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Pentecost 22 Proper 28, November 13, 2011

Pentecost 22 Proper 28 A RCL November 13, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentecost 20 Proper 26, October 30, 2011

Pentecost 20 Proper 26A RCL October 30, 2011

Joshua 3: 7-17
Psalm 107: 1-7, 33-37
1 Thessalonians 2: 9-13
Matthew 23: 1-12

In our lesson from the book of Joshua, the people of God cross the Jordan and enter the promised land. The scene is similar to the earlier crossing of the Red Sea. The priests bearing the ark of the covenant, which symbolizes the presence of God, walk into the waters of the Jordan, and the waters part.

Scholars tell us that this crossing was during the time of the spring harvest when the water level was very high. The waters flowing from upstream rose up, the scripture says, “in a single heap.” The people cross on dry ground. God is with the people to help and proect them on their journey.

In our epistle for today, Paul reminds the people that he worked as a tentmaker in order to spare them any financial burden. He says that his conduct towards them was “pure, upright, and blameless.” He says that he dealt with the people as “a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God….” And Paul says that the people accepted the good news, not as a human word, but as God’s word, which, Paul writes, “is also at work in you believers.” These are excellent guidelines for us as we do our own ministries. We are called to have the highest ethical and moral standards. We are called to be “encouragers, “ good spiritual coaches calling people to be the people God calls us to be so that all of us can lead lives worthy of God. And we need to remember that the good news, the word we share, personified in the Word, Jesus, is, as Paul says, a living word that is at work in all of us to help us to be people of God’s shalom.

As we approach today’s gospel, we are called to remember that we are called to use Jesus’ words as a yardstick or a measuring rod to evaluate our own ministries and our own leadership. Are we congruent? Do our actions match our words? The bottom line for me is that Jesus is calling us to a servant ministry. He himself said, “I am among you as one who serves.”

Charles Cousar writes of this passage, “The narrator wants Christian leaders who read the text not to act like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, but to be servants, to be humbly learning from their one instructor, Jesus..” He continues, “How do the scribes and Pharisees serve as negative models? Basically, they do not practice what they teach. Their lives give no evidence that they take seriously the very law about which they endlessly debate. Consistency and wholeness are missing. …”

Cousar continues, “The religious authorities of Jesus’ day make a display of their leadership. They want their deeds to be noticed and their religious status to be recognized. Their badges include enlarged phylacteries (small leather cases worn on the left arm and forehead, containing important Old Testament texts) and extended fringes at the bottom of their robes (tassels worn to signify their bondage to the law.) They enjoy the attention they receive not only in the synagogue but also in the marketplace and at social functions.”

Cousar adds, “The religious leaders of Jesus’ day crave titles: rabbi, father, and instructor. For Christian leaders the pride that cultivates such honorific titles reveals a fundamental failure—the ignoring of Jesus as teacher and instructor and God as Father. The model of the Christian church is not one in which an authoritarian (whether ‘preacher,’ ‘pastor,’ or ‘doctor’) dispenses truth to fawning followers but an egalitarian community where all are students of Jesus and children of God. The proper recognition of divine authority relativizes all human authorities.”

“Matthew’s readers, then, whether leaders or common people, are not allowed… to remain detached critics of the scribes and Pharisees, those so-called bad guys of the first century, Instead, [we] are confronted with the demand for a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, with a style of leadership and following that acknowledges one divine source of authority. Teachers as well as learners are instructed by Jesus himself, the authentic interpreter of the law, and teachers as well as learners are called to do the will of the heavenly Father.”  (Texts for Preaching, pp. 551-552)

Rarely do I include such long quotations in sermons, but I think Charles Cousar, who is Professor of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, offers us a powerful and inspiring vision of baptismal ministry, in which we are all exercising our gifts for ministry and all are learning from our ultimate leader, Jesus. His words also describe servant leaders who have genuine humility and openness to God’s leading and God’s love.

I have never met him, but I have come to know someone who, I believe, lived out all of the qualities of an authentic and humble leader. That is the Rev. Austin Schildwachter, Priscilla’s dad. The name Schildwachter means “shield watcher.” Here are some glimpses into the character of this beloved servant of Christ from the eulogy given by his stepson, Priscilla’s stepbrother. “He respected other people, listening to them tirelessly with rapt attention, responding to everyone with interest and almost always with amazement at what they had to say. He had the gift of making other people feel special and on equal footing with him in spite of the fact that his experience and wisdom far outweighed theirs. We all delight in the opportunity to revisit the gentleness of a man who knew how to be a pastor to every person he ever met and never over do it to the point that the person didn’t feel friendship with him. Why? Because it was authentic. This was the genuine article we all had the good fortune to see. Austin never cared about money and he was out in the cold as a result. Out in the cold from the world of money and power, and consequently safe and warm and comfortable inside the world of God and Jesus, family, friends and an endless stream of new acquaintances that he made at restaurant tables and boardwalks and street corners every day he lived. Here we had a guy who probably took more interest in the spiritual lives of perfect strangers who served him lunch in a coffee shop than some of their own friends did.”

Austin is an inspiring and authentic model for the kind of ministry we are all called to do. Thank you so much for sharing him with us, Priscilla. May we all follow in his footsteps.   Amen.

Pentecost 19 Proper 25, October 23, 2011

Pentecost 19  Proper 25A  RCL October 23, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pentecost 18 Proper 24, October 16, 2011

Pentecost 18 Proper 24A RCL  October 16, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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