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Pentecost 16 Proper 22 October 2, 2011

Pentecost 16 Proper 22    October 2, 2011

 Exodus 20: 1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3: 4b-14
Matthew 21: 33-46

In our first lesson from the Hebrew scriptures, Moses and the people have made a long journey. They have reached Mt. Sinai. Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God. These commandments reflect the basic guidelines of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as other religions and ethical human beings.

God is the only God. We should not worship idols, We should not take God’s name in vain or use God’s name lightly.   We are called to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. In these days of working all kinds of shifts and traveling through time zones, we are called to keep Sabbath time for prayer, rest, and renewal. We are called to honor our parents, although, if there has been abuse by our parents, we are called to take care of ourselves. (All of these commandments are assuming a community of love and respect.) Don’t murder. Be faithful to your spouse or partner. Don’t steal. Don’t lie about your neighbor. Don’t covet your neighbor’s possessions.

These commandments are the framework, the foundation, the glue that holds the community of faith, indeed, the human community, together.

In our epistle for today, Paul is making it clear that he is a person who can claim the highest privilege. He is a Jew, a Pharisee, a Roman citizen. Yet he sees all this as rubbish, trash, compared to the experience of knowing and experiencing and following Jesus. That’s what happens to all of us on this spiritual journey. Jesus becomes real to us as our model, our hero, and our leader, and everything else pales by comparison. Paul says, “Jesus has made me his own,” And then he continues with some of the most inspiring words in the Bible, “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own, but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press onward toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

In today’s gospel, we hear a parable. Jesus is still in the temple being challenged and attacked by the religious leaders. A man plants a vineyard. He does everything possible to nurture this vineyard. Then he leases it to tenants and goes away. When he sends his slaves to collect the rent, the tenants beat one, kill one, and stone another. He sends other slaves and the tenants treat them in the same way. Finally, he sends his son, thinking the tenants will respect him. The tenants kill the son.

On one level, which we should be aware of just for historical reasons, this is a story about how God has sent prophets and finally God’s son, and the leaders of God’s people have killed the prophets and Jesus. Matthew’s gospel was written about 90 CE, about 60 years after Jesus’ ministry ended, and this parable comments on how the religious establishment of the time resisted the prophets and even Jesus. But we should never use this in an anti Semitic manner, as it has been used in the past. We are called to use this parable to ask ourselves, “How are we responding to God’s call, to God’s vision of shalom?” How are we responding to Jesus? How are we responding to the prophets in our midst—Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Bill McKibben? Are we caring for this planet? Are we treating other members of the human community with love and respect?

On a human level, we could understand why the landowner might come back and kill those tenants. But God does not do that. God is faithful and loving toward us.

We are called to produce the fruits of God’s shalom. In Galatians 5: 22, Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These qualities speak for themselves. They are the qualities which folks show in their lives when they are living the Ten Commandments and when they are centered in God, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or followers of any other major spiritual path.

I was listening to the radio the other morning, and there was a discussion about the Euro Zone. One woman, a German, said how wonderful it was that, after all the wars that had been fought, Germans could be close to and care about French people,  and other Europeans, and the conflicts and divisions of centuries could turn into friendship and common purpose and human community. That’s God’s shalom.

Ultimately, that is what all these lessons are talking about, that we are all one as Jesus and the Father are one, that, if we take God’s love seriously, we will love our neighbors as ourselves. May we run the race; may we produce the fruits of God’s shalom.

Amen.

 

 

Pentecost 15 Proper 21 September 25, 2011

Pentecost 15 Proper 21A RCL September 25, 2011

Exodus 17: 1-7
Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2: 1-13
Matthew 21: 23-32

In our first lesson, we rejoin the people Israel out in the wilderness. Once again, they are complaining. There is no water. “Why did you bring us out here, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” Moses cries out to God, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” Now Moses is complaining to God about the people. God tells Moses to take some of the elders and take the staff with which he struck the Nile to make it part. God will show him the rock. Moses will strike the rod with his staff, and water will gush out. God does provide the water, but Moses names the place Massah (“test”) and meribah (“quarrel.”)  The faith of the people is tested in the wilderness. And they have been lacking in faith. They have quarreled with Moses and with God. But God has been faithful in spite of all their doubts and complaining.

