Sunday, July 2, 2023
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost | Year A
Righteous God, soften our hearts to hear the prophetic voice and strengthen our spirits to speak truth to power. Amen.
40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and 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.”
All readings for this Sunday:
Genesis 22:1-14 and Psalm 13 • Jeremiah 28:5-9 and Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18 • Romans 6:12-23 • Matthew 10:40-42
What is the role of the prophet?
How were prophets typically received and what motivated those responses?
What does it mean to welcome a prophet?
What are tangible ways that we fail to welcome the prophetic?
How are we empowered, equipped, and encouraged to be prophetic in our ministry and witness?
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
This passage literally picks up where we left off last week. Jesus is preparing his disciples to be sent off as apprentices, a first step toward the assumption of leadership after his physical departure. As someone trained in the trade of carpentry, Jesus would have been particularly familiar with the model of expert-apprentice development. He had already identified those with potential to work with him and to grow into leadership. Jesus nurtured his relationship with them and interspersed teaching with demonstration. Now, the time has come for the apprentices to use their newly acquired understanding and skills. Jesus is not letting them go off on their own forever, but they will be operating under the power he has given them on their own.
Matthew’s entire gospel contains the story of commissioning the disciples to continue the ministry of Jesus. Even the genealogies and birth narratives serve, in part, to establish the authority of Jesus, which he spends the remainder of the gospel training humans to receive the delegation of that authority as found in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Matthew tells his audience, a group of insiders who have been waiting on the Chosen One to deliver them, that the Messiah has come with an ultimate end of delegating the work of fully realizing the kindom to them.
As the chapter closes, Jesus comes back around to its beginning and underscores the disciples’ identity with him. They now participate in his mission, with his authority, under the same conditions that attended his ministry. In this mission they are so identified with him that he could say, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me” (v. 40). Jesus is so identified with God’s mission that he could say, “Whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (v. 40). The mission of the disciples will imitate Jesus’ own mission. Like him, they are sent first to the lost sheep of Israel, and they are preaching the same message, doing the same deeds of power, wandering about unprotected and dependent, facing opposition without retaliation. This is what Jesus did; this is what disciples are now called to do.
Jesus sends them out to represent him and the incarnational ministry of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration he was sent to accomplish on earth. He ties that representation to the ministry of the prophet. A recurring theme in the Matthean text is that Jesus comes not to abolish, but to fulfill the Law and the Prophets–the two pillars of the Old Testament witness into which Jesus was born. The Law provides structured guidelines of behavior and prohibitions for right relationship with God and neighbor. The Prophets represent God’s vision of creation as well as admonition and encouragement that proclaims that vision is possible:
The prophet engages in futuring fantasy. The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that makes it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger. Thus every totalitarian regime is frightened of the artist. It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.
― Walter Brueggemann
When we understand imagination as the primary element the prophetic message engages, we may also consider how that limits the ability of humans to receive it. Everyone does not have the same capacity to imagine. Not every prophet has the ability to convey a vision in a way that sparks the curiosity and consideration of their audience. We would all be inventors if the gift of conceptualizing the unknown were widely distributed. Imagination is a gift that not everyone receives.
It is much easier to remember. Unfortunately, in our remembering, we can engage selectively. The tendency toward nostalgia can stifle attempts to imagine a possible future when we compare the costs of reaching for it to grasping for a romanticized past no matter how futile that attempt may be. The God who makes all things new frequently instructs prophets to convey the need to forget the former things. Carrying the burdens of the past restricts our ability to welcome the present and to hope for the future.
At the same time, the biblical witness often calls the people toward remembrance. The prophets often used the act of remembering in order to stimulate the imagination as they evoked focused memory on the salvific acts of God in their history. The remembering served as testimony of what seemed impossible becoming possible through divine imagination, intervention, and activity. The incarnational and embodied life of Jesus is the pinnacle of the work and word of the Holy One in the lives of God’s people.
Matthew’s account insists that the role of disciples emulates the life and ministry of Jesus, present and active in the world. The church serves as a communal structure to realize the kindom on earth, and as a result, the orientation of the church should be beyond any artificial boundaries she may attempt to impose:
The assertion of the church’s identity and practice as a mission community challenges all images and practices of contemporary mainline and emerging churches (Luz 1994, 39–55). At least since the Reformation, the marks of the one, holy, apostolic, and catholic church have comprised word (preaching) and sacrament (baptism, Eucharist). But here the marks of the church comprise mission, powerlessness, vulnerability, poverty, suffering. For Matthew, the church is about actions consistent with the mission and qualities of Jesus. The chapter points churches in this direction. In societies where creature comforts, wealth, security, power, and status are so important, this chapter offers the massive challenge for churches to be always moving obediently to embrace active, countercultural mission for others.
