Today in the Spirit: Proper 13A

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Continuing in the Gospel of Matthew in Year A, the Proper 13 Gospel reading takes the church back on the trail of the itinerant ministry of Jesus. Over the course of the three-year Sunday lectionary, we hear the account of the feeding of the 5,000 three times–twice in Year B at Lent 4 (John) and at Pentecost, Proper 11 (Mark), and then once here out of Matthew 14:13-21. The Collect for the week pleads with God for “grace that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service.” From the OT this week’s reading in Nehemiah 9:16-21 there are references to manna in the desert, complementing the narrative of Jesus’ provision of bread in the Gospel reading: It ends with the returned exiles of Israel declaring, You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst (20). Likewise, from Psalm 78:(1-13),14-26, we finish by saying (or singing), Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance (25). For our NT reading this week, we hear that triumphant last section of Romans 8 beginning with the question, Who shall separate from the love of Christ? (35), and ending with the answer, [nothing] in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (39). 

The Collect

Almighty and merciful God, it is only by your grace that your faithful people offer you true and laudable service: Grant that we may run without stumbling to obtain your heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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Their Clothes Did Not Wear Out (Nehemiah 9:16-21)

You gave your good Spirit to instruct them and did not withhold your manna from their mouth and gave them water for their thirst. Forty years you sustained them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell (20-21).

That last sentence in Israel’s confession on this solemn occasion may strike us as surprising. There is much that is predictable concerning what the LORD provided the Israelites in the desert–instruction, manna, and water. But then there is the remembrance of what he prevented, Their clothes did not wear out, and their feet did not swell. We must learn to increase our gratitude to God by regularly calling to mind over the course of years things that do not happen. In an economically developed country like ours, we tend to take things for granted, like maintaining sustainable housing, owning clothes that last, and having a steady income stream to pay bills. But are not these things as much the gift of God arising, as the reading says, from his abounding in steadfast love, as much as any other? When I am in the company of Christians from poorer countries, I am often most impressed by their gratitude for what they have transcending despair over what they do not have. (The emphasis does not seem to shift until they have lived in the West for a time).

Today, good Spirit, who was given so many centuries ago to instruct the Israelites in the desert, teach us to remember all that you have provided and all that you have prevented, every way that you have sustained us in our lives, that our joy may be complete and our gratitude unbounded, through Jesus Christ our Lord.    

I Will Utter Dark Sayings from of Old (Psalm 78:(1-13),14-26)

 I will utter dark sayings from of old, 
things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us. 
We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done (2-4)…
[The Israelites in the wilderness] tested God in their heart
    by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying,
    “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
He struck the rock so that water gushed out
    and streams overflowed.
Can he also give bread
    or provide meat for his people?”
Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of wrath;
    a fire was kindled against Jacob;
his anger rose against Israel,
because they did not believe in God
    and did not trust his saving power.
Yet he commanded the skies above
    and opened the doors of heaven,
and he rained down on them manna to eat
    and gave them the grain of heaven (18-24).

With its references to bread and meat in the desert, this psalm relates to the week’s Gospel reading on Jesus feeding the 5,000 with bread and fish. As a whole, however, this song is a testimony to the kindness and power of God working on behalf of his people Israel–despite, always despite, their constant whining and brazen disobedience. How do you tell the story of God’s working in your life? Does it include the part about how you were unwilling, unkind, or unfaithful, and God delivered you anyway? As I grow older and more mature in Jesus, I see the value both to myself and to others of being more open about my shortcomings so as to make more of the goodness of God. The apostle Paul describes this practice of boasting of his weakness as his own spiritual discipline: On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses—though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me (2 Corinthians 12:5-6).

Today, Holy Spirit, bring me one step closer to gaining a full courage of vulnerability, that like our psalmist and Paul, my testimony of the steadfast love of the Father and the Son may always be clearer for others to see.

In All These Things (Romans 8:35-39)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
    we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (35-39).

Lord, it is a curious thing that I can believe Paul when he says that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come can separate me from the love of God, but I quake with fear over the slightest shortfall of funds to pay a bill or new pain to come into my body. How is it that the big things in the abstract trouble me hardly at all, but the minor things of everyday experience send me reeling? Maybe a personal rewriting of Paul’s most majestic of teachings–something less grandiose but still profoundly true–might assist: “For I am convinced that neither job insecurity nor physical ailment, nor prickly bosses nor difficult family members, nor stuff happening now nor stuff I worry might happen later, nor rising insurance premiums nor falling coverages, nor anything else, will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Okay, maybe not—but somehow, I do feel encouraged.

Today, in the Spirit who can be trusted to help us translate the Bible’s exalted language for application in our personal lives, let this grandest of the apostle Paul’s teachings in the NT speak assurance over whatever down-to-earth adversity you may be facing at the moment.

When He Went Ashore, He Saw a Great Crowd (Matthew 14:13-21)

Now when Jesus heard [about the execution of John], he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (13-16).

See how the story of this noteworthy miracle begins with Jesus responding with compassion to a great crowd he does not expect to see. In Matthew’s version, following the beheading of John the Baptist, Jesus makes a strategic withdrawal to a desolate place by himself (the disciples come later, whereas, in Mark and Luke, they are with Jesus all along). The crowd’s appearance, however, causes our Lord to throw all caution to the wind. The Father has assigned the Son a new plan to follow–and what a plan it is! Devotionally, the question arises: how do you respond to sudden changes in “the plan”? When you feel the need for rest, are you prepared for the promptings of the Spirit to serve? When you sense the need for caution, are you ready for God’s call to take a risk? The kairos time of the kingdom can and often does interfere with our intentions for the hour. Paul teaches: Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2). Likewise, Oswald Chambers writes: “God’s training is for now, not presently. His purpose is for this minute, not something in the future.” 

Today, Holy Spirit, seeing Jesus change his plans to follow the will of the Father in this Gospel reading, grant me the flexibility and compassion to respond to your promptings to take a new direction. 

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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