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Pentecost 23 Proper 28 November 17, 2019

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

Our opening reading is from the person we call the Third Isaiah. Biblical scholar James D. Newsome places the time of this passage around 475 B.C. (Newsome, Texts for Preaching Year C, p. 596.) It is fifty years since the exiles have come back home to Jerusalem from Babylon. They have built the new temple, but it pales in comparison to the original temple built by King Solomon. 

There is still a great deal of rubble in the city. The city walls have yet to be rebuilt. Not all the people have come home to help in this daunting project of rebuilding. Many have remained in the relative safety of the city of Babylon.  The people of God are becoming discouraged

We all know what can happen when a group of people are tackling a huge task. Scholars tell us that, rather than remaining faithful to God’s call to love God and each other, some of the people turned to worshipping other Gods. There were squabbles, and factions developed.

Among the people facing this enormous challenge of rebuilding was the person we call the Third Isaiah. We know very little about him except for his powerful prophetic writings. We can imagine him as a person of deep faith watching the people of God dissolve into arguing and splitting into opposing groups. Newsome writes, “In this despairing situation, however, certain individuals began to raise their heads and to sing the old songs of joy and hope, but in a new key.….Yes… Jerusalem had been restored—somewhat at least. But God’s eye was on another Jerusalem also—a Jerusalem not of bricks and mortar, but of the human heart.” Newsome, p. 597.)

This faithful prophet brings God’s word to God’s people trying to rebuild Jerusalem centuries ago and to us today. God is about to create “New heavens and a new earth.” Infants will live long lives. People will build houses and will not have to leave them to escape an invader. People will plant gardens and vineyards and enjoy the harvest.

God tells us that before we call, God will answer. This is a foretaste of the promise that the Holy Spirit prays for us when we cannot find the words. And then we hear an echo of Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom of God in Chapter 11. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together. ….They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”

In our epistle for today, The Thessalonians are being led to believe that Jesus is coming very soon or has come already to complete his work of creation. Some people are quitting their jobs. In all the free time they have, they are meddling in other people’s lives. 

When these folks quit their jobs, this means that they are not able to carry out their contributions to the community of faith. Back in those days, followers of Jesus shared their wealth so that they could help out those who needed food or clothing or shelter. In listening to the false teachers who are telling them that our Lord’s second coming is going to happen soon or already has happened, these people are not carrying out their ministries in the community of faith and are weakening the community. Each of us is called to carry out our ministries so that the community of faith can remain strong. 

Paul writes these wise words, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” When our Lord comes again to judge the earth, it will be clear that he is here. Until then, we need to be active in our ministries and be prepared to meet him when he comes.

In our gospel for today, our Lord is preparing his followers for persecution. Many will come in his name and say that they are Jesus who has returned to lead us. The scriptures talk about times of turmoil that will precede his coming again, and this makes it easy for  misguided people to stir up fear by pointing to signs of the end times.

As we look around our world, we see many signs of turmoil. As we look around our nation, we see a great deal of tension and division.

God gives us a vision of new heavens and a new earth, a vision of unity, peace, harmony, and healing. God calls us to work together.

In reference to our reading from Isaiah, the great preacher and scholar Herbert O’Driscoll writes, “There is not a single imperative in the work of Isaiah that we do not need today. To be pointed toward the future. To be given a shining vision of what may be possible. To be called to build enthusiastically and confidently, trusting that there is a purpose in the events of human history. Finally to be given a vision of reconciliation between the endless warring forces of our culture. These are what we long for, These are what we will seek till the end of time.” (O’Driscoll, The Word Among Us Year C Vol 3, p. 166.)


Pentecost 26 Proper 28C RCL November 13, 2016

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

Our first reading this morning comes from the prophet known as the Third Isaiah. He is writing some time after King Cyrus of Persia has permitted the people of God to return to Jerusalem. They have been in exile in Babylon for about fifty years, two generations. They got married, had families and worked and survived and prayed together and studied the scriptures. God promised them that they would return and rebuild. That hope kept them alive.

Once they arrived home, they found that the temple was a pile of rubble. The Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem. So they set about building houses for their families and planting gardens to raise food and doing what was necessary to preserve life.

Then they began to rebuild the temple. That took them about fifty years, according to biblical scholar James Newsome. And when they finally completed the temple, it was not as splendid and beautiful as Solomon’s original. And there were still piles of rubble everywhere and they had not even begun to build the city wall, which had been totally destroyed. (Newsome, Texts for Preaching NRSV Year C, pp. 696-7.)

People began to lose heart. Some leaders were greedy and corrupt. There were conflicts, even to the point of bloodshed. Some people became so discouraged that they turned to other gods. As much as they had hoped to return and rebuild, the work before them seemed too much to tackle. (Jack R. Lundbom, Feasting on the Word. Year C, Vol. 4. p.291.) The fabric of their society was tearing apart.

