When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God is a God of mercy because he is a God of generosity. As St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, “it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others,” to freely supply what others lack and need. And since God lacks and needs nothing, God has an infinite supply of good things for those whom he has created and an infinite willingness to give them. God can even share his own life with his human creatures without being depleted in the slightest. This is just another way of saying that God simply is Love -- and Love can never be subtracted.
To be human, on the other hand, is to be defined by lack and need. Unlike God, we aren’t self-sufficient and we certainly aren’t infinite. Every breath we take of the air, every meal we eat of the produce of the land, is given to us ultimately by an act of divine mercy that sustains the world for our use and sustenance. No need has ever been fulfilled that wasn’t fulfilled in the final sense by God, the creator and preserver of the whole world. In short, therefore, the primary relationship that the God of abundance has with creatures of lack and need is one of mercy.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus withdraws in a boat to a deserted place by himself, no doubt in need of respite from the demands of his earthly ministry. Recall that though he is fully God, the humility of the Incarnation consists in the willingness of the Son of God to empty himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. For our Lord to be born in human likeness is to be born into the confines and limitations of creaturehood; it is to empty himself and welcome a human life of lack and need. The Son of God can now become fatigued; he can now hunger and thirst; he can now grow weary of the crowds. And so he does what any of us would do in such a situation and retreats into solitude in order to recuperate. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. The relentless demand of the crowds upon our Lord signifies the demand that all creatures make upon the providence of God simply by existing; only now, Jesus is being subjected to this demand as a fellow human being himself. But instead of retreating further into the rest he needs and avoiding the crowds, he does something remarkable: he has compassion on them.
Compassion is very close to mercy, because while mercy is shown when we willingly fulfill the need of another, what motivates the act of mercy is the grief or sorrow that we feel at the sight of suffering. To be moved with compassion by another’s suffering is to recognize that suffering as our own. Even if we are fortunate enough to be secure from suffering, the fellow humanity of those who do suffer unites us to their experience. And the intensity of this experience of another’s suffering only increases the closer that a person is to us, which is why as moving as it is for us to encounter the suffering of a stranger in poverty, it pales in comparison to what we feel when we look upon the suffering of a loved one, a spouse, or our children. So our love can intensify our sorrow at the suffering of those close to us and compel us to show them mercy and compassion. But beneath even our love is our awareness of the basic vulnerability to suffering that we share with every human being on earth. We know -- or at least we should know -- that tragedy could strike us at any moment and that we could suddenly find ourselves exposed to the suffering of a material world. I say that we should know this, because we’ve all known those who seem to be oblivious of this fact, including ourselves perhaps: those who are so comfortable that they take their security for granted, living as though they are in no danger of suffering. Not surprisingly, such people are not generally known for their mercy and compassion. By contrast, it is most often those who are intimately aware of the fragility of their lives who are the most merciful.
Now, imagine how much more aware Christ was of this fragility of life, how much greater his capacity was to feel the suffering of those around him as his own. He had already emptied himself in his descent into the Incarnation, the infinite distance he traversed between the equality of his divine nature with God and the servitude of the human condition. To be both fully God and fully human is to comprehend the lack and need of human life to the fullest possible extent. And so in spite of his exhaustion, our Lord finds in his all too human need for solitude the deepest well of compassion for the crowds. Rather than withholding himself from them, he sees himself within them -- within us.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
See how there was no scarcity to the abundance of food that our Lord provided to the crowds. Not only did all eat and were filled, but there was a surplus of what was left over. Though Christ is fully human, fully at home in a world of bread and fish, his miracle here reveals the point I made at the beginning, that when God provides to us in his mercy, our needs are not only filled to the brim, but the gifts of God overflow our needs. The mercy of God is always excessive of our natural capacities for hunger; we are not only satisfied, we are enveloped by the infinite love of God.
