Let us pray: God of all hope be with us as we await your coming. Come, Lord Jesus. Fill our minds with your word, fill our hearts with your love, and fill our lives with your light. Come, Lord Jesus, we pray. Amen.
Waiting is the hardest thing to do because it feels like you’re not doing anything. And it seems twice as hard when you’re young. When we’re children, Christmas always seems eons away and we think the end of school or our birthday will never arrive.
And we 21st-century people certainly have an ever-shrinking attention span; our wealth and technology allow us to access virtually anything we want any time we want. Everything is sooner, faster, now. And boy, do we love that speed, especially technological speed. Wait ten seconds to let a webpage load? Are you kidding? Get a faster connection! Wait five seconds for a document to print? What the heck is wrong with this printer? Wait to let yourself cool down before sending that email or posting that social media rant? Are you kidding? Go, go, go! You snooze, you lose, that’s our motto. If anyone needs to learn the Advent virtue of waiting upon the Lord, it’s us.
Virtually the only things we haven’t been able to speed up or shorten are our basic biological processes. It still takes nine long months to have a baby, whether we want to wait that long or not. And so, if we want to be with Mary in her journey toward giving birth to Jesus, we need to settle into the long haul. We’ve already been busy doing other things for the first eight months, and now in her last month of pregnancy, we’re just going to have to take these four weeks of Advent and wait.
Our reading from Isaiah today has an interesting take on waiting. The writer is marveling at how different the God of Israel is from the other gods in the cultures of the time. And then the writer remembers, “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”
What is it like to wait for God? Many of us know exactly what that is like. We wait for God to explain why a family member died too young. We wait for God to open a path out of a marriage that has ended, into a new place where healing might begin.
And of course, virtually this entire year has been a time of waiting. We’ve waited during lockdowns and quarantines. We’ve waited on masks and respirators and toilet paper. We’ve waited on test results for the coronavirus, wondering whether we are positive or not. We’ve waited endless weeks and months, not able to visit our loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes, in order to protect them.
We’ve waited on our kids going back to school and waited to see if our jobs would hold out during the crisis. We’ve waited on unemployment checks and stimulus checks. We’ve waited in line to vote and waited to see if our mail-in ballot went through, and then waited on the results of the election. We’ve waited for a vaccine. And we’ve waited and waited and waited to go back to church in the old ways that were familiar and comfortable to us.
2020 has been nothing but a year of waiting. Perhaps we are better equipped now than we ever have been to understand the Biblical mandate to wait upon the Lord. The Good News shared with us today is that God is working for us as we wait for God.
And we’re actually doing two kinds of spiritual waiting right now. We’re waiting for the coming of the Christ Child on Christmas Day, that glorious moment of incarnation when God comes to be with us in human form. That’s a fixed endpoint that we know ahead of time. Come December 25, we will be celebrating Jesus’ arrival.
But we’re doing another kind of waiting. We’re waiting for the signs of the Incarnation in our own lives. We’re waiting to see the new and next way that God will be manifest in our own individual time and place. God is with us, but where and how? That is how we keep company with Mary: as the watchful sentinels always on the lookout for the new revelation waiting to be discovered among the everyday.
Patience is a hard-earned virtue, and many of us are deeply wearied by all the waiting we’ve had to do, all the times we’ve had to say no to ourselves and our children this year in order to stay safe and keep others safe. It might feel like 2020 is a year out of time, a wasted and empty expanse that consisted of nothing but life on hold.
But is that true? Was this time of waiting really wasted? Mary’s time of waiting was almost as long as ours has been. What has been blossoming and growing in your heart during this time of waiting? What new thing is ready to be born in your spiritual life after having been forced to slow down and really ask what is most important about your faith? How has your family found new strengths by the call to adapt and the sudden multiplication of time together and new challenges with school and work?
Mary’s time of waiting was for a purpose. It had a goal and an end, and she faithfully pursued it with God’s help. As you reflect on your waiting this year, what has God grown in you? What will be the gift you offer the world this Christmas as Mary did? It takes awake and alert eyes to see the grace even amid the suffering we’ve endured.
And Paul reminds us of what we most need to hold on to through the long weary days of waiting for grace: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end.” Look back on this year and see the strength with which you endured its trials. See the call to justice and peace that rang even through our most bitter divides in society. And know that it has all led to this, the season of Advent, the time of upheaval and waiting, of change and pause, of grace and truth.
And so, we pray, and we stick together, and we love one another, and we wait upon the Lord. And Isaiah, the great prophet of the Advent season, announces the Good News:
“Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Amen.
Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24 Ephesians 1:15-23 Matthew 25:31-46
Let us pray: Lord God, Creator of the Universe and Power behind all powers, we come together to praise you and hear your word. Assure us once more of your divine control over all things and help us to surrender ourselves completely into your loving care. We ask this in the name of our Savior and King, Jesus. Amen.
It would be more appropriate to call this Sunday “Christ the Shepherd Sunday” rather than Christ the King. The Old Testament lesson certainly gives us that impression, staying with the shepherd image in glowing and dramatic language, focusing on God as the Great Shepherd, a description and promise eventually leading to a human shepherd, David. He became and then evolved into the best-known and loved king of ancient Israel. His name became a symbol of a great king, but he was not a saintly king – not with his many wives, dysfunctional children, and constant, unending wars.
The New Testament lesson, by contrast, paints a picture of a glorified Christ raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God “in the heavenly places.” The word “king” does not enter in this account, even though the language of the passage is filled with power beyond that of kings and emperors. Paul’s letters don’t use the designation “king,” which is found only in 1 Timothy, but that was likely written much later than the time of Paul. Of course, the book of Revelation is filled with kingly images, as is to be expected from apocalyptic writing. It is nearly impossible for those of us familiar with Handel’s Messiah to think of Revelation without hearing the triumphant words from Psalm 24:
Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. “Who is this King of glory?” “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle.”
This rather militarist victory is missing from the gospels, however. So, how did this image of Christ the King come about?
We first encounter the title “king” in Matthew’s story of the Magi’s visit to the infant Jesus. The wise visitors, accustomed to the great potentates of the East, come looking for a child born to be “king of the Jews,” but Herod, a once-great but troubled man, is already the king of the Jews by order of the occupying Romans. He did a great deal of good for Israel, but now he is old, having killed his wives and his own children in order to hold on to his throne. When he hears of the purpose of the Magi’s visit, he is terrified. Who is this child born to be king? The image he leaves to us of what a king ought to be is a rather miserable one.
In Matthew’s gospel, a child is called king of the Jews, and no one in his immediate family seems very surprised while the Magi recount ancient prophecies. The myth of David’s succession runs strong through the ages of Hebrew history and hope. Yet, that same title will be used thirty-three years later, written on a tablet with a vicious, ironic intention, a tablet nailed on top of the cross where the child, now a grown man, is hanging between two thieves. In the starkest language, we have the story of the greatest tragedy, one not easily conceived by the human mind.
What did the grown Jesus, the wise teacher and most appealing prophet, do with the title “king”? He used it in his parables. In his stories, we don’t have triumphant kings glorious in battle; we are given examples of kings who make difficult decisions based on justice; kings who give banquets where everyone is invited; and finally we are presented with this judgmental image of a king who bestows justice in Matthew 25. This parable, called the Great Judgment, is so familiar to all those who understand what it means to serve others in the name of Jesus that it has become almost a cliché in our times. Here, the image of the king is one of unwavering justice. This is a tough parable, without sentimentality, without evasions. We hear no trumpet calls and no triumphalism. Here, humility reigns.
