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Pentecost 20 Proper 26, October 30, 2011

Pentecost 20 Proper 26A RCL October 30, 2011

Joshua 3: 7-17
Psalm 107: 1-7, 33-37
1 Thessalonians 2: 9-13
Matthew 23: 1-12

In our lesson from the book of Joshua, the people of God cross the Jordan and enter the promised land. The scene is similar to the earlier crossing of the Red Sea. The priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which symbolizes the presence of God, walk into the waters of the Jordan, and the waters part.

Scholars tell us that this crossing was during the time of the spring harvest when the water level was very high. The waters flowing from upstream rose up, the scripture says, “in a single heap.” The people cross on dry ground. God is with the people to help and proect them on their journey.

In our epistle for today, Paul reminds the people that he worked as a tentmaker in order to spare them any financial burden. He says that his conduct towards them was “pure, upright, and blameless.” He says that he dealt with the people as “a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God….” And Paul says that the people accepted the good news, not as a human word, but as God’s word, which, Paul writes, “is also at work in you believers.” These are excellent guidelines for us as we do our own ministries. We are called to have the highest ethical and moral standards. We are called to be “encouragers, “ good spiritual coaches calling people to be the people God calls us to be so that all of us can lead lives worthy of God. And we need to remember that the good news, the word we share, personified in the Word, Jesus, is, as Paul says, a living word that is at work in all of us to help us to be people of God’s shalom.

As we approach today’s gospel, we are called to remember that we are called to use Jesus’ words as a yardstick or a measuring rod to evaluate our own ministries and our own leadership. Are we congruent? Do our actions match our words? The bottom line for me is that Jesus is calling us to a servant ministry. He himself said, “I am among you as one who serves.”

Charles Cousar writes of this passage, “The narrator wants Christian leaders who read the text not to act like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but to be servants, to be humbly learning from their one instructor, Jesus..” He continues, “How do the scribes and Pharisees serve as negative models? Basically, they do not practice what they teach. Their lives give no evidence that they take seriously the very law about which they endlessly debate. Consistency and wholeness are missing. …”

Cousar continues, “The religious authorities of Jesus’ day make a display of their leadership. They want their deeds to be noticed and their religious status to be recognized. Their badges include enlarged phylacteries (small leather cases worn on the left arm and forehead, containing important Old Testament texts) and extended fringes at the bottom of their robes (tassels worn to signify their bondage to the law.) They enjoy the attention they receive not only in the synagogue but also in the marketplace and at social functions.”

Cousar adds, “The religious leaders of Jesus’ day crave titles: rabbi, father, and instructor. For Christian leaders the pride that cultivates such honorific titles reveals a fundamental failure—the ignoring of Jesus as teacher and instructor and God as Father. The model of the Christian church is not one in which an authoritarian (whether ‘preacher,’ ‘pastor,’ or ‘doctor’) dispenses truth to fawning followers but an egalitarian community where all are students of Jesus and children of God. The proper recognition of divine authority relativizes all human authorities.”

“Matthew’s readers, then, whether leaders or common people, are not allowed… to remain detached critics of the scribes and Pharisees, those so-called bad guys of the first century, Instead, [we] are confronted with the demand for a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, with a style of leadership and following that acknowledges one divine source of authority. Teachers as well as learners are instructed by Jesus himself, the authentic interpreter of the law, and teachers as well as learners are called to do the will of the heavenly Father.”  (Texts for Preaching, pp. 551-552)

Rarely do I include such long quotations in sermons, but I think Charles Cousar, who is Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, offers us a powerful and inspiring vision of baptismal ministry, in which we are all exercising our gifts for ministry and all are learning from our ultimate leader, Jesus. His words also describe servant leaders who have genuine humility and openness to God’s leading and God’s love.

I have never met him, but I have come to know someone who, I believe, lived out all of the qualities of an authentic and humble leader. That is the Rev. Austin Schildwachter, Priscilla’s dad. The name Schildwachter means “shield watcher.” Here are some glimpses into the character of this beloved servant of Christ from the eulogy given by his stepson, Priscilla’s stepbrother. “He respected other people, listening to them tirelessly with rapt attention, responding to everyone with interest and almost always with amazement at what they had to say. He had the gift of making other people feel special and on equal footing with him in spite of the fact that his experience and wisdom far outweighed theirs. We all delight in the opportunity to revisit the gentleness of a man who knew how to be a pastor to every person he ever met and never over do it to the point that the person didn’t feel friendship with him. Why? Because it was authentic. This was the genuine article we all had the good fortune to see. Austin never cared about money and he was out in the cold as a result. Out in the cold from the world of money and power, and consequently safe and warm and comfortable inside the world of God and Jesus, family, friends and an endless stream of new acquaintances that he made at restaurant tables and boardwalks and street corners every day he lived. Here we had a guy who probably took more interest in the spiritual lives of perfect strangers who served him lunch in a coffee shop than some of their own friends did.”

Austin is an inspiring and authentic model for the kind of ministry we are all called to do. Thank you so much for sharing him with us, Priscilla. May we all follow in his footsteps.   Amen.

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