Here, Jesus’ ministry is directly focused on the material needs of the crowds. He cures those among them who are sick and directs his disciples to give them something to eat. There’s nothing clearly spiritual about what Jesus does for them, at least not in this passage. However, this material act of mercy should direct our attention to the spiritual dimension of God’s mercy upon us. Because, while God is already showing his mercy simply by sustaining the natural lives of his creatures on earth, our lack and our need for sustenance is nothing compared to the lack caused by our sin and our need for the regeneration of grace. We stand in desperate need of God on two accounts: both as creatures and as sinners. But the spiritual need that we have because of our sin is not so removed from our physical needs that Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand has nothing to teach us. When God bestows his grace upon us, his grace goes well beyond what is required to cleanse us of our sin. Just like the bread which exceeds the needs of the crowd so as to fill twelve baskets above what was needed, the grace of God works first to satisfy our immediate need for the forgiveness of our sins, but then keeps on pouring into us. We are not just forgiven; we are also elevated into participation in the very life of God. And through this union with God, we are brought into a relationship that’s no longer one of mercy alone, but of an infinite and all-surpassing love. Amen.
Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Some of the common errors that Christians can succumb to in our beliefs about God and the world come from our desire to escape time; to remove ourselves from history. For example, you can “ask Jesus into your heart” and “get saved” in a conversion experience, but because “getting saved” is something that supposedly happens in a single instant, salvation becomes necessarily detached from the rest of life. Because life is not a single instant, of course, but is lived along the slow and unceasing passing of time -- day to day, month to month, year to year. So inevitably, you’re faced with a big now what? when it comes to actually living the Christian life. And often, the most that you can do is to try to inject the emotions and the circumstances of that original conversion experience into the rest of your life from then on; the task is to somehow sustain that initial drama of getting saved indefinitely. Salvation has escaped time; it has removed itself from history; and now you’re left trying to constantly pull it back down into the nitty gritty of your existence.
But even if you don’t happen to think of salvation in this way, it still is incredibly easy to imagine that our religion floats above time and history, so to speak, in a kind of undisturbed serenity. We are conditioned, in ways that we’re not even aware of, to think of Christianity as something that’s comfortably situated in a nice little box -- where everything is neatly organized and arranged just how we like it -- and this is what is supposed to enable us to handle all of the chaos that swirls around us in the world. Because in case you haven’t looked outside recently, there really isn’t anything out there that is neatly organized or arranged how we’d like it to be. The conflict, the complexity, the confusion of life in the world offers an appealing temptation for us to retreat back into the perceived comfort of a private Christianity. This is, after all, perhaps one of the most popular sales pitches Christians give for why people should join us. Come to our church, we advertise, and your life will make more sense. Your marriage will thrive; your kids will be well-behaved; you might even become more successful. This is Christianity as a certain kind of leisure activity -- a weekend pick-me-up before going back into the mess of things.
The convenience of this advertisement really is appealing, though. Because if our religion is situated nicely in our private life of leisure, we don’t really have to ever think about what Christianity or the Gospel or the Kingdom might have to say about our public life of work, education, culture, the economy, or politics. Christianity is what we do to get away from those things, which is another way of saying that those things ought to be left to play by their own -- rules that are separate from the rules that govern our religion. Those things are in a different box.
Now, everything that I’ve said so far might seem to conflict with the words of our Collect this morning, which ask that God would give us mercy so that we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal. “Things temporal” are all those things that we experience within history, and here, we are praying that God would help us “pass through” them in order that we may keep our sights fixed on “things eternal.” That sure does sound like what I described earlier, the idea that we should just not be too concerned with all the complexities of life in the world and instead just focus on eternity.
But consider the various metaphors that Christ employs in our Gospel today. The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus says, is like:
...a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.
...like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.
...like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
...like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
...like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.
These all use very different imagery to make their point, but there is a common theme that connects them all together -- and that is time. The mustard seed has to grow; the yeast has to leaven the flour; those who find the treasure and the pearls have to go and sell all they have in order to buy what they’ve found; the fish of every kind that have been caught in the net have to be sorted. Each of these examples imply some kind of process, some degree of patience and discipline. The one who finds the treasure hidden in a field directs all of his efforts to the end of acquiring it; in the words of our Collect today, he has not lost sight of things eternal. He passes through things temporal -- that is, all the other things that he could possibly pursue instead of the treasure in the field -- by selling everything he has to get it. Nothing else matters half as much as the treasure that he longs to possess. The same goes for the merchant who finds the pearl of great price, no doubt after seeing countless other lesser pearls that didn’t merit his attention. This is the pearl -- the pearl of great price -- the pearl that demands nothing less than everything the merchant has in order for him to afford it.
