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Pentecost 5 Proper 10C RCL July 14, 2019

Amos 7:7-17
Psalm 82
Colossians 1:1-14
Luke 10:25-37

Our opening reading comes from the prophet Amos. Scholars tell us that Amos’ ministry took place between 760 and 750 B.C., two thousand seven hundred years ago.

United Methodist Bishop Willimon writes, “Prophecy is the gifted ability to see what other people cannot or will not see. Prophets focus primarily on the moral and spiritual condition of a nation; they do not simply predict future events, but warn of consequences to injustice. Willimon, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 221.)

Amos was minding his own business, going about his daily work of being a farmer and a shepherd and a “dresser of sycamore trees,” when God called him to leave his home and land in the Southern Kingdom of Judah and venture into the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Amos was not a member of the professional prophets’ guild. He had no colleagues to support him. Under the leadership of King Jeroboam the Second, Israel had exercised its military might and expanded its land to the farthest reaches in its history. The king and the other prominent and powerful people enjoyed an obscene level of wealth and power while the rest of the people tried to eke out enough to survive.

Amos had a vision of God holding up God’s plumb line of justice and compassion to this corrupt society, and, of course, the society did not pass muster. The priest of Bethel, Amaziah, was completely under the control of the king, and he advised Amos to go home to Judah. Amos responded by telling Amaziah in no uncertain terms that the Northern Kingdom was going to collapse under the weight of its own corruption and that God’s justice would prevail.

Here we have a picture of a nation whose king is so corrupt and such a tyrant that no one dares to stand against him. This includes the priest, who has become a servant of the king instead of being a servant of God. The courage and faithfulness of Amos offer us a shining example of God’s prophets through the ages.

The parable of the Good Samaritan also speaks to us powerfully over the intervening two thousand years. The lawyer asks a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Biblical scholar Fred Craddock makes a profound observation on this: “Asking questions for the purpose of gaining an advantage over another is not a kingdom exercise. Neither is asking questions with no intention of implementing the answers.” (Craddock, Luke, Interpretation, Westminster John Knox, p. 130.) Scholars tell us that the law had defined “neighbors” as “your kin” (Lev. 19:17-18.) Cousar, Texts for Preaching Year C, p. 427.)

So, when Jesus told this parable and the priest and Levite passed by on the other side, his hearers would not have batted an eye. They would have accepted that behavior because they knew that people who served in the temple had to observe the laws designed to keep them ritually pure for their religious duties. The beaten man is described as “half dead,” and priests and levites were forbidden to go near a dead body even if it was a parent. (Cousar, Ibid., p. 427.)

But when the Samaritan stops and helps the man, Jesus’ hearers would have been shocked beyond our ability to understand. Samaritans had split off from the true faith; they had intermarried with the Assyrians who had conquered them. They refused to help with the building of the temple in Jerusalem and instead built their own temple on Mount Gerizim. Their worship and theology were not orthodox. They were seen as the ultimate Other, and they were hated.

Since the man was beaten and bloody and the robbers had taken all his clothes, it was impossible to tell whether this unfortunate man was Jewish or Samaritan, rich or poor, but that did not matter. The Samaritan looked beyond all the possible labels and saw him as a fellow human being who would die if no one helped him. The Samaritan offered the best treatment he could for the wounds and then took the man to an inn and paid for his continuing care.

Once again, Jesus is stretching the limits of the law. A neighbor is not just “our kin.” It is anyone who needs our help. And the Samaritan, who shows such profound compassion and goes so many extra miles, becomes an inspiring example of what it means to be a good neighbor.

Jesus is constantly and forever stretching the limits of our hearts and minds. He is always calling us to deeper compassion. He is in every moment calling us to be inclusive, to dissolve the barriers that get in the way of his love. He is calling us to look at each other, to look at every person, through his eyes.

May we let him lead us. 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 17 Proper 23, October 9, 2011

Pentecost 17   Proper 23A RCL   October 9, 2011

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

Last week we stood with Moses and the people of God as they received the Ten Commandments. Now, we are twelve chapters later into the Book of Exodus. Moses is involved in a series of trips up and down the mountain to receive from God further amplifications of the law. What happens? The people get impatient. They want a God they can see, so they ask Aaron to make them a god.

