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Last Sunday after the Epiphany March 2, 2014

Exodus 24:12-18

Psalm 99

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

Our first lesson takes us back three thousand years. The people of God have arrived at Mount Sinai. God has called Moses to go to the top of the mountain to receive the tablets of the law. Herbert O’Driscoll reminds us that back in those days, people thought that gods lived on mountains because mountains are elevated, reaching to the heavens. He tells us that at that time Mount Sinai was an active volcano, so when we read of fire and smoke coming from the mountain, we have to imagine the active volcanoes we have seen in pictures or perhaps experienced.(O’Driscoll, The Word Today, Year A, Vol. 1, p. 120.)

Back in those days, people truly believed that you could not look on the face of God and live, You could not get close to God and live through it. What courage Moses shows in going to the top of the mountain to meet with God! The elders go part way up. He tells them to stay and wait. Then Moses and Joshua go to the top of the mountain. They stay for forty days and forty nights.

What a different experience we have of God because of Jesus coming to be with us.

Six days after Peter says that Jesus is the Savior, Jesus takes Peter and James and John and they go up the mountain. Scholars tell us that it was probably Mt. Hermon, near Caesarea Philippi. Jesus is transfigured. He becomes who he really is. Moses and Elijah are there, showing that Jesus is a great leader along with the spiritual giants of his people.

I can’t help but think of our favorite super heroes. Mild mannered Clark Kent ducks into a phone booth and emerges as Superman. Jesus has shared meals with the disciples, taught them, encouraged them, loved them. He has been one of them. He has been and is a fellow human being. Now they see that he is something much more than human. They see what they and we can become as spiritual beings.

Peter wants to capture the moment. Oh, how we want to save these mountaintop experiences for all time! But we can’t. Nor can we live at that level of heightened excitement all the time. We would die of heart attacks.

They see who he really is—the Son of God—and the voice of God confirms the fact. They are terrified. They still believe that you cannot be near God and live. But Jesus touches them and reassures them, He tells them not to be afraid. Everything has changed because of Jesus. We can now walk with God, We do not have to be afraid.

This is the scene we see on this last Sunday before the beginning of Lent. As we prepare to walk the way of the Cross, we see Jesus in his glory. This reminds us that, with Jesus, there is always light in the midst of darkness, wholeness in the midst of brokenness, life in the midst of death. It also reminds us that we are on a journey of transformation.

Our epistle from Peter talks about something very powerful. Think what it was for people to hear about Jesus from someone who had gone up the mountain with our Lord. Think what it must have been like to hear about Jesus from one of the people who had spent all that time with our Lord, someone who had walked and talked with Jesus, someone who knew Jesus as friend, mentor and teacher, someone who had seen Jesus transfigured on that day.

This is someone who can convey the very presence of Jesus to us, someone who can bring us into the presence of Jesus. By the time this letter was written, the Church was undergoing persecution. Peter writes, “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The reality of Jesus, his love and his grace, his presence walking with us through the challenges of life, is a powerful thing. He is the light in the darkness. He brings a new day of hope, and faith rises again in our hearts.

This Wednesday we will gather to begin Lent. We will have ashes on our foreheads, which will remind us of our mortality and our frail humanity. We will begin to walk the Way of the Cross.

As we prepare for Lent, let us think about these two mountaintop experiences. In the first one, Moses and Joshua went up the mountain, and it was terrifying. God’s power was something to be feared. In the second experience, with Jesus and James and John, yes it was awe- inspiring and scary to hear the voice of God, but, when it was all over, Jesus was there alone before them. Yes, he is the Savior, and he walks down the mountain with us and keeps on walking with us just as he had before.

Jesus is one of us. Yet he is God walking the face of the earth. He is fully human and fully divine. And we are going to walk the Way of the Cross with him. And he is going to face the worst of what warped human power can do. And it is going to be awful. But, through it all, there is going to be that light shining in the very darkest places. The day will dawn, and the morning star will rise in our hearts.


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 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

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 12 Proper 18A RCL September 4, 2011

Exodus 12: 1-14
Psalm 149
Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20

 Our opening lesson from the Book of Exodus is the account of the first Passover. The people are going to be delivered from slavery. Each household gathers for a meal of lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs to remind them of their suffering. They are ready to travel—loins girded, sandals on their feet, and staff in their hand. They will begin their journey to the Promised Land.

