I have to admit I don’t watch much cable news. Craig and I don’t have television, but (don’t get me wrong) we watch things on-line, we listen to the radio, we read papers.
Whenever I go to my parents I watch the news with them on T.V. It is actually a bit shocking. It is culturally really different not to be acclimated to the intensity of news broadcasts, of propaganda, advertising etc.
I always have to make an adjustment. I have to ask myself what is being portrayed, how is it being portrayed etc.
Well, this week I saw a spot on Sesame Street.
Maybe some of you also caught it…
I was a Sesame Street baby (born in the same year as its inception: 1969). Sesame Street has been a household name for more than fifty years. Some years ago, my niece was shocked to learn that her favorite muppet Elmo wasn’t on Sesame Street when I was growing up. She believed the whole show was built around him. He actually showed up in 1980 as a bit part who quickly grew to fame!
But I digress…
Sesame Street’s spotlight on the news was about their work with children in Ukraine; to help them cope emotionally with war. They made quick mention that Sesame Street also visited Iraq. I found this all so moving that I began researching Sesame Street.
Did you know that Sesame Street is working in 150 countries across the globe helping children to learn, and to cope with their environments?
I was surprised the newscaster said, the children in Ukraine are actually “blessed” with the advantage of media, technology and equipment for streaming and broadcasting.
She actually used the word “blessing.” (Good for her!)
It is a blessing. The Sesame Street website has images of children with puppets in refugee camps...places where they don’t all have internet. Sesame Street has programs in classrooms and clinics bringing lessons to over a million displaced children in Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon.
These programs build relationship; are life affirming, bringing consolation and joy to children. These are the avenues, the activities where God dwells.
In our Gospel today, Jesus is essentially saying, Whatever relationship you welcome, you will receive the fruit of that relationship.
TO repeat this short gospel:
Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. …and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Essentially he is saying Love God, Love the Way, Love Doing Right, Even the smallest thing counts.
He is saying give to the “least of these”…
In Jesus day the idea of Giving something freely to a child you do not know made no sense. It isn’t an equal exchange. Giving to the “least of these” is somehow not going to be beneficial to me. What am I going to get out of it.…? Jesus has a lot to say about giving freely throughout the Gospels. It is his form of radical welcome.
We still struggle with this. What is fair, who deserves what.
We say our days are numbered. So in that time, in that ordinary time, let’s give what we’ve got.
It is not too little.
Love is not about getting what you want, but about giving all that you can.
We can help other people with the smallest deeds of kindness. In a deed of kindness are the seeds of both welcome and hope.
The Gospel passage reminded me of the earlier passage in Matthew in which Jesus speaks about loving your enemies. (Here he is reiterating to his disciples what he said on the sermon on the mount.)
What good is it if you only love those who love you? Even the tax collectors do that. If you greet only your brothers, what is extraordinary about you? Even the Gentiles do that….
No, Jesus’ way is one of extraordinary welcome and hospitality.
As Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Sin is that state when we are separated from God by our own actions.
We do things that hurt ourselves and one another and break that special life affirming and loving connection to our maker.
Here, Paul is speaking about sin, but also speaking about hope. Paul says in Christ you are no longer separated from God. Sin has no dominion over you. Now you have grace.
The sin of war we are experiencing today is a huge separation from God. We not only lose our minds at these times of war (lose our moral compass); our hearts are so broken that the space for God that dwells in our hearts is torn all apart.
We have created separation where there was once an effort for unity and communion…Jesus came for all of the nations, for all of the marginalized.
This week, in the midst of so much war and in the midst of so many controversial social issues, Sesame Street gave me hope.
It reminded me the blessing of welcome is ours to give even in the midst of the sin of war.
Hope can be found on a street that reaches out globally and in diversity.
A street where young children come to know people of all races and colors as mentors; and artists and musicians as teachers and guides.
Programs like Sesame Street bring light, they teach love, they teach tolerance, they teach welcome.
The puppets and their human companions teach us that
what color our skin is; What texture our hair is doesn’t matter.
As Jesus said last week, with consistent love and welcome, in giving away freely, we may find our life someday.
That day will come when not only the prophet preaches peace, but all of us strive to offer a little welcome, offer a bit of ourselves without anything in return…
The real reward will be great.
“For I am persuaded that your love is established for ever.”
Has someone ever called you a name that doesn’t fit?! Have you ever been labeled something falsely?
..Or have your words been misconstrued?
Recently, I had an exchange with a dear friend, and we had disagreement …and I felt the ire rising up in me. This week Craig had a friend (literally) yelling on the other end of the line about a difference of opinion; opinions of what we consider reality... What we consider important.
Once upon a time… in our Gospel from today, some people called Jesus “Beelzebul” which means “The Prince of Demons.”
He was called this by other well-meaning, pious, God-loving people.
But they were a people afraid of what Jesus was doing and saying. They were afraid to lose what they had come to rely on, even though the world was changing anyway. The world was changing “with our without” their blessing…and Jesus was bringing his message right into the midst of this change.
The world was chaotic at the time of Matthew’s gospel. He was writing at a time when the destruction of the temple in AD 70 disrupted Jewish community life and tradition.
People’s beliefs were being questioned. The small early Jewish - Christian community was also growing and changing.
But Jesus had already told us "don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid of the chaos, and the name calling.
But do understand things are changing.
And the message that Jesus is bringing - is being brought to a changing world that may not appreciate or understand his message of:
We too, scratch our heads: Why is Jesus saying he is bringing a sword, when the last few weeks he has persistently spoken about peace, the Spirit’s gift of peace, the assurance that Peace is ours to keep - and to give to others?
Now he says he has not come to bring Peace?
Is this hyperbole?
A simple exaggeration?
One minute he sounds like a confident and caring brother and father. Then next, he sounds rather like the fiery prophet Jeremiah, with great exclamation: This isn’t going to be easy!
“For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, "I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,"
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.”
This isn’t going to be easy! Carrying Love into the world in a time of such chaos is not going to be “a walk in the park.”
There is already animosity and division.
Jesus said, I am bringing a sword (not to kill, but to discern).
…To cut through to the essence of what matters most!
Jesus brings us the sword of discernment.
Being awake to the Love of God helps us to cut through the fog of chaos to the reality of a greater life in God.
Cutting through and revealing…
“To shed light on what is dark.”
“To make known what is secret”
To uncover that which is covered”
Light and Revelation comes through wading into the differences, the discord, like Jesus did equipped with the knowledge that Love as the highest power above all else will save us.
People are often less afraid (even when they are in crisis) if things can remain the same, even when they are unhappy and persecuted. We act this way, even when the world is always changing.
But do not be afraid because God has counted every hair on your head. Do not be afraid, because you are worth so much more than a sacrificial offering of sparrows (when that offering has become simply a symbol of righteousness.
You are not a symbol. You are a conduit for love.
You have been sealed with Christ.
Walking the path of Christ involves the sword of discernment.
We have discernment to do in our own time, like Matthew’s time when the world seemed upside down.
Love is like a sword that pierces our side deeply.
When we are uncertain and angry and people are calling us by names that do not seem to fit… we can remember the words of Christ: “Forgive them father, for they know not what they do.”
We don’t know what God is doing. It is uncertain. But a spiritual materialism, that would suggest we “know,” is as false as sacrificial sparrows.
We don’t know.
What we do know, is that our call is to love.
We not only say but act on these words:
“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
To carry the cross of Christ that Jesus mentions is to look to that higher love. All of our relationships, even our familial relationships suffer without that higher love. We need to be engaged in the World, thinking, digesting, discerning, all the while with great humility we recognize our limitations.
Oh God your thoughts are higher than my thoughts.
“Forgive them father for they know not what they do,” is a solid prayer; a prayer that brings peace.
It is a prayer that Jesus says from the cross.
It is not a prayer that relieves us of the strife we are in, as it didn’t relieve Jesus his physical strife, but it is a prayer that reminds us to forgive in the midst of what we can’t control. It is a prayer that reminds us of our higher power of God and love above all else.
"Those who find their life [meaning their assuredness, their entitlement, their stubbornness] will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake [for LOVE] will find it.”
One of the things that Paul mentions is “boasting in our suffering.” Today, I want to speak about hope…and Hope in the context of suffering.
In Buddhism, some of you may know, that the concept of suffering and a path to non-suffering is a main aspect of their teaching. They believe that recognizing suffering and working to alleviate it in ourselves will ultimately alleviate it for others.
In Christianity we really have the same belief. However, over the centuries, our message has become distorted. Somehow a notion grew - and teachings somehow instilled that if you are “good” you will not suffer. This is a very self-denying and life denying idea of fundamental reality… and the reality of our faith.
When Paul mentions “boasting in our suffering.”
