What is that thing. . .?

What is that thing. . .?

This is the sermon the Rev. Kevin Johnson preached at the diocesan worship service for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost on June 28, 2020.


Proper 8 yr A 2020 EDFW

A reward!

I like a reward. I bet you like a reward, too. A gold star, an ice cream treat, a little cash bonus. Who doesn’t like a reward….. I mean everybody likes a little reward.

So, what of these rewards Jesus mentions in today’s gospel lesson?

Today’s lesson, from Matthew chapter 10, vs. 40-42, is the tail end of a longer piece. The whole piece begins at verse 32, which we read last week. It began with Jesus saying “Everyone who acknowledges me before others…” (32), which is really just the wrap up to a long series of instructions Jesus gives to his disciples as he prepares them to go out into the villages of Israel proclaiming “…the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’” (10.7). So, that’s the context of today’s gospel – Jesus preparing his followers to walk out in the world curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, casting out demons…. “Good news. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near!”

Good things. Right? Wonderful, miraculous occurrences. Actions that certainly would call forth rewards – gold stars, and the like. So, what of this prophet’s reward? What of this reward for the righteous?

Let’s ponder prophets for a bit. Last week we heard William Barber’s contemporary application of the writings of the prophet Amos to our time and our place. Amos was a prophet. He didn’t start out as a prophet. Amos started out as a shepherd in the town of Tekoa, about ten miles south of Jerusalem.

You can still visit Tekoa today. It is a hilly, grassy region that produced the finest olive oil in the land. A pleasant place.

The era in which Amos lived was one of peace, stability, and national prosperity. Well, prosperity if you were a 10%er. Because the prosperity came at the expense of the blood, sweat, and tears of the other 90%. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to conclude that Amos likely lived a quiet life.

Then Amos was called by God to the difficult task of preaching harsh words in a pleasant season – a prophet. Listen to these words: “Hear this, you cows of Bashan grazing on the slopes of Samaria. You who oppress the poor, who crush the needy… the time is surely coming when they shall take you away with hooks…. you shall be flung out into Harmon” (ch. 4ff).

I wonder if the “cows of Bashan” rewarded Amos with gold star, maybe even a little ice cream treat? Unlikely.

The reward of a prophet is typically a one-way ticket out of town, and that’s if you’re lucky.

Hebrews 11:36-38 lists the rewards of the prophets: “Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated….They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.” Some gold star reward, huh?

And the reward of the righteous?

Abraham was one of the few people in the bible who are declared as righteous (Gen 15). ((Just a side note here: righteousness in the bible, especially in the Hebrew scriptures is not the same as we today think of righteousness. Hebrew scripture righteousness is more about loyalty to a relationship – things like trust and fidelity)) So, even though Abraham did not always behave in ways that we would consider moral – after all he banished Hagar to the desert with his infant son to die – Abraham was steadfastly loyal to God – righteous. And what reward does Abraham get for his righteousness?

“Abraham!” “Yes, God.”

“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering…” (Gen 22.1).

That, my friends, is not exactly the kind of reward I have in mind when Jesus promises me a reward.

If chapter 10, vss. 5 – 42 are the contract Jesus makes with his disciples to go out and work in his name, today’s verses – the ones about rewards – are the fine print the lawyers hide in the footnotes hoping you won’t read.

In all these things, Jesus is pointing out that the reward is found in no longer being bound up to the things we think are most important to us.  Amos had a decent, comfortable life…then he answered the call to prophesy to the people…Instead of remaining circumscribed by the work he was born into, Amos lived fully by doing the work he was called into.

Abraham had this beloved son, the one he had waited a whole life to have, the one in whom rested the promise of ancestors as numerous the stars…then, he gathered up some wood, some rope, and his son and headed off to the place of sacrifice…. Instead of remaining confined by the limits of his trust, Abraham released the infinitude of God’s love.

Jesus of Nazareth had a good life: a skilled craftsman in an economy that valued such, an educated, literate, learned rabbi in a culture that valued the teacher… then, around age thirty Jesus disentangled himself from the binding practices of his culture, walked into the waters of baptism, and embarked upon on a journey towards the inevitability of the cross.

Amos, Abraham, and Jesus all took a deep breath and unbound themselves from that thing in their lives that was keeping them from being completely bound up with Yahweh.

In losing your life, you will find life.

I wonder, what is that thing in your life that has you bound up, what in your life is preventing you from completely, wholly, without reservation binding yourself up Yahweh?

It’s not a rhetorical question and I’m gonna pause for a moment while you consider the answer for yourself…what is that thing…keeping you from completely immersing yourself in the dream of God?

Is it the comfortable safety net of the old rules – like the ones Jesus had to let go of – the old rules that ,you know, conflict with the dream of God… new rules of a dream that …. just seems – I don’t know – too radical, too risky, too different, to impossible. These crazy God commands

  • to actually love one’s neighbor as oneself (Mark 31):
  • to leave the corners of the field unharvested for the poor (and God is not just talking about agricultural fields here, God is talking about, for example in our time, excessive corporate greed that results in CEOs in 2019 making 361 times more than the average rank-and-file worker, $13.9 million per year vs. $38k per year)1(Lev 9);
  • to not levy taxes on the poor (Amos 5.11) (so much for a state budget funded by a regressive sales tax system which results in the poorest 20% of Texans paying about 13% of their income in state and local taxes, whereas the wealthiest 20% of Texans pay just 5%)2;
  • to … not crush the needy in court (Proverbs 22) (so much for cash bail systems that too often result in stories like that of Kalief Browder, a 16-year-old accused of stealing a backpack. Bail was set at $3,000. Browder’s family couldn’t pay it. Instead, 16-year-old Kalief languished in jail for three years awaiting trial. Eventually, prosecutors dropped the charges against him ‘cause he didn’t do it. But the damage was done — Browder committed suicide soon after his release).3

Or, perhaps it is a fear of being ostracized by your family and peers like the fear Amos must have felt. You know, that moment when you’re hanging out with acquaintances or family and someone makes a racist disparaging remark and there’s that conflict that pops into your mind and you don’t know if it’s worth it to stand up for the dream of God to respect the dignity of all people or to not rock the boat? And when I’m saying “you’re” here, I’m including myself.

Or, perhaps it is the grief Abraham must have felt when God asked him to let go of that one thing that was most dear to him in order to receive the gift of complete hope in the Creator.

What is that thing keeping you – and me – from completely immersing ourselves in the dream of God? Of finding the reward of the Peace that passes all understanding? Of finding the joy of trust in the Lord? Of opening ourselves up to the gift of our full humanity? Of losing one’s limited life, in order to find infinite life?

The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. All you have to do, all I have to do, is to take a deep breath and let go of our lives. Amen.

1 https://www.forbes.com/sites/dianahembree/2018/05/22/ceo-pay-skyrockets-to-361-times-that-of-the-average-worker/#6c0e2f70776d

2 http://bettertexasblog.org/2015/01/texas-has-the-3rd-most-unfair-tax-system-in-the-u-s/

3 https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/how-cash-bail-works