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Pentecost 22 Proper 24C RCL October 16, 2016

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

Our first reading, from the prophet Jeremiah, is an amazing statement. We have watched the disintegration of Judah. The king and other leaders have grown more corrupt. They have not led the people in loving God, living ethical lives, and sharing the wealth with those who are less fortunate. The powerful Babylonian Empire has invaded and leveled Jerusalem. The leaders and many of the people have been deported.

Last Sunday Jeremiah encouraged the exiles to build houses and raise families in Babylon. This week, we hear the word of God, and it is a word of restoration and hope. God tells the people that God will sow the seed of humans and animals. God will sow. This is an image of spring, an image of growth. At the darkest moment comes the light of hope.

God is going to make a new covenant with God’s people. “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….they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” God and the people are going to have a relationship that is even closer than the one they had before. Everyone, from the least to the greatest, will be a part of this loving community.

We are living in very difficult times. There is a huge toll of death, injury, and destruction from Hurricane Matthew stretching across the Caribbean into our southern states, and especially North Carolina. Violence of all kinds seems to be striking everywhere. People are starving and suffering in Aleppo. Our presidential election campaign is reaching new lows.

This reading reminds us that God is always with us. There is hope. If we adhere to our own most faithful understanding of God’s will and God’s values and God’s vision for the creation, God will guide us.

In Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy, Paul continues his guidance to the young minister. This passage contains the famous passage, “All scripture is inspired by God….” As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired all the people who have written the scriptures. The Fundamentalist movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century interprets this passage to mean that the Bible was actually dictated by God word for word to a sort of divine secretary, and there are many people today who believe this.

In fact, the Bible is really a library, a collection of books written between 950 B.C. and about 200 A.D. Scholars can examine the book of Genesis, for example, and find that there are four distinct writers, J, the Jahwist writer, who worked around 950 B.C., E, the Elohist writer, who dates back to about 750 B.C., D, the Deuteronomist writer, dating to about 620 B.C., and P, the Priestly writer, dating to 450 B.C. In the New Testament, we have four gospels, each written at different times by different people. Mark is the earliest, John the latest. If we look at the epistles, we know who wrote some of them, and we are not sure who wrote others of them.

The Bible contains all kinds of wonderful wisdom, but it also contains some things that are not very edifying. For example, there are chapters and chapters of begats that would interest only the most dedicated historian. As one of my mentors, the Rev. Al Smith, who served for many years at St. James, Essex Junction, used to say, “The Bible contains all things necessary to salvation, and a lot of things that aren’t.” If we read passages in context, with guidance from the Christian community through the work of learned scholars and teachers, we can learn a great deal and gain much inspiration. But it is not responsible to pick passages out of context, and it simply is not true that God dictated the Bible word for word.

Paul encourages Timothy to remember the strong foundation of faith given him by his mother and grandmother and to “…proclaim the message: be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.”

Like Timothy, we can always proclaim God’s message of love, hope, and faith.

In our gospel, Jesus tells us about a woman who is persistent. She is a widow, which means that she is the least of the least. But she does not give up, and finally the judge, who is not the most sterling example of his profession, grants her justice.

God is very different from this judge. Our gospel reinforces our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. God is faithful; God is always listening. We are called to be persistent in our prayers and in our pursuit of justice.

As I have said, these are challenging times. It would be easy to give up all hope. It would be easy to become cynical. But our readings today are all calling us to remember who God is: God is a God of justice, love, hope, and healing. God cares about everybody, especially those at the margins. Any responsible reading of the scriptures makes this clear.

As we consider the decisions we have to make, we are called to keep in mind our understanding of God and of God’s vision of shalom, in which everyone is respected, loved, and cared for.

As Christians, we can look at the life of our Lord Jesus and we can see the values of God expressed in a human life. We can use his life as a model for our lives, and we can feel him among us. He is with us now, calling us to his vision of shalom. In a few moments, he will be feeding us with the energy of his very self so that we can go out into the world and live and proclaim his message of love and hope.

Loving and gracious Lord, may we be like this faithful and feisty widow. May we persist in hope, prayer, and the pursuit of justice for everyone. May we follow where you lead.    Amen.

Pentecost 21 Proper 23C RCL October 9, 2016

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

In our first reading, the Babylonians have captured Jerusalem, leveled the temple, and sent the leaders and many of the people into exile in Babylon. Imagine what it would be like to be conquered by an enemy and then forced to move to the country of your conquerors. It would be devastating and demoralizing.