All the teachings of Jesus find a conclusion in this parable. The one who taught that “the last shall be first” presents the king as bringing to his right hand, a position of honor, those who have lived a life that honored others above their own selfish needs. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” This king invites into the heavenly realm those who paid attention to the poor by giving them clothes to wear and food to eat. This king opens his kingdom to those who saw human injustice and took the time to visit the ones who were imprisoned unjustly; this king praises those who welcomed the stranger and the migrant by offering them hospitality and shelter. And they did it all, not knowing that in the process of feeding, clothing, and welcoming, they were responding to the Giver of all good things: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
This is a radically different image of a king for those who were listening to Jesus in the first century – and for those of us who, while no longer living under kings, know what it is to live under the leadership of persons who promote greed and selfishness instead of compassion and humility. This Jesus ate with the poor and the outcasts and honored women while elevating the worth of little children. This Jesus, this king, does not appear holding a sword but instead hangs on a bloodied cross.
In many churches, Christ the King Sunday is filled with the sound of trumpets and with hymns of extravagant praise, accompanied by images of gold and precious jewels. The contrast with the life of Jesus jars and troubles us. It becomes easier to accept this conflict when we realize that this Sunday is a very late addition to the church’s liturgical calendar; Pope Pius XI instituted it in 1925.
Almost twenty years later, the Anglican writer and theologian Dorothy L. Sayers examined the question of the kingship of Jesus in her series of radio plays called The Man Born to Be King. When the Magi visit Mary and Joseph and the baby to offer gifts of great value, Mary wonders about what it all means. One of them tells her: “I speak for a sorrowful people—for the ignorant and the poor. We rise up to labor and lie down to sleep and night is only a pause between one burden and another. Fear is our daily companion—the fear of want, the fear of war, the fear of cruel death and of still more cruel life. But all this we could bear if we knew that we did not suffer in vain; that God was beside us in the struggle, sharing the miseries of His own world.”
The Son of Man, as Jesus referred to himself, proved through his own death that he is beside us in the struggle, sharing our suffering and our miseries. At a time of a rampant virus, in a climate of fear and even hatred, this realization gives us comfort and hope, for Jesus, who rules with love, is the kind of king we can also love.
Let us pray: Gracious God, teach us to hear your voice in the cry of the poor, hungry, sick and oppressed, and teach us in responding to them we are responding to your Son and our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Zephaniah 1:-7, 12-18 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Matthew 25:14-30 Let us pray: Gracious and eternal Father, we come before you this day seeking to make the most of the gifts you have given us in life. Lord, as we hear your word, may we learn how we may serve you with all that we are. Lord, in these moments, grant us wisdom, understanding and peace. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
Today I’ll begin with a little story for you: It seems a wealthy tourist is separated from his tour group in the Sahara. After a long morning in the hot sun, he comes upon a nomad traveling by donkey. “Please help me!” the tourist begs. “I’m dying of thirst.” “I’m sorry,” the nomad replies. “I have no water. All I have are these beautiful neckties which I will happily sell you.” “Neckties!” the thirsty man cries. “I need water, not neckties.” “Look,” the nomad offers. “I feel bad for you, so here’s what I’m going to do. I normally get $25 for these pure silk neckties. But seeing as you’re suffering, I’ll let you have two of them for $35.” The wretched tourist turns away in disgust and continues on in search of water. Some time later he stumbles upon an oasis and, to his surprise, there before him is a grand hotel and restaurant. By now he’s crawling on his hands and knees and collapses in front of a man in a tuxedo, standing under a palm tree. “Please, please, do you have any water?” “Yes, sir,” the Maitre'd replies, “we have plenty of cold water;” “Oh, thank God!” the poor soul sighs. “Where do I go?” “This way, sir. The restaurant is right inside. But, unfortunately, sir, no one is admitted without a tie.”
So much for passing up a good chance to buy a silk necktie. In today’s gospel Jesus speaks of a man who also passed up a chance to benefit himself. He is the third servant to whom the master gave one talent. Instead of investing his talent on the stock market and possibly making a bundle for his master, the servant buried his talent. All he had to give to his master on his return was that same talent. The master became exceedingly angry that the servant had not taken the risk of investing and threw him out.
This is a particularly appropriate gospel to contemplate against a backdrop of volatility on Wall Street. The master has split his portfolio among his servants, and he expects a solid Return on Investment (ROI) from every one of his servants. On average, their performance is outstanding. But this master isn't playing the percentages. And neither is ours. He wants us all to do our part.
God has a tremendous investment in each one of us. He created the universe for our amazement. He raised us from the primal ooze for his glory. He gave us the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for our salvation. No hedging. No shorting. God is "all-in" on you and on me. He doesn't look on us as numbers to be crunched or costs to be averaged. Each one of us is unique. Each one of us is his beloved. At our baptism, each of us was entrusted with his divine saving grace… the "talent" of the parable.
God’s gift of grace is precious… but it is not decorative. It is nourishing… but it is not consumable. It is strictly functional. God expects us to cooperate with his grace… to work with it to build his kingdom. God did not play it safe with us. He wants us "all-in" for him. That means daring to take risks for his sake… the more radical the better. As St. Paul puts it, we must be willing for the world to see us as: Fools for Christ's sake. That means loving when the smart money says hold back. That means giving when it hurts and forgiving when it hurts even more.
The faithful servants took risks. They made themselves vulnerable. But they had faith in their master. They put the talents he gave them to work. They knew "no risk, no reward." Our master expects his faithful servants to make ourselves vulnerable for his sake. He does not expect us to play it safe… hoarding his grace, burying his love in a heap of self-indulgence. Christ did not endure Calvary to lead a host of cowards… too timid to proclaim his love… too lazy to build his kingdom.
In this gospel, Jesus tells us to snap out of it… to stick out our chins… to dare to love. It’s not a suggestion. It’s a commandment. It overrides the inhibitions and inertia that cripple our ability to love. C.S. Lewis captured Christ’s challenge to love when he wrote: "To love is to be vulnerable. The alternative... is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the distresses of love is in Hell."
Let's take a moment to get in touch with God's grace within us. Dig deep. Have we buried his grace in a heap of self-absorption… of ambition… of resentment… of distraction? Are we taking grace for granted, treating it like an insurance policy on salvation… filing it for future reference? God expects a lot better ROI than that.
Each one of us is called to greatness… not to grandiosity, but to greatness. It is the greatness of a couple struggling to raise a Christian family in a hostile, secular world. It is the greatness of a youngster defying peer pressure to do the right thing. It is the greatness of seniors remaining actively faithful in the face of increasing infirmity. It is the greatness of every individual believer daily witnessing Christ’s love in word and deed. It is the greatness of all who carry his cross today.
The gift of God’s grace makes this greatness possible. But it’s more than a gift. It’s an investment. God expects us to give it back to him with interest… to build his kingdom. Starting with family and friends, let’s share his love deliberately… fearlessly. Let’s take it with us right out the church door. Let’s spread his love wherever we go today. The more we share the love of Christ, the more love we have to give away. And the more we give away, the richer we are. Let’s give God his ROI… his return on investment. You’ll find it pays handsome dividends… in peace… in joy… in eternal partnership with Jesus Christ. Let us pray: Gracious God, help us to offer you all that we have, even our very lives, so that what we offer through Jesus Christ may be multiplied abundantly. We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be: All that we have is thine alone, a trust O Lord, from thee. Amen.