In this moment, the word of God comes to them. “Thus says the Lord God: For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth…..I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” God tells them that there will be no more weeping. Babies will no longer die. People will live long and healthy lives. People will build their homes and will not be uprooted and sent into exile.

And then God voices the vision of shalom: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together….They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” God is building something even more wonderful than the temple or the city wall. God is building God’s shalom, and God’s holy people, who have been caught in conflict and division, are the builders of that kingdom of peace and harmony. As we know, they rebuilt the city and the city wall, and they rebuilt their community of faith.

In our reading from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians, the members of the congregation are advised to “keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition  that they received from us.” Scholars tell us that the word translated as “idleness,” ataktos, is a military term meaning “disorderly” or “undisciplined.” People were not doing the tasks they were called to do on behalf of the community.

Some members were actually becoming “busybodies” and doing other people’s jobs. ( Lance Pape, New Proclamation Year C, p.234.) Some people were thinking that Jesus was going to appear very soon, so they stopped going to their paid jobs and could not make their financial contributions to the community.

People were engaging in irresponsible behavior, and that was interfering with the Church’s work of building the kingdom of Christ. Paul calls the Thessalonians and us to be faithful and loving to each other and to carry out our ministries in the Body of Christ so that we can help to build the shalom of Christ. Thanks be to God that Grace has a long history of such faithfulness and mutual love.

In today’s gospel, our Lord speaks of the destruction of the temple which indeed happened at the hands of the Romans in A. D. 70. Then he speaks of the chaos which will occur before he comes again. He also speaks of persecution, which has happened to Christians for centuries and is happening even now.

A few days ago, I watched a news story on a Christian community which had been in exile and was returning to their village as troops moved toward Mosul and liberated villages along the way. Their church had suffered extensive damage but the walls were still standing. They raised a cross outside and used large chunks of rubble to make the cross stand upright. I could sense and feel their faith and courage over thousands of miles of distance. That is what our Lord is calling us to do—to have faith in him. He is building his shalom, and we are called to help him.

The message of our epistle today is that we are members of the body of Christ, and we are called to love and care for one another so that we can do our ministry together. Each of us is essential to the Body. We are called to be aware of the needs and feelings of everyone else in the Body and to respect each other. Though we are a small community of faith, we cover a broad spectrum of political approaches. We do have differences of opinion. I believe that is a strength. We also have a long history of loving and respecting each other. This is another strength.

As Christians, we are one as Jesus and the Father are one. Our country has come through a time of stress and conflict, and there is still work to be done. But we can all be one in the Spirit of God.

We share the same dreams and visions which are expressed in our reading from Isaiah. Though Americans come from different faiths, all of those faiths share the precepts of the Golden Rule—treat others as we would want to be treated.

During the past eighteen months of this campaign, there has been much focus upon the things that divide us. We need to remember that  the things which unite us far outnumber and outweigh the things that divide us. We have so much in common. We are all connected.

May we be one as Jesus and the Father are one. In His holy Name. Amen.

Pentecost 24 Proper 26C RCL October 30, 2016

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 119:137-144
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

Our first reading is from another of the Minor Prophets, Habakkuk. We know very little about this prophet, but, from references in the text, we think that he was writing at the height of Babylonian power, but before the conquering of Jerusalem and the Exile.

Habakkuk could see the disaster that was about to come. Once again, the words of this prophet from twenty-five hundred years ago echo our own feelings. He writes, “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails.” He is pleading to God to correct these wrongs, but nothing is happening. So he goes to a watch post to stand and wait until God speaks.

And God answers. God tells Habakkuk to write the prophecy in large print so that a runner can see it as he speeds by. God says, “Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.” Things will be set right, and we are called to wait in faith until that time.

In our second reading, Paul, Sylvanus and Timothy are writing to a church that is dealing with persecution. Even in the midst of this challenging time, the faith of the Thessalonians is growing, and the members of the community continue to love one another. Paul says that he and his assistants boast of the Thessalonians because their faith is so strong and steadfast.

And then Paul tells us that keeping the faith in times of trial, and continuing to love and serve others as our Lord called us to do glorifies the Name of Jesus.

This is something that I have noted in the history of Grace Church. In 1853, our ancestors found out that the foundation of the church building was crumbling. At the same time, the iron foundries had gone into decline, the local economy was in trouble, and membership was declining. The Rev. Albert Hopson Bailey was Rector then, and he rallied everyone together. In spite of the bad economy, they rose to the task and constructed a new building.

In more recent years, I can’t tell you how many people, having spent some time visiting here, have commented on the genuine love and caring which they see in this community. They feel that they have encountered a Christian community as it is meant to be. These kinds of things glorify the Name of Christ. Paul, Sylvanus, and Timothy could well have sent a letter to you.

