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Pentecost 25 Proper 28C, November 14, 2010

Pentecost 25 Proper 28C RCL November 14, 2010

Isaiah 65:17-25
Canticle 9
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

In our first lesson, the people have returned from exile, and they have rebuilt the temple. But the job is not yet finished. Much rubble remains from the destruction of the temple by the Babylonians. That will need to be removed. And the city walls have yet to be built. It has been hard work, and there is much left to do. In such a situation, it is easy to become discouraged.

The prophet we call the Third Isaiah describes God’s vision for “new heavens and a new earth.” This is God’s vision, not only for Jerusalem, but for the entire creation. No longer will babies and children die. People will live to a ripe old age. They will plant crops and vineyards and enjoy the fruits of that planting. They will build their houses and live in them for many years. There will be peace and security on the earth. “They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

In our epistle this morning, the Thessalonians have somehow fallen into the hands of teachers who are saying that the end is near. Some people have stopped working. They are thinking that since Jesus is coming tomorrow or the next day, they don’t have to worry about getting food or clothes or saving money for the future. Some scholars tell us that these folks have so much spare time that they are interfering in other people’s business.

Paul says that anyone unwilling to work should not eat. Over the years, this passage has been misinterpreted. Paul’s words are addressed to the Christian community, not to the world at large. This passage should not be used to condemn people who are unemployed. Back in those days, as we read in the Book of Acts, many Christian communities shared their possessions and money in common. If people are choosing not to work because they think the Lord is coming immediately, they are not contributing their share. There is not enough to go around if some are slacking off. Paul holds himself up as an example, He would have been eligible to be supported by the community, yet he worked at his trade as a tentmaker, as well as in his ministry to the community. He contributed his share. The point is, let’s all keep working at building God’s shalom until our Lord appears.

In the gospel, Jesus is looking at the temple. It is beautiful and impressive. But in 70 A. D., it was destroyed by the Romans.

Jesus’ followers were going to face persecution. Jesus tells them not to worry about what they are going to say when they are arrested by the authorities. He will give them the words and wisdom to deal with the situation.

False teachers were going to come among them and tell them that Jesus’ Second Coming was at hand, just as happened with the Thessalonians. Wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues have happened throughout history and they are happening now. But Jesus does not want us to waste our energy wondering, does this mean that he is coming right now?

He wants us to remember that not a hair of our heads will perish, and that he will be with us. The word of the day is endurance.

As God’s shalom comes into being, there will be great upheaval. We are in a time of endings and new beginnings. We could look around the world and say, “The end is coming!” and head for the hills. That is exactly what Paul and Jesus are telling us not to do. We could read the paper and watch the news and give up, throw in the towel. It’s too horrible and there is nothing we can do about it. That’s another thing that Paul and Jesus are telling us not to do.

Isaiah’s vision is God’s vision and Paul’s vision and Jesus’ vision of the creation restored. That is what we are working for. No longer will children and babies die. Everyone will have enough to survive and thrive and live. We will live in peace. We will share what we have. We will plant gardens and build houses and live together as God’s family.

That’s the vision—God’s shalom. That’s what we are working for. It’s quite different from how things are now, so there is going to quite a transformation before we get there. Old things will pass away; new things will come into being.

Are we called to ponder endlessly about when this is all going to happen? No.

What are we called to do in these times of wars, earthquakes, famines, and plagues? We are called to keep on working for God’s shalom. Keep on caring about people, caring about the environment, feeding the hungry, providing clothing and shelter to those who need it. Keep on keeping on. Keep on praying and loving and giving for the spread of God’s kingdom, God’s shalom. We are called to endure. We are called to be faithful to God’s vision.

May we be strong in our faith. May we be people of hope. May we remember that God is making all things new. Amen

Pentecost 24 Proper 27, November 7, 2010

Pentecost 24 Proper 27 C RCL November 7, 2010

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5; 13-17
Luke 20:27-38

This morning’s sermon will be brief in order to make time for Lori and Beth to report on Diocesan Convention.

