Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, June 18, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 3

Pentecost 3, 2023
Genesis 18:1-15
Psalm 116:1, 10-17
Romans 5:1-8
Matthew 9:35-10:8

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.  But the first time I went there, I was struck by one thing in particular.  Out of all the displays and memorabilia I strolled past, the main thing I remember was how small Prince’s jumpsuit turned out to be.  He was a surprisingly short guy.

And I’ve had the same thing at other museums—and maybe you have too—where you stand in front of some suit of armor from some legendary hero of history and it just looks . . . child size.  These people who loom so large in our minds are usually no bigger than anyone else.  And, given that people have become taller over the centuries, the heroes of history often turn out to be smaller than the people you know.

By contrast, if you go into a church called, St. Paul’s, for instance, you will usually see a giant stained-glass window of St. Paul, towering over the Altar.  We commemorate the heroes of the faith in this way, as larger than life  . . . and, with glass of many colors.  The people in our sacred scriptures are memorialized in statues, and windows, and—well—church names themselves.  Think how many places are named St. Paul’s, or St. Peter’s, or St. John’s, or St. Mary’s.  Though there are fewer St. Timothy’s churches around, they do exist . . . as you well know.  Here in our sanctuary, we have that little stained glass above the doorway over there for St. Timothy.  (Which is more like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame size: you’re surprised he was such a small guy, right?)  

But my surprise in museums around the world, and the smallness of human beings, is actually tied to this glorification of human beings in our churches.  In fact, it’s the very same thing—except that television and movies have come to replace the stories of the Bible.  But whether someone is a rock star, an insurance broker, a construction worker, or a companion of Jesus Christ, they are  Still.  Just.  People.  

And it’s important to remember that, because over time we weed out the bad parts of our heroes, until we start to remember them as having done nothing wrong ever.  Which is fine and all, except that they then become these impossible Greek-like demigods who exist larger than life, and whose lofty perfection we can never hope to replicate. 

Anyway, on to the readings from today . . . In the reading from Genesis, we heard about the birth of Issac.  Or, more accurately, the pregnancy of Sara.  It’s one of those strange little tales we encounter that seems designed to tell us something else.  But there’s something else in the “something else” here too.  We think of Abraham and Sarah as being these giants of the faith.  And yet, here is Sarah, having an ordinary reaction to a ridiculous promise.  She is not really laughing so much as gasping for breath and saying, “AS IF!”  I mean come on, right?  She is an ordinary person having an ordinary response to an extraordinary promise.  Abraham is like a hundred years old!  Forgive my skepticism, says Sarah.

And yet . . . Here comes God, using ordinary people of doubtful ability to carry out an extraordinary event.  Sarah laughs, then lies about laughing, then gets caught lying, and then says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

And when we hear this story, we probably laugh too.  I know I do.  Maybe because we doubt the truth of it; or maybe because we doubt the possibility of it; or maybe just because of the absurdity of it.  Which makes us prime candidates to also end up saying, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”  My point is, Sarah is an ordinary person, having an ordinary reaction to an extraordinary event.  And that makes her just like us: incredulous at the absurdity of God’s generosity and abundance.

And in Paul’s letter to the Romans, he writes, “Christ died for the ungodly. . . . God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  And we only get why that’s absurd when we look at how we think of our relationship with God.  Deep down, we are all convinced that Jesus only died for the righteous ones, for the good people, for the people who go to church and stay out of trouble.  And it is just as crazy to believe God loves sinners as it is to believe that a hundred year old woman is going to give birth to a son.  It’s laughable, right?  As Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”

And then we come to today’s Gospel reading, from Matthew.  It’s a long set of instructions—most of which come after the part we heard—about how and where and why the disciples are supposed to go out and turn the world upside down.  And the stuff we tend to remember are the parts that have filtered into our culture by way of Ben Franklin sounding phrases:  Be as sheep among wolves, and shake the dust from your feet.  Those parts are familiar to us, and we usually quote them completely out of context.  Like we do.

But here’s what I want us to notice about this gospel reading today:  The people who are listed as present with Jesus.  Of course we have the usual ragtag group of fishermen, as always.  Guys who have no idea what it is like to read and write or speak in public.  But there are these three others I want us to notice.  Matthew, Simon, and Judas.

Matthew is a tax collector, which means he is in collusion with the occupying Romans, as we heard last week.  It’s hard for us appreciate what this means in that culture, because we’ve been independent for so long.  But this would kind of be like a tax collector for the British, before the American Revolution.  Someone aligned with the oppressors, but then also making his living by overcharging his fellow citizens.  The Jewish people hated tax collectors.  

And on the other extreme, we have Simon the Zealot (called Simon the Cananaean in this reading, to tell us that he is a different Simon from Simon Peter.)  This Simon was a Zealot, which is where we get the word . . . zealot.  And the Zealots in that time would be the ones working to overthrow the occupying Romans.  Think of them as the Minutemen in the War for Independence.  This Simon was all about rebellion and asymmetrical warfare and doing everything he could to frustrate the plans of the Roman occupation.  Most ordinary citizens would have thought of the Zealots as being over the top, and making their lives more difficult, by bringing down the Roman hammer in retaliation for their sabotage.

And then there’s Judas.  At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Judas hasn’t yet done what we know him for, but Matthew wants to make sure we know what to expect of him in advance, so he calls him, “Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.”  To continue with our July 4th theme, we can think of Judas as Benedict Arnold.  

Now if we were making this movie, we would make all the disciples Zealots.  We would not include the backstabbing Matthew among the ones being sent out to preach the gospel and heal the sick.  We certainly would have Judas get hit by a bus right after Jesus stops talking.

But this is not a movie.  These are real people.  Ordinary people.  People being told by Jesus that he is giving ordinary people extraordinary power to turn the world upside down.  Not because of who they are, but in spite of who they are.  Not because they are pure and righteous, but rather because they are messy and complicated.  They are ordinary, and that is precisely the thing that allows God to use them to do extraordinary things.

Which inevitably leads us to this:  Every Saturday, the Altar Guild comes in and sets some bread and wine on that little table back there.  Ordinary things just sitting in ordinary containers.  And every Sunday, we gather together here in the hope that something miraculous will take place.  And as Paul says, “hope does not disappoint us.”

Because in what takes place here each week, God takes what is ordinary and turns it into something extraordinary.  And I don’t just mean the bread and the wine.  Because week after week, God is taking the plain old ordinary you and me, with all our doubts and laughter, our pain and our joy, and transforming us into something revolutionary and extraordinary:  As each week we once again become the people of God, receiving the gifts of God.


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