In this darkest hour for God’s people, the prophet Jeremiah writes a  letter to the exiles. He tells them to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce,” he advises them to get married and raise families. And he tells them to pray for the people of Babylon because in the welfare of Babylon is the welfare of God’s people.

Biblical scholar James D. Newsome says that this advice from Jeremiah is what allowed the people not only to survive, but to thrive in their captivity and then to return home and rebuild.

What amazing advice. In the midst of disaster and exile, pursue your life and flourish. Pray for your captives.

Many scholars tell us that the Church in America is in exile. It is not “the thing to do” to attend church. People do not really care what the church has to say. The church has become irrelevant. So often our values are different from the values of our surrounding culture, It is easy for us to complain that people do not come to church, that the culture is materialistic, and so on. Yet we are called to reach out to our neighbors, love our neighbors,  and serve our neighbors rather than mourn and weep about the fact that they don’t join us for services on Sunday.

The exiles worshipped God, asked for God’s help, studied the scriptures, and strengthened their sense of community. After fifty or so years, they would return home with deeper faith and a stronger community that they had ever had.

Our epistle for today is the Second Letter to Timothy. This is a profoundly personal letter which expresses Paul’s theology in a powerful way, and it shows a deep sense of love and care for Timothy. We can imagine Paul in prison in Rome in 64 C.E., in the last months or even weeks of his life before he was martyred. Paul is in chains, but the gospel is not chained. He is passing on the legacy of faith and congregational leadership with every ounce of his energy and all the grace that God can give him. Christ loves us with every ounce of his energy. He has died for us. If we have died to our old lives in baptism, we are now rising with him into newness of life. It’s that simple. And that new life is happening in our lives right now.

In our gospel for today, Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, going through the area between Samaria and Galilee. He is on the outskirts of the village. This is where the outcasts such as lepers live. The law requires them to stay away from people. They live together in groups because no one else will associate with them.

But as Jesus enters the village, ten lepers approach him. This is very unusual. They do not call out, “Unclean!” as the law requires. They know Jesus is different. He is approachable. He is loving. He is a healer. Instead of yelling out “Unclean,” they cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

He looks at them with love and healing in his eyes and heart and he tells them to go and show themselves to the priests. That was the law. You had to go  to the temple and show yourself to the priests and they would certify that you were healed. Then you could go back home and be with your friends and family again.

The ten lepers have complete faith in what Jesus has said and done. They immediately head out to the temple to see the priests.  But one of them happens to look at his hand or his arm and realizes that he is already healed. He turns around, praising God with all his might and prostrates himself at Jesus’ feet in worship and thanks him.

Then we get another piece of information. This man is not a member of the orthodox faith. He is a Samaritan. He is a double outcast—a leper and a Samaritan. Just as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, the outcast is the holy example. He is the only one who gives thanks. The other nine report to the priests, get a clean bill of health and go back to their former lives.

There is so much power is stopping and thanking God for all the blessings God bestows on us. If we take the time each day to thank God for the many gifts God gives us,  it puts a different light on our day, a different light in our hearts and lives.

Even as we thank God for so many blessings, I ask your prayers for our brothers and sisters who are dealing with the destruction wrought by Hurricane Matthew in the Caribbean and along our East Coast  and for all those who are helping with rescue and recovery. We can be thankful for all the planning and preparation which reduced injuries and deaths, but many are still suffering, especially in Haiti.

Episcopal Relief and Development is asking our support for the Hurricane Matthew Response Fund, and I’ll be asking your thoughts on that at the Peace and at coffee hour.

As we journey through this bicentennial year of Grace Church, and as I reflect on gratitude, I think that our ancestors were sincerely thankful to God, and that gratitude was reflected in their outreach to people here and around the world.  We can all be thankful that we are a part of this community which is so deeply rooted in faith, gratitude, and generosity.