But unlike the form of Christianity that I described earlier, consider how none of the characters in Christ’s parables are just waiting around for whatever it is they desire to just happen. Passing through things temporal while focusing on things eternal doesn’t look like making ourselves as comfortable as possible as we wait for heaven or something. Nor does it look like maintaining a respectable practice of private Christianity -- the Christianity of that nice little box -- while making sure that it doesn’t get too mixed up with the rest of our lives and vice versa. On the contrary, passing through things temporal requires subjecting every aspect of our lives to the standard of eternity; we have to allow the yeast of grace to leaven the full measure of the flour. And that requires us to “sell all that we have” in pursuit of eternal life, whether figuratively in terms of our total devotion or maybe even literally, as the radical poverty of St. Francis puts on full display.
In short, passing through things temporal has nothing to do with an imaginary escape from time or history, which is impossible. The Christian life is fully present, fully embedded in the material and embodied life of the world; it’s just that it is a form of life that renounces all the attachments and allure of lesser things as our reception of the gift of eternal life becomes ever more complete, ever more purified. So destroy the neat little box of leisured Christianity; expose the full measure of your life to the leavening power of the life of God that has been given to you, for it is only by being so exposed that we can truly beg that God would increase and multiply his mercy upon us so that he may bring us into the midst of those things eternal. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our Collect for today is a prayer that says as much about us as it says about God. All prayer does this in some way: our address to God, whether of adoration or confession or petition or any other form, defines the one who prays in a certain way. All of our prayers say something about us. God, on the other hand, remains the same as always, for God is unchanging. No matter how varied our prayers are, those prayers never make God into a different God depending on our circumstances. God is always “the fountain of all wisdom,” the source and standard of the human lives he has created. So, if prayer is our communication with God, to say that prayer defines us in a certain way is to say that prayer defines us according to God -- which is the true definition of who we are.
You can see this clearly in our Collect today; it is a prayer that directs us to step back and get behind ourselves. As many of you will recognize, even if we’re accustomed to praying often, it can be easy to neglect the posture in which we pray. I’m not necessarily speaking of literal body posture, though I’d certainly include that. What I mean by “posture” is something like our self-awareness; what and who we imagine ourselves to be when we pray. Where are our prayers coming from? What are the implicit, unspoken ideas we communicate about ourselves and about God through the way we pray? How do those ideas affect the emotional state from which we pray? Every time we pray, we are listening to ourselves do it -- learning from ourselves -- so it’s important that we are ever honing the manner in which we pray.
Now, fortunately, the great thing about prayer is that it happens to be the most effective way to become more honest about who we imagine ourselves to be. Prayer is the path to true self-awareness. But, as our Collect today makes clear, it helps to literally and accurately describe ourselves as a part of our prayer to get us headed in that direction. We want to pursue that true definition of ourselves before God. So let’s go through it a bit and see what we discover about ourselves within it.
The Collect begins by admitting our weakness before the majesty of God. Our lives are constrained by “necessities” -- there are many things that we can’t choose to go without, even if we wanted to. To be human requires that we simply receive the life that mostly comes to us from outside of us. No matter how much self-sufficiency we think we can muster, none of us can ever be the source of our existence. As the Psalm puts it, the eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their meat in due season. Our necessities stand in need of an ultimate fulfillment that only the providence of God can give. And thus it is a prayer of honesty, for this is the accurate assessment of our condition not only in comparison to God, but also in normal everyday experience. As it continues, it’s not just that we have our several necessities that we ask God to provide for, we don’t even know what those necessities are sometimes! God knows them, of course, but even the requests that we humbly bring to God are limited by “our ignorance in asking.” We don’t have a crystal clear view of who we are and what we need. As if the world wasn’t confusing enough already, we are even a mystery to ourselves. So it goes on, Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask.
Because of our weakness, we can never demand anything from God as though we earned it, as though God were in our debt. Our unworthiness forever reminds us to approach God in a holy fear, a fear that never forgets the “blindness” which afflicts us in this life. We are blind because of our human limitations and because of our sin and falsehood. Our vision is not only weak, but distorted. All of this should induce our contrition and humility: mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask.
