We are on vacation with family and friends for the next 3 Wednesdays, so these archived sermon posts will be coming to you from the gloriously beautiful island of Kauai.
As I see the date on this sermon — one I loved working on and one that I think is central to our understanding of faith and life, of suffering and joy — I remember that our son-in-law at that time was struggling through the last few months of a long siege of struggle, pain and suffering, a siege that led to his death just four months after this sermon was preached. I think perhaps I needed this one most of all.
Freely Gifted, Freely Given
Matthew 9:35-10:8, Romans 5:1-5, Exodus 19:2-8
Preached at Montecito Covenant Church
Sunday, June 15, 2008 by
I want to begin today’s sermon by reading for you the gospel selection from the lectionary for today’s date. The other scriptures that you’ve heard this morning are also taken from that list – the Psalm with which I began our service today, the words from Exodus and the words from chapter 5 of Romans which Anne just read – all 4 scripture lessons are part of today’s worship service. And, in a way, all four lessons are part of this sermon, as I’ve been living with them, and thinking about them, and praying through them all as I’ve read and studied and pondered. So, hear the word of the Lord as it is recorded for us in the gospel of Matthew, beginning with verse 35 of chapter 9 and continuing through verse 8 of chapter 10.
This passage of scripture marks the transition from one big chunk of Matthew’s book to another, from one of his five extensive ‘red letter’ sections of Jesus’ teachings, which seem to many scholars to be designed by Matthew as a parallel to the 5 books of the Jewish Torah – the 1st5 books of what we call the Old Testament. And as we read together today, it’s good to remember that the very first readers of this book were undoubtedly Jewish Christians, men and women who brought with them their religious and biblical heritage as they began to follow Jesus, and who deeply understood things like: the Torah – and the covenant – that agreement which God struck with his chosen people – whom God called, as our Exodus passage put it: “my treasured possession;” and the biblical imagery of the sheep and their shepherd, which occurred in one form or another in all of their sacred writings, from Exodus through the Psalms and into the writings of the prophets. See how many of these Old Testament echoes you can hear in these 12 short verses:
Then 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. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” NRSV
This is the word of the Lord for us today. Thanks be to God for it.
The rest of chapter 10 continues with Jesus’ words of instructions to his closest followers about how to be . . . well . . . his closest followers. It’s pretty much a training guide for discipleship 101, with clear instructions and advice about how to go about doing what he himself has been doing. This commissioning of the 12 disciples happens at a relatively early point in Jesus’ ministry life, and he places some pretty serious parameters around what they are to do and where they are to go. It’s their first foray out into the world of ministry and they’re sent out in twos – they’re even listed in twos by Matthew – to preach the kingdom message of Jesus, which is to say – to tell people that God is near! God is here! See for yourselves!
And then they are given the authority and the power to do the kinds of things that Jesus himself has been so busy doing – touching those in all kinds of need with healing, cleansing, releasing. And they’re to do it as generously and unreservedly as Jesus has been doing it. On this first trip out, they are to restrict themselves to ‘the lost sheep of Israel,’ honoring God’s special relationship with his people. Later on, if you turn to the end of Matthew’s gospel – after the crucifixion and after the resurrection – and Jesus prepares to leave this earth and the era of the church really begins – his words to his disciples are much, much broader. The Great Commission – the very last verses of Matthew’s gospel in chapter 28 read this way:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded. And surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
But here, in these opening verses of chapter 10, just as his active, in-the-flesh, on-earth, kingdom-announcing, healing-the-sick, raising-the-dead days really begin to get going, Jesus’ words are more particular, more pointed, more specifically directive, more elemental.
And yet, from these beginning words of instruction – in fact, included as a centrally important part of these words – there is this one powerful, central, formational, life-changing truth. A simple word that is true not just for beginner disciples, but for more experienced ones as well. A truth that, I believe, is as completely applicable to the words of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, or the words of praise and exultation in Psalm 100, or the words of promise in Exodus 19, or those of hope in Romans 5 — as it is to these words of instruction in Matthew 10:8:
“Freely you have received, freely give.”
What you have received from me, Jesus says to his friends, you paid not a dime for, you did do and you can do absolutely nothing to earn any of it. It is offered to you as a gift,gratis, Grace.
But what can I possibly tell you about grace – that lovely word, that amazing concept, that hard-to-grasp reality – that you haven’t already heard about a million times?
You know, I tried to make this sermon go in a different, slightly less hackneyed direction.
