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Pentecost 20 Proper 25C October 27, 2019

Joel 2:23-32
Psalm 65
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Luke 18:9-14

This sermon will be a bit shorter so that we can have some reports from Diocesan Convention.

We do not know a great deal about Joel, the writer of our first reading, but scholars think his ministry happened after King Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and allowed the exiles to return home. Joel describes a catastrophic attack of locusts which have destroyed everything. Now God us going to restore the land and make it fruitful.

Even more importantly, God is going to pour God’s spirit on all people. The people will dream dreams and have visions. Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. As Christians, we know that God’s saving grace is with us every moment of every day as we follow Jesus.

In our epistle for today, Paul is in prison and he is dying. He sums up his life: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith….The Lord stood by me and gave me strength. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will save me for his heavenly kingdom.”

Our gospel for today is the well known parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. For context, we need to remember that, in Jesus’ time, Pharisees were highly respected. They were experts in the law and they were trying to figure out how human beings could be faithful to the law. On the other hand, tax collectors were people who collected taxes for the oppressors, the Roman Empire. They were hated because people saw them as helping the Roman government, which was occupying the country.  The text says that Jesus is telling this parable to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.”

The Pharisee is totally self-centered. He thinks he is perfect. He does everything right. He is ever so much better than that tax collector. Not only is he a narcissist on steroids, but he is also judgmental. He thinks he is so much better than other people, but he views other people as “thieves rogues, and adulterers.”

The tax collector does not even look up to heaven. He is well aware that he is not perfect. He does not compare himself to anyone. He is praying to God, the source of all goodness and mercy, and he is profoundly aware that he is a flawed human being. He asks God’s forgiveness. For him in this situation of prayer, there are only two participants—himself and God.

The Pharisee is a closed system. Nothing new gets into his mind and heart. He is talking to himself, and the only person he listens to is himself. The tax collector is an example of humility. Humility, from the same root as humus— good earth plowed and harrowed and ready for planting. Humility is openness to God’s guidance, love, healing, and forgiveness. The tax collector is open to God’s grace. The Pharisee, a privileged scholar of the law, is not. Once again, the outsider, the one at the margins, is our holy example.

Gracious and loving God, may we have the depth of faith that Paul had. May we fight the good fight. May we run the race. May we have the openness to receive your love and grace and to ask your guidance in all things.  Amen.

Pentecost 19 Proper 24

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

In our first reading today, the prophet Jeremiah has been imprisoned  by the king for saying that the Babylonians would conquer his people. The Exile is now happening. The leaders and many of the people have been taken to Babylon. It is a time of despair and hopelessness, one of the most tragic times in the history of God’s people.

The word of God comes to the prophet Jeremiah. God is going to bring the people back and they will build and plant. Everyone will have the opportunity to be responsible for his or her own life. God will make a new covenant with the people, even more amazing than the covenant in which God led them out of their slavery in Egypt.

God is going to put God’s law of love and mercy and justice into the very hearts of God’s people. Each person will know God. Each person will be profoundly aware of God’s love and forgiveness. In this text, God says this will be a “new covenant.” As Christians, we are reminded of the life and ministry of Jesus, God walking the face of the earth, Jesus, the One who embodies and expresses the love, healing, forgiveness, mercy, and justice of God in a human life. Jesus is calling us to be a people of hope.

In our reading from the Second Letter to Timothy, Paul begins by reminding Timothy of the people who have taught him the faith—his grandmother, Lois, and his mother, Eunice, and, of course, Paul, his mentor and teacher. Each of us can be grateful for the people who have formed us in our faith—parents, Sunday School teachers, Godparents, people we have met along the way who have taught us, strengthened our faith, and helped us through challenging times. 

Then we read, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction,  and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, some people began to teach that every word of scripture was dictated by God to a divine secretary, who wrote the Bible word for word, and that the Bible should be interpreted literally.

Through careful scholarship, we know that the Bible was written by many persons over many centuries. We also know that the Bible contains many passages which contradict each other. So, when we say that the Bible was “inspired by God,” we mean that the people who wrote this library of books contained within the Bible were indeed inspired by God to record the events in the history of the people of God, and that the Bible conveys deep truths to us, but it is not meant to be a factual, historical or scientific document. What is important is the depth of spiritual insight conveyed in the Bible. Just to know that God spoke to Jeremiah in a terrible time and reassured Jeremiah and the people that they would return and rebuild gives us hope all these centuries later.

Like Paul, Timothy is called to share the good news of Christ’s love and to be faithful in that ministry.

In our gospel, Jesus is telling the disciples and us a parable about “the need to pray always and not to lose heart.” This parable has two unforgettable characters— a judge who “neither fears God nor has respect for people,” and a very persistent widow. In Jesus’ time, widows and orphans were extremely vulnerable. They had no one to give them financial support or protection. The judge is in a position of great power. The widow is powerless. 

The widow is looking for justice. The judge is not doing his job. Judges were supposed to be people who carried out God’s justice on behalf of the people, but this particular judge is a poor example of his profession.  The woman is unstoppable. She hounds the judge until he at last grants her justice. 

The point of the parable is that God is nothing like this judge. God loves us and wants to hear our prayers and wants to help us. God is on the side of justice; justice is an essential part of God’s kingdom. If this persistent woman can get justice from this judge who is completely devoid of human sympathy and unwilling to do his job, we should be just as energetic and disciplined in our prayers to God as this courageous and faithful widow was in her quest for justice. The parable closes with our Lord asking, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

As we look around our world, we see a huge gap between how things are operating here on earth and how God and Jesus and the Spirit would have things done. Isaiah and the prophets and our Lord himself have given us a clear picture of the kingdom, the shalom of God. Looking around, it would be easy to give up hope. It would be easy to stop praying.

But then we think of Jeremiah in prison, his country conquered by a powerful foreign empire. proclaiming God’s promise that the people will return and rebuild. We read a message from Paul, also in prison, telling us that the good news is not chained, encouraging Timothy and each of us to share the good news, to love and feed and clothe and welcome people. And Luke, writing fifty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, writing to a  community of faith that was undergoing persecution, calling them and us to be as persistent in prayer as that feisty, faithful widow was because God is a God of Love and of justice. God is listening to each and every prayer. And God will give us the grace to build God’s shalom.  Amen.

Pentecost 22 Proper 24C RCL October 16, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentecost 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.