But this reference to blindness also gets at something deep in Jesus’ parable from our Gospel this morning. And if we are going to pray well, it is something that we will need to consider. Our Lord is continuing a series of parables that sketch out the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. In today’s parable, Jesus tells a story about a householder and his slaves who discover that an enemy has sabotaged their fields by sowing weeds among the wheat. To make matters worse, they don’t discover this assault until it’s too late, when both the wheat and the weeds are already growing up together. The slaves ask the householder, Then do you want us to go and gather them? But the householder’s response is interesting. He says:
This is why we are still blind, not only to what we truly need from God, but sometimes even to our identity as the wheat. To succumb to the allure of sin and the world and live according to the flesh is to become like the weeds. And this only increases our blindness and makes our prayer even more difficult than it already is.
Many years ago, my Grandfather planted a seed within me that I will never forget. I was around the age of 8 and spent most weekends with my grandparents. Why? Because they spoiled the heck out of me.
Now my Grandfather spent most of his time outdoors in his garden, planting, cultivating and harvesting. He grew everything under the sun, at least it seemed that way to me.
He was a man of few words, so when he spoke, I listened. One day we were sitting on the back porch and he was whittling a stick and chewing tobacco. This was his favourite form of relaxation and reflection after a hard day’s work. And this was usually the time he would say something profound.
Suddenly, he pulled out his gold pocketwatch and gave it to me and said, “it’s yours.” I still have that watch today; like me it runs a little slow. Then he planted a seed within me.
Grandpa told me that he had won the watch in a poker game and then he pointed to a galvanized washtub. That was back in the day when you automatic washer was on the back porch with its hand cranking wringer. After wringing out your clothes, you rinsed them in the galvanized washtubs.
He pointed to the washtub and said this, “Stevie, I ‘ve won a washtub full of money and lost a washtub full of money, gambling. Don’t gamble.” And for the life of me, he never ever mentioned it again.
Nonetheless, it was a seed well planted, for I have never gambled. Okay, okay, let me be completely honest, I have never gambled with money, but I do ride a motorcycle.
If my grandfather were alive today, I do not think he would be all that surprised that, per capita, Oklahoma has more casinos that any state in the union.
Usually on Sunday afternoons, after mass, my buddy and I will ride our motorcycles to the candy factory in Dexter, Kansas. On the way, we pass by two large casinos just this side of the state line, and aside from the Coronavirus pandemic, their parking lots are always full.
Tim is Roman Catholic and we both have remarked that we wished our church parking lots were that full on Sundays.
Our gospel lesson today is also about planting seeds. It is entitled “The parable of the sower.” Jesus used such parables, simple stories of daily life, to teach deeper spiritual truths.
The disciples may not be fully able to understand the depths of God’s love for humanity, so much so that he would empty himself of his divinity and incarnate himself in human form, to walk among them and teach them how to love God and love their neighbor.
They may not be fully able to understand that Jesus Christ was the “Word of God (capital W), and in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among them.
They may not be fully able to understand that in Christ, “All thing came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in Christ was life, and the life was the light of all peoples.”
They may not be fully able to understand these deeper spiritual truths…but they did understand sowing, planting and cultivating the gospel of Christ in hearts and lives.
They did understand sheep and a shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep, who is willing to leave the 99 and go search for the one who was lost.
They did understand casting their nets and fishing for those souls who were lost and perishing, and healing those who were sick and dying.
They did understand about finding ways to love and reconcile rebellious and disobedient prodigal sons and daughters who squandered their inheritance in pleasure seeking, ending up penniless and starving.
They did understand how the most unlikely people can come to their rescue when they have been beaten and robbed, while their own people turned their backs on them.
These things they could understand.
In “the parable of the Sower,” Jesus illustrated the deeper spiritual truth that the Kingdom of God is like seeds being sown, where some seeds are snatched away by those who harm and abuse.
Where some seeds are cared for and nurtured for a while, however, eventually the struggles and stresses of life, depression, fear and anxiety overcome them and they wither.
Where some seeds are choked off by the thorns of addiction, domestic violence, broken marriages, and chasing after the false gods of power and wealth.
Where some seeds however, find fertile soil, where they are nurtured by loving families, by gifted teachers, mentors and coaches; by faithful parishes and priests who teach them how much God loves them, and that loving God and loving their neighbor will be the most important things they will ever do.
