The church year continues with what has often been called “ordinary time” or the “time after Pentecost.”
We are also reconnecting with the time of Epiphany, picking up again the readings from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus is depicted as a new Moses, expanding and deepening an understanding of God’s law (Sermon on the Mount or Beatitudes). Preaching in this time is to tend, water, nurture the seed of faith planted that faith may grow and deepen and increase not only in the lives of individuals but in the vision and life of the faith community.
In this regard, it is perhaps good to remember where we had left off in Epiphany. The Sermon on the Mount outlines a joyful obedience for the new community of followers. It defines them as a beloved community in which everyone, no matter their own personal identity, finds a place. This community is marked by the “extraordinary” as Bonhoeffer pointed out, not that the community is special or privileged but rather the community witnesses, in its life, to the extraordinary ways of God, who knows no middle road.
The extraordinary as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount accentuates the extremes of a gospel way. The extraordinary has an appeal and inspiration when it awakens profound hope and joy within us (for example, the parable of the treasure in the field); however, it makes us uncomfortable and confuses us, it even repulses us when the stakes are high, when the gains seems exorbitant and the losses damning. As preachers you are inviting the congregation into this world of the extraordinary and high stakes.
The first (and long) reading from Matthew (Ordinary 11 – June 14, 2020) invites us into this dynamic of the extraordinary that will span over the next few months. It invites us into a way of reading both Matthew and the texts from the letter to the Romans. “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” And as you go, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food” (Matthew 10:19).
The gospel way demands a total obedience but this obedience is not one that we conjure up out of our own efforts, it is one that comes with faith. The gospel way, as described in Matthew, is a way of dependence on the One who has called and sent us. What does this dependence and obedience look like in the faith community, in your context?
The gospel way is one of beautiful transparency. The verse from the Sermon on the Mount is echoed: let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” However, this transparency and honesty, the extraordinary freedom of the gospel with regard to values a culture might hold tightly, even the value of family bonds, can be sorely tested and may encounter and lead to division. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother” (Matthew 10:35).
The disciples have nothing to hide: they go without baggage. They are like newly baptized infants, pulled naked out of the baptismal font. This baptismal way is described in the readings from Romans. Romans 6 describes this baptismal way as participation in Christ’s death to be raised again with Christ. The first eight chapters of Romans, in particular, describe God’s act of reclaiming human beings and creation, killing the old, and creating the new. The baptismal way as described in Romans is also an extraordinary way. It inaugurates new creation which like ferment imperceptibly leavens the dough.
The way of new creation also reveals God’s extraordinary justice which is beyond any justice we know. The gesture of welcome opens up to a generosity that surpasses all human calculations (Matthew 10:40 and following verses). In the coming Kingdom, generosity itself is multiplied and grows such that even the smallest amount has an incredible impact, like the mustard seed that grows into the tallest of shrubs. As preachers, you are inviting people into this dynamic: God is doing something and invites us to see and hear and participate, like seed on good soil that bears fruits and yields, “in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (Matthew 13:23).
The “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” an imagine that is unsettling for many, falls also within this extraordinary. Our imaginations create a place of torment and we are also quick to define who might end up there and for what reasons! But our definitions of right and wrong, our categories, are simply the product of human calculations. In the field, the good crop and the weeds grow together. We cannot separate them, we cannot judge. The parable of the sower reminds us as well that there are many who hear the Word but many things in this world distract or hinder growth: care for the ease and comforts of life or fear of resistance or even persecution or perhaps simply mediocrity. The seed does not take root and withers. God’s extraordinary love is but one and the same love for all. In some, it may be experienced as a scorching flame. In others, it lights a fire of love that will never die.
The extraordinary comes to the forefront again in the feeding of the 5000 that defies all market calculations. And, in the appearance of Jesus walking over the stormy sea towards the disciples, creation itself is subject to the extraordinary. The storm is not immediately calmed but Jesus walks in the midst of it, allowing the winds to blow, and even invites Peter out into it. The winds cease only when Jesus, the new Moses, enters the boat and the disciples make it to the other side.
The first half of the Time after Pentecost ends with the confession of Peter. No matter how it may be interpreted, Peter recognizes the extraordinary. Jesus is the Son of the living God and this recognition completely changes all of life.
Dirk G. Lange’s six-part Working Preacher series, “Themes in Year A,” highlights liturgical and sacramental realities that flow through the texts and inform worship and sermon preparation.