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Last Sunday after Pentecost Proper 29A RCL November 20, 2011

Last Sunday after Pentecost Proper 29A RCL November 20, 2011

Christ the King Sunday

Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24
Psalm 100
Ephesians 1: 15-23
Matthew 25: 31-46

Today is the last Sunday of the Pentecost season, also called Christ the King Sunday. It is also the beginning of Thanksgiving week. Next Sunday, we will begin the Advent season. What a wonderful time of the year, a time when we celebrate the paradoxical kingship of our Lord, a time when we focus on all the things we have to be thankful for, and a time when we are on the verge of preparing for our Lord to come again and complete the creation.

The prophet Ezekiel was one of the leaders of God’s people during their time in Exile in Babylon. Ezekiel was deported to Babylon in 597 B. C. E., the first time the massive and powerful Babylonian Empire captured Jerusalem. During the time in exile, Ezekiel and other leaders led the people in much deep soul-searching, and they realized that their leaders had not been good shepherds of the people. The rich and powerful pushed the little people around. There was no justice in the land.  

The Babylonians came back to Jerusalem in 586 B. C. E. This time they leveled the temple. This was a huge blow to the people. The temple was the center of their worship, and, in some sense, they felt that God dwelled in the temple. At this time, more of the people, especially the leaders, were sent to exile in Babylon.

God spoke to Ezekiel at this most dark and hopeless time. God gave Ezekiel the vision of a people made new, the vision of a return to Jerusalem and a time of rebuilding and restoration. God gave the vision of a community of people of compassion and caring.  And God said that God would be the shepherd of the people. This helped the people to realize that God was not only in Jerusalem. God was with them in their exile, guiding them to become the people God called them to be. As we know, the people did eventually return and rebuild.

In our post- Christendom era today, many scholars point out that we are in a kind of exile, as the Church seems to more and more people to be irrelevant. This passage from Ezekiel reassures us that the vision of God’s shalom is never irrelevant and gives us faith and hope to persevere in helping to bring in Christ’s kingdom.

Our reading from Ephesians is one of the most beautiful and powerful descriptions of community in the Bible. Paul says that he has heard of their faith in the Lord Jesus and of their love toward all the saints. He prays that God may give them a “spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe….” Our Lord is alive and is at the head of his Body, the Church, to fill us with all the gifts we need to follow him and to do the ministries he calls us to do.

Today’s gospel rounds out these lessons which focus on our king. Christ is enthroned as king and judge in this passage. But our king and our Lord calls us to a ministry of servanthood. We are called to feed the hungry, give a drink to those who are thirsty, give clothes to those who need them, welcome the stranger, extend hospitality, heal the sick, and visit those in prison.

God leads us out of exile into fullness of life. God leads us out of hopelessness into joy. Christ our King comes among us as one who serves and calls us to share that servant ministry. Christ, our Good Shepherd, leads us to good pasture, leads us beside still waters, and restores our souls.

We have so much to be thankful for, and that attitude of gratitude is the source of our stewardship. God has given us so much. It’s almost beyond our ability to comprehend.  God loves us unconditionally. Nothing can separate us from that love.  God gives us everything we need. God gives us all the gifts for ministry that we need in order to do the ministry he calls us to do.  God gives us the gifts of faith, hope, and love. Faith that gives us a sense of security in a world that fosters anxiety and fear. Hope that anchors us to a vision of the kingdom, the shalom, of Christ, a kingdom of peace, harmony, justice, and caring. And love, the love of Christ, who gives his life so that we may live in him and extend his love to others.

The power of his life and love is perhaps the greatest gift for which we are so thankful. He has extended that love to us and called us to share that love with others. And because of our Lord and all his gifts to us, we return to God a worthy portion of what God has given to us. In the next couple of weeks we will be making our pledges for 2012. We make these pledges from a deep sense of God’s abundance, which God has given to us.  Please make your pledge prayerfully in response to God’s love and generosity.

As I celebrate Thanksgiving this year, I thank God for this community, Grace Church, Sheldon, Vermont. Paul’s description of the church at Ephesus fits you very well. You gather to share the word of God, to be fed and energized by our risen Lord in the Holy Eucharist, to catch up with each other and support each other in your faith journey and your ministries out in the world, and then you go out and share God’s love with people in so many ways, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I believe Grace Church is a wonderful, vibrant community doing the ministry of servanthood which our Lord calls us to do. Thank you, and thanks be to God, for your good and faithful ministry.

May we grow ever closer to Christ our King, our Good Shepherd who  leads us into wholeness and newness of life. May we continue to be a community of faith in our Lord Jesus and love to all. May we continue our ministries to those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who need clothing, shelter, healing, welcome and caring.  Amen

Pentecost 22 Proper 28, November 13, 2011

Pentecost 22 Proper 28 A RCL November 13, 2011

Judges 4: 1-7
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
Matthew 25: 14-30

In our lesson from the Book of Judges, the people have been oppressed by Jabin, King of Canaan, and his military commander, Sisera. The people cry out to God for help, and God calls forth two leaders to meet this crisis. One of them is Deborah, a judge of Israel, wife of Lappidoth, Deborah is also called a prophetess. The judges of that period in Israel’s history were a combination of military leaders and wise people who helped to settle disputes as judges do today. Deborah was highly respected among the people.

Barak was a military leader of great strength, but Deborah was a thinker who was expert in strategy. This was going to be an important battle against a much larger foe, so God combines the gifts of two leaders, Deborah and Barak. They lead the people into battle, and the battle is won.

In our epistle for today, we are reminded that our Lord will come quickly, as a thief in the night, and we are called to be awake and to live as children of the light. We are called to live in faith and love and to build up each other, that is, to support each other in our faith journey.

Our gospel for today is the beloved parable of the talents. A man goes on a journey and he calls three of his servants and entrusts to them his estate. He gives to each according to his ability. To one he gives five talents, to the second, he gives two talents, and to the third, he gives one talent.

A talent is a huge amount of money. It is the equivalent of fifteen years’  labor. Bible scholar Thomas Troegher has computed the value in modern terms and he comes up with $31, 200 for one talent based on a wage of fifteen dollars per hour. Thus the first man received $156,000, the second 62, 400, and the third $31, 200. That’s a lot of money.

As we know, the first man makes five talents more, the second man makes two more talents. They each double their master’s money. The third man sees his master as someone who is harsh and mean and reaps where he does not sow, so he buries the talent for safekeeping.

After a long time, the master comes home. He praises the first two servants and gives them more responsibilities, and welcomes them to the joy of their master. The third servant is thrown into the outer darkness. Once again, this is more Matthew’s editorializing than the voice of Jesus. The comment that those who have will get more is also a later edition, It is not the vision of Jesus. He would never agree with the idea that the rich should get richer and the poor should get poorer.

A talent in those days was a coin worth a great deal.  Scholars tell us that the word “talent” came into English as a result of this parable. But this parable is not just about using our God-given talents, It includes that idea, but it involves much more.

One scholar notes that the master entrusts the entire estate to the servants. God has entrusted the entire creation to us. We are called to be good stewards of this planet. We are called to “live simply that others may live.”

The third servant sees the master as a mean guy. Do we see God as that old man with a beard carefully totaling up our mistakes, our sins? Or do we see God as a loving and generous God, the one who is waiting at the end of the driveway to welcome the prodigal son when he finally comes home?

God gives us everything. Every breath we take. Every gift we have. Our money, our health, our abilities, our ability to work, our ability to love and care, all come from God. These things are not ours. They are gifts from God. This moment which we are sharing is a gift from God.

Next Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, and we will be starting to make our pledges. In gratitude to God for all that God gives to us, we will return to God a portion of what God has given us. The Biblical standard is a tithe, a tenth. Nowadays, we often think of the modern tithe, or five per cent of our time, talent, and treasure to be returned to God, This includes all our donations to charities.

Some comments on this parable.  First, God is not a mean master, As someone has said, “God is a lover, not a lawyer.” When we truly realize what God has given us, it is natural to want to return a worthy portion to God.  Second, the master welcomes the first two servants into his joy. Stewardship does give us joy. The attitude of gratitude does generate deep joy. Third, the poor fellow who hid that one talent was operating our of fear. Dear Lord, help us to avoid operating out of fear. Fourth, the first two servants took some risk. They operated out of faith, not fear. Now, I’m not saying that this parable is telling us to take stupid risks, but I am saying that being people of God’s shalom sometimes involves taking some risks.

Together with our pledges for next year, we are also going to be collecting our offering for Episcopal Relief and Development. During this month of November, every gift to ERD will be matched. So, if you give ten dollars, that will be matched and become twenty dollars. As you know, ERD helps people both here in the United States and all around the world. Some of the folks who were on the ERD team for Hurricane Katrina and stayed to help all along the Gulf Coast for two years came here to help with the ministry to those affected by Tropical Storm Irene here in Vermont. They are continuing to help for the long haul.

So please think and pray about both your pledge for next year and your offering for ERD. Next month, in December, we will be making our contributions to the United Thank Offering.

God has blessed us with so much. May we be thankful.  May we share with others, and may we return a worthy portion to our loving and generous God.    Amen.

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.

Pentecost 19 Proper 25, October 23, 2011

Pentecost 19  Proper 25A  RCL October 23, 2011

Deuteronomy 34: 1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2: 1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

This morning, we join Moses in a poignant moment. He goes to the top of Mt. Nebo and looks out on the promised land, but he is not going to be able to go there.  He dies, and the people mourn for thirty days. He has laid his hands on Joshua, and Joshua has been filled with the spirit of wisdom. He will lead the people into the land of milk and honey.

Moses is extolled as the greatest prophet who has ever lived. He has met  God face to face and has led the people on their long journey of liberation.

Often we begin a task, especially a large and important task, knowing that we may not be there for its completion. The building of the shalom of God is like that. We make our choices for the shalom of God every day. We try, with God’s help, to be people of compassion. And we know that, little by little, God’s peace will fill the whole wide earth. Or, on a much more immediate and local level, we do our little bits to help the folks who have been so devastated by the destruction of Tropical Storm Irene. Each individual bit seems so tiny, but, when we put them all together, much gets done.

Then we join Paul as he writes to his beloved Thessalonians. Apparently, some people have been trying to discredit Paul and his work by saying that he is operating from false motives and is tricking the people in order to achieve personal gain. Paul says that he is trying to please God, not people, and that he is sincere in everything he says. Then he gives this tender description of himself as a nurse caring for her own children. He says he cares for the people that deeply because they have become very dear to him. Paul shares himself with the people to whom and with whom he ministers. That is a powerful example for us as we carry out our ministries.

In our gospel, once again people are trying to trap Jesus. A lawyer asks Jesus what is the greatest commandment. Jesus responds in the words we know so well,  the summary of the law from Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “  ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ”

This summary of the law had been formulated years before by the learned rabbis. It was not original with Jesus, who was also considered a rabbi. Fred Craddock translates this summary as, “Love God totally, and the love of God will be expressed as love of neighbor.” Not a new idea. But a principle which is most difficult to put into practice.

It is crucial that we are called to love God totally first, because, if we love God, and, perhaps more importantly, if we accept God’s love for us, amazing things happen. God loves you. God loves me. With all our foibles and flaws and faults and mistakes, all our pet peeves, all our sins of commission and omission, God loves us with a love that we cannot possibly fathom. But we are called to try to fathom that love. Each of us is the apple of God’s eye. God came among us as fully human in order to communicate that love to us.

I’m reading a wonderful book right now, called Made for Goodness. It was written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho, who is an Episcopal priest. In various ways, these deeply faithful people are telling us that we are drawn to goodness. We are drawn irresistibly to God. The more profoundly we realize how much God loves us, the more powerfully we are drawn to be close to God, to return God’s love, and to love other people. This is the kind of love Paul is talking about, I think, when he speaks of how gentle he is with the Thessalonians.   St. Francis de Sales once said, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.”

Archbishop Tutu is one of my great heroes, and I think probably one of yours as well. From his experience with Apartheid, his work on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and his reconciling ministry all over the world, he calls us to “see with the eyes of God,” that is, to see all other people as fellow humans to be respected and loved, to know that God dwells in every person.

Archbishop Tutu tells of his visit to the Holy Cross School in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  For five months, the girls who attended this Roman Catholic school had had to have an armed escort in order to walk to school. They had to run the gauntlet of a protest staged by Protestant adults who, according to Archbishop Tutu, “used the most vile and abusive language. They swore at the children. They assailed the children by throwing urine-filled balloons at them.” (P. 96.)

Yet, Archbishop Tutu tells us, when these girls arrived at school, they did not act like children of trauma. They acted like normal little girls. Archbishop Tutu writes, “Even after the assaults of the morning, they were in touch with the joy of being little girls. There was much nudging, giggling, and squirming. They had prepared a song for me. They sang ‘Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.’  The adults suffered from an acute lack of vision They could not see God in the little girls. The girls, on the other hand, were blessed with God-sight. They did not answer hate with hate. They could see beyond the unspeakably ugly behavior they faced to the essential goodness hidden behind the adult fear.” Because of the support and teaching that they received, these girls were able to not only survive, but flourish in the face of this trauma. And, as Archbishop Tutu says, they were able to see these misguided adults as God sees them.

As Archbishop Tutu says, “God dwells in every person.”  That truth is at the heart of following the two great commandments. Years later, he visited  Ireland and saw a great change.  One of the most amazing things he experienced was seeing the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Protestant factions actually sitting at the same negotiating table. Not only that, they actually shared a joke.

Tutu writes, “The image of those two men laughing together reminded me that even a failure of vision is not final. Because God always dwells in us—in all of us—there is always hope. There is always hope that the scales will fall from our eyes and we will see as God sees. Prayer makes the scales fall off faster.

May we love God totally.  May we see God in all people. May we love our neighbors as ourselves.


Pentecost 18 Proper 24, October 16, 2011

Pentecost 18 Proper 24A RCL  October 16, 2011

Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10
Matthew 22: 15-22

As we rejoin Moses and the people, we recall that the people have committed the sin of idolatry. They have made a golden calf.  The relationship between God and the people has been restored, and now God is calling Moses to continue to lead the people on their journey. Moses realizes how difficult this task is going to be, and he also senses that he is not going to be able to do this without God’s help. Moses and God have a very intimate dialogue, and God promises Moses that God will go with Moses and the people. The living God is very different from an inanimate golden calf.

In today’s gospel, the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus. First, they flatter him. Then they ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. As we know, Palestine was under the control of an occupation government, the Roman Empire. People hated the Romans, and they hated the tax collectors who collected their money to support the mighty empire. Some people felt it was a terrible thing to even handle a Roman coin, let alone pay taxes to Rome. In the crowd here, there were people from all kinds of factions.  The Pharisees were anti-Roman and the Herodians were pro-Roman.  In today’s gospel, they are joining forces to trap Jesus. They are asking their questions during the Passover festival, when people have thronged to Jerusalem from all over. At this time, feelings always run high. These people are trying to get Jesus in trouble with both the Roman and Jewish authorities.

Jesus asks them for a coin. This implies that he does not carry such coins, which means that he is not going to offend any of the anti-Roman folks by whipping out a denarius. They give him the coin. He asks whose head is on it, and they answer, “The emperor’s.” Then he gives that paradoxical and puzzling response, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” This so completely defeats their purpose that they actually walk away.

He has avoided their trap. It is important for us to remember that Christians under the Roman Empire refused to worship the emperor and to fight in the Roman armies. For this, they were persecuted. Christians today face persecution all over the world because they do not bow to the wishes of tyrants.  

For us as Christians, God is at the center of everything. There isn’t a part of our lives that is devoted to government and politics and then another part of our lives that is devoted to God. When we consider important issues, we are called to consider them in the light of our faith. When we vote, we are called to vote for the people we think are going to work toward the goals of God’s kingdom. Our lives and decisions are not compartmentalized. Every realm belongs to God, and in every realm we are called to seek God’s will.

As we have said before, Paul was the Johnny Appleseed of church growth. He would plant a church, teach and preach and heal and build a community, and then leave the community under local leadership and move on to start yet another church.  We learn much about the Thessalonian church from the Book of Acts. The founding of the church was difficult. There was a great deal of opposition from the local Jewish community, so much opposition that Paul, Silas, and Timothy had to leave. Timothy has recently visited the church there, and has reported to Paul that things are going well. Timothy has let Paul know that the people are concerned because Paul has not returned to visit them. No doubt Paul has this in mind as he writes to them.

Paul tells them that he always gives thanks for them and prays for them, remembering their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” He tells them that God has chosen them. He recalls that, even though they were persecuted, they received the word and their faith grew. He also says that his work of evangelism was not a one-way street. He shared the good news with them, but they also changed him. And the Holy Spirit worked mightily to make them a strong and vibrant community that is an example to Christians all around the area of Macedonia and Achaia.

Scholars tell us that this is Paul’s earliest letter. Thus, it is the earliest documentation of the Christian faith. That’s pretty exciting. We can imagine Paul going to this community, spending time with the people, probably talking to folks in his work as a tentmaker, stopping by workshops or speaking with people in small groups. The community of faith formed, and the people accepted the new faith not only in their minds but in their hearts and lives, It wasn’t just an intellectual thing. It was much deeper. Apparently they had also turned away from various idols into a deeper faith in the living God.

Because of their deep and living faith, they have become heroes of the faith to surrounding congregations. They have become famous, Paul doesn’t have to hold up their achievement, others already know about it.

What a wonderful letter, It sums up our other two lessons. These people have God at the center of their lives. They have given up their idols.  And they have become a holy example.  

So I would like to say to you this morning that I give thanks for you, and I keep you in my prayers. I thank God for your faith and devotion, for your resilience and humor in the face of challenges. I hope I have been able to bring the good news of God’s love and grace to you, and I can certainly say that you have deepened my faith and have shared God’s love and grace with me. We are in a lively dialogue of faith. This is definitely a mutual ministry. You are heroes of the faith to me.

So, thank you so much for the example of your faith, Thank you for all the wonderful ministry you do in your lives each day. Please keep me and each other in your prayers. Please keep up the good work, the humor, the faith, the steadiness, the steadfastness.

Reading this over, I realized that it may sound like a farewell sermon. So I just want to say that I have no plans to go anywhere. Every now and then it’s important to say certain things. Paul had especially deep love and admiration for the Philippians and the Thessalonians. I feel the same way about you.      Amen.

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.




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.


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 8 Proper 14 August 7, 2011

Pentecost 8 Proper 14A RCL  August 7, 2011

 Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28
Psalm  105: 1-6. 16-22. 45b
Romans 10: 5-15
Matthew 14: 22-33

This morning we continue with the story of Jacob and his family. Rachel has died. As we know, Jacob, now Israel, loved Rachel dearly. She had had two children, Joseph and Benjamin. Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other children.

Joseph is different. He has dreams.  Unfortunately, he tells these dreams to his brothers. One is that they are binding sheaves of grain in the field, Joseph’s sheaf rises upright and his brothers’ sheaves gather around Joseph’s sheaf and bow to it. Joseph’s brothers don’t like these dreams very much. To add to their ire, Jacob gives Joseph a beautiful long robe with sleeves. Now his brothers really hate him.

One day Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers as they tend the flocks. First they are going to kill Joseph, but Reuben, the eldest, persuades them to throw Joseph into a pit instead. He plans to go back later and rescue Joseph. Some traders come by, and the brothers decide that they will sell Joseph to them as a slave. The brothers then dip the amazing cloak into goat’s blood and take that to Jacob, who thinks Joseph has died and goes into deep mourning.

Meanwhile, the traders sell Joseph to a powerful man in Egypt, one of the Pharaoh’s chief assistants, Potiphar. Joseph is intelligent and capable. Potiphar puts Joseph in charge of everything. Joseph is also handsome. Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph, but he resists her repeated advances. In a scene which could only occur in the Old Testament, she grabs at his garment and he runs from the house, naked.  Potiphar comes home, his wife accuses Joseph of sexual misconduct, and Joseph ends up in prison.

In prison, he becomes the trusted assistant of the jailer. He is placed in charge of two servants of the Pharaoh who have been accused of misdeeds and face the death penalty. The Pharaoh’s chief baker and chief cup bearer tell Joseph their dreams, and he tells them that the cup bearer will return to his position with the Pharaoh and the baker will be executed. Sure enough, he is correct.

As time goes on, the Pharaoh becomes afflicted with bad dreams. He calls all his magicians and wise men and they cannot help him. The chief cupbearer, now back in the service of the Pharaoh, remembers Joseph’s gift of dream interpretation. He tells the Pharaoh of this young Hebrew who interpreted his and the chief baker’s dreams. and the Pharaoh asks for Joseph’s help. The Pharaoh has had a dream of seven fat cows grazing in the meadows by the Nile. Then seven cadaverous cows come and eat them up. Then the king dreams of corn, seven fat ears and seven lean ears. 

Joseph makes it clear that God is trying to tell the Pharaoh something and that Joseph’s gift of interpretation comes from God. Then he tells  the king the interpretation: there will be seven years of good crops and then seven years of famine. The king should store up as much food as possible during the good years. The upshot is that the king is deeply impressed with Joseph’s gift and with his wisdom and with Joseph’s God. He places Joseph in charge of everything.

 The next installment of the story will come next Sunday. Clearly, Joseph has come a long way His story illustrates a poster I like very much. It shoes a mountainside in early spring. The winter snow is melting and new life is about to burst forth. The caption reads,  “What we think is the end may really be a new beginning.”

Our psalm recounts the story of Joseph. Our epistle reminds us that we are all one in Christ and that our Lord is very near.

 In our gospel,  Jesus has just fed the five thousand families. He goes up to the mountain to pray. This reminds us to take time to be with God and restore the presence of the Spirit within. The disciples get into the boat; the storm comes up; they are terrified, and there he comes walking across the water. At first they think he is a ghost, but his words speak volumes, “Take heart; it is I; do not be afraid.”

Peter says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says one word, “Come.” Peter starts out, but when he notices the strength of the wind, he gets scared and starts to sink. With our Lord’s help, we can do what he calls us to do, but, if we lose our focus on Jesus, we falter. If and or when we falter, his hand is there; his help is there.  “Be not afraid,” he tells us. He is so near we can touch him.  He is so near we can reach out to him, grab his hand, and get pulled out of the waves which threaten to overwhelm us.

All through his journey, Joseph is aware of the hand of God leading and guiding him. He never loses his faith. He proclaims his faith unabashedly as these powerful people keep entrusting him with more and more responsibility because of his wisdom, which both he and they attribute to God. Here is this young man, this alien stranger, earning the trust of the Pharaoh because he has the gift of speaking the truth. The Pharaoh says of Joseph, “Can we find anyone else like this, one in whom is the Spirit of God?” (Genesis 41: 37.) But the presence of the Spirit in Joseph will be even more fully revealed next week. Stay tuned.

What is God telling us today? Someone can be sold into slavery and, by the grace of God, end up second in command over an empire.  Joseph never forgets God. He speaks the truth as his gift reveals the truth. His ethics are of the highest caliber.

And God is telling us, “Do not be afraid. I am right here beside you. I am walking with you, I am swimming with you. I am very close. We will see the depth of Joseph’s spirituality next Sunday. Peter became a rock of the Faith. He may have had a bit of an impetuous and wobbly beginning, but, when the tough times came, he was faithful and wise and open to God’s leading.

But the main thing is, “Be not afraid. “ A few other favorite thoughts have been in my heart this week.  We have already talked about one: “Faith is fear that has said its prayers.” Another one we have talked about that bears repeating is, “Faith and fear are two sides of the same coin.” And another one which I really like is, “Fear not tomorrow—God is already there.”  With everything going on in the world and around us, let us be strong in our faith with God’s help. Let us jeep on keeping on. Let’s help our brothers and sisters who are suffering in Somalia and elsewhere. Let us persevere in hope. Let us reach out for that steady, strong hand that is always there, and let us share his love and grace with others.    Amen