One of my beloved mentors, David Brown, former Rector of Christ Church, Montpelier, has wisely said that, to be a good Christian one must be a good Jew first. By that he means that so many experiences of God’s people Israel are also our experience as humans and as Christians. It is important for us to remember this Passover history and to realize that our Jewish friends celebrate this feast every year around the time we are celebrating Easter. Their history is our history. We are all enslaved in various ways, As God’s people moved toward the Promised Land, so we follow our Lord as he leads us out of slavery to sin and into newness of life.

In our epistle, Paul is coming to the end of his Letter to the Romans. He is a Pharisee, an expert on the law, but now he says simply, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” He tells us that all the commandments involving our behavior toward others are summed up in the one statement, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He says that slavery to sin is like being asleep or like being in the dark, But now the day is near and we can live in the light. Paul sounds an Advent theme of casting aside the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. He even encourages us to “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as though we were clothing ourselves with the goodness and strength of our Lord. Powerful and inspiring language from Paul.

Our gospel this morning deals with the question of how to deal with conflict in the Church. If someone sins against us, we are to go to then and try to resolve it one on one. If that does not work, we take two or three other members of the community and try to reach reconciliation. If that does not work, we bring it before the whole community. If the person will not amend his or her behavior, the leaders of the community may exclude the person.

What are these lessons telling us here in September of 2011? There are certainly conflicts in the Church and among Christian groups. Our Congress has recently experienced conflict to the point of deadlock.

Jesus called everyone to be a part of the community, rich and poor, men, women, and children, people from all walks of life, even those who were considered beyond the pale, such as tax collectors. In the Church, we have a principle of unity in diversity. If we look over the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion, and all the Christian churches, there is huge diversity. But we are all trying to follow Jesus. Even if we look at Grace Church, I think we represent the entire political spectrum from Progressives, to Democrats to Republicans to Independents and probably others. Yet we are all trying to follow Jesus.

If we look at our beloved country, the United States of America, there are people of all faiths and all nationalities. There is a huge diversity. That is a strength.

Here in Vermont, southern and central Vermont have been devastated by Irene. This past Thursday, I heard one of the town leaders in Ludlow talking. They have been hit so hard, but they had gotten the power on and they could get in and out of town. What was he saying? He said, now that we are sort of back on or feet, we are concentrating on helping our neighbors in Cavendish, who were hit even worse.

That is the Vermont way, and that is the way of every one of the major faith traditions. We are called to help each other, to look out for those who have less than we have,  to help others. We are called to share.

These lessons are about what is good for the whole community. To love each other, to care for each other—these values are emphasized in our faith and in every faith. This is the Vermont way, and it is the way of compassion.

Jesus summarized the law when he said that we are called to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. His whole life and ministry give us a clear picture of the vision of shalom. Shalom. Usually translated as “peace,” is much more than the absence of war. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori writes, in her book A Wing and a Prayer, “Shalom is a vision of the city of God on earth, a community where people are at peace with each other because each one has enough to eat, adequate shelter, medical care, and meaningful work. Shalom is a city where justice is the rule of the day, where prejudice has vanished, where the diverse gifts with which we have been so abundantly blessed are equally valued.”

This is our vision of community, here at grace, in Sheldon, in all the communities from which we come, in Vermont, in the United States, and all around this earth. God’s shalom has begun, but it is not yet fully realized. We are called to pitch in and help it to happen.

I feel truly blessed to live here in Vermont. I hope and pray that our Congress will learn to do things the Vermont way, working together for the good of all. We pray for our brothers and sisters who are still dealing with the devastation of Hurricane and Tropical Storm Irene, and most especially for Gethsemane, Proctorsville. Their parish hall is “a pile of wood scraps” and the foundation of their church building is compromised. Each parish has been asked to have a contact person so that we can get together to help other parishes recover from this storm.

May we love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength and may we love our neighbors as ourselves.


Pentecost 11 August 28, 2011

Pentecost 11 Proper 17A RCL August 28, 2011

Exodus 3: 1-15
Psalm 105: 1-6. 23-26. 45c
Romans 12; 9-21
Matthew 16: 21-28

Last Sunday, our first lesson ended with the Pharaoh’s daughter adopting Moses. Much has happened between last Sunday’s reading and what we heard this morning. Moses had been living in the palace. One day, he went out to see what was going on with his people. Even though he had been adopted by the king’s daughter. He still identified with his own people, the Hebrews. He saw the hard labor his people were forced to do. He also saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man, and he killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand. The upshot of this is that the Pharaoh finds out and is looking for Moses to kill him, so Moses runs away to Midian.