These seeds will be further nurtured and led by the Holy Spirit to green pastures, beside still waters, and in paths of righteousness; they will even be led through the valley of the shadow of death where their souls will be restored.
My friends, we must realise that we are God’s seeds sown in this world to bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit, for the fruit of the Spirit is: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control.”
Can you think of anything more needed in our world today?
We are God’s seeds sown in fields so often filled with the weeds of doubt and despair; in fields so often forgotten, neglected, parched and undernourished.
We are God’s seeds sown in fields ravaged by disaster and discouragement; in fields flooded with sickness and sorrow.
We are God’s seeds sown in fields overrun with division, disharmony and disillusionment; this is certainly the case in America in 2020 with the pandemic, and political and racial unrest.
But rest assured, my friends, the seeds God plants will bear fruit…and as the prophet Isaiah reminds us in our Old Testament lesson today, God’s seeds will not be wasted, they “will not return empty, but shall accomplish that for which they are purposed, and succeed in the things for which they are sent.
On this we can be sure, and on this we can depend.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the story that our country tells about itself, you could say that what makes the United States stand out is that it aspires to make the words of Christ that we hear in today’s Gospel its own. Not necessarily in a literal sense, but since its founding, America has perceived itself as sitting at the summit of human longing, where all the hopes and dreams of humanity can finally converge and find their fulfillment. You can hear the echoes of this aspiration in one of our most famous national poems, The New Colossus, which is engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Every American has heard it before: Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Or, if we were to put it like Christ, Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Now, as I said, this is the story that we tell ourselves; it’s almost like our founding myth, the myth of the idea of America. And it has inspired much of what has sustained our nation and brought so many countless individuals from across the world. Not to mention the countless individuals who have served our country and sacrificed for it; those who, as the Collect for the Nation in the Prayer Book puts it, have possessed “a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance.” But as an idea, a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, it can remain somewhat detached from the many complexities of our history. After all, many of those “huddled masses” that were brought to our shores came on slave ships, no doubt “yearning to breathe free” with every fiber of their being, as their descendants valiantly do to this day. And there were many, of course, who didn’t come here at all, but were here already. So our story is a complicated one. The height of our aspiration has often been as much the measure of the depth of our depravity as the measure of our virtues. Nevertheless, what we can say is at least that the idea of our story does get at something of what all human beings desire in their hearts: the desire for rest; the desire to be relieved of the burdens that inhibit human flourishing.
The complications of our national story that this weekend calls us to remember -- its triumphs along with its sins -- ultimately come from the complexities of this basic human desire to flourish, to rest. Because the difference between rest and burdens is not always easy to detect. In order to fulfill this desire to rest, we have to first determine what rest actually is -- and what a burden actually is -- before we can tell them apart. And that’s the catch. Every parent knows that, sometimes, what children resist as an undue burden is actually a necessary responsibility of maturity, perhaps even one that leads to real satisfaction. A clean room can be a better environment for one’s imagination and creativity than a messy one, for instance, or at the very least can make it easier to find your shoes. And of course, that’s not to say that we adults don’t do plenty of this ourselves. How often do our dysfunctional burdens seem lighter and easier to bear than the “rest” that would come with authentic healing? Patterns of addiction can develop from precisely this line of thinking. We become habituated to what initially appears like an easier, quicker way to rest -- quite literally a “fix” to whatever the pain or stress or trauma is that feels to heavy to bear. All the mercy and compassion to that kind of suffering. The point is that many of our all-too-human problems -- at both an individual and social level -- are related to our failure to properly identify the source of our flourishing vs. the source of our weariness; our rest vs. our burdens.
But this only gets harder when things get Christian. Or, at least it gets harder before it gets easier. Today, our Lord speaks in a comforting tone, the tone that goes with all the images of Jesus that we grow up seeing in children’s bibles. For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. But these words come from the same Lord who says elsewhere in this same Gospel that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven; that it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell; or, put simply, to be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. A high challenge, indeed. After all, if this is what counts as “rest” and an “easy” yoke, maybe I’ll take the weariness and the heavy burdens!