The prophet Haggai had the ministry of offering encouragement to the leaders and people of Judah as they returned from exile in Babylon and did the difficult work of rebuilding the temple. As they looked upon their unfinished project, it was easy to become discouraged. Haggai assures them that God has called them to do this, that God will be with them every step of the way, and that the new temple will surpass the glory of the first temple.

The Thessalonians have been having a difficult time. Some false teachers have been telling them that the second coming of Jesus has already happened. As we know, over time, there have been many people who have said the end of the world is at hand. Paul tells the people that these upsetting and fear-filled teachings are false, that God has called them and is with them and that they should stand fast in their faith.

The Sadducees are among many religious leaders who try to trip up Jesus. The law says that, if a man dies and his wife is childless, the man’s brother should take her as his wife in order that she may bear a child to carry on his name. The Sadducees give this example in order to prove their belief that there is no resurrection. Jesus tells us that heaven is different from this life. There, we are children of the resurrection.

We are in a process of building and rebuilding, not only in bricks and mortar, but in the life of our community. We need to remember that God has called us together, that God is with us, God is guiding us. We are called to move forward in faith, not give way to fear. We are called to seek and do God’s will, and God will give us the grace to carry that out. We are kingdom people, shalom people. We have been made new, thanks to the grace of our Lord Jesus. “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Amen

All Saints Sunday, October 31, 2010

All Saints Sunday Year C RCL October 31, 2010

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1: 11-23
Luke 6:20-31

The Book of Daniel is supposedly set during the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C., but it was actually written about four hundred years later, during the reign of a terrible king named Antiochus Epiphanes IV, who desecrated the temple in Jerusalem in 167 B.C.

The four beasts represent the four empires which have conquered and oppressed the Jewish people. The Book of Daniel was written to encourage the people to persevere in a time of horrible persecution. The Book says that the day will come when those empires will fall, and “the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

The Letter to the Ephesians was probably written by a follower of Paul and was addressed to a congregation in which Gentile Christians had become the majority, outnumbering Jewish Christians. The new faith was first proclaimed to the Jews, but then, after Peter had his vision of a sheet coming down with all the different foods on it and God saying, “Kill and eat,” the apostles realized that the new faith was for everyone.

Paul is saying that there are no longer two distinct groups, Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, but all are one. In the Letter to the Galatians, he says, “In Christ there is no slave nor free, no Jew nor Greek, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The people are commended for their faith and love. Commentator Audrey West writes, “These are the building blocks with which their identity as the people of God will be formed.” (West, New Proclamation RCL C, 2010, p. 264.)

In the early Church, all the people were addressed as saints. The literal translation from the Greek is “Holy ones.” This language links with the passage from Daniel.

Now we come to that most familiar passage, the Beatitudes. Luke’s Beatitudes are sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain, in contrast to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Luke’s Jesus is on level ground with all the people. He has just called the apostles. Now he is giving them the blueprint for his vision of their life together and the life of the human family.

Blessed—happy—are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, those who are hated and excluded. Matthew spiritualizes the blessings—blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. But Luke’s Jesus says happy are the literally poor, hungry, and marginalized. Scholars make it very clear that Jesus is not trying to say that poverty is wonderful.

And then the woes. Woe to those who have plenty to eat, who are laughing now. Woe to those of whom everyone speaks well. Here is that reversal again. Back to the Magnificat: he casts down the mighty from their seat and exalts the humble and meek. William Barclay says that these blessings and woes are “like a series of bombshells.” Scholars tell us that these blessings and woes take the accepted standards and turn them upside down.

Audrey West writes, “Jesus announces a blessing upon all those people whom nobody wants to be.”

But woe to those who have everything, plus the universal praise and admiration to go with it. Why is Jesus saying this? Because when we have it all, it is so easy to think that is all there is. It is also easy to enter into the delusion that we got it all on our own strength. When we are in positions of prestige, people defer to us and tell us what we want to hear. But is that all there is to life?