I thought for a while about the message of the kingdom of God – that great good news of God’s nearness – of God’s breaking into our world in a new way –- that Jesus traveled around telling the towns and villages of Galilee, his home county. And I suppose I will tell you a little bit about that today.
And I thought about concentrating on those words in Romans that speak of peace, peace with God. I thought for a while, that I might tell you about shalom, that great Hebrew word which means so much more than our English word ‘peace,’ that Old Testament concept that includes so much more about wholeness, and righteousness and well-being than it does about a kind of cease-fire — which is what peace seems most often to connote in English. And I will probably tell you a bit about that, too.
But then I also thought about last week’s wonderful sermon on ‘breaking,’ and how nicely that topic dovetails with Paul’s words about suffering producing perseverance and perseverance, character and character, hope and how hope does not put us to shame…
And I know I’ll touch on that sometime in the next 10 minutes or so.
I even started to head in the direction of that evocative word image in our Exodus passage, where Yahweh reminds Moses to remind the people that he carried Israel ‘on eagle’s wings and brought them to himself,’ And I suppose it’s entirely possible that I could head down that road as well today…
But as I kept thinking about all of these words, these ideas, these grand themes that are found in all of our texts for the week, the single word that kept coming back, like a lovely, silvery dolphin, rising out of the deep waves of God’s glorious Word, was grace –unmerited favor, unearned reward, unexplained tenderness, unreasonable tolerance, unbearable acceptance. Grace.
And there is nothing capricious about this favor, nothing unstable about this reward, nothing uncertain about this tolerance, nothing unplanned about this acceptance.
God’s grace is highly intentional, completely inclusive, open to all. God’s grace is free-flowing, yes, but it is also deliberate, enduring, unchangeable and very, very dependable. And it is the grace of God which infuses and surrounds and undergirds every one of the scripture passages for this morning.
It is the grace of God which inspires the psalmist to acknowledge, indeed to know that the LORD is God, that he is the one who has made us, that we are his.
It is the grace of God which miraculously frees the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, long before they ever enter into any kind of covenant agreement. God rescued Israel, carrying them on eagle’s wings, before he asked for their obedience.
It was the grace of God, as made flesh in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, which healed the sick and cast out demons and raised the dead before any kind of condition was put on those who received those gifts and blessings.
It is ‘this grace in which we stand,’ according to Paul in Romans 5. It is this grace that makes peace possible, that can cause us to glory, or rejoice, or even boast in our sufferings, of all things. In our sufferings? Yes. God’s grace is evident even there.
Because here’s an important thing to understand, a critically important piece of the puzzle that is, at times, what this journey of faith feels like.
Grace is a gift – a gift at just the right time, Paul writes – while we ‘were still powerless, Christ died for us,’ ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
But grace is not a guarantee of a trouble-free life. Grace is not a shield behind which we can hide from the trials and travails of the human condition; grace is not designed to provide supernatural protection from either the slings and arrows that come our way because we are inhabitants of a fallen planet, or to prevent the hardship, pain and turmoil that can happen because we are followers of Jesus.
On the contrary, in those additional red words in chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, the ones that follow the ones we read just a few minutes ago, Jesus carefully reminds his disciples that they are being sent out as ‘sheep among wolves,’ and he as much as promises them that they will be flogged in the synagogues, and brought before governors and kings, under arrest, that family members will betray them, that ‘everyone will hate you because of me.’
Can’t we climb our way back to the peaceful, sonorous tones surrounding the word ‘grace?’ Can’t we stick with those images of sheep in the pasture, with a loving shepherd nearby? Let’s get back to that great song, “Grace Flows Down,” that we sang a few minutes ago, okay? Somebody hit the rewind button here.
Ah, but if you’re going to hit that rewind button, you’ll find something pretty remarkable, I think. You’ll find that the grace of God simply cannot be separated from all this other stuff – we must somehow hold onto both the beautiful, poetic, soul-soaring words like the praise of the psalmist or the graceful theological leaps of the apostle Paul, and we must also hold onto Jesus’ words of warning and Paul’s teaching about suffering.
It’s of a piece, you see. And while for a moment or two that might feel like bad news, I’m here to tell you that this is good news, really good news. Even great news.
We are grace-fully saved from our sin and our brokenness, while we are right in the midst of our sin and our brokenness. The grace of God restores to us relationship with him, the grace of God goes before us and behind us and beside us even before we choose to receive it. The grace of God is a free gift, yes indeed.
