Grace Episcopal Church
The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6A)
May the Lord be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart, that
I may rightly and truly proclaim His holy Word. Amen.
Who do you belong to? Most, asked this question this bluntly, will probably first say, “I belong to myself. I am my own man, or my own woman.” Good for you. We are both called and equipped to be people of free will. We each have intrinsic worth which God has deemed so valuable that He gave the infinite worth of His own Son’s life, that we might be restored to the image and likeness in which He created each one of us.
There are those around us who do not understand how precious they are to God, for they have never experienced being loved. For example, when I have dealt with victims of human trafficking, I have found it not uncommon for these victims to have tattoos that are really property marks. If you see a young girl in this town with the letters “M.G.” tattooed on her neck, quickly let the police know where and when you saw her. That’s a property mark for a particular pimp, and the only possession that a victim so branded knows is that of being a slave. To which we must contrast the possession of which the Lord speaks in our lesson from Exodus, saying to Israel, “… you shall be my treasured possession …”
My treasured possession: What do you treasure? Whatever this might be, you invest real value in it. You invest yourself, your passion, your caring, and this means that what you ultimately treasure is far beyond any mere thing or things that you might have. For example, you might be passionate about old cars or icons, or your house. It doesn’t really matter what the thing might be. Whatever it is, you have a real interest. You collect or decorate, and have knowledge. You invest time and money to the exclusion of other options. But if tomorrow you had to burn your prized sports car or icon or house to save the life of your child, you wouldn’t hesitate to do so, because you know that you treasure your child more than any thing. What you really treasure is what you have invested your ultimate value in. You have invested yourself, your own sacrifice.
Which brings us back to the first question I asked. Who do you belong to? It’s natural for us to say “I am my own man (or woman)”, but the reality is that as soon as we recognize and assert who we are we recognize that we are defined by relationships. There are others in our lives who are our true treasure, and for whom we are their true treasure. Let’s start out with God, who tells Israel that they shall be His treasured possession. Despite the fact that the people continually say they will be Lord’s, and then follow their own desires, even making a golden calf, denying God, and saying “These are your gods …!” (Exod. 32.4)—despite all this God never abandons His people. Repeatedly, when promises made to God are broken, God keeps His promises. Repeatedly, when God’s possession of His people is rejected by them, He sends His servants, the prophets, and finally sends His only Son, to pay the price for the rupture in relationship. What is most dear to God, His Son, is what He gives to ransom His “treasured possession”.
This context of the special relationship between the Lord and Israel is what we need to appreciate in order to understand what is going on in our gospel lesson when Jesus sends His named disciples. He says, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” For those of us who are not of the house of Israel, this is shocking. Is not the Gospel universal. Did not God so love the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life?
It is both mistaken and dangerous to take any verse of the Bible out of context. We have to read all of Scripture. But just as we have to recall Jesus being completely inclusive in His words to Nicodemus in John’s gospel, we have to engage His exclusionary words in sending His disciples, here in Matthew’s gospel. The reality is that in proclaiming the kingdom to all, God first sends His disciples to the lost sheep of His own house, His own possession.
This brings us to another problem of “belonging”, of belonging to the Church. Perhaps I should say “a” church, as in a congregation or parish, because people who have left any congregation or denomination or parish usually do not think of themselves as having left belief, left the Church (capital “C”). Most people who are not regular in worship still think of themselves as believers. And at many levels, they may well be, but not at the level of relationship with a worshipping community. Just as Jesus instructs His disciples to proclaim to the lost of Israel that the kingdom has come near, we are sent to remind those who have strayed from the practice of the faith, “The kingdom may still be found here.”
The kingdom may be found. The kingdom is near. The kingdom is not delivered/provided, either by Jesus or by His Church. It’s always been normal for people to want the kingdom delivered. That’s why the people who have been fed by Jesus with bread and fish keep chasing after Him, and some seek to seize Him and make Him king by force. No, the kingdom has come near; it is offered, but we must choose the kingdom. And, just as God sent His prophets to remind the people of Israel of their relationship with the Lord; just as Jesus sent His named disciples to proclaim to the lost that the kingdom was near, so we are sent. We are sent first to our own.
Leave aside, for today, how we are sent to all. The Good News is universal, and we have each promised in our baptismal vows to seek and serve Christ in all persons. The model Jesus is giving us is that we must start at home. On Pentecost I preached about how, when Jesus tells His disciples that they are to be His witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea, in Samaria, and to the end of the earth, He is telling us—today, in Sheboygan—that we must first reach out to “Jerusalem” (to our own) and all Judea (to all those connected with the parish), and then to Samaria (to those around us) and all the world. I want to revisit that message now, in the context of Jesus sending His named disciples to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. These lost sheep are, for us, all the members of this parish who have left and who have not found another church. If someone has left because we were in some way not feeding them, we were not their “cup of tea”, and they have found a spiritual home in another church, then thanks be to God that He has called them into the life of the Church and they have responded. I am not talking about those who have found another parish, another denomination. I am talking about those who have left and gone nowhere else. They are just not active in any worshipping community. Maybe we see them once or twice a year; maybe not at all. But we still know them. We still encounter these brothers and sisters in the community around us. And the reality is that God is sending us to them.
Notice that when Jesus sends His disciples, He gives them amazing powers but He also tells them, flatly, that they are being sent out as sheep into the midst of wolves. He counsels to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves”—that we are to use our heads, but also that we are never to seek advantage. In our own context this means that when we reach out to those who have left, we can expect some awkward conversations, and must focus on listening. In listening we must focus on what the underlying cause of alienation is. Can the person name it? Will he or she name it only when the conversation becomes quite uncomfortable? It’s one thing if someone has been drawn elsewhere, but if they have just left, and not gone elsewhere, then the real reason might be something like “Here’s how the church let me down.” “Here’s why I don’t respond to the rector, or why I think he’s a jerk.” “Here’s how I have been hurt.” “Here’s how I have not been fed.” “Here are my doubts.”
Then what do we say? What we say is first whatever the Spirit gives us to say, if we are prayerfully open to God’s Spirit. We listen. We get the person to share more, because in all of this we are seeking to communicate a bedrock reality: “You are God’s treasured possession, and in God we treasure you. We miss you. The kingdom has come near, and we are seeking to live into the kingdom together. Come be with us, to seek this kingdom.”
Or first mission is to those who we have lost. Our first mission is to those who have lost their faith, who no longer experience their own lives as being the treasured possession of any. We are called, sent and empowered to incarnate Jesus’ presence, to proclaim His kingdom. And we are equipped to listen, even when it hurts. I need to know if I have hurt someone or offended them. I need to know in what ways I have failed to incarnate Christ. These are not conversations I have ever enjoyed, but I far prefer such a conversation to none at all, to just always wondering why someone has left, and if I have in any way failed them.
Let’s start at home. Let’s proclaim the kingdom to those whose faces are missing. Let’s remind them that they are treasured as ours in Christ. Let’s pray that we may proclaim the kingdom together.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.