In the world’s terms, compared to our brothers and sisters in Haiti or Bangladesh, we are wealthy. Does that mean that we are doomed?

I don’t think so. But we need to remember that God’s shalom involves a leveling of the playing field. God wants every one of God’s children to have enough to sustain a creative life.

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who abuse you. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” This kind of love is not a feeling or a sentiment. It is a spiritual discipline. Jesus calls us to exercise toward others the unconditional love he gives to us. If people hurt us or oppose us, we are not to retaliate. We are to wish the best for them and we are to do all we can to help them to realize their full potential as God’s beloved children. We are called to extend God’s love to everyone, even our enemies. A tall order, but this the level of love exemplified by the saints whose lives we celebrate today.

This is the eve of All Saints Day, All Hallows’ Eve. We are remembering that we are part of that great cloud of witnesses, all the saints, little s saints and big S Saints—all who have gone before us, all who are here now, and all who will come after us. They have all run the race just as we are running it now. We are all following the same blueprint. The one laid out by Jesus in his life and ministry, and especially in the Beatitudes.

We are the Body of Christ. We are knit together in love and faith. We are his hands reaching out in healing and welcome, his eyes, seeing deep into human hearts with his compassion, forgiveness, and healing, his mouth, speaking words of encouragement and comfort—and sometimes words of challenge–calling us and to be at our best. We are here to do his ministry.

But the best part is that we are not alone. We are here because they were here, Laura and Irving, and Hoddie and Charlotte and Ruth and Geraldine and Harriet and Gertrude and Mary Magdalene and Paul and George and Theresa of Avila and Patrick and Hilda and on and on, this great cloud of witnesses cheering us on. We pray for them; they pray for us, and the love and faith keep being shared.

May we run the race. May we be faithful to the vision. May we share the faith and love. Amen

Pentecost 23 Proper 26, October 24, 2010

Pentecost 23 Proper 26 C RCL October 24, 2010

Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8; 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

This morning we meet the prophet Joel, whose ministry took place between 350 and 400 B.C.E., during the Persian Period. Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonia Empire, and, in 539 B.C.E., the people returned from Babylon to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and re-establish their lives. In contrast to someone like Amos, who was a dresser of sycamore trees and not an official prophet, Joel was a cultic prophet who was familiar with the temple and its worship.

Joel tells the people that there have been bad times in the past, but good times are now coming. The dark times could have been literal plagues of locusts or the attacks of armies which seemed like locusts in their numbers and destruction, but now God is going to bless the people with bountiful harvests.

And God is also going to send God’s spirit among the people. The spirit will enliven all people, men and women, people of all classes and walks of life.

In our epistle for today, Paul is about to die. He has passed on everything he knows to Timothy, his young student and disciple. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith,” Paul writes. Often spiritual leaders of that time compared our spiritual journey to an athletic event. Being a good follower of Christ demands the best we have to offer. We need to stay in shape spiritually through prayer, study, and action. As our diocesan mission statement says, we are called to pray the prayer of Christ, learn the mind of Christ, and do the deeds of Christ. Paul has done all this and more. He has persevered through imprisonments, shipwrecks, and other catastrophes, and he makes it clear that he knows that God has brought him through all these challenges.

Today’s gospel is a familiar story. “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” When we hear this, we bring to the story things we have heard about Pharisees, and we tend to make the Pharisee the bad guy. But we need to remember that when people heard Jesus say that one of these men was a Pharisee, they had a different view from ours. People of Jesus’ time knew that Pharisees, as one scholar writes, “were devoted to God’s commandments and…worked to discern how best to live and act faithfully in matters of everyday life.”(Audrey West, New Proclamation, Year C , p.252.) In Jesus’ time, people tended to see Pharisees in a positive light.