Amos 5:18-24 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Matthew 25:1-13
Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, give us a vision of your Kingdom and show us the part you would have us play in bringing it closer. Help us to strive each day towards that goal, for your name’s sake. Amen. "Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." (vs13) When I'm confronted with this story about the bridesmaids who weren't ready when the bridegroom came, I realize it is a story about readiness. It is about readiness at any time - for what? We are urged to be ready for almost anything in our lives these days. We are continually bombarded with appeals from insurance companies to be ready for events that can happen to us unexpectedly such as accidents, sickness and even death. We are also urged to be ready for retirement - that we have the resources to see us through the years when we will not be working. "Get ready", "Prepare" are constant messages in our time. In regard to readiness, cartoonist Jules Feifer in one of his cartoons pictures a person hiding his head under a blanket, and the person says: "When I was five they made me go to school and I wasn't ready. When I was ten, they made me go to camp and I wasn't ready. When I was eighteen, they made me go to the army and I wasn't ready. When I was twenty - three they made me get married and I wasn't ready. At twenty-five, they made me have children and I wasn't ready. Now I'm fifty and I am going to stay here and I'm not coming out until I'm ready." But what is this passage in scripture asking us to be ready for? What are we advised to stay awake for? Many people have surmised that Jesus is telling us to be ready for the "Second Coming" which could happen at any time. However, I'm not sure that when Jesus told this parable he would have meant the second coming, and I don't think that he would have been talking about the end of time at all. "The kingdom is here, right before your eyes" was the message of Jesus in the Gospels. In other words, I think that Jesus was referring not to the end of time but what was happening in the present time. For us today I think that we have to be ready for what God is doing in the world and our lives today. We have to look at the world (Sin sick, and as full of evil and hatred as it may seem) and be prepared to see God's hand, because it is most surely there. I don't think that God wills all the things that happen in this world but surely God is in the midst of everything that happens. God is there working out the redemption of the world and of us. You have to be ready to see it day by day...and to participate in the things that God has planned for us in the midst of it. For this, we have to keep our eyes wide open for the presence of God - to see our lives and the world a different way. We are reminded daily in our newspapers about traffic accidents, murders, conflicts between individuals, groups and nations and the television fills our minds with images of hatred, violence, and destruction. These images that we face everyday paralyze us and seduce us to an existence in which our main concern becomes survival in the midst of a sea of sorrows. By making us think about ourselves as survivors of a shipwreck, anxiously clinging to a piece of driftwood, we gradually accept the role of victims doomed by the cruel circumstances of our lives. We need to be wide awake to be aware of where God breaks into our lives, often in unexpected ways. This is necessary if we are to be fully human and fully alive. When we become awake to the activity of God we may realize that we are called to see things differently and to act differently in the world. We may be called to love more deeply, to offer forgiveness that we have been denying, to seek spiritual nurture in many ways (the care of our souls), to pay attention to all our relationships, to be a better person and friend to others, to change in our lives what needs to be changed, and to look at each day as a gift. Some of us seem to spend our lives half-asleep. Have you noticed that when you are talking to some people they don't seem to be there. They are there but they are not all there. They are alive but they don't seem to be fully alive. The real tragedy of life is not that to die but to find that we have never lived. "When it's time to die, let us not discover that we have never lived." Henry David Thoreau Let us pray: Gracious God, in the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, help us to keep on trusting you, watching and waiting, confident that your purpose will win through and your love triumph over all. To the glory of your name. Amen.
Let us pray: Gracious God, teach us that our judgment and yours are not the same, and so awaken us to all you are able to do, through others and through us, however unlikely it may seem. Always to the glory of your name. Amen.
I never thought I would be quoting from the comedian, George Carlin, in a sermon. He became famous for his routine, “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” Lest you worry, this is not a list of seven words you can’t say in church. Instead, George Carlin has come up with a list of imponderables. Or topsy-turvy if you will. Here are some of them. Why do we say something is out of whack? What's a whack?
If a pig loses its voice, is it disgruntled? Why is the person who invests all your money called a brok-er? Why do croutons come in airtight packages? Aren't they just stale bread to begin with? If lawyers are disbarred and clergy defrocked, doesn't it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted, cowboys deranged, tree surgeons debarked, and dry cleaners depressed?
If Fed Ex and UPS were to merge, would they call it Fed UPS? Do Lipton Tea Company employees take coffee breaks? If it's true that we are here to help others, then what exactly are the others here for? No one ever says, "It's only a game" when their team is winning. My favorite one is: Why do people drive on parkways and park on driveways?
I like these kinds of word plays. I do these for a point, however. Whenever we take the time to ponder the Beatitudes, I’m struck by the fact that they are also rather topsy-turvy. The word, blessed in the Bible, means profoundly happy. Nothing could be better than to be blessed.
If you ever have taken the time to listen to them, think about what the Beatitudes say: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Wouldn’t this make more sense if it went like this? Blessed are those who are rich in spirit, for they know about the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Wouldn’t it be better if we could say: Blessed are those who have suffered no loss, for they have no need of being comforted? Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Ever see a meek candidate run for office? Maybe you have. But the better question is this. Ever see a meek candidate win an office? The list goes on. And in every case, as you read the Beatitudes, we might ask the question: So these are blessings? They are, but they remind us that the way of God is not the way of humanity; and the way of God often appears to be topsy-turvy to us. The thing that makes the Beatitudes the Beatitudes is that they are topsy-turvy from the way of the world; however, they define Christianity at its core. Jesus, to make the world a more godly place hung out with the most ungodly people of all. In the parables, it’s always the underdog who is the hero. What do we do, in Christianity to receive? We give. What do we do in Christianity to truly live? We die. Christianity, at its core, is a contradiction.
And the reason is usually simple. When we are rich, when we are happy, when we are not suffering in any way, shape or form, we have no need of God. If you want to get a person away from God, away from church, make that person rich and successful and make the person highly accomplished in the world. They will have no need of God.
When things are going great in the world, church attendance goes down.
It is only when things are not going well, when our worlds turn topsy-turvy, that we begin to recognize that we need God, profoundly. It is then, and only then, that we see that we need God, and we find ourselves greatly blessed.
On the Christian calendar, November 1st is All Saints Day. On the first Sunday of November, in our lectionary we always hear the beatitudes so it must have something to do with what makes us saints. All of us. Because we are reminded, even in the midst of grief, even in the midst of our losses, that which is topsy-turvy, when those seeming curses of this world, are best seen as great blessings from God.
Nice sentiment, Jesus, but it’s just not the way things are done now days. Live that way and you’re going to get beat up.
Jesus speaks a word of blessing to the crowds who have gathered, and we have to admit – it seems –Jesus is way, way off base. Blessed are the poor in spirit? The meek? Those who mourn? You’ve got to be kidding! We all know what blessing looks like, and Jesus isn’t even close. In Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” a group is at the fringes of the crowd when Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount. From where they are, it’s a bit difficult to hear. “What did he say?” someone asks. Someone closer to Jesus replies, “He said, ‘Blessed are the cheese makers.’” And the first person’s response is, “Well what makes them so special?”
In the world we live in, “blessed are the cheese makers” makes at least as much sense as “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
No Jesus, that’s not the way things work. The real beatitudes for our day should be more along these lines: ~Blessed are the rich, for they will always be catered to. ~Blessed are those who laugh, for they have a good time at the expense of others. ~ Blessed are those who are strong, for they will be able to fight their way out of most difficult situations. ~Blessed are those who have it made, for they will never be hungry or thirsty. ~ Blessed are those who are tough, for they will never let anyone else push them around? ~Blessed are those who can shrewdly climb to the top of the ladder, for they are self-made men and women. ~Blessed are those who exact revenge, for they will show others who has the upper hand. ~Blessed are those who don’t let themselves get pushed around, for theirs is the prize to claim. ~Blessed are you when people revile you and spit your name in anger, for they are merely being jealous.