Our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is really a poem of praise to God and to Jesus. Paul calls the people to be of one mind, to be in complete harmony in their thinking and attitude because they have the same love,  that is the love that is rooted in God. He tells us to look to the well being of others, not to our own. And then he calls us to have the mind of Jesus, who, although he was fully divine, gave up all of that power to walk the earth as fully human. Therefore, he understands everything we go through each day and each moment of our lives. Herbert O’Driscoll writes, “He lived our human condition, as we have to live it, and, in the end, he accepted even death, as we must.” (The Word Today, p. 134.)

We are continuing on our spiritual journey, but he is living within us and helping us on our own journey of transformation.

Just before the part of Matthew’s gospel that we read today, Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He has cleansed the temple of the moneychangers.  He is now in the temple. The authorities see him as a threat. They ask him a question, but it is really an attack. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus answers with a question, “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” This poses a dilemma for the Chief priests and elders. John the Baptist is dead, but he had a huge following. They must handle this question carefully. They finally decide to answer, “We do not know.” And Jesus tells him that, since they have not answered his question, he will not tell them by what authority he does these things.

But he tells a parable. A man has two sons. He asks the first to go out and work in the vineyard. The son says he won’t do it, but later he does. The father goes to the other son and asks him to work, The son says, “Yes, Dad, I’ll get right on it,” but he doesn’t go to work in the vineyard at all. On the face of it, neither son does the father’s will entirely. Each is a mixture of obedience and disobedience. But, since the first son finally went out and worked, the temple authorities say he did the father’s will. And we could say the same.

But there is a deeper message here. Herbert O’Driscoll writes, “The men confronting Jesus represent the public life of Israel. Officially, Israel is a nation obedient to God. But, while many, such as these men, enjoy the privileges of the state religion, they do not always practice its principles. The society as a whole is like the second son—professing loyalty, duty, faithfulness, and obedience, but not living accordingly. By contrast, the outcasts of society, such as the prostitutes and tax gatherers, seem to have said No to God. But although they suffer the contempt of society, they live with decency and kindness, They, Jesus says, are like the first son—not professing holiness, but living according to the will of God, Jesus leaves no doubt as to whom he admires and identifies with.” In other words, it is the outcasts, the people at the margin, who really heard and followed John the Baptist’s message about conversion, repentance, transformation of our lives.

What are these readings saying to us today? There are some observations about authority in our gospel. Whenever we have a reading about the chief priests and the elders of the temple, we need to use that as an opportunity to ask about authority in the Church. Do our leaders live their faith? Do we, as Christians, live according to our Lord’s example? Obviously, we are not going to be totally like Jesus. But we need to be headed firmly in that direction. If we aren’t praying the prayer of Christ, learning the mind of Christ, and doing the deeds of Christ, there’s work to do.

If we look at God’s people complaining and quarreling in the wilderness, we know that every community complains from time to time. It isn’t easy to try to discern and follow God’s leading. But the point is that God is always faithful. And today’s reading from Philippians goes to the heart of it all. We are called to have the same mind, the same love, the same humility, as Christ. We are called to care for others in the same way that he did and does, putting others first. As we move in the direction of allowing our lives to become like his, we become more and more like him; we become one with him and one in him. And, to paraphrase what Paul says, it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us.

(Gal 2: 20.)

This is the goal of Christian life and life in community, that, we, as individuals and as a community,  show forth the love and caring and humility of our Lord.  A high calling, possible only through grace.

O God, you declare your almighty power chiefly in showing mercy and pity; Grant us the fullness of your grace, that we, running to obtain your promises, may become partakers of your heavenly treasure; through jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Pentecost 14 Proper 20 September 18, 2011

Pentecost 14 Proper 20A RCL  September 18, 2011

Exodus 16: 2-15
Psalm 105: 1-6, 37-45
Philippians 1: 21-30
Matthew 20: 1-16

In this morning’s reading from Exodus, God’s people are complaining against Moses and Aaron. “Why have you brought us out here to kill us,” they whine. Back in Egypt we had plenty of bread and things were great. Of course, they are omitting the fact that they were slaves.