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Pentecost 23 Proper 25C RCL October 27, 2013

Joel 2: 23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14
In our first reading, from the prophet Joel, there has been a plague of locusts. The crops have been destroyed. People have been hungry. But now, a change is happening. There is going to be rain; the crops will flourish again. There will be enough to eat after a time of great hardship. And there will be a spiritual renewal. God will pour out God’s spirit on all people. These beautiful words of Joel remind us that even in the most challenging times and situations, God is always present to help us. In the darkest hours, the light of Christ shines. There is always hope.
In our epistle, Paul is writing to his beloved assistant, Timothy. Paul is nearing the end of his life and ministry. He is in prison. He is undergoing trials. But he writes. “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race.” And he encourages Timothy and us to do our own ministries with the same faithfulness which Paul has shown.
In our gospel, Jesus is telling a parable to certain people—people who “trust in themselves that they are righteous and regard others with contempt.” Pharisees were highly respected as religious leaders in Jesus’ time. The Pharisee thanks God that he “is not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers.” Apparently, he feels that he is a cut above these people. In fact, he thanks God that he is not like the tax collector. He fasts, he tithes.
The tax collector is a hated man. He collects taxes for the oppressor, the Roman Empire. The tax collector stands far away from the respected Pharisee. He does not look up. He doesn’t look at others around him. His prayer is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”
The prayer of the Pharisee is an expression of self-congratulation. He fasts and tithes. Maybe the tax collector tithes twice as much as the Pharisee, We will never know. The Pharisee makes a lot of assumptions about the tax collector. The tax collector is focussed only on himself and God. He is making no assumptions about others. He is making no comparisons with others.
He has true humility. Humility comes from the root word humus—good, fertile earth open and ready for the planting of God’s word and spirit. The tax collector knows that he falls short. He knows that he needs God. That’s what humility is all about. We know that we need God’s help. We don’t try to do it alone. We ask for God’s help on a daily basis. When we start on something, we ask God’s help before we begin. This means that we are sustained by God’s grace as we work.
And we continue to ask for God’s grace and guidance every step of the way. If we veer off track or fall short, we ask God’s help to get back on course.
This parable is about humility, and it is also about prayer. When we pray, we are called to take time to be with God just as we are, without any pretense, without putting on any airs. God created us, and God knows us intimately. And we must always remember that God loves us.
Yes, we are not perfect, Yes, we have faults and flaws. God knows all that, yet God loves us more than we can ever begin to imagine.
In prayer, we go to God just as we are and we encounter God just as God is. We are frail and fallible human beings. God is the source of all life and love, the One who has brought the worlds and us into being.
When we think of it in these proportions, it is quite easy to be right size, as 12 step programs say. We really have no reason to be arrogant and every reason to be humble.
Also, this parable tells us that there is no room for comparison in prayer. Each of us is a unique human being beloved of God, and each of us has our own unique journey. As someone has said, “Comparisons are odious.” They are also destructive. It does not help us spiritually if we compare ourselves with others, either making ourselves feel superior, as the Pharisee, or making ourselves feel inferior. Each of us is on our own journey with and toward God. Each of is called to be open to God’s help and guidance. The Pharisee was so arrogant he felt he had no need for God’s help, so he didn’t ask for it. As Charles Cousar says, the Pharisee is “engaging in a narcissistic soliloquy, in which he talks mainly to himself.” The tax collector, on the other hand, is actually beating his breast. Cousar says , “…breast-beating is a traditional gesture of women in the Middle East, and is practiced by men only when in deep anguish.” Cousar, Texts for Preaching, Year C, Page 574.)
Perhaps at that very moment, the tax collector was thinking deeply about the moral implications of his work and was contemplating finding new employment.
In prayer, we try to be as real as possible, and we talk with God as honestly as we can, and we ask God to guide us and then we listen to what God is telling us. God may speak to us through people we trust, or through the scriptures, or as that still small voice of conscience within us. God can speak to us in many ways.
It is always a good idea to seek guidance from someone like a spiritual guide or someone we know who is seasoned in the life of prayer. The Pharisee was a closed system. The only one he was paying attention to was himself. Living the life of prayer means being open to guidance from others who have wisdom to share.
Charles Cousar notes that in the past two Sundays, we have had three examples of people who pray. He writes, “First, there is the widow who hounds the unjust judge until she is granted justice. She reminds us to persevere in prayer and not become quickly discouraged. Then there is the Pharisee, who rehearses his virtues and downgrades others not measuring up to his standard of piety. He warns us about our presumptuousness in the presence of God. Finally, there is the tax collector, whose position is simple (note no long list of failures): ‘God, be merciful to me.’ He personifies the one essential prerequisite for praying—an honest recognition of our place before the justice and mercy of God.” (Cousar, p. 575.)
May we persevere in prayer. May we fight the good fight. May we run the race to the vest of our ability with God’s help. May we trust in God with all our hearts. May we seek and do God’s will. Amen.