This is the way things really are – isn’t it? These are the truths we hold to be pretty much self-evident, aren’t they? These are the values we live by; we really live by – aren’t they? Now Jesus is not giving us a list of ought-to’s: you ought to be peacemakers, you ought to be meek, you ought to seek righteousness. We are not to aspire to mourning. Jesus is simply telling it like it is, describing what really counts in God’s kingdom. Fred Craddock points out that Jesus is blessing the victims of society, not calling people to be victims. He is saying that those who give away their coat, who love their enemy, who turn the other cheek are no longer victims. They are God’s people. They are the true saints. What Jesus says, essentially, is this: “In the kingdom of God, things are valued and people are valued that this world doesn’t give a rip about. Jesus is not saying that it is better to be poor than rich, or better to be lowly than powerful.
Barbara Brown Taylor says, “In (the Beatitudes), Jesus does not tell anyone to do anything. Instead he describes different kinds of people, hoping that his listeners will recognize themselves as one kind or another, and then he makes the same promise to all of them: that the way things are is not the way they will always be. The Ferris wheel will go around, so that those who are swaying at the top, with the wind in their hair and all the world's lights at their feet, will have their turn at the bottom, while those who are down there right now, where all they can see are candy wrappers in the sawdust, will have their chance to touch the stars. It is not advice at all. It is not even judgment. It is simply the truth about the way things work, pronounced by someone who loves everyone on that wheel.”
OK, so Jesus blessed those who seem to be more losers than winners. OK, so God cares about those at the bottom of the Ferris wheel. How does this blessing work out? How can we really call these people blessed by God? This morning each of us as Christians must ask himself or herself: “How does my internal disposition and consequent behavior distinguish me from a non-Christian? How do my thoughts and behavior reflect Jesus’ most important teaching: His teaching about true happiness? What changes in my life and thinking would be required for me to become a genuine Christian disciple? We don’t call ourselves followers of Jesus just because we observed all the big commandments and only committed a few respectable minor violations. We instead should ask ourselves: “Have I been a true and recognizable disciple of Jesus this past month?” We want to discover whether our hearts and our behavior have been that of a disciple of Jesus. And so we ask: “did I struggle to live the Christian life as outlined in the Beatitudes?” How was I poor in spirit? How was I meek? What does the word “meek” mean in the Bible? Did I hunger in my heart for righteousness? Did I really have a merciful heart for folks in trouble whether I like them or not? Was I single-minded in seeking God and his will? Was I at peace in my heart and with others? Was I a peacemaker in tense situations? Why didn’t anyone persecute me? Is it because I don’t take a stand for what I know to be right? How do we obtain God's blessing? Well, the answer, of course, is that it's not something we obtain – it's not for sale. It's something he has already freely given to you, but which you can only recognize when you accept it as a gift. It's something you can only take up when you are willing to lay everything else – all your striving, all your hard work, at his feet; when you can come to him with empty hands and an open heart, ready to accept his love as a gift to you. When you finally understand that, and can accept it as just that, and begin learning to live in the freedom of that gift, then he will turn to you, and finally tell you what you've already come to know, but your ears had to become ready to hear – those wonderful words, "Blessed are you."
Let us pray: Gracious God, you have blessed us in so many ways, help us not to look at what we are, nor what we can do, but rather at what you can achieve within us by your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pentecost 21 Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 Thessalonians 2:1-8 Matthew 22:34-46
Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, in whom we live and move and have our being, give us open hearts and minds. Grant us a vision of you as you are, and of the world as it might be. Touch our hearts; give us words of truth for living our lives. Then set us free to do what you ask of us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
I have been a priest for ten years and a deacon for five years before that, and there is one thing I’ve learned in that period of ministry. It is the fact there is no way you can please everyone. Usually it is a mistake to try. You end up like the rather timid pastor who was told by part of his congregation to preach the “old fashioned gospel,” and by the rest to be broad minded. One day he got up to preach and ended up saying, “Unless you repent, in a measure, and are saved, so to speak, you are, I am sorry to say, in danger of hellfire and damnation, to a certain extent.” He had really learned the fine art of straddling the fence.
Jesus was often put into situations where he may have been tempted to straddle the fence. When he was put in such situations, he was able to always turn the tables on those who sought to trap him, or trip him up, as we saw in last week’s Gospel.
A lawyer was questioning a farmer about an accident. The lawyer said to the farmer, “Tell me what happened right after the accident, when you reportedly said, ‘I feel fine!’” The farmer began to speak, “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road.”
At this point the lawyer interrupted saying, “Please answer my question. Didn’t you say you felt fine immediately following the accident?” And turning to the Judge the lawyer asked that the witness be instructed to answer the question.
The judge looked at the farmer and said, “Please answer the question.” The farmer began again, “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road.”
The lawyer interrupted once again, “Your Honor, please instruct the witness to answer my question.” The judge looked at the lawyer and then at the farmer and then back to the lawyer and said, “Let’s just allow the witness to tell his story.”
The farmer began once again. “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road. When we came through the intersection this big truck hit us broadside. I flew out of the truck in one direction and Bessie flew out in the other. I came to just as the highway patrol officer got there. He went over, looked at poor Bessie lying there on the road, and then he come over and told me she was hurt something awful and in pretty bad shape. Then he went back to Bessie, pulled out his gun and shot her dead. He then came back to me and asked me how I felt. I said, “I feel fine.”
In this weeks’ Gospel, a lawyer (they were even around then), asks Jesus in an attempt to trip him up, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” And Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
There were 613 laws listed in the Torah, the Jewish equivalent of the Bible. They were seen as direct revelation from God. How would you like to be the “traffic cop” or the gatekeeper who insisted that everyone follow these laws? The Pharisees, as a professional group, were such gatekeepers. They were determined that God’s will be followed. Many were mere legalists, concerned with the minimum of what was expected of them. But many were quite sincere. Just doing their duty.
Jesus’ response is known as the great commandment. That we love God and love each other. He cares deeply about how we treat each other. The call to love one another finds its grounding in Jesus’ love for us, therefore we should love each other. Jesus said in John 13:34, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” God shows his love for us, and expects that we in response, will love one another.
Do you remember the song from a number of years ago that went like this? “What the world needs now is love, sweet love, it’s the only thing there’s just too little of.” Jesus, in the gospel today, speaks plainly and pointedly when he says to love God and neighbor is what people need the most in life. His words are just as true and relevant for us today as they were in his own day.
For many, the word “love” spills out of their mouths too easily. We see love portrayed as something on the TV or movie screen. Something that we fall into or out of as the mood arises. This happens when our expressions of love arise out of our selfishness. When love is used in this manner, the emphasis is, most of the time, on the self and not on others or on God. However, Jesus turns that around, by focusing on love of others and God. To be a loving person; to love God and our neighbor means that we think of the needs and interests of God and others first. Interestingly enough, most of us discover that when we spend our life fulfilling and serving the needs of our neighbors, of others, then our own needs and interests are also fulfilled. In this way, we love God too.
Jesus tells us to love. Love motivates us to relate to others in special ways. Love motivates us to live in ways that are creative, helpful, nurturing, sustaining and lifting up. Love is not a feeling. Love is action. Love is something we do. How do we do love? If we could see through the eyes of Jesus, we would see with compassion. He cares about our needs, our hurts, and our brokenness. He understands our sinfulness—it should come as no shock or surprise. But instead of judging us, he is ready to forgive, to mend, and to restore us to his side. We are all precious in the sight of God. Jesus wants us to see through his eyes.
Lois Cheney, in her book, God is No Fool, tells about a man who tried to keep life at arm’s distance. Listen to her words; “He saw people love each other. He saw friends love friends. He saw mothers’ love children. He saw husbands love wives. And he saw that all love made strenuous demands on the lovers. He saw love require sacrifice and self-denial. He saw love produce arguments and anguish. He saw it bring disappointment, pain, and even death. And he decided that it cost too much. And he decided not to diminish his life with love.
