Sermons on Matthew
As we say in our collect on Friday mornings during Morning Prayer, “Jesus stretched out his arms on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone may come within his saving embrace.” Believing in a God who would do that for us, and thus calls us to do that for everyone else, can feel risky. And if it is risky, then perhaps it is of God, for it does seem to me that God is the greatest risk-taker of all. God trusts us, we fallible humans, with each other and with God’s creation, and built into that trust in always intention and invitation to redemption and transformed living. When we believe in a loving God who takes risks for us, who loves us into being, then I believe we too can become risk-takers for love. This is what this parable can teach us. Be risk-takers for love. We often say fear is the opposite of faith, largely because each time the angels show up in scripture, they begin their conversation with “Do not be afraid” for fear can prevent us from seeing, hearing, and loving God. Do not be afraid, my friends. Above all else, God has entrusted you with your love of God and it is right and good to share that love boldly with others. We can’t get that wrong, for that always will be pleasing in God’s sight. Amen.
There was another party going on in town that night. One where the rejected, the tired, the weary, the lonely, the ones who mourn, the poor in spirit, the meek, the peacemakers were gathered, where the healing love of Jesus flowed through and around them, where they anointed each other, maybe not with expensive oil, but with tears of joy, for Jesus was with them. The church shows up, our church shows up when we readily offer ourselves and our resources to each other, when we ask the question, “What do you need?” or “How can I support you in the cold dark night, where fear and trembling settle in upon your soul and weigh you down like a heavy down comforter, almost making it difficult to breath?” The church shows up, our church shows up, when we acknowledge our vulnerability before God and each other, or when we acknowledge that we can’t be prepared for everything, and instead chose to trust that it is Jesus who opens the door, invites us in, and prepares the feast.
There is a little poem I think about this time of year. Some people dream the dream Some people live the dream Some people defend the dream God bless the defenders The Lord said “who shall I send and who will go for us” and I said “here am I; send me. Amen.
Just as the river in Ezekiel flows from the Temple and the river in Revelation flows from the throne of God – our Gospel today points us to one of the greatest symbols of God’s love flowing into the world – the empty tomb. Imagine a spiritual river flowing out of the empty tomb filling the whole world. And the first folks to put their toes in that river are Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Thank God for the faithfulness of these women. They went, as Matthew says, to see the tomb, to investigate. Where were the men? Fled to Galilee. And what did the angel tell these two faithful Apostles to do? They were to go tell the others that Jesus was raised and “indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.” Jesus is going ahead of them into the world – not going away from the world. Like a mighty river rising from a very small source, Jesus’s presence and his love is still spreading from that source – the empty tomb – to fill our entire world. That is the picture that Matthew in his last chapter wants to leave us with. There is no ascension story at the end of Matthew’s gospel. The book ends with our great commissioning to “make disciples of all nations.” Get busy working in the world to make others aware of the love of God! And the final sentence of the Gospel is a final reminder as the love of God flows out to include all people: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Just like the promise in Genesis that cycles would follow on cycles, just as the promise of the river that it would always flow, Jesus is promising to be with us – not remote in some far-off throne room in heaven – but to be as near to us as that river. Surrounding us in God’s love, bringing life to everything that Jesus touches.
“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” A common saying. Perhaps you’ve heard it many times in your life, or have even spoken it yourself. It’s a saying I’ve always pushed back against from a place deep within my gut, not necessarily understanding why, until I studied theology, and then I knew why. My image of God doesn’t include someone sitting upon a throne in heaven, dolling out bad things to people at opportune times, with the purpose of disrupting or destroying their lives, always attentive to the balance of good and evil in their lives at any particular moment, so people can be just on the edge of the good— or worse yet, bringing on the bad thing in life to selected people at the worst possible moments of their lives, just when they are starting to turn things around, or when they are spiraling downward. My image of God is a flow of love, a source of desire for goodness for each part of the created world, a pull deep within each one of us for wholeness, and an inherent life-force reaching toward a rich and abundant life designed for everyone, lived within the healing embrace of Christ. So how would I, how do you, reconcile this image of a God who looks at us through eyes of love, with the God conjured up in this popular saying that seems to imply God is actively involved in bringing bad things into our lives?