Pentecost 21 Proper 23C RCL October 13, 2013

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Psalm 66:1-11

2 Timothy 2:8-15

Luke 17:11-19

In our opening reading from Jeremiah, the worst has happened. King Nebuchadnezzar has conquered Jerusalem and the leaders have been deported to Babylon.

This was a devastating event. Think of being conquered, which is bad enough, but then having all your leaders taken away to a far country. Think of being the secular and religious leaders and being torn up by the roots and taken to a foreign land. This was a demoralizing policy.

Those who were living in Babylon were living among people who worshipped other gods, not their God, not our God. The society was different. The culture was alien to them. These are the thoughts and feelings expressed in Psalm  137: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion. As for our harps, we hung them up on the trees in the midst of that land. For those who led us away captive asked us for a song, and our oppressors called for mirth: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien land?”

Jeremiah has stayed in Jerusalem. He is trying to hold the people together, trying to encourage them to seek and do God’s will. He writes a letter to the leaders. He encourages them to build houses, plant gardens, get married, have families. In other words, he encourages them to prepare for the long haul in exile, not just a few months or a few years, but generations. He also calls the people to see the hand of God in this, to know that God is with them. Jeremiah tells the people to seek the well-being of Babylon and to pray to the Lord for the well-bring of Babylon and its people, because their lives are now knitted together.

The revered scholar and preacher Herbert O’Driscoll has some excellent observations on this letter of Jeremiah to the leaders in exile. He writes, “They are the very people who have made life difficult—even dangerous—for Jeremiah over the last few years. They have thoroughly vilified him, calling him everything from coward to subversive to traitor. Now they are in captivity a thousand miles away, and everything he predicted has come true. Yet, in this letter, there is not a trace of the aggravating phrase, ‘I told you so!’ This says much about the graciousness and decency of Jeremiah.” (O’Driscoll, The Word among Us, Year C, Volume 3, p 131.)

Jeremiah is giving such sound advice. Even when we think the worst has happened, we need to remember that God is with us. God is at work in the situation. We have to keep on keeping on. We have to keep on living—build homes, fill those homes with life and love and laughter. And God will bring us through it all.

The other thing that Jeremiah says is to work and pray for the welfare of the people and the city of Babylon. O’Driscoll and other scholars say that now, in this post-Christendom era, we, the Church, are in exile. We are in the midst of a land of many gods. This is no longer a Christian country. We are on the margins. We are on the outside. In a very real sense. The Church is in exile.

O’Driscoll and others suggest that, rather than looking sadly around us, we need to work for the well-being of those around us, because God loves all of us and we are all in this together.

O’Driscoll writes, “We in our own time are wrestling with the position of Christian faith in Western culture. This is a time of exile, of marginalization. It is tempting to lash out at the culture, to list its faults, to blame it for all sorts of ills. There may be good reason to do so, but such behavior achieves little. In stead, we are to seek the welfare of the city where God has sent us.” He adds that this includes participation in governance and in prayers for our communities, our state, our nation, and the world.

I was deeply moved to hear the Imam and the people of the Islamic Society of Vermont say very clearly and strongly that they oppose the violence being carried out by Muslim extremists. These are our brothers and sisters in the family of God. We have much in common. We are called to work for the good of all.

In the history of God’s people, this time of exile turned out to be highly productive. They studied the scriptures, intensified their prayer life,  and grew into a much clearer awareness of what it means to live as the people of God. This is often true of times of darkness in our individual and community life. We are forced to learn things that we would never learn without the challenges.

In our epistle for today, St, Paul reminds us that he has suffered all kinds of hardships in his ministry, but he is much like Jeremiah. He is resilient. He gets up and forges ahead and that is because, if we have died with Christ, we live with Christ. We are in new life.

As we turn to our gospel, we remember that being a leper in Jesus’ time was like being in exile among other people. You were unclean. People were not supposed to touch you, or they would become ritually unclean. You had to warn people that you were approaching so they could stay away from you. Yet these lepers somehow sense Jesus’ compassion and ask him for help. He tells them to go to the priests because the priests are the ones who can pronounce people to be clean. On the way, they are healed.

Only one comes back to thank Jesus, and that one is a Samaritan. Samaritans were cultural and religious lepers. They were the lowest of the low, beyond the pale, outcasts. So this man is a double leper. Yet he has a huge amount of faith and his faith has made him whole.

Jesus has no problem working for the well-being of these lepers. Like Jesus, Paul works for the well-being of everyone. May we do the same.

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.