“He saw people strive for distant and hazy goals. He saw men strive for success. He saw women strive for high, high ideals. He saw young people strive for attainment. And he saw that the striving was frequently mixed with disappointment. And he saw the strong men fail, maimed, and even killed. He saw it force people into pettiness, grasping at those things they both saw and didn’t see. He saw that those who succeeded were sometimes those who had not earned success. And he decided that it cost too much. He decided not to soil his life with striving.
“He saw people serving each other. He saw men give money to the poor and helpless. He saw whole groups work to build up, cleanse, and heal others. And he saw that the more they served, the faster the need grew. He saw large portions of money freely given – sometimes lining already fat pockets. He saw new schools filled with uncaring teachers. He saw ungrateful receivers turn on their serving friends. And he decided that that cost too much. He decided not to soil his life with serving. “And when he died, he walked up to God and presented him with his life. Undiminished, unmarred and unsoiled, his life was clean from the filth of the world, and he presented it proudly to the mighty God saying, ‘This is my life.’
“And God said, ‘What life?’”
In his fifty-six years on the planet, Adolf Hitler did incredible harm and was responsible for millions of terrible deaths. Yet in all of the horror that he unleashed, there are pinpoints of light and nobility. And a German soldier, Private Joseph Schultz, was one of these pinpoints.
He was sent to Yugoslavia shortly after the invasion. Schultz was a loyal, young German soldier on patrol. One day the sergeant called out eight names, his among them. They thought they were going on a routine patrol. As they hitched up their rifles, they came over a hill, still not knowing what their mission was. There were eight Yugoslavians there, standing on the brow of the hill, five men and three women. It was only when they got about fifty feet away from them, when any good marksman could shoot out an eye of a pheasant, that the soldiers realized what their mission was. The eight soldiers were lined up. The sergeant barked out, “Ready!” and they lifted up their rifles. “Aim,” and they got their sights. And suddenly in the silence that prevailed, there was a thud of a rifle butt against the ground. The sergeant, and the seven other soldiers and those eight Yugoslavians stopped and looked. Private Joseph Schultz walked toward the Yugoslavians. The sergeant called after him and ordered him to come back, but he pretended not to hear him.
Instead he walked the fifty feet to the mound of the hill, and he joined hands with the eight Yugoslavians. There was a moment of silence, and then the sergeant yelled, “Fire!” And Private Joseph Schultz died, mingling his blood with that of those innocent men and women. Found on his body was an excerpt from St. Paul: “Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices in truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, and always perseveres.”
Let us lay our lives before the Lord our God and be transformed by the power of love. Let us love the Lord our God with all our hearts, and our neighbors as ourselves.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, Loving God, help us to honor the great commandment you have given us. Help us to discover real meaning in our lives through loving you and our neighbors with ALL our heart, ALL our soul, ALL our strength, and ALL our mind. Help us be like Christ in whom we believe and, in whose name, lift this and all of our prayers. Amen.
Let us pray: Our Lord and our God, maker of heaven and earth, tender shepherd of the flock. Our praise is due to you for your work in our lives. Do your work among us today. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.
On God’s mountain all people are given a banquet of rich food and fine, aged wine. Mourning and death cease, and every tear is wiped away. Shame is dispelled; hunger is forgotten.
“This is our God, in whom we hoped for salvation.” In this way, Isaiah recalls the lush image of the banquet, that same feast of which the psalmist sang, with food prepared in abundance, cups running over, heads anointed with oil. It is the banquet of God that, despite fleeting appetites or hungers, allows Paul to be satisfied no matter what his need or desire. “In him who is the source of my strength I have strength for everything.”
If it is God’s will that we all be saved in Jesus, then it is for us, clothed in faith, hope, and love, to accept God’s will as our own.
In the context of heaven’s feast, the Gospel of Matthew presents a strange story, one among many instances, actual or symbolic, of dinners and banquets.
In this particular case, some of the invited are uninterested in the banquet prepared for them. Others make light of it and go about their business; still others ridicule and abuse those who bring the offer. So, the king sends his servants out into the streets to invite everyone, good and bad alike, into the banquet. Eventually, however, the king spots a visitor who is not wearing a robe, and the poor guy is cast into darkness.
This has never been a very attractive story for me. It seems somewhat impulsive and ruthless. Why invite people to the banquet if you are going to reject them? Were not all called and welcome?
It is understandable that those who absolutely reject Christ and the bounty of his saving banquet are not included. They do not even want to come to the party. But the rest—all those who do not resist the possibility that God calls them to the eternal feast—are welcomed.
So why are some people who are already in the promised banquet-land excluded for the feeble-sounding reason that they are improperly dressed?
What has helped me understand this odd state of affairs is CS Lewis’s wonderful fantasy, The Great Divorce, which he wrote to suggest that the option between heaven and hell is a radical choice we all have.
In this short, symbolic story, it turns out that a group of people, after a long bus ride, find themselves in a strange location. It is the vestibule of heaven itself, a place they have all generally wanted to go. The problem is that they must now believe that they are actually there. They must accept the fact that God really saves them.
Lewis develops a lively drama for each traveler’s life. All they need to do is “put on” the armor of salvation to receive it; yet many of them cannot bring themselves to believe that they are in banquet-land. They would rather cling to the defenses with which they have covered themselves during their lives.
One self-pitying chap, unwilling to let go of the mantle of his own righteousness, just cannot bring himself to trust that he is actually within the gates of Paradise. He grips his resentments so tightly that he disappears into the small dark hole of his egotism.
Another poor soul wears a small, slimy red lizard on his shoulder, a twitching, chiding garment of shame and disappointment. This lizard is his clothing, his self-image and self-presentation to the world. It is a symbol, Lewis leads us to believe, of some sin of lust, which the pilgrim soul both hugs for identity and carries for self-pity.
An angel approaches, offering to kill the slimy creature, which protests that if he is killed, the soul will surely lose his life and meaning. The ghost-soul, encouraged by the angel, finally lets go of the lizard, but only with trembling fear. He gasps out a final act of trust: “God help me. God help me.”
And with that plea, a mortal struggle ensues, the lizard mightily resisting while a wondrous metamorphosis happens. The lizard is transformed into a glorious creature. “What stood before me was the greatest stallion I have ever seen, silvery white, but with mane and tail of gold. ... The new-made man turned and clapped the new horse’s neck. ... In joyous haste the young man leaped upon the horse’s back. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, then nudged the stallion with his heels.” They both soar off, like shooting stars, into the mountains and sunset.
What happened to this wayfarer at the vestibule of the banquet is that he finally clothed himself in Christ rather than in his shame. Having nothing of his own, not even his sins to cling to, he abandoned himself in the “God help me” of radical trust.
If it is God’s will that we all be saved in Jesus, then it is for us, clothed in faith, hope, and love, to accept God’s will as our own. Perhaps this is the meaning of Jesus’ parable, as well as of Lewis’s.
Paul wrote in his Letter to the Galatians that if we are baptized in Christ, we must be clothed in him. Christ is the only adequate banquet garment. And it is his love, as we can read in the Letter to the Colossians, that must be the clothing to complete and unify all others we wear. Yes, every child of the earth is called to the feast. But if any of us actually get there, it will only be because we are “all decked out” with Christ, in God.
God is hosting a wedding for his Beloved Son and we, all of us and each of us, has been invited. And here is the truly mind-boggling part. We’re not just invited to attend the wedding as a guest. We’re invited to come as the Bride, the one whom the Groom loves and wants to spend eternity with.