Aaron collects their gold jewelry and fashions a golden calf. God sees what is happening and tells Moses to go down from the mountain and get the people to shape up. God is very angry. This account is from the Jahwist writer, the text dating back to about 950 years before Christ. The view of God then was quite anthropomorphic. In some parts  the Hebrew scriptures, God comes across as what I call a bad parent. Part of our study of the Bible is seeing humanity’s increasing understanding of the nature of God, and there is even a hint of it here. Moses reasons with God, and God shows mercy to the people.

We know that the story of God’s people in the wilderness is our story. No sooner has God come to us and given us a framework for our lives and for our community life than we revert to our old gods. Back then it was a golden calf. Now it’s money, power, prestige, getting to the top of the ladder no matter what the cost.

Our gospel for today is Matthew’s account of the wedding banquet, which is quite different from Luke’s account. A king is going to have a wedding feast for his son. This is complete allegory. The king is God and the son is Jesus. Back then you would send out your invitations, the people would accept, and then you would remind them the day of the feast. Well, the king’s slaves go out and the invited guests will not come. He sends out other slaves and the guests still will not come. On top of that, they mistreat the slaves and kill them. This symbolizes the killing of the prophets by the Jewish people. The king sends his army out and destroys these people, and burns their city.

Then the king invites everyone to the banquet, both good and bad people. The people throng into the banquet. This symbolizes the gentiles who are joining the church at this time. But there is one fellow who does not have a wedding garment. We can sum up scholarly comment on this by saying that, if you were invited to such a feast, it was common courtesy to wear a wedding garment, and those garments were easily available. Either you had one in your closet, or they were handed out at the feast. More to the point, in the New Testament, garments symbolize other things, In this case, the wedding garment symbolizes an attitude and behavior in harmony with God’s kingdom, God’s shalom. The person does not have the proper attitude, so he is thrown into the outer darkness. Pretty grim. Scholars tell us that this parable as it stands does not come directly from Jesus. It has been edited and augmented.

Matthew’s gospel, remember, was written about 90 C.E., about sixty years after Jesus’ ministry. The Jews have rejected Jesus. Gentiles are flocking in to follow Jesus. Once again, it would be totally contrary to our Lord’s teachings to interpret this in an anti-Semitic manner.

What we really need to ask is, now that we have been invited to the banquet, do we have the proper attitude? Are we getting a little smug? Thinking back to out first lesson, are we drifting toward some of our old gods, our old priorities, our old ways of thinking and of behaving? Are we doing it our own way instead of taking the time to seek and do God’s will? Easy thing to do, but it gets us off the track.

Charles Cousar writes, “Matthew’s version presses an ancient issue about the quality of our lives, whether in the ordinary dimensions of our relationships we manifest a genuineness, a trustworthiness.   What matters is a life without pretense or guile, that takes seriously the grace given in Jesus Christ.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, page 524.)

Philippi was a city in Macedonia, a major stop on the East-West road through that area. The congregation was the first community which Paul had founded on European soil. Paul had had a warm and happy relationship with this community. He loved them dearly. This letter dates back to 62 C.E., and perhaps earlier, so a bit earlier than Matthew’s gospel. We are getting a bird’s eye view into the formation of a Christian community.

Paul begins, “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand fast in the Lord in this way, my beloved..” Then comes a direct and intimate bit of pastoral counsel. Euodia and Syntyche are two women in the community who have been at odds. We do not know why. Paul is urging them to be of the same mind in the Lord. Paul asks the whole congregation to support these women, who have worked faithfully with Paul  to spread the good news. What great insight there is in these words. Yes, we are going to have disagreements, but we can always work them out. We may have to agree to disagree, but nothing can get in the way of the love of God for us and between us and among us. Gentleness is so important. The Lord is near, as close as our breath. Don’t worry, pray. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will be with us. Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, do these things. Paul tells the people to keep on doing the things they have learned from him, and God will be with them.

I know that Paul has gotten a bit of a bum rap. We have to remember that he, like us, was a creature of his own age and culture. But this letter shows us a loving and wise pastor.

We are in the kingdom, the shalom of  God. Paul outlines for us some of the key values of that shalom. Gentleness, respect for each other, and compassion for each other, are central to our life together and to our ministry.

Matthew’s gospel says that everyone, good and bad, is invited to the feast.  His congregation was a mixture of Jews and gentiles learning to follow Jesus together. Many of the early congregations were going through the same process. Today, we face other issues which can threaten to divide us. But they will not divide us, they will not cause rifts such as that between Euodia and Syntyche, if we focus on being people of the kingdom, people of God’s shalom, people of compassion.

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