The Road from Here (Exodus 19:1-8a; Matthew 9:35-10:4)
Last week we began Ordinary Time by thinking about God and about how Jesus fits into the Christian idea of God. We need to keep all those thoughts at the centre of what we do as a congregation. We have set our own agenda on this second Sunday after Pentecost by participating together in what my father would have called the beautiful ordinance of believer’s baptism. We have been witnesses to, and really participants in Sawyer’s baptism. As I said, baptism is the act of God who calls, the act of the person (in this case Sawyer) who responds, and the act of the congregation who confirms that we think all this is the way it should be and what God wants for Sawyer and Sawyer for himself.
For Sawyer, this day is the first day of a new journey as an avowed, baptised disciple of Jesus, a new way of being in God’s family. In that, he joins others in this body who have made that commitment, some in similar ways and some by different modes and means. Every journey has many steps. Some of you are near the beginning of your journey, others are nearer the middle or even toward the end. Nonetheless we are all pilgrims on a journey, travelers on a road.
Our scriptures this morning deal with that theme of “journey.” In Psalm 100, a paraphrase of which was our opening hymn, we sang about entering into God’s presence and approaching God’s temple walls. That’s journey-language. In the Psalm God is the goal of the journey, its destination. And that’s important. God calls us to a journey, the destination of which is
not of our choosing, but it, rather, God.
The other passages echo the theme. Near the beginning of the Old Testament Lesson from Exodus, the Israelites had journeyed…they had entered the wilderness…they had camped in front of the mountain of God. This is, again, about a journey, and, again, God (or God’s mountain to be more precise) was the goal and destination of the journey.
The Gospel Lesson speaks similar journey-language: Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom (viz., the personal rule and sovereignty of God), and later sent out twelve on a journey. Would it be too much to say that here the goal and destination of their journey was the kingdom of God?
In our day, there are dozens (probably hundreds) of apps for our phones, and GPS’s for those who are generation or two behind, and road maps for those even further back, all of which are supposed to guide us to self-selected destinations. It seems here that, for those who are disciples of Jesus, the end or destination is not simply the one we choose. As I said (for the third time now about baptism): it is the act of God who calls, the act of the individual who responds, and the act of the congregation that confirms. For Christians, it is God who calls people to the journey in Christ and the journey is to God in Christ. The words of Exodus apply, God said to the people: “You have seen…how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” Most of us have the sense that we do not walk alone, but are drawn, invited, and guided by God in Christ.
So, the point is that, in Jesus, God calls us to a journey of which the very person of God is the destination. This journey is, to be sure, not an easy one, nor is the right way to go always clear, but the first step is to recognize that it is God that calls and God that is, at the same time, the destination to which people are called. Otherwise life may simply seem, as it will be described in story form later in the Book of Exodus and, more thoroughly in the Book of Numbers, wandering in the wilderness. What are the means by which God makes recognition of the call possible and intelligible? Baptists will almost always quickly pop up and say, “The Bible.” And that’s right, as long as we understand how to use the Bible. If we use it simply as a series of commands, threats, and rules for every occasion, we will end up trying to make a journey to God by tying bags of guilt up with knots of regulations that do nothing but make the journey more difficult. When the Bible is used to bind people and blind people, it’s no wonder that some are smart enough to say, “I can’t live like that.” And won’t. I have known so many people who are very bright through the years who have rejected regulation road, and simplistic notions of reading, and thought that they had no use for Jesus, God, the Church and especially for the Bible. Now, don’t misunderstand me, used properly and well, the Bible can help tremendously in the journey to God, but sometimes it takes as much unlearning as learning.
Unfortunately, what started to be a side-comment on the misuse of the Bible in the journey kind of grew so long you may have forgotten the question. “What are the means by which God makes recognition of the divine call to journey to God possible and intelligible”?
My real suggestion for how God does this is found in Matthew 9:36-38:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into the harvest.