The emphasis is on activity. In his brief remarks, Jesus emphasizes conceptual values of welcome, prophecy, righteousness, and reward. At the same time, he does not allow us to disentangle word from deed. He gives a remarkably specific example in verse 42: “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.” The gospel is rooted in real lives, relational interactions, and human need. In this statement, Jesus privileges the marginalized and reorders societal hierarchies while encouraging compassion, generosity, and hospitality. Matthew presents a radical Jesus who liberates through practical acts of meeting human need, supported, but never usurped, by soaring rhetoric.
Matthew opens a door toward an ecclesiology characterized by Christian life-practices rather than theological views. It calls into question the intentions behind the quest for a uniform, monolithic Christianity that does not make room for diversity.
The church continues to struggle with diversity at a time when, culturally, we have never been more aware of the vast range of diversity among us. Racial, ethnic, gender, age, and ability are only a sampling of the ways in which we are distinct. Political and theological differences may also be measured among us. Difference and distinctiveness are not necessarily divisive in and of themselves. Divisiveness is a response, a choice that makes a neighbor into an enemy simply because we are not uniform in identity, expression, or thought.
Welcome does the opposite. In three verses, Jesus uses the word six times. It’s an active verb that speaks of hospitality and service. To welcome means to prioritize the comfort of the other over one’s own.
I grew up in a small two family home. My parents, sister, and I lived on the second floor. We had two bedrooms, one bath, living room, dining room, and kitchen. In those six rooms, plus two porches, we lived our lives as a family. When relatives came to visit, my parents would give them their bedroom and sleep on the recliners in our living room. Now, they were very comfortable watching television or spending an evening in conversation. Sleeping in them all night, however, would leave one stiff and a little achy in the morning. My parent’s demonstration of hospitality still informs my understanding of what welcome means.
What if we treated the world that we encounter every day in the same way we treat a favored guest…as a member of the family whose comfort was as important as our own? (Note: I am not referring to abusive situations where self-protection and accountability are the tangible ways in which we love our neighbor.) Pursuit of our own comfort keeps us from hard and holy conversations. Preservation of our comfort maintains the siloed sanctuaries we find in so many of our faith communities.
We can choose welcome over comfort. And, when we welcome the prophetic, we encourage ourselves by imagining a present and future where the impossible is achieved, where the kindom of God is complete and has come all around us, and where love and grace abides within us and through us. Welcome the prophetic.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
Prophetic preaching shifts the focus of a congregation from what is happening to them as a local church to what is happening to us as a society. Prophetic preaching then asks the question, “What is the role or the appropriate response of our congregation, our association and our denomination to the events that are occurring within our society and throughout the world?” Prophetic preaching points out those false gods of comfort and of a lack of concern and acquiescence in the face of evil that can so easily replace the true God of scripture who calls true believers to the active pursuit of justice and righteousness for every member of the society. Prophetic preaching also never allows the community of faith to believe that participation in the rituals of religious life can ever be an adequate substitute for that form of ministry that is designed to uplift the “least of these” in our world.
The words of the eighth century B.C. prophets Amos and Micah come immediately to mind. Both of them condemned Israel because that nation seemed more interested in the acts of animal sacrifice and the observance of religious feast days than they were in the poverty and economic exploitation that impacted the lives of so many people in their society. The voices of the biblical prophets echoed from the top of Mt. Carmel where Elijah confronted Ahab and Jezebel and the priests of Baal to the streets of Jerusalem where John the Baptist challenged Herod Antipas.
The prophets preached truth to power, attacking the monarchs and the ruling elite for putting more confidence in armies and alliances than they did in the God who had brought them into that land. The prophets challenged the people of Israel who believed that God would never abandon them no matter how far the nation strayed from the covenant it had established with God back at Sinai. With an urgency that could not be contained and a fervor that could not be controlled, the prophets declared their “Thus says the Lord” despite the ridicule, rebuke and outright rejection that most of them exp~rienced throughout their lives. It is impossible to imagine the biblical narrative being told without the pronouncements of the prophets.
– Marvin McMickle, “Where Have All the Prophets Gone?”
For further reflection
“Kings are meant to rule, prophets are meant to speak, priests are meant to mediate. The essential quality of these three is to have the answers. But so much of the Old Testament is kings crying, priests failing, and prophets doubting. God is showing his people that there’s a better prophet, priest, and king coming, one who weeps but with hope, one who stumbles but is on his way to the cross, one who doubts his calling but obeys his Father anyway.” ― Lore Ferguson Wilbert
“The best prophets lead you up to the curtain and let you peer through for yourself.” ― Frank Herbert
“The prophets should be the eyes of the people.” ― Lailah Gifty Akita
“The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” ― Walter Brueggemann,
A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Minister for Worship and Theology (firstname.lastname@example.org), also serves a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below this post on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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