But then again, Jesus himself never said that the true rest that he offers would make sense compared to the burdens of the world. Today, he plainly thanks God because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants. It’s not always clear where our rest and our flourishing is to be found -- sometimes, it might even be hiding behind something that initially appears burdensome or even threatening. The path to our rest is counter-intuitive, according to Jesus, maybe even absurd. Remember what Jesus says: those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. If our true life is found in its loss -- and it is a real loss -- then it should be no surprise that we might instinctively retreat from the offer of this true life in fear.
Nevertheless, in Matthew’s Gospel in particular, perfection is the “rest” that Christ both offers to us and expects from us; the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light. Because only the person who has been freed from all the burdens that obstruct the love of God and neighbor can be at perfect rest. This is the ultimate test of what counts as rest vs what counts as a burden: “rest” is the activity that imitates Christ’s sacrificial offering of himself for the sake of the world; a “burden,” by contrast, is anything that holds us back from that kind of sacrifice -- all the self-protective fences we build around ourselves and what we think belongs to us at the expense of the lives of others . In other words, it’s the complete reversal of what we tend to think will give us rest vs what will burden us. The Gospel says that rest is not found by securing ourselves against the imaginary threats posed by other people -- in fact, that’s actually the most effective way to burden yourself -- but rather, as our Collect this morning puts it, by being “devoted to [God] with our whole heart and united to one another with pure affection.” We rest “to the extent that we give life to each other,”  in other words, both materially and spiritually.
In the meantime, however, we’re still in the process of being freed from these burdens that inhibit our love of God and neighbor. We are not yet at perfect rest because we are not yet perfect. Which is why we need the discipline and guidance of the yoke of Christ -- the yoke that we must take upon ourselves if we are to be his disciples. We have to learn from Christ, as he tells us; and as we learn from him, his yoke upon us grows ever lighter and easier through our repentance and conversion. To that end, make a point to meditate on God’s commandments; to examine how your life compares to them. And then pray to God for the grace to submit yourself to the yoke of Christ. All you have to lose are your burdens.
 Herbert McCabe. “Poverty and God” in God, Christ and Us, 56.
Jesus said, Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The only reason that Christians can confess by faith that Jesus is the Son of God -- the Word made Flesh who dwelt among us -- is because Jesus is precisely that. Faith is not something that we generate from within ourselves, nor is the identity of the one in whom we place our faith something that is available for human investigation or analysis. As is made repeatedly clear throughout the Old Testament, no one can see God. God in Godself is unknowable, as he infinitely transcends all possible categories of created knowledge -- whether of humans or of angels. Which means that the knowledge of God that we possess by faith must be given to us by God as a gift -- a gift that would otherwise remain inaccessible to us. God not only has to reveal himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ, but furthermore has to move within us in order that we may recognize Jesus for who he is. Again, because Jesus is the Son of God, his identity infinitely transcends what we are able to observe in the world. Thus, the only way that mere humans could possibly recognize and confess the truth of who Jesus is is if God were to enable us to do so. And this enabling is what we call grace: the inward working of God within us, which raises us beyond what we would otherwise be capable of knowing to the level of faith. And it is at this level of faith that we can know, however dimly, something of who God is.
Now, our reading this morning comes from Chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus is about to send his disciples out “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He sends them out with both specific instructions and grave warnings: they’re going forth “like sheep into the midst of wolves,” he tells them, and thus must “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” But before he sends them off, Jesus gives them the authority they need to complete their mission: the “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.” But note that this authority is given to the disciples -- it’s a gift. And just as the gift of faith is a share in the knowledge of God, so too is the gift of this authority a share in the power of God. Hence the power over unclean spirits and disease that the disciples receive from Jesus. Indeed, were it not for this gift of authority, this mission would clearly be impossible for the disciples. Just as, were it not for the gift of faith, our knowledge of who Jesus is would likewise be inaccessible. They must first be given the grace -- the power of God working within them -- that they need to complete their mission.
I begin with this background because Jesus concludes his instructions to the disciples with a stunning claim, which is what we find in our Gospel reading today. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Jesus identifies himself with the disciples -- perhaps even as the disciples. The disciples are to be his representatives, carrying with them the authority they received to do his work in the world. And with that authority, the disciples effectively become the presence of Christ to those they encounter. They become the extension of Christ to the world. Of course, Christ himself had already established this pattern, for Christ himself came into the world with a mission from the Father, having received power and authority from the Father to complete it. Which is why those who welcome the disciples not only welcome the Christ who sent them, but in welcoming Christ they welcome also the Father. So already, there is this intimate unity that is shared between the Father, Jesus, and his disciples. And what secures this unity is grace: the grace that Christ, as the incarnate Son of God, receives from his Father in heaven that is then given to the disciples. Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.
