s046g11 Sunday 13 26/6/11
'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'. Matthew 10.42
By way of explanation, the Revised Common Lectionary has two sets of readings during 'Ordinary Time'. The Epistle and Gospel are the same, but we have alternate readings from the Old Testament and the Psalm. The gospel reading is from one of the gospel accounts, generally in reading order, skipping over those passages already read in the period from Advent to Trinity Sunday. Similarly the epistle reading is from the letters in the New Testament in reading order. In the continuous set the OT readings the same applies to cover the important parts of the OT in course. In the 'related' set, the OT lesson is chosen specifically to relate to the gospel for the day. The psalm is the last to be chosen, and it complements the particular OT reading. So using the 'related' set the epistle, the reading from one of the letters of the NT, often seems unrelated to the other two.
It has seemed to me to possibly be helpful to see how the OT reading complements or contrasts the gospel for the day, and hence my choice to use the 'related' set. This is perhaps a helpful introduction at this time when we enter the long 'Ordinary Time' part of the year. Some churches will read Genesis 22 for the first lesson and might wonder why I refer to a reading from Jeremiah. It is not that you are wrong and I am right! It also goes to explain what is a curious set of readings this morning.
Jeremiah stands before the religious establishment of his day and contradicts the orthodoxy they proclaim. The issue here is true and false prophesy. Jeremiah contends that prophets in the past had not predicted peace for the ancient people of God. So we are confronted with the fact that the pronouncements of the church are not necessarily the word of God – rather that God is heard from the fringes of the church. The implication is that the religious establishment were predicting peace for those who complied with orthodoxy and Jeremiah contradicted this. Jeremiah said that rigorous compliance to orthodoxy was going to be the ruin of the nation. So likewise we can take it that rigorous compliance with what passes for 'christianity' is to the detriment of society.
Our third reading is from the gospel of Matthew about those who welcome us, the prophet, the righteous one and the little one, and we see why the Jeremiah passage was chosen to go with this gospel. But it really doesn't help us with Jeremiah's problem, the determination of who is the real prophet of God, except with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight. If we are bidden to welcome the prophet, the question remains – which one?
Our second reading is from St Paul's letter to the Romans, on sin, law and grace, and while it is not chosen in conscious relationship to the other readings, we will have cause to return to it.
Jesus, in Mathew, is actually being more helpful than might initially be thought, for Jesus doesn't just bid others to welcome us, but also all and sundry prophets, whether from the central hierarchy or the fringes of religion, as well as the righteous person and the little one. Jesus commends a breadth of welcome that does not necessarily imply believing everything they proclaim – particularly when it comes to the prophet.
So Jesus commends a breadth of welcome, and a welcome that doesn't just begin and end with ourselves. Jesus commends those who welcome prophets, the righteous and the little ones as well. Those who do so follow Jesus and welcome others because they want to follow Jesus' example. They are doing it in the name of a disciple and so are commended.
And I note that people are commended not for the faith they hold but for the broadness of the welcome they extend. Indeed it would be true to say that their faith is precisely based on the welcome to be extended and evidenced by that broad welcoming.
And so to return to the reading from Jeremiah. Jeremiah only admits that the prophets who prophesy peace and whose prophecy comes true can be regarded as speaking the word of God. Prophets who prophesy doom and gloom are a dime a dozen and the likelihood of doom and gloom eventuating is nigh on 100%. The 'orthodox' prophets were prophesying peace in return for compliance to orthodoxy, and that manifestly is not going to happen, for the orthodoxy of their day, as well as ours, is essentially divisive. That which is manifestly divisive cannot bring peace. It is only that which is broadly welcoming that stands any chance of bringing rapprochement and possible peace. Jeremiah doesn't much consider himself a prophet, because the likelihood of doom and gloom he predicted is well nigh inevitable precisely because the orthodoxy of his day (and ours) remains essentially divisive. He is pointing out the bleeding obvious to people who will not listen, and of course, he was to suffer the consequences.
I promised to return to the words of St Paul and I believe that these same considerations lie behind his words. Paul speaks about sin, law and grace, and it really is grace that wins out over both sin and law. Ritual law divides people whose heritage brings them up to comply apart from those who haven't. It also divides people whose wherewithal enables them to comply apart from those who haven't. But moral law also takes no accounting of upbringing and wherewithal as well. As I am often moved to say, my home land, Australia, was settled by (invaded by) Church of England gentry ridding themselves of often Irish Catholic thieves stealing trifles to put bread into the mouths of themselves and their families, piously quoting the eighth (of the ten :-) commandments.
So the essential sin for Paul was the racial, ritual and moral separation the orthodox religion (then as now) promotes. It was Paul's own sin as he travelled that road to Damascus for he journeyed to maintain that racial, ritual and moral separateness that the new religion challenged. It was this sin that needed a blinding light from heaven to stop him in his tracks. Indeed if we are to believe St Paul he had no other sin to his name. He says: 'If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.' (Philippians 3.4-6) But all this he puts aside when he continues: 'Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.' (v7) Jesus commends a breadth of welcome, and a welcome that doesn't just begin and end with ourselves. Jesus commends those who welcome prophets, the righteous and the little ones as well. In the end, it is less important to determine who is the true prophet and who is the false. What Jesus commends is a breadth of welcome that doesn't just begin and end with us. People are commended when they are open to others, for this implies that people can make up their minds about what they do and what they believe. As I often say, we believe that animals are ruled by their natural instincts (which may or may not be true) whereas the primal dignity for humans is to stand on our own two feet and think for ourselves. Determining the true from the false prophet may lead to less self-determination. So in the end, no religion that expects compliance is of God, whether that masquerades as Anglicanism, 'christianity' or whatever. We are called to see beyond the boundaries and welcome the dignity of all people. This may indeed be a pipe dream, but it promises peace like nothing else.