Today in the Spirit: Proper 9A

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For the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost this year, the Collect and readings are from Proper 9A. As usual, it is the larger theme(s) of the Gospel reading that determines the church’s selection of the corresponding psalm and OT reading. The Collect this week petitions the Lord Father to “grant us…the spirit to think and do always those things that are right.” Sometimes in the Collects, the worshipers’ state of humble dependence on God is implied; here it is clearly stated: “we, who can do no good thing apart from you,” With the assigned Gospel reading Matthew 11:25-30 we move from Jesus’ first missionary discourse in Matthew to teachings arising from his own ministry. This reading contains one of Jesus’ most beloved sayings in Matthew: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (28). The OT reading from Zechariah 9:9-12 picks up on Jesus’ self-description in the Gospel reading gentle and lowly in heart (29) with the words in the prophecy, Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble (gentle NIV) and mounted on a donkey (9). Similarly, the assigned Psalm 145:1-13(14-21) extols a God who, even as his works advance unabated in the world, remains gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (8). Continuing with the Year A sequence of NT readings in the first half of Romans, the assignment of Romans 7:21-8:6 brings together two well-known sections of Paul’s letter often separated in the church’s preaching and personal meditation because of chapter divisions: Paul’s autobiographical exclamation, Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! and his teaching insight, There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.    

The Collect

Grant us, O Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who can do no good thing apart from you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Humble and Mounted on a Donkey (Zechariah 9:9-12)

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!

    Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
    righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
    and the war horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
    and he shall speak peace to the nations;
his rule shall be from sea to sea,
    and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
    I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. 
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
    today I declare that I will restore to you double.

It is the word humble (or gentle NIV or lowly GNT) in this oracle of Zechariah that connects with the assigned Gospel reading from Matthew in which Jesus says, for I am gentle and humble of heart (Matthew 11:29). In context, we must read the phrase coming to you as a plural, to “you all” Zion, but devotionally there is something to be gained from a personalized reading too. The mission of the coming King is large-scale, global, from the River to the ends of the earth, but, taken together with Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading, we discover that grand enterprise is carried forward by the intimate whisper of God’s peace in each individual ear. Please do not misunderstand: we must be concerned with global mission–tracking our progress to reach the unreached and strategizing the best we can how to do it. But there comes a point when we must leave the big picture of God’s work in his big hands and attend to the state of our local witness. Going too far beyond the personal, it’s all too easy for us to turn our making disciples into campaigning for a cause, missing the trees in front of us for considering a forest beyond our comprehension. God does not want it that way for us. We are, yes, players in the greatest movement in human history, but, behold, the King rides gently into your heart and humbly into others’ hearts to extend his sovereignty outward.

Today, in the Spirit, receive Jesus’ peace and remain in him peaceful and gentle in every interaction you have with other persons God will put in your path. 

All Your Works (Psalm 145:1-13(14-21))

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 
The Lord is good to all,
    and his mercy is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
    and all your saints shall bless you! 
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
    and tell of your power, 
to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
    and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. 
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
    and your dominion endures throughout all generations (8-13).

Read this psalm out loud with emphasis on the repetition of all and every. “David,” in the Spirit, is caught up in the universality of the LORD’s power together with his compassion. God, full of power, is all-loving; and God, full of love, is all-powerful. How can this be? Far from feeling neglected in the far-flung everlastingness and graciousness of God’s revelation of himself, David feels compelled to bow down and worship my God the King. The church intends worshipers to carry the enthusiasm of David in this psalm with us into the hearing of the assigned Gospel reading in which Jesus declares, Come to me, ALL you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28, emphasis mine).

Today, in the Spirit, filled with faith, let the eyes of your heart see the fullness of things that David sees, wonder and rejoice.   

Deliver Me…Set You Free (Romans 7:21-8:6)

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death (7:21-8:1).

Paul has spent a lot of ink in Romans to this point explaining through careful logic and his vast knowledge of the Scriptures the righteousness from God apart from the law (3:21). But it is not until this point, halfway through the letter, that he casts aside the measured tone to burst forth with a description of his own experience of the thrill of salvation. Sin does its worst–Wretched man that I am. But–all at once now–there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Hallelujah! His great claim is that what is true for him is true for all (remember the Epistle reading two weeks ago in Romans 5 about all in Adam and much more in Christ). I am free! You are free! We are free together! The underlying message in both the content and tone of this passage is this: understanding the righteousness from God is one thing, but it is nothing without knowing its liberating power for yourself.

Today, in the Spirit who is in you rejoicing in the work of the Father and the Son, catch the thrill of the apostle in this passage and walk with the joy that comes from undying gratitude.  

Gentle and Lowly in Heart (Matthew 11:25-30)

At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Luke records Jesus saying something similar to what he says here but under very different circumstances (see Luke 10:21). In Matthew the opening phrase at that time refers to an unpleasant instance in Jesus’ ministry in which he confronted hard-hearted and unrepentant people in the cities of Korazin and Capernaum. In response to the conflict, somewhat shockingly to the reader, Jesus praises his Father for those who are responding to the Good News. Little children is his respectful and affectionate term for those mainly poor and uneducated people in society who are wide open to the kingdom message, as opposed to the wise and understanding who are educated, wealthy, influential and full of themselves. What we must not miss in this passage in Matthew is the connection between the humility of the hearers and that of the Teacher himself. The humble mindsets of the little children and Jesus form a connection, like an open circuit, through which the kingdom of God advances forcefully. It is the humility in the messenger and the hearers of the message that moves the divine enterprise forward from one generation to another until the gospel work is completed. Devotionally, this insight speaks a word of rebuke to me and other Christian leaders who tend to keep a special eye out for the “movers and shakers” in our communities, those whom we believe will make the ministry grow, sometimes taking for granted the “simple” folk who show up at every event, receive with faith, but appear to lack the means to be “of use.” Let’s be careful here. Remember the disarming question in James’ letter: Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:5).

Today, by your Spirit, Lord Jesus, help us discern clearly in this week’s Gospel reading the critical connection between the gentleness of the people you most love and your own gentleness through which your kingdom grows. Mold me with the humility that, in the words of the Collect, I might “be enabled to live according to your will.” 

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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