But it’s not enough just to show up and say “Here I am.” like the man in the parable. We have to be properly dressed. We have to put on Christ. We have to be clothed in, to be wrapped in, the mind and heart of Jesus. We have to look like Christ and sound like Christ and act like Christ and speak like Christ and think like Christ and forgive like Christ.
Let us pray: Merciful King, you invite us to your banquet, to the celebration of your Son’s never-ending love. The table you spread before us is overflowing with generosity. Lead us to share our lives, our time and our possessions so your good news of salvation may spread to the ends of the earth. This we ask through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pentecost 18 Isaiah 5:1-7 Philippians 3:4b-14 Matthew 21:33-46
Let us pray: Gracious God, help us to commit to you not simply a part but all of life, asking that you will take who and what we are, and everything we do, and dedicate it to your service, in the name of Christ. Amen.
A number of years ago, there was an ad campaign in St. Louis that made quite a stir. A number of billboard signs went up. They said, "What in God’s name are you doing here?" Just that. "What in God’s name are you doing here?"
"What in God’s name are you doing here?" Now that might be a question we could ask this morning as we heard the Gospel. "What in God’s name am I doing here?" Another vineyard story! For the third week in a row our Gospel uses the illustration of a vineyard. In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah chapter 5 we hear about a vineyard, as a way of talking about God’s great sadness and pain at being rejected by the ancient people of Israel.
"I planted a vineyard," God says. "I tended and nurtured it. But it did not produce fruit. Instead of sweet grapes and the wine that I had expected, the grapes were wild and their taste was sour." "What more could I have done?" God cries. "How could I have blessed you more fully?" It’s a song of sadness and pain, a cry of longing from our God. It’s God’s word saying to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah, ""What in God’s name are you doing here?"
Jesus echoes the same words in his parable of the wicked tenants. He announces God’s judgment. "When the owner of the vineyard returns what will he do? – He will put those wretched to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time.” Rejection! That’s what this morning’s Gospel is about – the pain of rejection. It’s a feeling that we can all identify with. There is no pain more familiar to more people than the pain of rejection. Who doesn’t remember standing on the playground at recess time or after school when teams were being made up and being chosen last? Who doesn’t remember being left standing on the sidelines while everyone else got their chance to play in the game? Is there anyone here today who wasn’t selected Homecoming King or Queen or who was passed over for promotion? Guys – how about the time you were rebuffed by that special girl? Or gals – what about the time your boyfriend dumped you? The pain of rejection. It pierces our heart with its dagger point and sends a chill into our very soul. And it is this pain of rejection that the Gospel speaks of today.
But it’s not our pain primarily this speaks of – it is God’s pain, God’s deep abiding sadness and hurt that results from lives that are lived apart from God, from our failure as God’s people to live the kind of life we were created to live, by our sinfulness and rejection of God’s truth and holiness. To us as to the ancient Israelites, God asks this morning, "What in God’s name are you doing here?"
Jesus knew that pain of rejection. Misunderstood by his family, rejected by his own townsfolk and even finally crucified by the very people he had come to redeem, Jesus knew what the prophet Isaiah was saying. He knew God’s pain and sadness. He evidenced that as spoke of his own death on the cross.
"What in God’s name are you doing here?" On the surface the parable is not hard to understand. Even the chief priests and Pharisees understood it. (As we see in the last verses of the Gospel reading it enraged them.) It speaks a word of judgment against Israel, and against the Jewish people of Jesus’ day. Even those with only a little knowledge of the Old Testament can understand that.
The messengers sent to the vineyard quickly bring to mind the prophets of old, those messengers whom God sent to the ancient people of Israel. Prophets calling the people to repentance and faith. Prophets, largely ignored. Prophets, persecuted and killed for their message. In that sense it is a parable of rejection – the people’s rejection of the Word of God, our refusal to hear God speak to us. Because the question not only confronts the religious leaders of Jesus day, it calls to us today as well: "What in God’s name are we doing here?"
Time and time again, God brings His word of life and hope into our lives. God speaks His desire that we would lead fruitful lives of faith and goodness. And time and time again, God is rejected. We live for ourselves alone. We feel resentful that the church should tell us how to live. We assume that our wealth and possessions are our own. And when the church requests our time or asks for our offerings, we begrudgingly give only what we think we can do without. Like the wicked tenants of the story, we live our lives apart from the Lordship of God.
"What in God’s name are you doing here?" The words from the billboard echo God’s truth for us today. Today we are asked, "What in God’s name are you doing here?" They call us to take a second look at our lives. The wicked tenants of the vineyard claimed the vineyard as their own and refused to give the Owner any of what they had produced. They claimed that everything they had was the result of their own hard work and so the owner had no right to any of it. And so they rejected God, refusing to acknowledge God’s lordship over their lives.
Sound familiar? It should because all too often that’s the way we live our lives. The parable reminds us all we have is not our own, but the gracious gifts of a loving God for us. Our wealth, our homes, our happiness – the good fortune, the good health, the good luck we have – all we accomplish and all we produce in life is not only our doing. It is the blessing of a gracious God, who asks in return, "What in my name are you doing here?" How are you sharing my blessing with others? What are you doing to give praise and worship for the Lord God Almighty? What in God’s name are you doing here?"
Tony Campolo tells a story of a great oil refining plant. The refinery was huge. It employed all the modern techniques of chemical engineering. It was an impressive structure, well maintained. The interior was bright and shiny. The workers were proud to be part of the company. They made sure everything was perfectly clean and in perfect working order. Nothing was spared in caring for the plant.
One day some visitors asked to tour the refinery. At first they were refused. They would get in the way. They might even track the clean floors. But the visitors insisted. They had heard such great things about the plant and wanted to witness it for themselves. And so the plant managers relented and reluctantly gave permission for the outsiders to enter.
The visitors walked through the vast chambers where they saw the processing of the crude oil, the gleaming pipes that carried the refined product from place to place throughout the plant, and the impressive organizational system that had been set up to keep the plant clean. Needless to say, they were greatly impressed. Near the end of the tour, one of the visitors asked, "Where is the shipping department?" "Shipping department?" the guide asked. "Why yes," the visitor responded. "The place where you ship out what you’ve produced here." "We don’t have any shipping department," the guide replied. "We use up all the energy we produce here just to keep the place going. We need it all ourselves."
Could this be the message that God wants us to hear today when we ask, "What in God’s name are you doing here?" Where is the fruit of God’s blessing in your life? Where is the goodness that God wishes you to produce? Where is the blessing that God’s mercy brings forth in your life? "What in God’s name are you doing here?"
This is not our world. It is God’s. This is not our vineyard. It is God’s. And unless we exist for others, unless we produce something of goodness beyond ourselves, unless we build our lives upon that "stone which the builders rejected which is now the head of the corner" we will be no better off than those wicked tenants, who were cast from the vineyard because they refused to share their blessings with God.
Jesus says it well for us today when he said, "The stone, which the builders rejected, has become the head of the corner." God is building a new temple today. It is not a house a brick and stone. It is not made of mortar and steel or cement and limestone. It is a house of faith. And it is built in the hearts and lives of God’s faithful people, built a day at a time as we confess our sins and in worship and faith draw near to God and allow God to work through us. "The stone which was rejected has become the head of the corner" and is the rock of our salvation.
As we allow Christ to live within us, as we seek to do God’s work of love and mercy in our homes and the world around us as we respond to the urgings of the Holy Spirit and in faith produce a harvest of goodness for ourselves and those around us, as we seek to be faithful followers of Christ, we’ll be able to answer the question on that billboard. This, we’ll be able to say, "This is what in God’s name we are doing here!"