God provides manna for the people and even quails for them to eat.

God is so generous and caring.

Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison. If he should be killed, he says it would be gain for him. But he realizes that he has started all of these communities surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and he wants to support them so that they continue strong in Christ. He looks forward to the time when he will visit them and see that they are “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.”

Today’s gospel is shocking. Jesus is telling us that the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. He hires a group of workers, agrees with them for the usual wage, and sends them into the vineyard. He goes to the marketplace again about nine o’clock , sees more workers standing idle, and hires them, saying that he will pay whatever is right. He goes out again at noon and three o’clock, finds more workers, and hires them on the same terms. At five o’clock he goes out and finds other workers standing idle. He asks them why they aren’t working and they say that no one has hired them. He tells them to go and work in the vineyard and doesn’t even mention wages. But they go anyway.

At the end of the day, the owner tells his manager to call the workers in and pay them. But there is a twist. He is to begin with the workers who started at five o’clock and pays them the same amount that he pays the ones who have worked all day.

It must have been pretty hard for those who had worked all day long to watch the manager pay all the latecomers the fair wage for a full day’s work. Maybe they began to think that, since the manager was paying those people a day’s wage, maybe he would pay them a week’s wage. But no such luck. They protest that this is unfair, but the landowner compassionately explains that he is doing them no wrong, he is paying them the agreed-upon fair wage. He is being fair; it’s just that he is being extraordinarily compassionate, too.

Some people find this parable upsetting. What in the world is Jesus saying here, anyway? This is no way to run a business. But this is not a parable about business practices.

Part of the unsettling nature of this parable has to do with the question: with whom do we identify? If I am thinking that I worked hard in the sun all day, and now these people who worked just a part of the day are getting the same pay, I am probably going to be upset.

But, if I identify with one of the people hired at noon or three, people who had not been hired earlier, then the parable can seem quite different. Especially in a time when so many people are unemployed or underemployed. I was there looking for work, I filled out the resumes, pounded the pavement, but no body hired me. If I am one of the people hired at five o’clock, I didn’t even ask what wages I was going to get, I just went out into the vineyard and worked. I have a family at home who are depending on me, and, at the end of the day, I get a full day’s pay, enough to feed the family for that day.

No, this parable is not about business practices. It is about God’s shalom, God’s kingdom. God is compassionate. God is generous. God is also fair. The folks who worked the full day got their fair wage. But God goes beyond fairness.

The first shall be last and the last shall be first. God’s shalom is not business as usual. It is not about getting to be first in line or being at the top of the ladder, which is what the conventional wisdom has taught us. It’s really not about us at all. It is about the nature of God.

God is a God of abundance. God is a God of grace. And grace has nothing to do with merit, or earning. Grace just flows out from God.

If we have ever had a time when we have looked for a job for a long time and not found one in spite of our best efforts; if we have ever had a time when we have tried and tried and given our best and still have not reached the goal, we may be able to understand the nature of God revealed in this parable. God’s heart goes out to those who try and try and get nowhere in the world’s terms. God especially loves those at the margins.

We are quite privileged, especially if we look at the human family on this planet. But each of us has probably known, in some way, on some level, how it feels to be vulnerable, weak, ill, insecure, to have tried our level best and failed at something, and tried and tried and tried and finally gotten hired toward the end of the day. And then the manager says to go to the head of the line, and he pays us the full wage!

That is the nature of God, and that is the nature of grace. God is not unfair, God is just amazingly generous.

 Amen.

Pentecost 13 Proper 19

Pentecost 13 Proper 19A RCL

 Exodus 14: 19-31
Psalm 114
Romans 14: 1-12
Matthew 18: 21-35

 In our first lesson this morning. The Israelites have made their way to the Red Sea. The angel of the Lord and the pillar of cloud which have been leading the people now shift to the rear to protect them from the Egyptian army, which is in hot pursuit.

God causes an East wind to blow, and Moses stretches out his hand, and the waters part.  The Israelites pass through, but the Egyptians and their chariots sink.