So far, I’ve made a connection between the gift of faith that enables us to recognize Christ for who he is and the gift of authority that enables the disciples (and us) to carry out Christ’s mission in the world. And if both faith and authority are gifts from God, then both are necessarily given to us by grace -- for grace is nothing other than the inner working of God within us. But this presents us with a slight problem, at least potentially. We’ve heard it said countless times before that “with great power comes great responsibility,” but the tricky thing about power is precisely that it tends to cause those who have it to shirk responsibility. To imagine that they are exempt from consequences; and that the whole point of power is having the ability to pass responsibility off to those they consider below them. And it’s not at all difficult to imagine either the disciples or us falling into this thinking. After all, whoever welcomes me welcomes Christ? Really? That’s not too far off from the pretense that I basically am Christ; and that whoever likes me is clearly one of the Good People and whoever doesn’t is just a hater who’s gonna hate.
So what’s the corrective to this temptation? How are the disciples of Christ -- whether in this passage or in our own day -- supposed to keep themselves from perverting the graces that God has given them into a presumption of superiority over others? Well, here’s the thing: the identification of Christ with his disciples as they go out in their mission to the world is not a one-way street; in fact, later in Matthew’s Gospel, Christ will flip these roles.
So the task before us is one of discernment. By prayer and obedience, by receiving the graces that God bestows on us with humility and devotion, we gradually acquire a clearer view of things. Our faith grows ever more secure, because the more perceptive we are of where Christ is to be found -- in whom Christ is to be found -- the more perceptive we are of Christ himself. We see Christ more clearly and therefore know Christ more deeply. But this comes with yet another paradox, of which there are many in the Christian life, which is that Christ recognizes us as his disciples only insofar as we recognize Christ in those with whom he identifies. Now, with the eyes of faith, we could potentially recognize Christ in any human being -- that’s the point of the Incarnation. But, as St. Benedict so wisely observed, “it is especially in [the poor] that Christ is received” because it is the poor who present us with nothing but themselves. They are fully and only human, with little to offer us in the way of advancement or prestige. Which happens to make them very much like Christ, which is why he identifies himself with them. Jesus’ mission in the world was just that -- to be fully and only human, and thereby live a life of perfect obedience to the will of the Father. May God grant us the grace to recognize Christ evermore cleary; to repent and rid ourselves of all the contempt and suspicion and prejudice against the Lord’s poor that we have unconsciously imbibed from the world. For only then will we be welcomed by Christ as those who welcomed him. Amen.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning to you all! I can’t really believe that this day has finally arrived and that we are now living among you in Ponca City. So here we all are together! At the very beginning of what God willing will be a lasting ministry with you all in this new chapter in the life of Grace Church. We’re still settling in but we are so grateful to the goodness of God that we found a beautiful house to make into our home. Special thanks to all those who’ve welcomed us and especially to those of you who’ve been so kind as to bring us meals.
Though some time has past since my call to serve as your rector was announced, I also want to say again how thankful I am for the diligent prayer and work that the search committee and the vestry contributed throughout the search process: something that took way longer than what was anticipated. In fact, I happened to be looking through my inbox recently and discovered that my first day in the office this past Monday was exactly a year to the day from when I first submitted my materials to the search process for this position. So this has indeed been a long time coming and the world has been turned upside down since. Nevertheless, God’s timing is always ordained under his never-failing providence; it’s our job to discern the call of Christ in the midst of whatever situation we find ourselves in. Christ took up his cross so that every moment of life can be a moment to take up ours.
And what a moment we’re in now! There is something ironic about entering into the liturgical season that we often call “Ordinary Time,” since I can’t quite recall the last time that I considered to be ordinary, but maybe that’s the point, the deeper truth. Maybe what counts as “ordinary” for the life of the Church just is this constant act of discernment; this constant discrimination between that which acknowledges Christ and that which denies him; between the false peace that tries to sweep its violence under the rug and the sword of Christ that severs it with a true peace that the world cannot give; and yes, even between some of our closest relationships and strongest attachments. And if this is “ordinary,” then this liturgical season of Ordinary Time simply takes this challenge for granted. Which means that the call to take up our cross names the basic activity of the Christian life.
