Sermon, July 16, 2017

 The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

July 16, 2017

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 this morning’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: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

     Have you ever had the experience where an idea sounded really, really good at the moment and so you jumped in with both feet only to realize afterwards that you’d not really thought through the consequences?  Well, our lessons on this Sixth Sunday after Pentecost have much to say about how we make decisions. Our texts urge us to think things through because everyday decisions often have lasting consequences that affect not only our own lives, but the lives of others and, frankly, the future of whole nations. 

Our lesson from Genesis with its story of twin brothers Esau and Jacob speaks to the consequences of hasty decisions: decisions made to satisfy an immediate need without considering the future. Such decisions often spell disaster down the road. And so it was for Esau. 

Esau, Isaac’s oldest son, had it all! As the elder brother, he was guaranteed a double portion of his father’s estate. Such was his birthright according to Hebrew culture. This meant he was guaranteed a prosperous future. But, Esau, blew it! In order to satisfy his immediate hunger, he gave his birthright away to his younger brother Jacob. I find it ironic that Esau, described in scripture as the bold, strong and brave hunter, was outplayed by Jacob, the homebody, the weaker of the two brothers. And Esau’s short-sighted action – an action made without considering the long term consequences – will lead to enmity between him and Jacob. An enmity that will fester into absolute hatred so that these brothers become bitter enemies for many, many years. Esau, focused solely on gratifying an immediate need, paid a dear price for his hasty decision. 

Fast forward to the days of the early Church. Many in the 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. Now, we might think that foolish but, Martin Luther suggested the same thing during the great Protestant Reformation. After all, isn’t Jesus the fulfillment of the law? Yes, he is, indeed! So, why bother with the Old Testament? I mean, after all, in this enlightened day and age, do we really need all those rules and rituals? Haven’t we evolved beyond all that? But the church wasn’t arguing this point theologically, but rather, as a means to ignore the biblical mandate to be welcoming to the stranger and to foster the health and welfare of the neediest of society. They were speaking from a place of arrogance that somehow, the plight of one’s neighbors: their grief, their hunger, and their thirst, is their own doing and “not our problem.” In many ways, that kind of arrogance is heard in our culture and communities still today. 

St. Paul responds saying, look around you: look at your communities; look at how you treat one another. Yes, you need the Torah. In fact, we need the entire Old Testament because not only does it serve as a guide for how we should live in relationship with God and one another, but it also speaks to how personal faith must always lead to action. The Old Testament describes what should be the very ethos and moral compass of whole nations. 

While researching various sources for a term paper this summer, I happened upon a book that I’d read some time ago but had long forgotten. It was written by, of all things, a Baptist minister – imagine finding something like that in an Episcopal Seminary! The author lamented that many churches in America today are so focused on matters of personal salvation, they have propagated a faith that says all that matters is “me and Jesus.” And in the process, have not only forgotten, but consciously chosen to ignore the New and Old Testament mandate that every one of us is responsible for the well-being of our neighbor. True people of God, the author affirmed, ensure that their communities, their states, our nation, upholds the biblical standard of fair treatment and care for every human being because they, too, are created in the very image of God. I find it fascinating that this book entitled, “Christianity and the Social Crisis” reads like it was taken from today’s headlines and the debate over healthcare and social responsibility and yet, it was written a hundred and ten years ago: Written in 1907. 

St. Paul says the Law of Moses, the Torah, the entire Old Testament, is an important guideline for our relationship with God and one another, and yet, it serves an even greater purpose. You see, the Torah tells us what is right and wrong, and it reminds us of our fallibility as human beings, but most of all, it points us to Jesus. The Torah cannot save. No, but Jesus Christ does what the Law cannot do: Jesus forgives. Jesus redeems. Therefore, in today’s reading, Paul reminds us that the problem isn’t the law with its rules, but rather, the problem is sin. Changing or ignoring the rules, ignoring scripture, will not change the truth that we are sinners condemned to death. 

Now, Paul goes on to affirm that for those who place their trust, their faith, in Christ, “There is no condemnation.”  But lest we think that’s all God requires of us, Paul stresses that to ignore all that scripture teaches about God’s ways and values is to miss the whole point of our faith. Being a Christian doesn’t end with accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior. That is only the beginning of a life-long commitment to be faithful to all of God’s ways so they become the very fabric of our whole being. God’s ways teach us to look for, and to look to, Christ in all things. And Paul says that if the Spirit of Christ truly dwells within us, truly fills our thoughts, our minds, our hearts, we will remember that our Lord himself said as we have done to the least of these (that is, the needy of society, the poor, the hungry, the naked, the alien, the imprisoned, and so on), so we have done to him.      

My goodness. I have spent so much time on our lessons from Genesis and Romans, we barely have enough time to get to today’s gospel reading. But the truth is, given all the rhetoric around healthcare and emails and conspiracy theories that continue to plague our nation, these scriptures from yes, the New and Old Testaments are timely reminders of our responsibilities as people of faith, children of God, followers of Jesus. 

Suffice to say, in this morning’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is described as the sower who has sown, has scattered, the word of God throughout the land. It has fallen on fertile soil and poor soil. But here is the beauty of Matthew’s version of this parable: the type of soil we might happen to be is not as important as how we choose to cultivate and nurture that seed of faith, that word of God. We have received God’s word. It is up to us to nurture it so that it becomes our way of life, the core of who we are, or choose to reject it. Jesus explains that the word has gone forth but its ability to grow and flourish is affected by response of the culture in which it is received. 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 that seed within our own selves so that it makes a difference in us, our communities, and our nation. That is our role as Christians.

We nurture and cultivate faith through daily prayer and Bible study. And we gather for weekly worship and fellowship so that, as a community of faith, we grow in grace and encourage one another to nurture that seed.  In other words, there is a purpose to our way of life: faith in action can, indeed, influence how God’s word grows in and through us. Remember, Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, was barren and yet, by faith in God and prayer, she bore not one, but two children. In a poetic sense, she who was barren yielded a double harvest. Each of us has the potential to live fruitful lives, but it requires that we choose to take responsibility for all that we have heard and received by God’s grace; all that we have heard and received, in and through the Old and New testaments, those words the Psalmist describes as a lantern to our feet and a light upon our paths. 

You know, this morning’s collect seems to say it all: It is one thing to know and understand what to do – it is another to faithfully accomplish it.  May God give us the grace and humility to embrace all that God has taught us through these Holy Scriptures, and grant us the power and determination to faithfully accomplish them – all of them - through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.