Because Jesus stayed in the tomb, contained with the earth, with the massive round stone rolled across its entrance, Jesus sanctified, made holy, saturated with the presence of God, the darkened container he was put in, and therefore sanctified all the darkened containers we put ourselves into. But the point of the story of Jesus is that he didn’t stay there. And his resurrection invites and implores us not to stay there either. God’s mercy, love, and compassion draw us into these places of alienation and disconnect. We resist going there often, sometimes by saying, “We’ve always done it that way” as a reason not to move into that place of uncertainty, where the old begins to fade away before we can see the new. Or sometimes we resist the draw into exile because it’s easier to fortify the sides of our containers with bolstered arguments or fiery threats. But the pattern of faithful living, that paschal mystery we often speak of, moves us into a place of exile, of self-reflection, of noticing the places of disconnect between what God has asked of us and what we are doing, to the land, or in our lives, or in our relationship with God, for they are all connected, of acknowledging what we have done or left undone that has caused harm. But then the Spirit turns us again toward God, when God’s mercy, love, and compassion can strip from us all that we have falsely created, to return us to what God has created within and around us. If we listen closely enough, in these times of exile, which our own lives may be in now, or our country may be in right now, we can hear God’s voice saying, “Come and see, I am bringing you to a new way of experiencing me. Come and see.”
There are times when I get exhausted from the constant pull of the Holy Spirit to shape and remake my heart and soul, so that I can be more aligned with the will of God. I imagine you do too. There are times when I wish I could escape for just a moment back into my Sunday school faith and believe it is as simple as believing Jesus loves me. I imagine you do too. There are times when I want my life to be simpler, when I wish I could compartmentalize my life into church on Sunday and the rest. I imagine you do too. But I know that’s not my life as a Christian. Rather it is to be deeply fed by times of silence before God and in spiritual retreats, by receiving the prayers of our healing ministers, by finding a group of spiritual friends with whom I can wrestle with the issues of today set within our three-legged stool of scripture, tradition, and reason, so I can continue the hard work of discernment of God’s new revelation among us that instructs me how to faithfully live in response to the movement of the Spirit.
Give us this day our daily bread. These are familiar words we pray together every Sunday, right before the bread is broken in the Eucharistic prayer. Have you ever wondered why we pray these words at that particular moment? Right before Jesus’ body is broken so each and every one of us can receive and take within us the holy presence of Christ? Why does it matter to us that this particular prayer is on our hearts when the sunlight from the altar window shines upon the bread, which seems to glow with holiness as I break it apart, so we can each be fed with this sacred meal? Give us this day our daily bread. We don’t say, “Give me this day MY daily bread” – this prayer sets us within a community. The prayer is spoken by all of us, for all of us. It draws us into a place of understanding that we are all equal – equal in God’s love, equal in our share of God’s abundance, equal in the blessing we take out into God’s world, God’s vineyard. One doesn’t get more if one has had an exceptionally faithful week of prayer, scripture study, and good deeds. Nor does one get less if one is kneeling at the rail for the first time in 20 years and had somehow forgotten about God all that time. It is this fact that makes the invitation to the Eucharist so appropriate and poignant, “So come, you who have much faith and you who have little, you who have been here often, and you who have not been for a long time or ever before, you who have tried to follow and all of us who have failed.”
If I want a God of power and might to always line up on the right side of my judgment and take decisive divine action to eradicate my enemies, then I have to imagine that I might be on the opposing side of someone else’s judgment, and then I would want God’s exuberant mercy to be upon me, so I must in turn, want God’s exuberant mercy to be upon them. We need to look into the messiness.
The God who is Love acts – to liberate and save, forgive and heal, acts to empower us to join God in creating that future where everything finally will be reconciled and made whole. So let’s take a look at the condition of our own Christ garment. Where is it frayed, wearing thin, or maybe even starting to tear? Perhaps you are in need of liberation from something that’s dragging you down, holding you back from mirroring Christ’s love. Maybe you have difficulty accepting the fact that God believes you are worth saving. Or maybe there is a situation, a sin, a habit with which we repeatedly wrestle. Perhaps we need assurance of forgiveness and the courage and faith with God’s help, to begin again. Maybe there are tender wounded places in us that need healing, which we keep well hidden. Most of us will have at least one situation where we need the Spirit’s help to put love into action, to let Christ’s light shine through us.
I am proposing to you that to hate, as to love, is meant in the Bible to be more than a feeling within our hearts, but rather that which invokes appropriate action. There’s a wonderful plaque at Holy Cross Monastery which says, “Love must act as light must shine as fire must burn”. When we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we are not being called to have a warm fuzzy feeling for everyone in the world, but rather we are to act in this world as God acts with us, with compassion, mercy, and always toward justice. When we are called to hate evil, we are not called only to have a passionate dislike for someone or something, we are to act to resist and eradicate that which is evil in this world.
We don’t know which scenario it might have been, but Jacob had perceived the presence of God and either thought that that fleeting moment of revelation of God was all there was, or that he was “done” in his quest or love of God, or that the revelation required no response, rather than understanding that after finding God, the hard work begins of obeying, relinquishing control, offering your whole self, and the re-ordering of your life’s passion, work, thoughts, and behavior to something larger than yourself. This pattern of seeking, finding, relinquishing, and offer your whole self is something that shows up in our story of the pearl of great value, and we pray happens to you each time you walk into this church, or journey to your sacred space where you regularly find God.