But you’d be forgiven if you found today’s Gospel reading to be rather severe and maybe even a bit intimidating. Christ certainly allows for no compromises: it’s either/or all the way down. And this is a recurring theme throughout St. Matthew’s Gospel, specifically. So we’re left with the question that we should always ask of any passage of Scripture, which is where the good news is to be found. That doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to look for the bright side of whatever we’re reading or put a positive spin on it. Rather, to perceive the good news in Scripture is to allow ourselves to be honest about what counts as good news. And this requires the courage of prayer and discernment. We have to be willing to be transformed by what we find to be good news. We have to cultivate the humility to recognize that sometimes, it’s in our ideas of what’s good for us that we are most mistaken. Sometimes, our idea of what is good is where we stand to be the most transformed by the renewal of our minds.
And I think that’s one of the reasons that our Lord describes himself as the one who comes “to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law”; to be the reason that “one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Happy Fathers’ Day, right? Because what is more familiar or comfortable or as unsuspicious as your family? Now, there’s no doubt that there are Christians now and throughout history that have experienced this in the most literal sense: Christians who are effectively disowned by their families for following the call of Christ. Or at least cause a bit of tension. Not to mention of course the countless people among us whose families were never true places of comfort and security, but of fear and danger. But even if that’s not your experience, the intensity of this image of Christ setting families against each other is meant to focus our attention on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call “the cost of discipleship.” If Christ comes to demand our full devotion, then we should not be surprised to find that the more we’ve devoted ourselves to things other than Christ, the more painful that change will feel at first. It could feel as though we’ve had to reject something as close to us as our family.
Remember that human life consists of a bunch of different loves: at the end of the day, everything that we do, every action we take, is motivated by some kind of love, some kind of attachment to what we desire. And that goes for things as small as when I’ve already made too many ice cream runs to Braum’s since coming back to Oklahoma all the way to things as large as the question of what occupations we choose to perform or how we raise our kids. And when a human life becomes a Christian life, none of this is particularly changed. Human life is still about discerning the things that are worth our devotion, worth our love, from among those things that aren’t -- it’s just that now, the ultimate standard for that discernment is Christ himself. Jesus is like the template, the pattern for what a human life looks like when all of its loves are perfectly ordered. And paradoxically, that pattern looks like the cross. We find our lives when we lose them, just as Christ found the new life of resurrection when he gave up his life for the sake of the world.
Maybe I’ve only increased the severity of Christ’s words so far and you’re still waiting for the “good news” part. So let’s get back to that. When kids insist that all the food on their plate is kept separate, with nothing touching anything else, the certainty of their demand comes from the absolute clarity of their preferences. There’s no ambiguity about where the mac n’ cheese belongs vs where the hot dog goes: those are totally different things that should never be confused or treated as though they were the same. Now, as we grow older, we discover that the neat and tidy categories and distinctions of childhood don’t really work for a world as complicated as ours. And so it’s appropriate that adults learn to let up on their certainty a bit, at least on some things; to admit that not everything is crystal clear. I mean, we entered 2020 as if things would just continue on as they were, with not the slightest clue about the pandemic and the shutdown that were just around the corner. And here we are together at the beginning of this new chapter and the future remains as foggy as it always is. But the good news of these stern words from our Lord today is that we can become again like children; as disciples of Christ, we can begin cultivating for ourselves the kind of clarity of discernment that they show with the food on their plates. By the grace of God working through our prayers and obedience to the teachings of his Son, we can slowly move to a place where that which doesn’t go with the call of Christ is as clear as day. So my prayer for us all, here at the start of something new in the life of Grace Church, is that God would bestow on us the wisdom and the virtue with which to face the daunting uncertainties of our present day, confident of the truth that shines through them all: that life is to be found in giving it away; that human life is lived to the fullest when it looks like the cross. So let’s take it up and follow Christ, discerning the times, ordering our loves. Because that’s how we will discover just how much grace can really be given to this parish that is so appropriately named.