July 16, 2023

The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost - July 16. 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

From today’s Collect, “O LORD, grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also the grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustaining Sanctifier. Amen.

     Have you ever regretted a choice or decision you made? Perhaps, something sounded like a really good idea at the time and so you jumped into it with both feet only to realize that you’d not really thought through the consequences of that choice. The truth is our decisions, our choices, always have consequences: some of them wonderfully affirming and life-changing, and others, well, sometimes not so good.

     Our scripture lessons this morning say a lot about decision making, about life choices, about thinking things through, about how it’s one thing to know what to do and another to actually get things done. Genesis tells the story of twin brothers Esau and Jacob: - a classic example of the consequences of hasty decisions. In my experience, decisions or choices made to satisfy an immediate need without considering the future rarely brings peace of mind. In fact, they usually spell disaster down the road.

Such was the case for Esau. Hebrew culture and practice established that Esau, as the oldest son in the family, was entitled to a double portion of his father’s estate. That was his birthright. In other words, Esau’s future was secure. But he chose to give that birthright, that security, away in order to take care of his immediate hunger. I find it ironic that Esau, described in Genesis as the bold, strong, masculine, and brave hunter, was, in a sense, defeated or outsmarted by Jacob, the homebody, the weaker of the two brothers. And Esau’s short-sighted action will cause enmity to fester to the point that he and Jacob will become bitter enemies. Esau, focusing solely on his immediate need, lost sight of his future, set aside what he had been taught and promised, and paid a dear price for that decision.

     Many in the early Church at Rome believed the time had come to get rid of the Torah – the Law of Moses – and focus solely on the life and words of Jesus Christ. After all, they argued, if Jesus is the fulfillment of that law, why do we need all these old rules, especially in this enlightened day and age? Now, that argument might have merit if the Old Testament and Law of Moses, the Torah, was simply an historical guide to Hebrew past practice and belief. You know, that was Martin Luther’s argument during the Reformation and why he urged the church to not only get rid of the Torah, but the entire Old Testament. And throughout World War II, fascist regimes urged that the Old Testament – the Jewish scriptures have no place in so-called Christian Societies.

Paul says wait a minute folks. Think this through. All we need do is look around and see how whole communities treat each other and we will realize that yes we need the Torah. In fact, we need the entire Old Testament because not only does it serve as a guide for how all people of faith should live in relationship with God and with each other, and how one’s personal commitment to their faith should always lead to redemptive action, it also speaks to the very moral compass of whole nations. The Torah and the Old Testament emphasize one’s responsibility not only to God but to everyone we encounter: friend, neighbor, and stranger.

But then Paul affirms that there’s an even greater purpose in the Law of Moses: it points us to Jesus Christ. See, the Torah and Old Testament affirms what is right and wrong, and it reminds us of our fallibility as human beings, but as Paul says, it cannot save us. Jesus Christ does what the Law cannot do: Jesus forgives. Jesus redeems. Thus, in today’s reading from his letter to Rome, Paul reminds the Church that the problem in society isn’t the law of Moses or the Old Testament with its rules and regulations, but rather, the problem is sin. Getting rid of the Old Testament will not change the truth that we are sinners condemned to death. Yet, as sinners we have hope. Paul says to all those who have placed their trust, their faith, in Christ, “There is no condemnation.” The crowning achievement and supreme value of the Law – the Torah – is that it points us to Christ.

Those who urged the Church to throw those scriptures out or ignore what the Torah says about how we should treat our neighbors as if their grief, their hunger and their thirst is their own doing and therefore, “not our problem,” Paul says, miss the whole point of the Christian faith. Being people of God doesn’t end with accepting Christ as our savior – that is only the beginning of a life-long journey of faith and the constant struggle to be faithful to all of God’s ways so that we not only live them, they become the very fabric of our being and our communities. God’s ways teach us to look for, and to look to Christ in all things. And when the Spirit of Christ dwells within us, Paul says, it fills our thoughts, our minds, our hearts, so that we never forget that our Lord himself said as we have done to the least of these (the neediest of society), so we have done to him.

In his book, “Christianity and the Social Crisis” the late Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist minister laments that many church denominations are so focused on personal salvation they propagate a faith that says all that matters is “me and Jesus,” – and their rush to insist that everyone be “born again” just like me, like you, and speak and act and pray and worship just like we do, has caused many Christians to ignore the New and Old Testament mandates that we – the Church – God’s people – people of faith - Christians – all of us - are personally responsible for the well-being of everyone in our communities, especially the poor and the neediest of society. Now he is not talking about questions of sexual mores or any of the controversies of the modern church, but rather, the basic truth that people of God ensure their communities, their states, and their nation uphold the biblical standards of fair treatment and the dignity of every human being as God so ordained at the foundation of the world. By the way, this book that reads like it was ripped from today’s headlines, was written in 1907. Sounds to me like the Church still needs the Torah. In fact, we need the entire Old Testament as much as we need the New.

     In our reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus is described as the Sower who scatters seed -  the word of God: the good news of the Gospel for all to receive. Unlike Mark’s account of this story with his focus on whether we are fertile soil where the seed takes root and blossoms or poor soil where the seed withers and dies, Matthew focuses on what we decide, what we choose, to do with this seed. Jesus suggests here that it’s not the soil that matters, but rather, that we choose to take responsibility to cultivate and nurture that seed of faith. Jesus explains that the word goes forth into the entire world but its ability to grow and flourish is affected by the culture and people in which it is found. With proper care, this seed will produce an abundant harvest, but that care is up to us. We have an important role in watering, weeding, nourishing, feeding and cultivating the seed of faith – that seed of hope - within our own selves and especially, on behalf of our neighbors and for our communities - not with a heavy hand that says, “Our way or no way”, but rather, with the grace, love and forgiveness the New and Old Testaments teach should be the hallmark of every person of faith.

     Christians choose, decide to nurture and cultivate our faith through daily prayer and Bible study. And we choose to gather for weekly worship and fellowship so that, as a community, we grow together in grace and encourage one another to nurture that seed of faith within each of us. There is a purpose to our way of life: faith in action can, indeed, influence how God’s word will grow within us and make a difference in who we are and how we serve our communities. Remember, Isaac’s wife, Rebekah? She was barren and yet, by faith in God and prayer, she bore not one, but two children. She who was barren yielded a double harvest. Each of us has the potential to live fruitful lives, but it requires that we choose, that we decide, to act upon and take responsibility for, all that we have heard and received by God’s grace as revealed in scripture: New and Old Testaments.

     Our lessons this morning speak about decisions, about choices, about how we should try to live, just as they also offer us hope and assurance. The word of God has gone forth and we are called to nurture it; to be a people who seek and serve Christ in every person. Yet, as our Collect acknowledged this morning, it is one thing to know and understand what to do – it is another to accomplish it. To that end, may God grant us the grace to choose, to decide, to embrace and accomplish all that God is calling us to do and be, today and in the future through Jesus Christ our Lord, our eternal hope and our redeemer. Amen.