But it is a gift designed to be shared, to be radiated outward in the middle of a world that far too often doesn’t know what in the heck to do with it, can’t recognize it when it sees it, and isn’t at all sure it wants it when it’s offered. Because, you see, we live in a sinful, broken world populated by sinful, broken creatures whom God desperately loves, whom God deeply desires to restore, whom God breathes grace on every second of every hour of every day. But that breathing, my dear friends, is done by . . . you and by me.
“The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few,” Jesus told his disciples. “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” That’s the plan, that’s the design, that’s the program. That’s how grace finds legs – and arms and hands and eyes and ears and mouths to speak out the good news that, ‘the kingdom of heaven is near.’ God’s grace was evident all the way through the characters and the stories and the poetry and proverbs of the Old Testament – grace was there, God was there, intervening to save his people, to give them the law as a guide, to create a nation of priests for the world.
But the grace of God needed fuller expression, richer demonstration. So Jesus came into this world, singing out the good news, acting out the good news, living out the good news, dying the good news and rising again with the good news of God’s gracious love and forgiveness.
And Jesus turned right around and passed the baton on to his disciples – beginning with the 12 in Matthew 10 – and extending that assignment of grace-giving to each and every one of us – and maybe even more importantly, to all of us together – all who have said, all who do say and all who will say yes to the gift and yes to the giver. “Freely you have received. Now, freely give.”
Are you struggling with something intense and painful right now? Have you lost someone you love? Are your children giving you fits? Are you battling your own personal demons or addictions? Is someone you love battling those demons? Are you overwhelmed by financial worries? Are you old and tired and lonely? Are you young and confused and lonely? Are you wondering what’s coming next in your life and how you’re going to handle it when it does come?
Here’s the good news: you are not alone. Do you notice where Paul puts his sentence about suffering in those opening verses of Romans 5? He puts it right in the middle of all that wonderful talk about peace and love and grace and hope. Which is exactly where your suffering belongs, where it is, by the grace of God, if you have eyes to see.
There is nothing that happens to you or to me or to those we love that falls somehow outside of God’s providential, graceful care of us. Even when we feel like there is no way out of whatever it is we’re facing – God is at the edges of the box, God is in the box with us.
Do you want to know how I know this to be true? Besides my own experiences of learning and stretching and being shaped by the word of God, and the struggles of this life, I know this to be true because so many of you have taught me, have shown me, have told me and have encouraged me to believe and to know that it is true.
Because that’s how it works. The grace with which we, by the goodness of God, are filled when we say ‘yes’ to the gift — that grace is not something that is containable. It’s like a rich golden liquid that flows out and over us right into the lives of others, when we let it. Never believe that a note, or a phone call, or a meal, or a prayer shawl, or a kind word on the patio, or a quick prayer offered on behalf of another is wasted effort, or that it is small and somehow uncountable.
Every single time you reach out to someone else who is suffering in any way, you are the grace of God at work. Every single time you open your heart to genuinely receive an offering of any kind from a follower of Jesus, you areseeing the grace of God at work, you are inhaling the very breath of God, you are receiving life and love and peace and joy and hope and grace.
In his famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis noted that,
“There are no ordinary people. Our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ verelatitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”
Your neighbor – anyone whom God places in your path – is ‘the holiest object presented to your senses.’ And if that neighbor is also a believer in Jesus, The holiness goes up a notch – not because of the neighbor, but because of the Jesus in the neighbor, the grace of God that fills him or her, the grace of God that fills you, even in the midst of the darkest, most difficult place you can imagine – the grace of God is still there. Freely you have received, freely give.
Freely you have received, freely give!
Oh dear God,
I don’t want to make this sound trite
or nonsensical or impenetrable.
Because it’s so mysteriously simple
and so simply and beautifully true.
“Out of the depths,” the psalmist cries at one point.
But he cries to YOU because even there,
>even in the depths,
your gracious presence can be found,
your sweet Spirit can sustain.
One of your friends from the early years of the last century said,
“We may doubt, but it is in God we doubt.
We may kick against the pricks, but they are God’s pricks.”
And so often, oh God, you choose to use us
as carriers of that grace,
as vessels for that sweet Spirit,
that you are in the doubts.
Lord, give us eyes to see you,
in whatever way you may choose to reveal yourself,
but most especially, give us eyes to see you in one another.
We pray this earnestly, and with great humility
as we remember once again that you have chosen us
to bear your grace to the world.
For Jesus’ sake. Amen.