Jesus says what he does because of his compassion for those folk who were just wandering around with no realization that it is God who calls us to the journey of life and God is also the goal and destination. They also easily could have been bound by misunderstanding it. Then Jesus starts to talk about harvests and workers. The first part was easy, there’s a big harvest, and lots of work to be done. As I say, lots of folk just wandering around in the wilderness. But what did he mean by only a few workers? Matthew intends us to understand that Jesus meant that his disciples were to be these workers, the harvesters, whose job it was to help people discern the call of God in life and help them make some sense of it. Jesus gave them authority to do what he has been doing (granted in ancient terms). And, then, he names them, twelve of them. There was Simon known as Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew the tax collector, James, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot. As the Book of Exodus (which in Hebrew is the Book of Names) begins by naming the tribes of Israel in the names of twelve individuals, so here, Matthew names the New Israel in the names of these twelve people.
And, if you think about it, either list of names (from Exodus or Matthew) is full of unlikely characters. In Exodus, there are those who will rebel in the wilderness by building and worshiping a Golden Bull, to name only one thing. In the Gospel of Matthew, there’s Matthew himself, a tax-man who collaborated both with the hated Pharaoh of the day, Rome; and with the hated, dreaded landowners who drained the last drop of blood from their workers. There’s a disciple who would rather deny Jesus than follow him, there’s a political revolutionary, there’s a betrayer of Jesus, who sold his lord for 30 pieces of silver. Then there are those we know nothing about. Not a very promising beginning.
Jesus is saying that there is a need for disciples to see it as their task to be helpers and guides to others in this business of discerning God’s call and obeying it (to use one of the most hated words in Christian vocabulary – and an over-used one sometimes). How does that get done? Again, not by nitpicking at people for breaking religious rules. That’s not the kind of obedience I refer to (in fact, it’s the very one that makes obedience a hated word in our day.) How do we “obey” the call of God, which is another way of saying, how do we take the first step of the journey? And the next step? And the next? Over a decade ago now, an Episcopal chaplain at the University of Chicago Divinity School named Sam Portaro wrote these words about the dreaded words obey and obedience:
…The word “obey” is derived from the French, made by joining the prefix OB- meaning “toward” to the verb OEDIRE…”to hear.” It’s a perfect word to describe the response to God’s call or invitation to us. Neither the call nor obedience demands language…indeed they both imply…an act more postural than verbal. My own sense of divine call or invitation is a leaning of God in my direction, and of obedience as my leaning in God’s direction in order to hear.
(CRITERION 44/1 (Winter, 2005): 28.)
So here, Jesus in God’s name, so to speak, leans in the disciples’ direction and tells them that, in order to have the privilege of being bound to God as those who help the world lean toward God, disciples must, first, be obedient; they must lean toward God, as God leans toward them. The Church often misunderstood this invitation (and Israel did it before us) as an invitation to be God’s favourites, the best-loved, the best cared for. No, God names disciples (and Israel) as a bridge-people that has the privilege of leaning toward to God and being the means through which others lean toward God as well. Thus, the whole world are brought together with God.
Jesus is saying to his disciples: God has leaned in your direction in my ministry, respond by learning in God’s direction in order to hear and obey and be on the journey the goal and destination of which is no less than the person of God. Jesus has called disciples to pull alongside of others and help them walk the journey together. This doesn’t take rule-following, it takes constant watching to see how God in Jesus is going in this world, so that we might be faithful imitators of Jesus.
The words echo still: “There is a great harvest, and there is still a need for harvesters.” The invitation is to put yourself in the posture of leaning in God’s direction by doing what Jesus does.
For you Sawyer, on this your baptism day, and near the beginning of your journey to God, and for all of us who, in our baptism have been reminded of our own journey and of the fact that we are travelers together.
We are pilgrims on a journey,
Fellow travelers on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and share the load
(Richard Gillard, 1977).
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.