I think it’s pretty important to point out that we are not advocating suffering. This passage has been misinterpreted that way. Paul is speaking in solidarity with others who are suffering along with him. It is a pep talk to get them through their ordeal.
As we spoke about this last week: tremendous suffering can change us, transform us, make us more compassionate.
However, we are not saying, go suffer now - it will make you a better person. We very much hope we can protect ourselves and our children from suffering.
One of the reasons we come to church, to seek out God and community, is because we are trying to learn and teach our children how to become more compassionate without the need for suffering.
Jesus did enough of that for us. And that’s the very point!
Ridding ourselves, and our community, our nation and our world of suffering is the actual goal.
Jesus came to teach that the nature of God is love and that God enfleshed will walk in the World healing and “curing every disease and every sickness.” The God that we believe in is a God of mercy.
We say, God in his mercy sent his only son Jesus Christ to live as one of us. Mercy is that condition of God that undergirds everything. While we may struggle and suffer, it is our recognition that the biggest love called mercy came to be with us in solidarity, and will save us by giving us strength; giving us hope. We hope into that big space of love.
According to Cynthia Bourgeault:
“Mystical hope [is] what happens when we touch this innermost ground [within our own selves through prayer, meditation or awareness] and it floods forth into our being as strength and joy. Hope would be the Mercy—divine love itself—coursing through our being like lightning finding a clear path to the ground. . . .”
Similarly, St. Paul reminds us: God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Spirit.
One definition of Hope from John of the Cross “is the dynamic of being able to yield unconditionally to God’s future. It is…a hope independent of us and our accomplishments…a hope that can even embrace and work for a future without us.” - Constance FitzGerald
This definition is sometimes hard to touch when we are struggling. But it is an important aspect of hope that reminds us that it springs eternal in a larger field than we are singularly playing in. Love is bigger than us.
There is a certain self-less-ness to be had in this hoping. This is what Jesus brought us; demonstrated for us.
But this also doesn’t mean that we don’t set goals for out labor in the world. Even Jesus sets goals:
He commissions the apostles to go out and heal with very specific instructions. The twelve disciples are to go out two by two. I don’t know about you but that sounds terrifying.
They were instructed to go out into the World with nothing. No things, other than the commission to heal.
This is where we find ourselves too. We are commissioned to heal the world as we move along our life’s journey.
The divisions that seem to erode hope in our culture, in our governance, in our way of life, are immense right now. We are being faced with issues that are conflicting and make us feel uncertain and angry.
But let us not say “hopeless.”
The commission “to heal” is a way to lean into the discontent and the division.
The phrase is: “every disease and every sickness.” That is all encompassing. There is a lot of dis - ease right now.
In his very apt and poignant statement, Bishop Tutu described us Christians as being “prisoners of Hope.”
Because in the face of all of this contention and confusion, the commission is: to heal.
The commission to heal when the apostles were charged to go out into the world, is the same as it is today.
No matter what side of an issue we may find ourselves on, navigating it with friends and acquaintances through a healing approach is Jesus’ way. Try to integrate that: Growing into the stature of Christ is not about being right. It is about being loving.
It is a bit frightening, yes, uncertain…and when we feel out of control we are frightened and defensive.
Can we imagine a future that is larger than ourselves and requires loving responses regardless, to unfold in ways that our not of our making? Hope is knowing that we are carrying love into whatever future God is making.
I don’t mean agreeing with everyone, but carrying that loving response that opens up the field of mercy for all.
Jesus sends the apostles telling them to bring their peace to others. If their peace is not accepted -to let it return to them. He doesn’t say be angry and resentful with those who don’t listen. He says your peace is a gift -and let it return to you. It is yours. Your Peace.
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd. Sounds like today.
Then he said to his disciples,
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few;
therefore ask the Lord of the harvest
to send out laborers into his harvest.”
God, we ask that your make us compassionate laborers in your harvest of hope, mercy, and love.
This week in the readings there is an emphasis on faith.
In Romans, Paul assures us that it is our faith and not rules and regulations that provide connection with God.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells the hemorrhaging woman that it is her faith that has made her well. Also the leader has faith that Jesus will heal his daughter.
What is faith?
These are miracles we can’t pretend to truly understand, but the faith aspect is something we can live into.
What is faith - and how do we define it?
It isn't really the same thing as belief.
Our secular culture wants to merge belief and faith and deaden their meanings by attaching fact or fiction to their definitions. Instead of internalizing faith, we have started intellectualizing faith … then people begin to say, well I don’t believe in God because I only recognize the “facts.”