Let us pray: Lord, like a faithful farmer, you have planted and nourished this vineyard for us, not sparing anything for our good. Help us to always remember we are the tenants and you are the owner. Empower us to be your true disciples so we may bear much rich fruit for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Pentecost 17 Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 Philippians 2:1-13 Matthew 21:23-32 Let us pray: Show us your ways, O Lord, and teach us your paths. Grant us grace to receive your truth in faith, hope and love -- that we may be obedient to your will and live always for your glory, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Today we have another short parable of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew and it is a simple one. It comes as Jesus is being questioned by the chief priests and elders and it appears to me Jesus is calling them “Religious Couch Potatoes” as they think they know everything but do nothing. Jesus says there was a father who had two sons. The father asked them to go out and work in the field. One of the sons disrespectfully answers, "No! I won’t go!"
A little later, the father looks up from what he is doing and there is that same son working out in the field.
His other son, when asked to work said respectfully, "Father, nothing would please me more than to go out and work in the field for you." Two hours later, the polite, submissive, obedient son is still lying on the sofa watching TV.
Now think hard, says Jesus, which son do you think pleased the father more? The one who said no, but then went into action or the one who politely said yes but then did nothing?
You would agree with me that there are some things in life that you can’t really get to know unless you do them. You can’t learn how to dance, just by listening to a good speaker on the subject of "How to do the foxtrot," even if it is a very good talk on what steps to take and when to grasp you partner’s hand or waist. That’s fine to know the theory but if you really want to know how to do the Foxtrot then you have to get up and do the dance, perform the moves, and let the rhythm of the music take over.
In my pastoral training I learned all kinds of things from very learned and respected teachers. We sat around tables discussing, talking, being advised by our lecturers, and even outside of classes, we talked about deep and meaningful things. But it was only when I got out into a parish that I really learned what it means to be a pastor. All those words came to life as they were performed.
The Bible is the most important book for every Christian. But the Christian faith is not just words in a book. We can hear those words day after day in our devotions, studies and week after week in a sermon, but we only get to know what those words really mean when we put them into practice. You see it boils down to this. Being a Christian is not simply giving intellectual agreement to the teachings of the Bible. It is not some sort of guiding philosophy for life to which you give your approval.
Jesus didn’t lay down a new system of beliefs and theology. Other people have written thick books what the Christian Church teaches and believes. Jesus didn’t write anything like this. He spoke God's message to all people but more than that he lived what he taught and preached.
He not only spoke fine words about loving God and loving one another; he not only taught about forgiving, and caring for one another, or how to pray – he actually lived those words as he travelled from town to town healing, encouraging, forgiving.
The teachings of Jesus came to life as he carried out his daily ministry to others, as he gave his life out of love, as he rose victorious from the grave. Jesus didn’t ask us simply to agree with him but to follow him. He says to us, "I have given you the example. You should do for each other exactly what I have done for you. You have seen how I have not only spoken God's Word but also done the will of my Father. Go and do the same so that others may know that you are my followers." That’s where the rubber hits the road. It is the doing that really matters. The Christian faith is only known through its performance.
As a preacher, I am in the business of words. I write words, as I did for this sermon. I speak words. I think words. But as a preacher I am also aware, painfully aware, all the things that words cannot do.
A pastor asked a group of parishioners what they thought made up a good sermon. One member said, "I want a sermon which helps me to think about things in a new way."
That sounded pretty good and so he began to mold his sermons in such a way that they challenged people to think about things in a new way. But after a while he began to reassess that comment. He said: "We love to think about things. We love to turn them over in our minds, then go home and have a good lunch. We think, or feel, but never act. A good sermon ought to help my listeners to act on things in a new way."
I have a poster in my workshop that reads, “You can’t plow a field by turning it over in your mind.”
And what of you and me? Sometimes we talk a great story like the second son and yet there's little or no action.
As a preacher, my first task is not to be interesting, informative, engaging, descriptive, or even humorous. (I hope that my sermons are some of those things some of the time.) But none of those characteristics, as important as they may be, are the ultimate test of Christian preaching. The words spoken in worship need to be transformed into doing. Under the power of the Holy Spirit you, the hearer, receive those words as a message from God himself. But that’s not the end of the sermon. It is when you act on what you have heard. Hearers must become doers. The faith inside the church must be performed in the world. That is the final test of our worship and the hearing of my preaching.
A devotional book may be interesting with lots of stories and illustrations. The author may be very good with words and explain the Bible passage in an informative and entertaining way. But the final test of all those words and the brilliance of the author is whether those words are performed in the daily lives of the reader.
And that is where the difficulty rests. We are so much like that second son in Jesus’ parable. We are polite, obliging and co-operative. We hear the words and say: "Yes, Lord, I would be so pleased to do as you ask," but as often happens, we do little or nothing about it.
How many of us have made rash promises and then faltered in keeping our promises? Perhaps we have made an honest attempt but find ourselves falling short. We often miss the mark of the high standards we set for ourselves. In fact, every one of us can easily identify with the son who told his father, "Yes, I'll go and work for you." But, like him, we get distracted, frustrated, or just "weary of well doing." And the next thing we know, all our good intentions, all of our commitment goes down the drain, and we end up never finishing the job. We all know what it is like to say one thing and then find ourselves doing another. We are a bundle of inconsistencies. We are all guilty. Jesus' little story hits us right between the eyes. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
We can be like a rich young man who was taken to the hospital, critically ill. His condition worsened, and his doctor even told him that he wasn't sure if he'd recover, but they would do all they could.
The man was obviously scared to death, and said to the doctor, "Please, doctor, I don't want to die, I have so much to do yet in life. If you can help me get better, I'll donate $100,000 to the hospital building fund." Fortunately, the young man began to improve and recovered, and a few weeks later was released and went home.
Several months later, the doctor happened to see the man at a social function, and after seeing that he was doing very well with no sign of his former illness, the doctor reminded him of his promise. "You remember you said if you got well, you'd like to donate $100,000, and we could really use that now."
The young man replied, "Wow, if I said that, I must have been really sick!" Another way to consider this parable is to ask the question, "Is what I profess on Sunday carried out on Monday?"
We say "Yes" to God on Sunday Morning: Then end up losing our temper before we even get home; or we end up talking negatively or unflatteringly about our neighbor.
We say “Yes” to God on Sunday Morning: Then a friend tells a joke ridiculing someone that really isn't funny, but because they laugh, we laugh; or we see someone act in a way, which we know to be wrong, but we silently look on, too timid to intervene.
Someone once said, “It’s easy to tell if you are a follower of Jesus or just an admirer: Look in the mirror and see what’s moving – your mouth or your feet.”
You and I know all these texts well. We know that our faith consists of more than words and agreeing with them. We know our faith is one of getting up and doing - but we find it easier to be religious couch potatoes. We can be sure God is not content with a couch potato kind of Christianity.
Let us pray: Dear God, help us be "doers" and not just "hearers." You know our problems and our weaknesses better than we ourselves. In your love and by your power help us in our uncertainty and, in spite of our limitations, make us firm in faith; through Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pentecost 16 Jonah 3:10-4:11 Philippians 1:21-30 Matthew 20:1-16 Let us pray: Gracious and eternal Father, we come to you this day seeking to understand the ways in which your Spirit moves in our lives. Lord, in these moments, may we be moved by love in our hearts and receive wisdom in our minds. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.