Tax collectors, on the other hand, were the lowest of the low. They often collected taxes for the Roman Empire, and they were viewed as collaborators with the occupying forces. They were also hated because they often became rich from collecting tolls from laborers and traders. In other words, the amassed their wealth on the backs of the poor.

The people of Jesus’ time would not have expected him to use a tax collector as a model of spiritual growth. This reminds us of the parable of the Samaritan who helped the man who had been robbed. The idea of a Good Samaritan would have been an oxymoron to people of Jesus’ time. Jesus’ listeners would have seen the Pharisee in a good light and the tax collector as a scoundrel.

The Pharisee tells God that he has done his duty according to the law. He fasts, he tithes, he does everything he is supposed to do. But he is full of self-satisfaction and judgment of other people, including the tax collector. On the outside, he may be looking holy, and he may be praying in just the right way as far as externals are concerned but he is oozing with arrogance. The tax collector, on the other hand, knows how people view him. He is aware that he has a long way to go on his spiritual journey. He is aware that he needs God’s help, and he is asking for God’s help.

Once again, as Mary sang in the Magnificat, the reign of Christ reverses the present social order:

He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has filled up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he has sent away empty.

In Jesus’ reign, everything is reversed. Social status, wealth, worldly power, money, influence, all the things which are so highly valued in this world, mean nothing. The tax collector knows that he is despised and looked down upon. His prayer is real, He asks God for mercy. The Pharisee is doing everything right according to the law, but he is so full of himself that there is no room to let God in.

Prayer is not about flowery words or doing things the right way according to some external standard like the law. Prayer is about being honest with God, telling it like it is, and asking for help.

One of my favorite prayers is found on a poster in the bathroom at All Saints Church in South Burlington. The poster reads,

“A prayer to be said
when the world has gotten you down
and you feel rotten
and you’re too tired to pray
and you’re in a big hurry
and besides you’re mad at everybody

HELP!”

Over the years, I have found that this prayer can be reduced to its essence and be quite effective: Help!

Amen.

Pentecost 21 Proper 24C, October 19, 2010

Pentecost 21 Proper 24C RCL October 19, 2010

Jeremiah 31:27-34
Psalm 119:97-104
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

In our reading from the Book of Jeremiah this morning, the people of Judah are still in exile in Babylon, and the prophet is called by God to announce a new relationship, a new covenant between God and the people. God says, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me.”

Following the devastating experience of the Exile, the people will be closer to God. Each and every person will know God in a close and intimate way. What a beautiful and powerful statement of God’s love for us, and this closeness with God is something we all yearn for.

In Paul’s letter to Timothy, Paul continues his encouragement to Timothy to treasure the legacy of faith which he has received from his mother and grandmother and to live that faith and teach the faith so that the people under his care will be “equipped for every good work.” This is exactly what we are doing today, sharing our faith so that we can go out into the world and share the good news.

One note which I always offer on this passage. Paul says, “All scripture is inspired by God…”There are some people who teach that the Bible was literally dictated by God to a divine secretary who wrote it all down. This is a view which arose in the Fundamentalist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Biblical scholars have traced the composition of the scriptures.

In the Hebrew scriptures or the Old Testament, we can find four strands of composition dating from 950 B.C.E. to 450 B.C.E., four different groups of scholars and editors who composed these scriptures. In the Greek scriptures, or the New Testament, there are also many authors. All of these scriptures were certainly inspired by God. The people who wrote these words were doing their best to share the story of God’s relationship with us humans. There are many contradictions in the Bible, but this does not detract from the deep truths which are found in the scriptures. So, to sum up, the people who wrote this library of books called the Bible were certainly inspired by God to do that work just as we are inspired by God to spread the Good News in our own day. But the Bible is not to be taken literally.

In our Gospel for today, we have the familiar story of the persistent widow. She gave the unjust judge such a hassle that he finally granted her request. The traditional interpretation of this parable is that, if this obviously less than sterling judge could be badgered into granting the widow’s petition, how much more will God, who loves us, answer our prayers. This is a fine and true interpretation.

