their aggrandizement, but for witness to the reign of God. Jesus tells them, “You received without payment; give without payment”; thus their mission is to be an active embodiment of the practice of receiving and offering in freedom and gratitude, with God and with the neighbor, according to the pattern of action exemplified in Jesus himself.
The further instructions for the mission, given in the extended reading of 10:9-23, amplify the basic call to practice receiving and offering freely, without strings attached: taking no money or luggage assures that the missioners will receive from those to whom they go; staying in the same house, receiving hospitality as it is given, and offering their teaching and curing without seeking the best accommodations in town, underlines that they do this without strings; offering peace to every house, without advance concern for how the household might respond, exemplifies offering freely in the name of God. Even in the final verses, when the scene turns disruptive and political, the disciples are still to practice receiving and offering, not resisting when they are “dragged before governors and kings because of me,” but accepting it as the occasion to offer testimony to Jesus as the “Spirit of your Father speaks through you.”
The steady practice of receiving aims from God and offering actions to God, receiving needs and gifts from neighbors and offering gifts and needs to neighbors, is the specific cure to being “harassed and helpless,” and constitutes a grounding of the self in Jesus’ Way that can “endure to the end and be saved.” It is still the mission of Jesus’ disciples in the church to share this Way of living with everyone we can reach.
The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest retired from full-time parish ministry. His theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for deacons’ ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at paulsnancarrow.wordpress.com. He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Upper Midwest.