 Scholars tell us that the part of the Red Sea where the Israelites crossed could also be called the Reed Sea. It was a marshy area, the water was shallow there, and, when the wind blew, it could move the water in such a way that, if you traveled lightly, you could pass through. Perhaps this is a more scientific account of what might have happened.

 In any case, the people were aware of God’s protection and assistance as they escaped from the Egyptian army. This is a story of God’s faithfulness and of the people’s faith.

In our passage from Romans, Paul is continuing his thoughts on how a Christian community should conduct itself. The congregation in Rome was diverse. People were coming into the community with all kinds of religious backgrounds. This was reflected in their dietary practices and in what festivals they observed, among other things. Paul encourages the community to welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. He is calling us not to worry about the minor details, but to resolve that, whatever we do, we do it to honor the Lord.

 “We do not live to ourselves,” Paul says, “And we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and, if we die, we die to the Lord, so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.”

 In any community, there are differences of opinion. But these are minor if we focus on honoring our Lord in everything that we do.

 Our gospel continues the discussion of forgiveness in the community of faith. Peter asks, “Lord, if another member of the Church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” The rabbinic rule was to forgive three times, so Peter is being very generous when he says seven times.  But Jesus makes a quantum leap. “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” My interpretation of this is to say that Jesus is telling us to stop counting. Don’t keep track of how many times people may commit offenses against us.

 Then Jesus tells the parable. A king wants to settle accounts with his slaves. The first slave owes ten thousands talents. Now, this is a huge amount put in to the story to make a point. Scholars tell us that no slave could possibly owe this much. Ten thousand talents would equal 200,000 years’ wages.  Scholars say that perhaps this man was a prince, a man of great wealth. The slave falls on his knees and asks the king to forgive the debt. Out of pity for the slave, the king does forgive the debt. Here is a big key point: the Greek word translated as “pity” is the same word used when the Good Samaritan has pity on the man who has fallen among the thieves. It is the same word used when the father has pity on his prodigal son. It is also the same word used to describe Jesus’ compassion on the crowds who constantly follow him begging for help and healing.

 Now comes another point. The slave, forgiven this huge debt, leaves the king’s presence and sees one of his fellow slaves who owes him one hundreds denarii, or about four months’ wages. Now this is a considerable amount, but nothing like what he has just been forgiven. But he grabs the poor man by the throat and demands payment., And when his fellow slave falls to his knees and begs, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you,” the forgiven slave refuses and has the man thrown in jail.

 Jesus is calling us to an attitude of compassion, a mind-set and a heart-set of forgiveness. Yes, there is such a thing as accountability, and that is very important. Yes, there is such a thing as justice, and that is important. But we are like that forgiven slave. We are like the people Israel. God has protected us. God has cherished us, guided us, healed us, forgiven us. God has reached out to us in love. We must always keep that in mind. Having received this love from God, we are called to extend that to others. I know we all try to do this, with God’s grace. I do realize that I am preaching to the choir.  But we have this gospel today to remind us not to be like that slave. There is so much power in God’s love and forgiveness. And that is what we are called to mirror. Our love and forgiveness cannot be on the same level as God’s love and forgiveness, but we can aim in the right direction.

 Today we are still dealing with the aftermath of Irene, and we are gathering supplies and money to send to help our brothers and sisters. We will also go to lend a hand wherever we can. We are also observing the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. None of us will ever forget that day.

 We reach out with tangible help and with prayers for our neighbors who have been affected by Irene. And we continue to reach out to all those affected by 9/11. On that awful day, not just Americans, but people from all over the world died here on our soil. It was an international mass murder. I am not going to try to comment on the events of that day or to analyze those events. I am going to need much more prayer and a longer perspective before I can even begin to put anything into words and thoughts. My only suggestion is that, as we deal with the aftermath of 9/11, we continue always to pray and seek God’s guidance and help.