Audrey West of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, offers an interesting variation.

She point out that, as we know, widows were among the most vulnerable people in the society of Jesus’ time. If a woman’s husband died, she could lose her livelihood because the property and possessions she had shared with her husband reverted to the husband’s family. West points out that, from the beginning of the life of the people of God, widows were among the poor and marginalized and the community was called to show care and concern for them. West states that widows, and we can say women in general, were supposed to confine their activities to the private family sphere, but this widow moves into the public sphere, challenging the status quo by her persistent appeals to this judge, who in his unresponsiveness, goes against everything a judge in that culture should stand for. According to the law, a judge was supposed to represent God’s justice. This judge certainly does not meet that standard.

West writes, “The widow brings about a change in the judge, not by force, but by her unrelenting pursuit of justice, even from her position of vulnerability. In this regard, she is a lot like God, who comes as a vulnerable child born into poor surroundings, who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the poor and lowly, whose own power does not force others to act, but is revealed on the cross in the crucified King of the Jews.”

Like the widow,” West continues, “God is persistent in the pursuit of justice, returning again and again despite the arrogance and sinfulness of human persons and institutions. God does not give up. There is reason to pray always, trusting that God is at work to bring about justice in every circumstance, no matter how bad it might appear. Even in the face of sinful powers-that-be, God is victorious through the vulnerable persistent power of God, demonstrated in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Is this not reason to pray always, to remain faithful, and to trust in God?” (West, New Proclamation, Year C, 2010, p.247)

God is writing God’s law of love and compassion on our hearts. God reaches out to us to form a new and deeper relationship so that each of us can be as close to God and to each other as we are to our own breath. God has given us the legacy of faith. God has given us new life in Jesus. God is building God’s shalom at this very minute, and we are called to help in that work.

The Church in the twenty-first century is called to be different than the Church of the past. In our meetings with Lynn Bates, Lynn alluded to the idea that we are now in the post-modern, post-Christendom age, and we are called to be the vibrant Church in this new era. I have some copies of a fascinating book which Lynn also mentioned. It’s called Changing the Conversation. It was written by Anthony Robinson, a minister in the United Church of Christ and an expert in congregational development who has thought-provoking ideas to share. He will also be with us here in the Diocese of Vermont on June 4 and 5, 2011.

Each of you is welcome to take a copy of Mr. Robinson’s book and read it. We will then make some time to talk about this book as well as the other book we have been reading, called The Shack. Together, these two books give us much to think about. They speak of our deep relationship with a God who loves us very much and how to form ministering communities based on that love.

May we grow ever closer to God and to each other. May we share the good news as Timothy did. May we persevere in prayer and in sharing God’s compassion with all we meet. Amen

Pentecost 20 Proper 23, October 10, 2010

Pentecost 20 Proper 23 C RCL October 10, 2010

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7
Psalm 66: 1-11
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

In our first lesson, the Babylonian Empire has conquered Jerusalem. The leaders of Judah and many others are in exile in Babylon. Jeremiah writes to them from Jerusalem and encourages then to continue with their lives, to build houses, plant gardens, raise families, and to pray for their captors, for in the welfare of Babylon they will find their welfare.

Commentator Audrey West notes that this lesson speaks to our world in which, in our country, so many people have lost their homes through foreclosure, and so many people are refugees. She writes, “However, there is reason to hope even in the midst of shattered dreams. The people of God can bloom where they are planted, making the best of their circumstances. They can create a new “normal” as they learn to live into this reality. In a world turned upside down, the people of God are called and encouraged to remain faithful no matter where they are or what circumstances they face.” (New Proclamation, Year C 2010, p.236.)

In our epistle, Paul continues to encourage Timothy to persevere in faith. “If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him.” We have died with Christ in our baptisms, in which we die to sin, to the brokenness which turns us away from God and others. Because we have died with him, we now join in his life, that new life rooted and grounded in faith and love and compassion.