In our gospel, we have the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zaccheus. Zaccheus is a tax collector and he is rich. As a tax collector, he is despised because tax collectors worked for the Roman occupiers. They were required to collect a certain amount for the Roman government, but they often collected an additional amount over and above that to line their own pockets. Zaccheus lives in a mansion in a very nice neighborhood, but he has no friends. He is very rich and very much alone.

In spite of all the strikes against him,, Zaccheus is in the middle of the crowd this day because he absolutely must see Jesus. He feels compelled to find out more about Jesus, even though people are sneering at him and directing all their hatred and scorn at him. On top of everything else, Zaccheus is short.

He is not tall enough to see over the crowds, so he runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree so that he can see Jesus. Jesus arrives at the base of the tree and looks up at Zaccheus. And then Jesus says the most amazing thing. He tells Zaccheus to get down out of that tree because he, Jesus, is going to stay at his house! So Zaccheus clambers down and welcomes Jesus.

When Jesus sends us out two by two, he tells us to stay wherever folks extend hospitality to us. But here, he is choosing to stay in the house of this sinner, this tax collector hated by everyone. The crowd begins to grumble about this. It takes people a long time to realize that Jesus has come to turn the world upside down. Yes, he chooses to stay with sinners and eat with them. And, of course, we are all sinners.

But then Zaccheus says some amazing things to Jesus. He says that he is going to give to the poor half of everything he has. He also says that, if he has defrauded anyone, he will pay them back four times as much. This is very generous restitution.

Jesus has not even asked Zaccheus to share his wealth. Just by having this encounter with Jesus and seeing him in the flesh and sensing the love and healing and forgiveness flowing out of Jesus, Zaccheus sees what he needs to do. He needs to share with others and he needs to make restitution for the harm he has done. And that is exactly what he is going to do.

And Jesus tells those who are complaining that this hated tax collector is also one of us and that he, Jesus, has come to save the lost. We are all sinners. We are all lost in one way or another. And we can all be honest about it and ask our Lord for help.

In our first reading, God assures Habbakuk that God’s justice and mercy will prevail. In our second reading we remember the faith and endurance of the Thessalonians in trying times and we recall the enduring faith of our forbears who, working with God, created and sustained the Grace community. And in our gospel, we remember Zaccheus, the despised tax collector who threw decorum to the winds and climbed a tree to see Jesus. His life was transformed. And ours are being transformed even now as we meet our Lord this morning, and as we follow him day by day.


Pentecost 26 Proper 28C RCL November 17, 2013

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

Our first reading is from the prophet known as the Third Isaiah. The people are returning from their exile in Babylon. Scholars tell us that the process of trying to rebuild the temple is proving to be difficult. Some people are falling into the worship of false gods. There is conflict and corruption. In other words, things are falling apart at the seams.

In powerful terms, Isaiah describes God’s vision of a restored Jerusalem and a world made whole. There will be no more weeping. Babies will not die. People will live to a ripe old age. People will build houses and plant vineyards and enjoy the fruits of the harvest. They will live long lives and they will be blessed by the Lord. The lesson ends with a beautiful echo from the vision of shalom in Isaiah 11. “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” The foundation of this new creation is trust in God.

In our epistle, false teachers have convinced some people that the end is coming. Some folks are apparently quitting their jobs and putting a burden on those who are continuing to work. Paul is encouraging everyone to keep working in order to support the whole community so that the church can continue to do its ministry.

In recent years, scholars have realized that idleness is not the correct translation for the key problem here. Beverly Gaventa of Princeton Theological Seminary points out that the Greek word ataktos, which is translated as idleness, means insubordination or irresponsible behavior. Other scholars say that the word translated as “idleness” should be translated as “rebellion.” The point is that the problem in the community is that people are not focusing on the good of the church. They are causing disruption. They are not working as part of a team and taking responsibility for the health and strength of the Body of Christ.

This epistle refers to matters within the Christian community. It is not intended to speak to issues in the larger society. The epistle is saying that we as Christians are called to take our responsibilities as members of our faith community. Paul ends with that wonderful encouragement, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” An older translation says, “Do not grow weary in well-doing.” And what are we called to do? Jesus tells that we are called to give a glass of water to one who is thirsty, feed one who is hungry, clothe folks who have no clothing, give shelter to those who have none, and, in doing those things to our brothers and sisters, we are doing them to him. That is why we need to keep the Church strong, so that we can minister to others in his name.

In our gospel, Jesus is continuing to teach in the temple. The disciples admire the beauty of the great temple in Jerusalem. Jesus says that it will all be thrown down, Indeed, the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 A. D. Luke’s gospel was written after that time, so the members of Luke’s community were aware that the temple had been destroyed. The disciples ask Jesus when this will happen, and what the signs will be.