Reuel, the priest of Midian, places Moses under his protection. Moses marries Zipporah, Reuel’s daughter, and keeps the flocks. One day, while he is at work as a shepherd, he sees a bush which is burning but is not consumed by the flames. He turns aside. God usually calls us right in the midst of our usual activities, but we need to make ourselves available to God. We need to turn aside, as Moses did, so that God can speak to us.

God calls to Moses, and Moses says, “Here I am.” Herbert O’Driscoll wisely asks how many of us can say that we are fully present, fully in this moment. So often we are thinking of what happened yesterday or what will happen tomorrow. How important it is for us to be fully focused in this moment.

God calls Moses to set God’s people free. We can’t help but think of our modern hero, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who set his people and all of us free. We are still working on our internalized racism. Moses asks the usual question, “Who am I to do this amazing thing?” And God tells Moses that all-important thing that we need to remember: God will be with us to help us do what God is calling us to do, no matter how inadequate we may feel to carry out God’s call.

In the section of Romans which we read for today, Paul does a wonderful job of reminding us how to be a true Christian community. “Let love be genuine. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection. Rejoice in hope Be patient in suffering. Persevere in prayer. All of us have been through various kinds of suffering. The cross and Easter teach us that new life can come out of death and suffering. Help those in need in the community. Extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you. Echoes of the Beatitudes  Don’t be arrogant. Associate with the lowly. Live peaceably with all, If your enemies are hungry, feed them.. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink, for by doing so you will heap burning coals upon their heads.

Returning good for evil can have amazing results. Treating those who have injured us with respect, being generous to those who wish us ill, giving food and water to our enemies, all these things can transform people and situations.

As we turn to the gospel, we recall that last week, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, and Peter said, “You are the messiah, the son of the living God.  But now, Jesus is talking about the fact that he is going to suffer and die. And Peter can’t accept that, “God forbid it, Lord, This must never happen to you!” And Jesus says that very difficult thing, “Get behind me, Satan.” He tells Peter that Peter is putting a stumbling block in his way, an obstacle. We have to remember that Jesus is fully human. He has thought about this. He  Has asked that old question, “Why me?” The question Moses asked, the question we all ask when we know we have to face something we would give anything not to have to face. But he knows he has to do this. And the fact that Peter doesn’t get it means that he is alone in his understanding of this and that Peter is making it harder for him.

And then he says that haunting thing: “If any want to become my followers,   let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. “  If we want to follow him, our hearts and lives have to become Christ-shaped. His values and his vision have to become our values and our vision. We have to let him live in us and we have to live in him. We have to let go of the controls and let him take over.

This reminds me of a story which you may have heard before, If so, I apologize, but I love this story. A man falls over a cliff, and, as he whizzes down the precipice, he manages to grab a little shrub. He is holding on for dear life and he yells, “Help!” My favorite prayer. Anyway, a voice answers, “Yes, my son.” And the poor guy is petrified and he says, “Who are you?” And the voice says, “ I am God.” And the fellow says, “Oh, thank you, I’m so glad you answered. Please help me. I can’t hold on to this shrub forever.” And God says, “I will help you, my son. But first, you have to let go,” And, after a bit of silence, the fellow shouts out, “Is there anybody else up there?”

Let go and let God. Not any easy thing to do. Being a Christian can be costly in various ways. Following Jesus has a price. We don’t like to talk about those things, but it’s true. That’s what Jesus is talking about today.

We are dealing with a very loving God, and, when we do let go and let God lead us and guide us, truly amazing things happen. God guides Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr., and the people are set free. Whenever we let go and let God, we become free from whatever binds us. When we let go and let God, vengeance and hatred can evolve into God’s shalom.

One small but powerful thing we can do, something that is in the spirit of today’s lessons, is to think of someone who is a problem to us, someone we are mad at or someone we think is going down the wrong path, or someone who has injured us or has hurt someone we love, and just pray this simple prayer, “God, surround _______ with your love” That’s all. Just that. No prescriptions for what God should do. Just, “God, surround ____with your love.”

We can also pray this prayer for those we love the most. It places everything in God’s healing hands.


Pentecost 10 August 21, 2011

Pentecost 10 Proper 16A RCL August 21, 2011

Exodus 1: 8-2: 10
Psalm 124
Romans 12: 1-8
Matthew 16: 13-20

As we begin the Book of Exodus, there is a new king in Egypt, a king who does not know Joseph and what a trusted administrator he was. This new king is seriously threatened by the Israelite people because they are growing and prospering. He is afraid that the Israelites will ally with an enemy of Egypt and fight against him.  So the king enslaves the Israelites and subjects them to hard labor.