In today’s Gospel, we have the story of the ten lepers who are healed by Jesus. Our Lord is still on his way to Jerusalem, and he is apparently on the border between Galilee and Samaria. We need to remember that the Jews thought the Samaritans were beyond the pale, that their theology was not correct and that they were therefore outcasts.

Jesus goes into the village and the ten lepers approach him. Scholars tell us that lepers usually lived in groups. They stayed away from people because they were considered unclean. But these ten people call to Jesus, “Jesus, master, have mercy on us!” and Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. This is because in that time, the priests were responsible for determining whether the lepers had been healed, in other words, whether they were now clean. As they go on their way to the priests, they are healed.

Nine of the lepers keep going to the priests to be pronounced clean. But one notices he is now healed and he praises God and comes back and thanks Jesus. And Jesus tells him to get up and go on his way, because his faith has made him well. This man was a Samaritan, so, as a leper, he had two strikes against him. He was unclean on two counts, Yet he is the only one who comes back and gives thanks. In Luke, it is the outcasts who often give us the most powerful examples of true faith.

This Gospel makes me think of what I call the attitude of gratitude. This is a concept which we find in twelve step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. I am a recovering alcoholic, and I probably wouldn’t be here if AA didn’t exist. I know what it is to feel like a leper and an outcast. That is one reason I want to help to start an AA group here in Sheldon just as I did when I lived in Milton. Because AA is one of God’s paths to new life.

I think most of us know that feeling of being an outcast or unworthy to one degree or another, Most of us have things that we wouldn’t want printed on the front page of the New York Times. So we can understand what a relief and a joy it is to have something like that lifted from us as if by a miracle, I consider my recovery a miracle, and it has become a source of God’s gift to me of being able to help others.

Some of the AA literature describes members of AA as a group of people who have survived a shipwreck and are now pulling together to row a lifeboat. That’s the level of gratitude. We were dead, and now we live. That’s my level of gratitude every day of the life God gives me.

My experience of recovery makes it easy for me to find gratitude. I am asking you to find within you some experience that gives you that sense of having died with Christ and now living with Christ. Some experience in your life that helps you get in touch with a way in which you were dead but are now alive in Christ. Something you went through that makes you so grateful to be here, so grateful to have the gift of faith, so grateful to have a faith community that is so vibrant. Small, but vibrant.

We are going to be starting to think about stewardship in a concentrated way. One, we will be thinking about our pledges for this coming year. And, two, we will be thinking of pledges of time, talent, and treasure for our building project. Please start thinking about these things. God gives us everything we have. What portion of all that will you return to God for next year’s pledge and for our building project? Something we all need to pray about.

It is so easy, especially in bad economic times, to think of how little we have. But that’s not the attitude of gratitude. We have so much. I once again encourage you to make that gratitude list or to review the one you already have made. What do I have to be grateful for? I can see, I can hear, I can think, I can talk, I can pray, I can walk, even run, sing, love, help people. I have a roof over my head, clothes to wear, especially now that the cold weather is coming, that’s a good thing.

God calls us to have a theology of abundance. We cannot look at the cup half empty. That accomplishes nothing. Furthermore, it denies all the gifts God has given us. We must always look at the cup not only half full, but full and running over. We have so much. Compared to most of the rest of the world, we are hugely wealthy. And it is absolutely true: the more we give, the more we have. That is the theology of abundance.

We are at a crucial place in our journey as a community of faith. We have so much to offer. This congregation has so many gifts it is truly amazing—Grace. I can envision a counseling/healing/meditation center here as well as a community center and meeting place. The sky is the limit. Ten were healed. One came back to offer thanks. Somebody once said that we Christians are so lucky because we know whom to thank. Thanks be to God for all these gifts.

The attitude of gratitude. Thanks be to God for all these many and powerful and beautiful gifts!

Amen.