Jesus tells us that many people will come and will use his name and will claim to be from him. There will be wars and all kinds of terrible things. And, of course, we know that many of his followers in the first century were persecuted and killed, and that is happening today. But he said that no matter what comes, no matter what tests and trials, he would give us the grace to get through them. When people were put on trial, he would give them the very words to say.

Jesus does not give us a definite time when he will return. In fact, he tells us not to try to figure it out, just to be ready. Here in the United Sates, we are probably not going to have to go to trial because we are accused of being Christians. Christians are being persecuted in other places on earth, but, as yet, not here.

Jesus speaks in this reading of a time of testing for all his followers. Biblical scholar Fred Craddock has some important comments on this. He writes, “The end is not yet. During the time of testimony, disciples will experience suffering. They are not exempt. There is nothing here of the arrogance one sometimes sees and hears in modern apocalypticists, an arrogance born of a doctrine of a rapture in which believers are removed from the scenes of persecution and suffering. There are no scenes here of cars crashing into one another on the highways because their drivers have been blissfully raptured. The word of Jesus in our lesson is still forceful. ‘This will give you an opportunity to testify…By your endurance you will gain your souls.’” (Craddock, Preaching through the Christian Year, Year C, p. 474.

What are these readings saying to us? How are we to give our testimony as followers of Jesus and builders of his shalom, his kingdom of peace and harmony and healing and care for all persons? At our Diocesan Convention, Tom Brackett talked about the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22 as excellent marks of Christian community—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Paul talks about these qualities as he guides the Galatians in building a loving community of faith where people focus on the Body of Christ and work as a team to carry out Christ’s ministry. Tom also talked about communities where people love each other and trust each other and share deeply and support each other, welcoming others who want to become a part of these communities of caring.

As I said last week, I offered the observation that we have this kind of community here at Grace. This is a precious gift that God has given us. Even though our world sees Christianity as irrelevant, people are looking for genuine communities of faith where people can love and trust each other. We have that gift to offer, and that is our response to our lessons today.

May we continue, with God’s grace, to love and trust each other and to reach out to others with Christ’s compassion and healing. Amen.

Pentecost 25 Proper 27C RCL November 10, 2013

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

This sermon will be brief to allow a report on Diocesan Convention. In our opening reading today, the people are returning from exile in Babylon to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Bruce Metzger, the editor of the Oxford Annotated Bible, writes that the process of returning took place in four stages, beginning under King Cyrus of Persia about 538 B.C. This is the second stage of the return, in about 520 B. C. God says, “My Spirit abides among you; do not fear.” God has shaken the nations, Empires have risen and have fallen, but God will fill the temple with splendor and will be with the people.

In our gospel, the Sadducees are asking a question in order to ridicule the idea of the resurrection. If a woman has been married to seven men, which one will she be married to in heaven? Jesus says that heaven is different from earth. There, people do not marry. Scholars point out that Jesus is trying to dismiss this irrelevant question. However, we have just celebrated All Saints Sunday. We believe that we will go to heaven, and there we will see those who have gone before us. Most of us will not have to cope with seven former spouses, but what if we have had a marriage or a relationship that was abusive. Will we have to dread meeting that person? What if we have been sexually abused? Will we have to meet all of our perpetrators? Or even any of them? Some commentators have actually posed these questions, and the consensus seems to be that heaven is a very big place, and our loving God makes it safe for everyone.

In our epistle, Paul is addressing an issue that faced the early Church. First century Christians thought that Jesus was going to come again at any moment. Sometimes, teachers would come along and stir up people. Herbert O’Driscoll tells us that, in Jewish thinking of that time, there was a belief that great turmoil would come before the end of the world. As we know, some people today believe that because there is such turmoil in the world, the end is coming any minute. The fact is that there is always great turmoil in the world.

Paul tells the Thessalonians and us that we need to avoid fear and hold fast to faith. He ends the letter with this encouraging benediction: “Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, Who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”

After several decades, the exiles return home to rebuild at last. It’s a daunting task, but God is with them. People try to trip up Jesus with silly questions, but nothing can divert him or us from the promise of new life in Christ. People try to put fear into the hearts of the Thessalonians, but Paul calls them and us to have faith in God’s love and presence with us.

The other day, someone asked me whether I thought we were in the “end times.” This person, a loving and caring woman, was afraid that she was not going to make it into heaven. We talked about how God wants everyone to be in heaven, and how God is creating a big family and we are all part of that family. There is so much fear in the world these days over so many things. In one way or another, all of our lessons today are calling us to replace that fear with faith in our loving God, who has come to live among us and lead us into newness of life.

Dear Lord, strengthen our faith. Help us to let go of fear and trust in you. In Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.