 Our Collect for today is a good place to begin: “O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen

Pentecost 12 Proper 18A RCL September 4, 2011

Exodus 12: 1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20

 Our opening lesson from the Book of Exodus is the account of the first Passover. The people are going to be delivered from slavery. Each household gathers for a meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs to remind them of their suffering. They are ready to travel—loins girded, sandals on their feet, and staff in their hand. They will begin their journey to the Promised Land.

One of my beloved mentors, David Brown, former Rector of Christ Church, Montpelier, has wisely said that, to be a good Christian one must be a good Jew first. By that he means that so many experiences of God’s people Israel are also our experience as humans and as Christians. It is important for us to remember this Passover history and to realize that our Jewish friends celebrate this feast every year around the time we are celebrating Easter. Their history is our history. We are all enslaved in various ways, As God’s people moved toward the Promised Land, so we follow our Lord as he leads us out of slavery to sin and into newness of life.

In our epistle, Paul is coming to the end of his Letter to the Romans. He is a Pharisee, an expert on the law, but now he says simply, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” He tells us that all the commandments involving our behavior toward others are summed up in the one statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He says that slavery to sin is like being asleep or like being in the dark, But now the day is near and we can live in the light. Paul sounds an Advent theme of casting aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. He even encourages us to “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as though we were clothing ourselves with the goodness and strength of our Lord. Powerful and inspiring language from Paul.

Our gospel this morning deals with the question of how to deal with conflict in the Church. If someone sins against us, we are to go to then and try to resolve it one on one. If that does not work, we take two or three other members of the community and try to reach reconciliation. If that does not work, we bring it before the whole community. If the person will not amend his or her behavior, the leaders of the community may exclude the person.

What are these lessons telling us here in September of 2011? There are certainly conflicts in the Church and among Christian groups. Our Congress has recently experienced conflict to the point of deadlock.

Jesus called everyone to be a part of the community, rich and poor, men, women, and children, people from all walks of life, even those who were considered beyond the pale, such as tax collectors. In the Church, we have a principle of unity in diversity. If we look over the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and all the Christian churches, there is huge diversity. But we are all trying to follow Jesus. Even if we look at Grace Church, I think we represent the entire political spectrum from Progressives, to Democrats to Republicans to Independents and probably others. Yet we are all trying to follow Jesus.

If we look at our beloved country, the United States of America, there are people of all faiths and all nationalities. There is a huge diversity. That is a strength.

Here in Vermont, southern and central Vermont have been devastated by Irene. This past Thursday, I heard one of the town leaders in Ludlow talking. They have been hit so hard, but they had gotten the power on and they could get in and out of town. What was he saying? He said, now that we are sort of back on or feet, we are concentrating on helping our neighbors in Cavendish, who were hit even worse.

That is the Vermont way, and that is the way of every one of the major faith traditions. We are called to help each other, to look out for those who have less than we have,  to help others. We are called to share.

These lessons are about what is good for the whole community. To love each other, to care for each other—these values are emphasized in our faith and in every faith. This is the Vermont way, and it is the way of compassion.

Jesus summarized the law when he said that we are called to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. His whole life and ministry give us a clear picture of the vision of shalom. Shalom. Usually translated as “peace,” is much more than the absence of war. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori writes, in her book A Wing and a Prayer, “Shalom is a vision of the city of God on earth, a community where people are at peace with each other because each one has enough to eat, adequate shelter, medical care, and meaningful work. Shalom is a city where justice is the rule of the day, where prejudice has vanished, where the diverse gifts with which we have been so abundantly blessed are equally valued.”

This is our vision of community, here at grace, in Sheldon, in all the communities from which we come, in Vermont, in the United States, and all around this earth. God’s shalom has begun, but it is not yet fully realized. We are called to pitch in and help it to happen.

I feel truly blessed to live here in Vermont. I hope and pray that our Congress will learn to do things the Vermont way, working together for the good of all. We pray for our brothers and sisters who are still dealing with the devastation of Hurricane and Tropical Storm Irene, and most especially for Gethsemane, Proctorsville. Their parish hall is “a pile of wood scraps” and the foundation of their church building is compromised. Each parish has been asked to have a contact person so that we can get together to help other parishes recover from this storm.

May we love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and may we love our neighbors as ourselves.

Amen