The Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7A)
June 21, 2020
O Lord, we beseech thee, make us to have a perpetual fear and love of thy holy Name, for thou never failest to help and govern those whom thou hast set upon the sure foundation of thy loving-kindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Last Sunday we moved into new territory. As I wrote recently in one of my daily reflections on Instagram, with the passing of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi, we have ended our months long cycle of fasting and feasting. That period from Ash Wednesday through Trinity Sunday is the most wrenching season of the Church year. We experience profound depths and exalted heights. We are reminded over and over of our mortality. We are reminded over and over of the promise of eternal life. We are even told the secret to “eternal life,” which is nothing more, nothing less, than everlasting inter-relationship with God in Christ, the consequence of which is that we are called to actively love God by loving our neighbour. In these four months we experience the drama of the Paschal Mystery, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We experience it, practise it, so we might live it.
This year these past four months have also coincided with a once-a-century global pandemic and the greatest social upheaval since the 1960s. It is nothing that my generation (Generation X, in case I haven’t mentioned it recently), born in the mid- to late-1960s and into the 1970s, or anyone younger has ever before experienced. These extraordinary times have sharpened our focus, and the drama of the liturgical year has, I hope, done its work to help us make meaning of extraordinary times. We have experienced the fragility of human life both in the face of disease and at the hands (indeed, at the knees) of our fellow humans. We have seen the ease with which people fall into sin and put their own personal interests and biases before the priorities of the Kingdom of God. We have also been shown how much God loves us, how God knows us and calls each of us by name, how Christ wants us to remain connected with God and with each other always and ever more, and gives us the means to accomplish it. The drama of these times has been parallelled by that of the Christian story.
Last week, however, we slipped into ordinary time, that season after Pentecost in which we mark the days as we journey through the seasons with God in Christ, our companion. It is no longer about the privations of Lent, the drama of Holy Week, or the ecstasy of Eastertide. It is back to the grindstone, the nuts and bolts of our daily lives. And yet the world has not cooperated, as rarely it does. We still face the perils and fears of the Covid-19 emergency. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and countless others are still dead and we are no closer to racial justice in our country than we were before. Perhaps we feel that we need the introspection of Lent or the energy of Holy Week and Easter to help us cope, to continue to make meaning, and find out how we can best respond as Christians.
Yet, here we are on the third Sunday after Pentecost, in a season that runs twenty one more weeks. Will we find comfort, inspiration, and strength here, too? Of course we will. Last week we heard Jesus say,
“The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.” And he called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity.
This is exactly the truth we needed to hear. Jesus’ statement is a perfect description of where we are right now. Jesus reminds us that there stands lots of work to do and there is plenty of opportunity for us to dig in and join him in this labour. I think that sometimes this passage gets turned around and is used as an opportunity for finger wagging, telling us we have come up short and that not enough people have signed on. Rather, I feel that this is Jesus’ way of telling us that there is room for us in this project and he shows this to be true by immediately welcoming into his work the twelve and authorising them to get on with it. He gives them real authority, power to help heal people and to heal the world, calling the disciples, and now us, into the work of the Kingdom of God. That is the good news.
Today we learn more about this task, as we hear Jesus’ instructions to the twelve, his warning that this will not be easy. It is, he explains, an uphill battle, and the chances of our success in this generation may be small, may only be a contribution in a much longer struggle. He warns us clearly that the work in which we shall engage, the harvest that lies before us, will not make us popular with the powers of the world, with those whose complacency will be disturbed, whose supremacy will be challenged and overthrown. He tells us straight out:
Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and flog you in their synagogues, and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear testimony before them and the Gentiles ... Brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.
And from what we see both from history and of the world today, we know that Jesus was correct.
The prophet who stands up to the tyrant, to governors and kings, who stands up for God’s priorities in the face of the corruption of worldly institutions is always deeply unpopular. No one wants to hear what he has to say, especially if what he says will mean that you personally will lose power, lose privilege. Everything conceivable will be thrown at that prophet who risks not only his reputation, but his life and personal safety. We learnt it from Jeremiah’s mouth this morning, when he said, “I have become a laughingstock all the day; every one mocks me.” The easiest way to discredit the prophet is through derision. If you take what he says seriously and put forth a rational response, then you risk losing the argument. If you make fun of him, take nothing seriously, then you undermine him in the most insidious of ways. It is a tactic we all know too well.
Nevertheless, we are called to this risky work of prophecy, of telling the world hard truths. We ask people to accept that what may be painful in the short run, what may seem against our immediate self-interest will, in the end, help bring about changes that are in line with the priorities of love and will benefit us all. Most importantly, Jesus does not send us forth to do this work blindly or naively. He puts it this way, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” The opposition is powerful, like an highly efficient predator and we seem for all the world to be vulnerable and defenceless in any struggle against it. Jesus knows, however, that people always underestimate the power of love in the face of sin. Combining our innocence, purity of intention, and reliance on love with wisdom, foreknowledge, clarity of sight and understanding, we have powerful tools at our disposal and we will be able to work wonders.
Jesus assures us that we sheep, known to the shepherd by name, wise and able to recognise the difference between our shepherd and the thief who comes to steal and profit from what is not his, are beloved, valued, and protected. He tells us, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” The powers of the world may perceive us as foolish and weak, laughable, and labouring for a futile cause, but God, who is right now bringing forth the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Love, has given us a task and we are, all of us, brave enough to take it on.
The works of justice and love into which we are called will triumph in the end. What we do now will be revealed for all times to have been the right path. As Jesus says, “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, utter in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim upon the housetops.” We are on the right path, even though it may not always seem it, and all will be made clear.
We begin this ordinary time, therefore, with a clear picture of that path lying ahead of us through the hours, days, weeks, months, and seasons. We know that the truth will be revealed, that the work we do in the name of justice and love matters, it counts, and it is part of the work of God. We must not lose heart under the burden of all that weighs us down. In two weeks’ time we will hear Jesus tell us, “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). We have each other, fellow members of the Body of Christ, and we are both strengthened and supported in our work.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 20 June 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume