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Pentecost 7 Proper 10B July 11, 2021

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Psalm 24
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

Reflecting on our first reading today, Old Testament scholar James Newsome writes, “The presence of God in human life results in a joy that far exceeds that generated by other relationships and by the usual day-to-day experiences of life.” Newsome, Texts for Preaching Year B, p. 422.)

David has defeated the Philistines, a triumph King Saul could not achieve. The northern and southern kingdoms have been united. The ark of God, which had led the people of God out of their slavery in Egypt, has been at the home of Abinadab. Now David and thirty thousand men take a new cart and bring the ark of God to Jerusalem, where it will rest in a tent constructed by David. Later on, in that very spot, David’s son, Solomon, will build a temple to God. 

David wears the priestly garment, the ephod. He blesses the people. He feeds the people with the food offered at the feast in a kind of eucharistic action. In many ways, his actions are liturgical in nature. He is a religious leader as well as a king. He has been chosen by God to lead the people, and it is from his house that the Messiah will come.

As he leads the people in procession, David dances with great joy. 

We have been back in our beloved building for a few Sundays. It is such a blessing to be here where generations of faithful people have worshipped our loving and healing and merciful God. As wonderful as it is to be here, it is such a profound gift just to be together, to look into each other’s faces, to feel each other’s physical and spiritual presence in such a powerful way. For me this is such a wonderful expression of God’s love.

And that is what the writer of the Book of Ephesians, probably not Paul, but a faithful disciple of his, is expressing. This writer is telling us that God, the creator of heaven and earth, God who spoke to the people from Mt. Sinai, which was at that time an active volcano, God, who created all the plants and animals and everything else on earth, has adopted us as God’s very own beloved children.

Can you believe it? We can call God Dad, or Mom, or Papa or Mama. The creator of the universe bestows that level of love on us. We are that close to God. God is holding us in the palm of God’s hand. God is holding us in God’s loving arms.

To paraphrase James Newsome, the presence of God in our lives results in great joy. That is so true,

Then we come to our gospel for today, which is not about joy. When King Herod hears about all the healings and other wonderful things Jesus is doing, he thinks John the Baptist has come back to life. And then he remembers that he beheaded John, and our reading goes to a flashback.

Herod had arrested John the Baptist. Herod had married his brother’s wife, Herodias. John the Baptist told Herod that he had broken the law, You are not supposed to marry your brother’s wife. Herodias hated John the Baptist because he had told the truth about the law and morality.

Herod had a very complicated relationship with John. On the one hand, he did not like that John had criticized him. On the other hand, Herod liked to listen to John’s teachings about the scriptures. Down deep, I think, Herod realized that John the Baptist was a prophet speaking God’s truth.

One day, Herod had a birthday party and all his courtiers were invited. There was a great feast and the guests ate and drank their fill. His daughter came in and danced. Herod was so pleased that he offered her anything she wanted. She went out and asked her mother what her request should be. And her mother, who had a huge grudge against John the Baptist, told her to ask for John’s head. 

Scholars tell us that it is safe to assume that Herod had had far too much to drink. As drunk as he was, he did not want to kill John. He had genuine respect for John. But he had given his word, and what would all these powerful guests think if he went back on it? So he sent a soldier to do the nasty deed. This is one of the most grisly stories in the Bible or anywhere else—a tale of power and hatred gone mad.

John’s disciples come and take his body and give it a decent burial. And when Herod hears about Jesus he thinks it is John the Baptist risen from the dead, a kind of foreshadowing of the resurrection of our Lord. New Testament scholar Charles Cousar writes, “Truth-telling becomes a perilous venture in a world of Herods and Pilates.” (Cousar, Texts for Preaching Year B, P. 427.)

Even in the face of Herods and Pilates, the presence of God in our lives gives us joy. John the Baptist was the forerunner announcing the coming of the Messiah. Jesus is the light of the world and that light is shining in our lives right now. Nothing can change the power of that light and love. Nothing can dim that light. David danced with joy as he brought the ark of the covenant to a more permanent home. We dance for joy to be here now in our spiritual home. That light and love and joy is stronger than hate or fear.  Let us walk in the Way of Love. Let us dance in the Way of Love and Joy. Amen.

Pentecost 11 Proper 15A August 16, 2020

Genesis 45: 1-15
Psalm 133
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: (10-20) 21-28

In our opening reading today, we continue the story of Joseph. Last week, we looked on as his brothers plotted to kill him and then decided to throw him into a pit and eventually sold him to slave traders who were going to Egypt.

When they reached Egypt, the human traffickers sold Joseph to Potiphar, an officer in the Pharaoh’s army, the Captain of the Guard. It is a fast-moving story. Through many trials and tribulations, Joseph finally becomes the head assistant to the Pharaoh himself. His steady rise to this high office is due to his high moral caliber, his integrity, and his God-given gift of interpreting dreams. Joseph is now in charge of everything the Pharaoh has.

One of the dreams has to do with seven fat cows and seven lean cows. Joseph tells the Pharaoh that the seven fat cows mean that there are going to be seven years in which there will be record high harvests and the seven lean cows mean that there will be a famine.

Joseph brilliantly fills granaries full of grain during the fat years so that everyone will have something to eat in the lean years.

Joseph has now been in his high position for several years, and his brothers have already come to Egypt asking to buy grain. He has not let them know who he is and they have not recognized him. Now they are back again, and he is having great difficulty in controlling his emotions. He wants to cry at the sight of them. They threw him into a pit and then sold him to human traffickers for twenty pieces of silver, but he is not holding any grudges. He could have had them killed. He could have turned them away. But he did not do that. Now, here they are again. Joseph sends everyone else out of the room.

He bursts into tears and cries so loudly that everyone in the palace hears him, and then he tells his brothers who he is. And he gives them his interpretation of the meaning of all his struggles. God sent him to Egypt so that he could save his family and save the life of his people. He tells them to go back to their father and invite everyone to come and live in Egypt and not only survive, but thrive.

Then he hugs Benjamin and Benjamin hugs him, and they all shed tears of joy at being together again and hug each other and have a good cry and an even better talk. After all those years. And then the family comes and settles in the land of Goshen.

The story of Joseph and his brothers can teach us so much. They threw him into a pit. He could have died at any point along the way. Things didn’t start out well in Egypt. He spent some time in jail over a misunderstanding. But he never lost his faith; he always acted ethically; and he was a faithful steward of the Pharaoh’s and Egypt’s and God’s abundance. He saved a nation. And he forgave his brothers. Mercy and forgiveness are one of the themes in our readings for today. In spite of everything Joseph loved his brothers and forgave them. In spite of all the challenges and near tragedies in his life, he felt the hand of God leading him to save his family and his people, God’s people.

In our gospel for today, we have another unforgettable story. Jesus is in Gentile territory. A woman comes to him and begins to shout, “Have mercy on me Lord, Son of David, my daughter is possessed by a demon.” In those times, people thought a demon was causing diseases such as mental illness and seizure disorders. At first, Jesus does not answer. He is considered a rabbi and in those days rabbis were not supposed to speak with women. He is Jewish and in those days Jews did not speak to Gentiles. His disciples tell him to send her away. Jesus says that he was sent only to his own people, the “Lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Now the women kneels at his feet. “Lord, help me,” she begs. For the second time, she is addressing him as the Savior. Though she is a Gentile, she knows who he is.

And then our Lord says something that almost shocks us. “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Biblical scholar Charles Cousar writes, “The use of the term ‘dogs,’ even though metaphorical, is hardly a label of endearment. It was regularly applied, with some condescension, to Gentiles. The woman has every right to take offense.” (Cousar, Texts for Preaching Year A, p, 450.)

Jesus is showing his humanity. The Church teaches that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. In his time, people thought that Gentiles were inferior. In his humanity he is looking down on someone of a different ethnicity and religion.

But this woman has a laser focus on only one thing—making sure that her child is healed. She may be a Canaanite, but somehow she has deep faith in God and a profound understanding of God. And she answers, with calmness, reason, and enduring perseverance, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Jesus recognizes the depth and strength of her faith. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed. Because of the faith and persistence of this devoted mother, Jesus is beginning to realize that his mission is to all people, that he is sent to bring good news, healing, forgiveness, and love to everyone.

And that is what we are called to do—to bring the love of God and Jesus and the Spirit to everyone. We are the Body of Christ in the world. We are called to be his hands reaching out to welcome people, his eyes looking at people with love, his mouth speaking words of hope and encouragement. There are no barriers. As Archbishop Tutu says, “God has a big family.” Amen.

Let us pray together the Prayer for the Power of the Spirit.

Pentecost 6 Proper 11C July 21, 2019

Amos 8:1-12
Psalm 52
Colossians 1:15-28
Luke 10:38-42

In our first reading today, we have another passage from the prophet Amos. Last Sunday, God held God’s plumb line up to the Northern Kingdom, and we learned that, under the rule of King Jeroboam II, the rich and powerful were gaining in wealth and power, but most of the other people were struggling just to survive.

This week, God shows Amos a vision of a basket of summer fruit. Herbert O’Driscoll writes, “Amos wants his listeners to imagine vividly what happens to a basket of summer fruit, especially in the heat of that land. It rots. Its beauty has gone, its delicious taste has become repulsive. This is precisely how he wishes to portray his society.” (O’Driscoll, The Word Among Us, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 55.

To portray the level of corruption and dishonesty, Amos describes merchants resenting the sabbath and other holy days because they can’t sell wheat or grain. He says that they “make the ephah small and the shekel great.” The ephah is a unit of weight or quantity, and the shekel is the currency. The merchants are rigging the scales so that the buyer gets less than the correct weight, but pays more money for it. This is causing great hardship to the poor.

The level of corruption in the society is so profound that there seems to be no hope. God is going to send a famine, but it is not a famine of food or water, but  “a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” When we humans fail to treat each other with compassion and justice, our hearts can be so hardened that we can no longer hear God calling to us.

Our gospel for today is the wonderful and familiar story of Mary and Martha. We know that these two sisters and their brother, Lazarus, are among Jesus’ closest friends and that he would stop by their home in Bethany whenever he could.

Scholars tell us that Martha is functioning as the head of the house. She welcomes Jesus. In sitting at the feet of Jesus, Mary is acting as a formal disciple.

Jesus says that Mary has chosen “the better part.” Does that mean that he thinks Martha’s preparing the meal is an inferior role?  The text says that Martha is distracted by “many tasks.” The phrase “Many tasks” is translated from the Greek diakonia, servanthood. Jesus told his disciples and us, “I am among you as one who serves,” and he called his disciples and us to be servants. Would he then criticize the role of a servant? No.

In the past, some folks have felt that, in saying that Mary has chosen “the better part,” Jesus us telling us that contemplatives are superior to activists.  Most scholars would disagree with that interpretation. Then, what is our Lord saying?

Biblical scholar Charles Cousar suggests that we remember the parable that appears directly before this encounter with Mary and Martha—the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Cousar says that the Samaritan “…is a model for loving one’s neighbor (as well as identifying who the neighbor is.” (Cousar, Texts for Preaching Year C,  p. 437.

Cousar continues, “…Discipleship has to do not only with love of neighbor but also with love of God, not only with active service but also with a silent and patient waiting upon [Jesus]. The Samaritan and Mary belong together.”

Where did the Samaritan get the strong faith and the vibrant grace to go over to this half-dead stranger, and save his life? Probably from an understanding of God gained from spending time with God. We see him engaged in active and life-saving ministry but we don’t see all the time he has spent in the presence of God.

On the other hand, we are seeing Mary making the choice to place herself in the presence of Jesus and to absorb everything she can. Cousar writes that Mary is “a learner of Jesus.” This reminds me of our diocesan mission statement, that we are called to “pray the prayer of Christ, learn the mind of Christ, and do the deeds of Christ.” We have to spend time with God, Jesus, and the Spirit to get the guidance and grace that we need to do ministry.

Is Jesus putting Martha down? I don’t think so for a minute. The text says that the disciples were with Jesus, so Martha is probably faced with 12 guests. They have to be fed and perhaps housed. Somebody has to take care of all those details. We know that our Lord valued the ministry of hospitality. He was constantly feeding and welcoming people.

Jesus loves and respects both Mary and Martha.With their brother, Lazarus, they are his closest friends. Coming just after the story of the helpful Samaritan, this story is reminding us of how important it is to spend time with Jesus. I think, also, that our Lord is saying that he would like to have some quiet time with both Mary and Martha.

Time together is a precious gift.  Time with family and friends, time with our faith community, and time with God. I thank God for our time together today.  Amen.

Pentecost 20 Proper 24A RCL October 22, 2017

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

In our first reading, we rejoin the people of God just after they have made the golden calf. God and Moses are doing the work of reconciliation after the people have broken their covenant with God. Moses is realizing something we all face many times during our lives: he and the people cannot continue on the journey unless God is with them.

God promises to go with Moses and the people, but Moses needs proof. God says that God will “make all [God’s] goodness pass before [Moses].” But Moses cannot look upon the face of God and live. Back in those times thousands of years ago, people believed that the glory of God was so great that they could not look at God and continue to live.

The thing that strikes me about this passage today is that, because of God’s love, which is so clear to us, God came among us. God lived a fully human life in Jesus, and we have beheld the face of God and lived.

There is a story of an old French peasant who came to church every day and just sat and stared silently at the crucifix behind the altar. Someone asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I just look at Him, and He looks at me.”

Our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians is, first of all, the earliest writing in the New Testament, from the early 50s A.D. The Thessalonians had faced great opposition in beginning their community of faith; they had moved ahead with great determination; they had changed from worshipping the idols of their surrounding culture and now their faith is so renowned that everyone in Macedonia and Achaia knows about them. They are a shining example to their brothers and sisters in Christ.

In our gospel  for today, Jesus is in the temple. It is the Passover and people have come from all over the world. Whatever is going to happen is going to be seen by many, many people. Various factions who want to protect their power have gathered to trap Jesus. The Pharisees, who are anti-Roman, send some of their disciples to work with the Herodians, who are pro-Roman. They begin with flattery and then they ask if it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.

Jesus asks them to show him a coin. He does not carry Roman coins, so he is not showing loyalty to the feared and hated Roman Empire. He asks whose head is on the coin. It is the head of Caesar and he is the emperor. And then Jesus says that enigmatic thing that leads us to truth: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

As we know, everything belongs to God. Charles Cousar, Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia points out that the word translated as “head” in this passage is the Greek eikon.  Cousar writes, “The coin of course bears Caesar’s eikon and  belongs to Caesar. Humans, on the other hand, bear the eikon of God. They may pay the infamous poll tax, but they do not belong to the emperor. They themselves belong to God.”

Cousar points out that this passage does not make God and Caesar equals. He adds, “nor are they symbolic names for separate realms. Humans bear God’s image, and wherever they live and operate—whether in the social, economic,  political or religious realm—they belong to God.”

Cousar concludes, “Furthermore, the text operates subversively in every context in which governments act as if citizens have no higher commitments than to the state. When the divine image is denied and persons are made by political circumstances to be less than human, then the text carries a revolutionary word, a word that has to be spoken to both oppressed and oppressor.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, pp. 532-33.)

We have seen the face of God in Jesus. We have walked with him and talked with him. He has taught us. He has led us to the green pastures and the still waters where we can drink from the freshness of his divine grace.

He has shared with us the vision of his kingdom, his shalom, where all people belong to him just as we do, and where all people live in peace, have the basic needs of life such as food and shelter and clothing and medical care and good work to do.

Because we belong to God, because we are following Jesus, we are called to keep his vision of shalom clearly in mind in all that we do and to make choices that will help to build that shalom.

May we sense how deeply we belong to God and how much God loves us and all people. May we pray the prayer of Christ, seek the mind of Christ, and do the deeds of Christ. Amen.

Pentecost 19 Proper 23 October 15, 2017

Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

In our opening reading, Moses has gone up on the mountain to speak with God, and the people decide to make the infamous golden calf. Once again, we need to keep in mind that, in the early days of our human acquaintance with God, sometimes we attributed to God the worst of human characteristics. In this case, God becomes very angry and Moses has to calm God down.

Often in the Old Testament, God appears as what I call a bad parent, reacting in a childish or violent way to the bad behavior of God’s people. But this passage makes clear our human tendency to veer off the path and turn to idols of various kinds.

Our reading from Paul’s powerful letter to the Church in Philippi has many truths to tell us. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul writes. “”Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” When we are deeply aware of the presence of God in our lives, when we are able to rejoice in God’s presence, we are more able to remain grounded and gentle. Paul also says, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The shalom of Christ, his peace within us and his vision of shalom for the creation, enfold us in Christ’s love and fill us with the grace to enable us to live into his vision of shalom.

I want to take time today to focus on this very challenging gospel. Luke’s gospel has the story of the wedding feast, but it is more straightforward and has fewer complications than Matthew’s version. Let us see if we can bring some clarity to this passage.

A king is giving a wedding banquet for his son. He sends his slaves to those who are invited. The first thing we need to say is that we now know that holding slaves is not acceptable. Those on the guest list do not respond properly. Some of them go off and do other things, and the rest hurt and kill the messengers. Scholars tell us that Matthew’s community was a Jewish community which had tried to reach out to the synagogue and met with great resistance and even violence. They were inviting folks to follow Jesus and there was conflict, even violence.

So now the king tells the messengers to go out and invite everybody to the wedding banquet. We now know that Jesus invites everyone to the feast. But there is one person who does not have the proper wedding garment. Scholars tell us that this has nothing to do with literal garments. It isn’t that this poor fellow didn’t have a tuxedo or that he couldn’t afford to have decent clothing.

Scholars tell us that the wedding garment symbolizes our attitude to our Lord’s invitation. Do we have the proper attitude and do our actions match our words? Biblical scholar Charles Cousar writes that the wedding garment symbolizes “[doing} the will of my Father in heaven,” (Matthew 7:21) and having “a righteousness [that] “exceeds that of the scribes and the pharisees” (Matthew 5:20), producing “the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matthew 21:43.) All are expressions to identify the consistency between speech and life, words and deeds, that is appropriate for those who call Jesus “Lord.” The garment represents authentic discipleship and the parable prods the audience to self-criticism lest they find themselves among the “bad,” who are finally judged.  (Cousar, Texts for Preaching Year A, pp. 523-24.)

This is a challenging gospel. This past Tuesday, we had a clergy gathering at Trinity, Rutland. Almost all of the clergy were present. The title of the gathering was “Racial Reconciliation— Acknowledgement.” Acknowledgement is the first stage in our recognition, that, as white people, we have what is called “white privilege.” Our lives have been much easier than the lives of persons of color because of our white privilege. The other thing that we have is called “white innocence,” which means that we deny the existence of white privilege and thereby deny the existence of racism.

I have already sent to you the email which Bishop Tom sent to us as we prepared for this day. The email had readings and other resources which I hope you will feel free to use. Among them is the book Tears We Cannot Stop, by Michael Eric Dyson. This is a wrenching book which tells a truth we may be reluctant to accept.

Another resource is the RACE Implicit Bias Test. There is a link to that on the email. This is a test developed at Harvard University. It is a real eye opener. You are all welcome to take this test.

We also had two speakers. One of them is the Rev. Arnold Thomas, who is serving at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Underhill and has previously served as Executive Minister of the Vermont United Church of Christ. The other speaker was Shela Linton, a founding member of the Root in Brattleboro.

One thing that is clear from our speakers and from the resources on the list, is that racism is very present in our country and in Vermont.

This includes our migrant workers here in Vermont.

For me this means that, if I am to be wearing a proper wedding garment, I must be about the work I know Jesus is calling me to do, and as our 78th General Convention calls all of us to do, which is, “to find more effective and productive ways to respond to racial injustice as we love our neighbors as ourselves, respect the dignity of every human being, and transform unjust structures of society.” I hope and pray that we will all make a commitment to this work.

Blessed Lord, our Shepherd and Savior, give us the grace to be authentic disciples. Give us the courage to make our deeds match our words. Give us the creative holy energy to help you to build your shalom. Amen.

Palm Sunday Year B RCL March 29, 2015

Mark 11:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:32-15:39

Today, we welcome Jesus as our King and then we journey with him to his crucifixion. It is a heart-wrenching day, and each year we learn something new about our Lord and about ourselves.

Every Palm Sunday, we read the amazing passage from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul wrote this letter from prison, and we know that the congregation in Philippi was suffering persecution.

Our passage begins, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” When Paul says “mind,” he does not mean just the intellect. Charles Cousar writes, “[Our] entire identity—[our] intuitions, sensitivities, imaginations—is to be shaped by the self-giving activity of Christ.”

Jesus upset the secular and religious authorities of his time so much that they felt their only option was to kill him. He also upset many of the ordinary people because they wanted him to conquer the Roman Empire. And so, he was sentenced to one of the most horrific deaths the human mind has ever imagined, a death reserved for the worst criminals. He did not meet violence with violence.

Jesus trusted that God could bring a greater good out of this disaster, and Jesus knew that God loved him and loved everyone of us humans and the whole creation. So Jesus allowed himself to be nailed to that cross.

Twelve step programs have a saying—“Let go, and let God.” When we are in a really tough situation, we let go of our own will and our own plans and thoughts, and we turn the whole thing over to God, knowing that God can do things we could never imagine. That’s what Jesus did on the cross. He suffered agony. He kept trusting in God’s love and power. He forgave those who were doing this awful thing. He died. Like a grain of wheat, he fell into the ground of God’s love.

Sometimes when situations are way beyond anything we can handle, we have to do that. We have to let go and let God. We have to get out of God’s way and let God take over. When we do that, I think we are very close to our Lord. When we do that, we allow God to work.


Pentecost 22 Proper 27A RCL November 9, 2014

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Psalm 78:1-7
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

In our opening reading for today, God’s people have reached a moment of transition. They are going to settle down in the land of Canaan and they are going to stop being nomads. Joshua also calls them to an important choice. They must renew their covenant with God. They must choose to be loyal to God.

Back in those days, when you moved into a new land, you encountered gods different from your own. There were the gods from beyond the river, that is, the Euphrates, and there were also the local gods of the land of Canaan, most notably fertility gods. Joshua calls the people to renew their vows to God. He leads by example, He tells the people that he and his family will worship Yahweh. The people follow his example.

In our secular age, we are surrounded by other gods—or we might say, idols. Many folks worship power and wealth. Some people strive for their fifteen minutes of fame. We are called to worship God.

In our epistle for today, the situation is that folks in the early church thought that Jesus would return quickly. But now it’s about twenty years after the death and resurrection of our Lord, and someone in the congregation has died. People are wondering what will happen to this person. Paul is telling them that because our Lord has been raised from the dead, we will be raised. Now it has been two thousand years since our Lord was here on earth. We can still be a people of hope because we know that death has no dominion over us. We are in eternal life now and we will be with our Lord and all the saints and angels in heaven.

Our gospel is dealing with a wedding banquet, but scholars tell us that Matthew’s congregation was also dealing with the question of Christ’s coming again. When will he come? Why has he not come already? Matthew was writing about 90 AD, some sixty years after our Lord’s death. Everyone hearing this parable knew how weddings went. If you are a bridesmaid, the first thing you do is to make sure that you have plenty of oil in reserve. It’s going to get dark and you will want to have your lamp lighted, and you will want to be sure that you have enough oil so that, at the crucial moment when the bridegroom arrives, you will be able to welcome him with you lamp burning.

The wise bridesmaids may seem to be selfish when they refuse to share their oil, but everyone knew what the priorities were when it all began, and they are focussing on the important thing: when the bridegroom arrives, I want to have my lamp lighted, with plenty of oil to spare. The foolish bridesmaids have to go off to buy oil and the bridegroom arrives when they are gone. They miss the feast.

This parable is almost a foreshadowing of Advent themes. It has been two thousand years, but our Lord will come and he will bring in his shalom. Our job is to be ready. We don’t want to miss the feast.

How do we go about being ready? Charles Cousar writes,”Watching means seizing the day, loving God and neighbors in each moment….” Texts for Preaching, Year A, p. 561.) Jesus calls us to be ready for his return. He cautions us not to speculate on when he will come, not to engage in theories or hypotheses, not to search the scriptures for signs. Rather, we are to accept God’s love, be ready in each moment of our lives, be people of hope looking forward to the time when he will come to us and establish his kingdom of peace, love, harmony, and wholeness. We are called to be ready for the moment when he will restore the creation to be as he created it to be.

Now we are in a time of transition, We are moving from ordinary tine, the season after Pentecost, into Advent time, beginning to prepare for his coming again.

It is not easy to live in a secular society. We can understand the situation of God’s people settling in Canaan. At times we might be tempted to put our trust in some of those other gods. Maybe the accumulation of lots of things or just the right clothes can make us happy. Maybe retail therapy is the way to a life of joy. That’s what the advertisers are telling us. Maybe clawing our way up the ladder of worldly success isn’t that bad after all. As the saying goes, it’s a dog eat dog world. Did you ever see that TV program called “Monk”?

The theme song has a lot of truth in it. “It’s a jungle out there.”

But the whole point is that, if we love God with everything we have and if we love our neighbors, and if all of us do that, the world will be a peaceable kingdom, not a jungle. That is God’s vision for the creation. Everyone getting along. In fact, everyone helping each other. Everyone having enough—enough food, clothing, shelter, good work to do, love. and caring and peace and healing.

That is the kingdom, the shalom that we are called to be ready to welcome. That’s the feast we are called to attend. That is the vision we are called to bring to fruition. That is why we love God and believe in God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength. That is why we are people of hope, because we know that God loves us and all people and that God calls us to life in a different and richer dimension, eternal life, fullness of life. And that is why was are going to be sure to have more than enough oil so that we can keep our lamps lighted into the dusk and into the darkness, and, when he comes, we will be ready to welcome him and the whole creation will be filled with light.

May we love God in every moment, May we love our neighbors in every moment. May we be ready to welcome our Lord. 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.