Herbert O’Driscoll wisely points out that all along the West coast of the United States and Canada, we did the same thing to people of Japanese origin during World War II. This is a pattern of human sin that crops up over and over again.

One reason why the Revised Common Lectionary came into being was that our former readings did not include much about women and children.  The king tells the Hebrew midwives that they should kill any boy babies. With great courage, the midwives refuse to do this.  Then the king tells all his people that they should throw all Hebrew boys into the Nile. A Levite man and woman marry and they have a son. The mother and the boy’s older sister again show great courage. When the mother can no longer hide the child, she makes a little boat for him by waterproofing a basket and hides him in the reeds along the bank of the Nile. Here we have one of our favorite Sunday School stories, the tale of Moses in the Bulrushes. The boy’s older sister keeps vigil watching the basket. The king’s daughter comes and finds the child. By this time he is crying and she takes pity on him. She immediately recognizes that this is a Hebrew child, but this does not get in the way of her compassionate response. Her maid secures the services of the child’s mother as nurse, so now the young Moses will be living in the royal palace with his mother nearby under the protection of the king’s daughter. Eventually, the Pharaoh’s daughter adopts Moses as her son.

Through the actions of these courageous women, the liberator of the people Israel  is snatched from the jaws of death and is raised in the very palace of the oppressive king.

In our gospel, Jesus and the disciples are in the district of Caesarea Philippi. This area is about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee. It has been the site of worship centers dedicated to Baal, the god of the Canaanites, and the Greek god Pan. Herod the Great built a temple to Caesar Augustus there. Then it became a recreation area for the Roman army. This is an area close to the border of Lebanon. The Jordan River has its source here. So this is an area which has held temples to many gods and is a center for the occupying army. It reverberates with the echoes of religious and secular power.
But here, God’s shalom will be renewed, a very different kind of kingdom.

Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is? They answer, “Some say John the Baptist, some say Elijah, some say Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” But then he asks, “But who do you say that I am?” And Simon Peter immediately says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Wow! Jesus blesses Peter for this, and then he says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  There is a pun here. The Greek word for Peter is Petros, meaning Rock. The Greek for rock is petra, so the sentence would go, “You are Rock, Petros, and on this rock, petra, I will build my church.

For centuries, this passage was used to justify the prominence of the Roman Catholic Church. Tradition says that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, and the Bishop of Rome became very prominent, as Rome was the center of the empire.  But now, after years of ecumenical scholarship, we can read this passage as indicating the kind of faith we are called to show. Jesus is asking each of us today, “Who do you think I am?”

We also need to be clear here that Jesus did not mean the church structure we have today. In fact, I think he might look askance at all this hierarchy. The New Testament in written in Greek, and the word translated as “church” is the Greek ecclesia. The Aramaic word is quahal, meaning a fellowship and harking back to that original fellowship, that covenant community which was formed as God’s people made their way from slavery to freedom in the wilderness. This is especially meaningful to us as we gather in faith in the post Christendom era, and it makes that important link between us in what may seem a wilderness and God’s people in that original journey of liberation.

As Paul says so eloquently in Romans and other places, we are the Body of Christ. We are here because, in our own ways, each of us has answered that question of Jesus,  “Who do you say that I am?” In our own ways, in our own words, or perhaps without words because it is so difficult to express, we are here because we want to follow Jesus.

Many of our contemporary theologians are pointing out something which I think is very helpful. They are saying that faith is not so much about what we believe on a cognitive level but rather what we do. It’s not a matter of intellectual assent as much as it is a matter of discipleship. Does Jesus mean something to us in our lives? Do we want to follow Jesus? Do we want to try to be like Jesus? My answer to these questions is a very clear Yes, and I think your answer is the same. Otherwise we would not be here.

Then the next question is, Do we want to be part of a community of people who want to follow Jesus, who want to have the values of compassion, inclusiveness, healing, and justice-making that we see in his ministry? Again, I think most of us would say, Yes, we do. We want to build a community like that. That’s why we are here.

Well, that’s what Peter was saying, and that’s what all the disciples were saying and doing.

It’s worth thinking about, and it is worth finding some quiet time to think of our answer at this time. Jesus is asking, “Who do you say that I am?” And, as we form our answer in words, if we are able to do so, we also know that it is our feet and our hands and our hearts and our spirits that give the real answer as we carry his compassion into every aspect of our lives.