Today marks an important transition in our liturgical calendar, marked by the change in colors. We are now in the long season of green, the season after Pentecost which will continue right through into the last Sundays of November. There’s a shift in emphasis as well. The liturgical year begins with the Season of Advent, a time of preparation and waiting the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, and from that point on, we follow, roughly, the life of Jesus, remembering his baptism, his death and resurrection. Now, we are focusing on Jesus’ teaching and ministry. We are finally returning to the Gospel of Matthew and for the next five months we will hear stories taken from Jesus’ preaching and miracles. The Roman Catholic Church calls this season “Ordinary Time.” In this case, ordinary doesn’t mean normal as opposed to special or extraordinary; rather it stands for ordered, or numbered, time. Still, it’s a term I love because there is a sense that the season in which we find ourselves now provides us an opportunity to reflect what it means to follow Jesus in our daily lives, rather than focusing on the events of Jesus’ life.
In that sense, our gospel reading is particularly important as we begin this season. It’s the story of Jesus sending out his disciples on his behalf. More about that in a bit. First, I would like to take some time to introduce the Hebrew Bible reading.
Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible is drawn from the stories of Abraham. You may remember that God called Abram to leave his parents and his home to go the land of Canaan, which God promised Abram would become his possession. Today’s reading takes place 25 years later. Abraham and Sarah have been in Canaan all of that time. God has promised Abraham that he will possess the land of Canaan and that he will be the father of a great nation. Just before today’s reading, God had again promised Abraham that he would father a son with Sara; when he heard this, Abraham laughed. In today’s reading, of course, Sarah laughs when she hears the same words.
There are profound mysteries in the stories of Abraham and Sarah in the Hebrew Bible. The Bible presents Abraham and Sarah to us as the parents of the Hebrew people, the ancestors of Judaism, and as Paul would have at, the progenitors of our faith as well. But the stories themselves raise more questions than they answer. One of the most obvious is raised in the text by Sarah herself: Can an old woman give birth to a son? Her barrenness is a theme that will continue for the wives of Abraham’s son and grandson—Isaac’s wife Rebekah, and Jacob’s wives Leah and Rachel, all suffered, at various times, from barrenness. It is a theme that is meant to underscore the miraculous nature of these births—that they were not simply a product of nature, but of God’s acting on behalf of God’s servants.
But there is more to this story than a prediction of Isaac’s birth, and of Sarah’s laughter. There is another enigma. Why is it three men that appear to Abraham? That the story begins in this way: “The Lord appeared to Abraham … he looked up and saw three men standing near him.” Christians have interpreted this to be a reference to the Trinity—we’ve reproduced Rublev’s famous icon of the trinity on the front page of the service bulletin. It’s a depiction of this very scene.
It is only in the course of the story, after the meal, that it becomes clear one of the men is no man at all, it is God, Yahweh. God’s first unmistakable act in the story is to chastise Sarah for laughing at the prediction of Isaac’s birth. This is not the end of the story, however. The three men separate, two of them make their way to Sodom, where Abraham’s nephew Lot will encounter them, and just as his uncle did, will invite them into his home and offer them a meal. The third, who now is clearly God, tarries for a time with Abraham. God tells Abraham that he intends to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham bargains with him.
These stories of the patriarchs—we’ll be reading them all summer and fall, are not primarily history. Scholars debate whether there are any historical figures or events underlying them and there are plenty of anachronisms and other problems with them to call them into question. They are first and foremost stories that the people of Israel told themselves to explain who they were and who their God is, stories of God’s faithfulness and God’s choosing them, and God’s blessing of them. But they are also stories that explain the character of Israel as a people. Abraham and Sarah both laughed when God promised them a son in their old age, and just a few verses later, we will see Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
God’s call. We something of the same theme in the gospel story. As I said earlier, this is a good story to bring us back to the gospel of Matthew and to re-start our engagement with that gospel after the season of Easter. We are provided a summary of Jesus’ ministry, a recap, if you will:
Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd
Matthew tells us that Jesus “had compassion” for the crowds; the Greek implies he felt it down in his gut. His commissioning of the disciples is an extension of his own ministry. It is a response to the need he perceives. The commissioning extends Jesus’ ministry and authority to the disciples. There’s something of an irony here. Jesus tells his disciples to pray for laborers to go out into the harvest, but then he sends the twelve out themselves. In other words, they themselves are the ones for whom they are praying. Jesus commands them to do exactly what Matthew has just told us he has done: proclaim the good news that the reign of God has come near; cure the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. The only difference is that Jesus told them to do their work only among fellow Jews (that is important for the gospel—at the very end of course, Jesus will command them to go into all the world, making disciples of every nation).
We are in ordinary time—this term has a particular resonance for me as this is my first Sunday back after four weeks of an extraordinary vacation, during which I thought little about the challenges facing our globe, our nation, our city, our church. But those challenges remain—gun violence, climate change, racism, and another reminder of the systemic oppression and violence faced by African-Americans with the acquittal of the police officer who shot Philando Castile.
Ordinary time—it is a time for us to hear God’s call to us, as God called to Abraham; a time for us to see the need in the world as Jesus did, to have the compassion Jesus had. It is a time to pray for laborers, to be those laborers. It is a time to accept his call to us, his sending us out, to proclaim the good news that God’s reign is near; to heal the sick and broken-hearted, to work for justice and peace.