But having faith in God is to have faith in a way of life. "Jesus is the way and the life." It is a loving pattern we are trying to live into. In this real sense, faith is a verb not a noun.
We also use creeds that try to put a structure around what we believe, but ultimately as Jesus says, "I desire mercy not sacrifice." Jesus cared about his Jewish tradition deeply. He knew it well; in fact his quote comes right out of Hosea. Jesus cared about tradition, but more than that - he cared about each individual more than about religious rules and regulations. Faith is a way of being that honors one another and God. It is about choosing that relationship for support and guidance. We are born into a World embodying faith as vulnerable creatures who can’t put a word to it. It is how we move and how we have our being…how we survive - and as we age - it becomes more or a renewal in participating in that primary relationship of being: of life!
This year has been very difficult for many of us on many fronts. We are witnessing crises around the world, but for many of us there is also personal crisis. For Rita and for others. My husband Craig, as most of you know, who is struggling with stage 4 cancer. We talked about faith and what that means at a time of deep struggle.
When Craig was first diagnosed and going through radiation treatments he seemed to turn inside. I had a difficult time feeling like I could reach him - or understand what was going on. This gregarious guy had really turned inward. Became very quiet. What I later learned is that Craig was communing with God. He was trying to desperately get down to the basic relationship that he had with trust and with his maker, that primary relationship, to find himself.
In our recent conversation he said, “My rough edges of resentment seemed to burn away. What emerged was a more compassionate and loving version of myself.” He said, I always thought of myself as loving and compassionate but in reality - I didn’t always demonstrate it. It emerged when I went into that space to find a relationship with God and found my true self.
He describes this as a “faith healing.”
We may not be able to heal a hemorrhaging woman or bring a child back to life, but when we say these miraculous healing stories of God matter and we want to be part of it, we are saying “yes” like Matthew, to a relationship with God and walking a healing path.
This Gospel’s version of Matthew’s conversion is very simple. Jesus sees Matthew at the tax booth and says follow me, and Matthew does. Wow. So simple..
The next thing that happens is a big gathering at Matthew’s house: a group, it says, with many tax collectors and many sinners.
We need a little more time to absorb this scene. I’m sure a lot transpired in Matthew’s heart and mind. Like Craig, Matthew’s encounter with Jesus helped him find a way back into that primary relationship with God.
Matthew then opened his home to Jesus and to many others to hear the healing message of God:
All of you - and together we are going to make things new…
Then, and today by recognizing that we are already participating in the life of God. We call it faith. It is not intellectual it is embodied.
In the passage from Hosea we hear the prophet crying out to Ephraim and Judah. Ephraim is another name for Israel and comes from the name of the tribe that secured that area when Israel was split into two Kingdoms.
Hosea’s life is full of struggle but his response is to show mercy and forgiveness to his wife and to those around him.
In the book of Hosea, the personal relationships of the prophet are a reflection of the relationship that God has with Israel. Essentially the book is about God wanting to be in relationship with us, which requires forgiveness, mercy and love.
What we know as Jesus’ famous words, “I desire mercy not sacrifice” are found in this passage from Hosea. At a time in the prophet’s great struggle we hear these words too:
God Come, let us return to the Lord; for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us; he has struck down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
Jesus borrows from Hosea on more than one occasion.
Mercy and forgiveness: how do they relate to faith and to renewal - to this rising up!?
Many of us feel that things are failing in our lives and in our churches, but I was reminded in a meeting this week among clergy that we have to remember there is a bigger picture of God at work in the World.
We will be revived, and in fact our consistent participation in pursuing a relationship with God is that revival itself, no matter how slow or uncertain it may feel. No matter how personal. It is happening. We will be raised up. We don’t know what it looks like. We just know we need to be constant “like the morning dawn” and seek God’s face. That is where we are going to find faith healing and offer the kind of renewal that Jesus offers others.
Our healing may not be what we are expecting, but rather what God is doing in us in new and unexpected ways.
To have faith is to choose to participate in the renewal of ourselves and the world.
To have faith is to recognize that each of us is integral to that world.
To have faith is to offer that mercy to others.
To have faith is to continue to spring forward (or go deep) and make that connection when there is no going back, to embody our very being that is primary and forever wrapped up in God.
As the psalmist sings, “Let us press on to know the Lord; his appearing is as sure as the dawn; he will come to us like the showers, like the spring rains that water the earth.”