For the past few Sundays, we've heard Matthew’s Gospel deal with some real, human emotions. He's dug into our daily lives and hit home with some of his comments. Funny how the Bible can do that more often than we expect it to! Two weeks ago Jesus' words told us how to rebuild broken relationships. Last week Jesus challenged us to forgive other’s time after time after time. And, some of you are probably wondering, "Who picked those readings? Is Fr. Jim trying to tell us something?" (Here, I'd like to say, as the kids do, "Well, DUHHHH!!!" but I won't!)
Let me reassure you, there is not a huge problem lurking in the background that I’m trying to get out in the open. And, while there may be a few of you who are uncomfortable because you suspect you might have been singled out by the sermons the past couple weeks, that has not been my intention. But, if God has spoken to you through the scriptures or through the sermon, if God has touched your heart to rebuild a relationship or to grant forgiveness to someone who has wronged you, then the people who set up our series of readings must have been guided by the Lord's hand for that purpose.
Today our lessons once again zero in on a common theme, one that we've all experienced at some time or another. If you have brothers or sisters, you'll know what I mean. If your school days were anything like mine, you'll know what I mean. If your workplace, your home, your social situation has any kind of inequity, you'll relate to today's texts. Let's back up a bit and put the Gospel message into a story and you'll see what it's talking about.
Ruth and Tom were the oldest two kids in their family. Ruth was 13 when Tom was 6. Then there were a couple younger kids, Bill who was 3 and the baby, Sarah. Ruth had been the apple of her parents' eye for several years before Tom had come along. But, she was just as excited as the rest of the family when her new baby brother had been born. He was fun to hold and he slept a lot so Mom still spent plenty of time with Ruth, reading to her and holding her and playing make-believe. But, as Tom got older, he became more active and took up more of Mom's time. Still, Ruth didn't mind too much because, by that time, she had school and friends to spend time with, books to read and "big girl" chores to occupy her time. Mom still tucked her in at night for a few more years and things went along pretty well.
But, then there was that one Christmas... Ruth was 13. And, as most teenagers do, she had started to examine her place in the family. She was the oldest, so of course she thought she should have more privileges than her little brothers and sister. Her parents thought she should have more responsibility, especially in setting a good example for the little ones. Ruth tried hard to live up to her parents' expectations. She got good grades in school. She tried hard not to talk back to her elders. She helped take care of the little ones and ran interference for them when she thought they might be getting into mischief.
So, that Christmas something just didn't seem to make sense. Ruth had asked for only one gift for Christmas. She knew her family couldn't afford much so she thoughtfully kept her wish list small. All she wanted was a small transistor radio. Not a "boom-box" with a CD player and two tape decks, just a small radio she could listen to as she walked to and from school each day.
And that Christmas morning, when Ruth opened her presents, she was very grateful and full of hugs when she opened up that little box and found just what she had asked for, her very own transistor radio. That is, until Tom -- seven years younger, remember -- opened up a similar-sized box and brought out the very same transistor radio. It wasn't even a different color or a different brand or any less than the radio Ruth had been given! And Ruth's Christmas joy turned into anger, jealousy and disappointment. It just wasn't FAIR!!
Ruth was a lot like the people we've heard about in today's readings. First there's Jonah. You'd think that if God had chosen you for a very special purpose you might rejoice in that honor and get your things all packed up and go off to do what God had asked of you. But, not Jonah. We all have heard the story of how Jonah argued with God about what he was supposed to do. In fact, Jonah went so far as to pack his bags and run away from the task God had set before him. Well, as you'll remember, he didn't succeed in avoiding God's purpose for his life.
In today's reading, Jonah, maybe still a little fishy smelling, is talking to God. He's done what God asked of him. He's gone to the sinful people of Nineveh and told them God wants them to repent of their sins. And they listened to him! And they repented, turned away from their sinful actions. But is Jonah happy? No.
Jonah is angry, jealous, and disappointed. I think he figured if he finally followed through and announced God's wrath on Nineveh that those sinful people wouldn't listen to him, and then he'd get to watch all the fireworks as God destroyed those awful people. I'll bet he was really looking forward to watching those terrible people get what was coming to them. But that's not what happened. Those sinful people repented, and God forgave them their sins, gave them a fresh start. So, Jonah yells at God and stomps off in a tizzy and plants himself out in the middle of nowhere to pout!
Jonah is angry with God. He's jealous of the Ninevites who have received forgiveness. He's disappointed that he won't get to see the Mighty Power of God displayed in the way HE expected to see it. God hadn't acted in the way Jonah expected him to, and Jonah got mad. But did God turn away from him? No, God provided shelter for Jonah. Jonah took the great tent-like bush God created for granted. But, as soon as God took it away, here he was complaining again.
Finally, God told him, "Jonah, you only knew the shelter of the bush for a day and a night. I have known the people of Nineveh since I created them. You didn't create the bush. But I created the people. I choose to love all people -- those who do my will and those who LEARN to love me." I think God was trying to let Jonah know that even HE, the reluctant messenger, was loved. I wonder if Jonah ever figured out that God's love was big enough for all people?
In the gospel, we heard about the day workers who were gathered up in the morning, at midday and in the late afternoon to go work in the vineyards. And, when the day of work was complete each was given a full day's pay -- just what they'd agreed to receive when they'd first signed on for the job.
I'm sure that in this day and age, when we legislate the legal minimum hourly wage and examine our pay stubs to make sure the government isn't taking out more taxes than they ought, we can understand what the all-day workers were complaining about in the parable Jesus told. In fact, we might do more than just grumble as the Gospel says the workers did. We would probably raise a mighty stink! We'd protest; we'd get angry; we'd be jealous; and we'd be disappointed.
Like 13-year old Ruth, whose 6 year-old brother received the very same Christmas gift, we'd probably start out by saying, "It's just not fair!"
No, it certainly isn't. Ruth's parents weren't fair. The landowner wasn't fair. With Jonah and the people of Nineveh, God wasn't fair. LIFE ISN'T FAIR.
The movie Amadeus is the story of the great musical genius, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The movie portrayed Mozart as an eccentric, almost schizophrenic genius who, without question, was a very gifted musician and composer. Another composer, the devout Salieri, despised Mozart and considered him immature, flippant, arrogant, and obnoxious. Why should Mozart be such a gifted musician and composer when he didn't deserve it? After all, Salieri was the Lord's servant, in obedience to his Savior Jesus Christ, why shouldn't Christ give him this gift instead of Mozart? He was a better person and he deserved it.
In a moment of despair, Salieri feels that Christ has forsaken him, so he removes his crucifix from the wall and burns it. Salieri could not live with God's love and grace. He wanted fairness and justice; he wanted from God what he thought he had worked for, earned, and deserved.
How many times have we said or heard others say, "It isn’t fair!" Well, I've got news for everyone. God isn't fair either! Grace is not fair...it goes beyond fair. If God were fair, the Ninevites would have been destroyed and Jesus would have never died on the cross!
But God chooses to be merciful. God chooses to go beyond our expectations. Even while we're angry, jealous or disappointed with the way life treats us and those we love, God blesses us each and every day.
We have food to eat, clothes to wear, homes to shelter us and time to consider what is going on in the world.
God is there. God's love surrounds everyone -- the angry ones, the jealous ones, the grieving ones, the happy ones, the generous ones, the comforting ones. God's love is there. And God's love is here.
God's love is for those we love. And, beyond expectations, God's love is for those we have a hard time loving. God's love for them isn't even a different color or a different brand or any less than the love we have been given! God is merciful. God isn't JUST fair.
Let us pray: Loving God, you are gracious with a love that surpasses even fairness. Thank you for accepting the little ones as much as the great, those who turn to you at the last hour as well as the laborers who have toiled all their lives. Open us more to the free gifts of your grace, help us accept them with gratitude and appreciate how liberally you give to all. Turn our ways into your ways of love. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.