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June 19, 2017

“Equip, Encourage, Empower”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Matthew 9.35-10.23

Romans 5.1-8

June 18, 2017

                “Mowing the lawn builds character.” “Drink milk, it will put hair on your chest.” “Coffee will stunt your growth!” These are all things that our parents and maybe aunts and uncles told us to encourage us to do certain things, like doing chores, or eating our veggies. They offer us side effects to our actions – or maybe consequences. If we mow the lawn, we will have better character. If we eat our broccoli, we will grow big and strong. Our parents were trying to remind us that our trials will produce something positive. We have to push through what we don’t want to do in order to see the finished product. Paul is doing something similar in Romans.

                Paul is encouraging those who are going through a difficult time. He boasts in sufferings, telling them that the suffering has a side effect or consequence, depending on how you look at it. Suffering leads to endurance. The more you suffer, the more endurance you gain. Endurance leads to character. Who doesn’t want to have endurance? It builds up character and makes you who you are today. Character leads to hope. You experience enough in life that you are able to look at a situation and see the hope on the other side. When we have hope, we know we will not be disappointed. The boasting Paul is talking about is not a justification for abuse. He is not saying we should seek out suffering or cause others to suffer because it will “build character.” He is saying that those who are suffering can rest assured that Christ is with them, strengthening them and offering hope.

                Earlier in Paul’s writing he was talking to the Romans about justification. He told them that justification happens through Christ. When this happens, we are given peace and hope as consequences.[1] There is a timing piece to this, as always, since God’s timing is not ours. The idea is that when we are justified, or made right with God, we receive peace in the moment, but hope looks to the future.[2] Because you are justified, you will suffer. You may have been made right with God, but it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is made right. We live in that world and suffer the pain around us.

                In Buddhism, suffering is part of life. Suffering is acknowledged as part of living and cannot be avoided. I think Christians could really learn from this. Those who subscribe to the prosperity gospel teach that we should all be rich and happy – that we know God is with us when we have that Mercedes and large house on the beach. Except, that’s not what God tells us. God reminds us that there will be struggles and there will be suffering. In fact, I argue the opposite of the prosperity gospel – if you don’t have those things and are struggling, you’re probably doing something right. You probably are going against the culture and the strains of the world around you, which is what Christ calls us to do.

                So, the result of being justified, or made right with God, is peace. Do you have peace? What does peace look like? The peace being described is a peace within a world of chaos. How can we have peace when bombs are going off, and guns are going off, and violence is everywhere? How can we sing, “It is well with my soul” when people are starving and living on the streets? What is peace? Is it inner peace? It certainly isn’t world peace, because we are far from that idea.

                What is hope? I think it is important to clarify that hope is not positivity – it isn’t an emotion. I really love the way Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes hope. In a conversation with the Dalai Lama, he said, “Hope is quite different from optimism, which is more superficial and liable to become pessimism when the circumstances change. Hope is something much deeper.”[3] He goes on to say that

hope is more than an emotion. We cannot cling to an emotion because it changes from day to day. We must cling to God, who is always there for us, and who is rooting for us. We keep our eyes to God, looking for these consequences. This is God’s doing, not ours.[4] God is the One who builds endurance, who builds character, who gives hope and strength. We must be open to receiving these gifts. How easy it is to shut ourselves away from the world, cranky that things are not going our way, when we could be out enjoying the beauty of creation.

                God equips us with these gifts, and encourages us. God empowers us to share the good news of the gospel, in  both passages. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is equipping the disciples. He has been teaching and healing and listening to the people. The passage tells us he has compassion for this crowd, for they are suffering. Once again, suffering is part of being human – everyone suffers. Jesus sees them and wants to help them. It is helpful to know that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was speaking to a primarily Jewish audience. So, when Jesus speaks, it is focused on the Israelites.[5]

                It is important that God calls us. We are not worthy in so many ways, but God calls us. In the Romans passage we read that while we were sinners, Christ died for us. Here in the Matthew passage, Jesus is calling sinners and traitors and people in the margins.[6] Perhaps we are called because we have suffered. Perhaps God knows that we have been equipped through our hardships to face insurmountable tasks. God doesn’t just call us, but does so with love and hope.[7] God has faith in us, even when we do not have faith in God.

                As Jesus speaks about the people we hear the sheep metaphor. This is a common metaphor of the time because so many people were shepherds. Jesus was moved with compassion because the crowd was like “sheep without a shepherd.” He cares for them because he sees no one else is caring for them. We are like free range sheep. Jesus is looking out for us, but allows us to roam and make mistakes and tumble, and stand back up again. We have a shepherd, but not one who is constantly following us around and forcing us to follow exactly. We have been given a wide berth – plenty of land to graze and wander. We have been equipped, encouraged, and empowered. Where we go from there is our decision.

                This church has been equipped, encouraged, and empowered. You all have many gifts. Some of you are artistic. Many of you bring a different discipline to the table, especially an academic one. Some of you are good at keeping up the building, and others are good at welcoming. God did not leave anyone out when it comes to gifts. We are encouraged by God. I pray that you feel encouraged, because you have a great energy and enthusiasm for this community and for each other. You have also been empowered to do work in the world. When we take communion at this table we are given the energy to share the good news. You are empowered to share what you have learned here and to bless others with your presence and love.

                What struggles have you gone through? Where was God in those struggles? How did you find hope? Perhaps you are going through a struggle now and are trying to find that peace of which Paul speaks. Be still and listen for God, for we can trust that God is with us, equipping us, encouraging us, and empowering us. There are not many workers, and we will toil and struggle, but the harvest is plentiful. We have much to do, and we have many gifts to share. Let us join our hearts and minds together as we worship God and share the good news. Amen.

 

[1] Garrett Green, “Romans 5.1-8” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 134.

[2] Ibid., 134.

[3] His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World. (New York: Avery, 2016), 121.

[4] Diane Turner-Sharazz, “Romans 5.1-8” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 134.

[5] Stephen Butler Murray, “Matthew 9.35-10.8 (9-23)” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 144.

[6] Luke A. Powery, “Matthew 9.35-10.8 (9-23)” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 143.

[7] Alexander Wimberly, “Matthew 9.35-10.8 (9-23)” in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 140.