Archives for September 2008

To love with the word all, Pentecost 24, Proper 25 – 2008

[RCL]Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; or Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18, Psalm 1; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

“All.” It is such a little word, only three letters: “all.” Not some, not a portion, not a little bit, not most of, but all. It encompasses everything, everyone, no exceptions, no limits.
All.

We call it the Great Commandment or the Summary of the Law: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind and thy neighbor as thyself.

In the Rite One Eucharist prayer, this summary of the law was recited together every Sunday. It can be beautiful to profess together our call to total love. Yet often it is a rattle prayer. We all stand there and rattle it off together without letting it permeate, challenge, or transform. Then we go through the rest of the service and out the door to our nice cars, our modern, beautiful homes, and our comfortable American lifestyles.

Notice the word used for this text is “commandment”: an imperative, not a choice. Thou shalt. Commandments are marching orders, requirements.

Around much of the country there is a movement to put a plethora of signs with the Ten Commandments along our streets on private property in reaction to the banning of the Ten Commandment signs in public places. Many of us drive past these signs every day. There it is again: “all.” Love with all. Love God with all. Love one’s neighbor with all.

What would it mean if we really tried to do that? How can we manifest that little word into our real lives? What changes would we have to make? How would we live our lives differently?

Frankly, it is a test we fail miserably. We are the Lukewarm People.

“All” means with every ounce of our being: our hearts, our minds, our souls. Let’s break that down see what it entails.

Heart. Heart is the way we love. Scripture says, “Where your treasure is, there is your heart.” So what are your treasures? Here is a definition of “treasure”: when your mind is empty, daydreaming, when you are sitting at a stoplight, standing before the kitchen sink, the last thing before falling asleep, where does your mind go? That is your treasure. It is the thing or things that fill up your heart with worry, concern, joy, and satisfaction. It is your first priority, your interest, the center of your energy and attention. Would love of God and the strangers called “neighbors” be on top of your list? Where does your heart turn most of the time?

Soul. Psyche. Spirit. The soul is difficult to define, but it can be seen as the deepest part of a human being – the core, the intangible, eternal essence of a human being. The soul of a person cannot truly be known by another; it is always in a state of being discovered. What is at the deepest core of your being, the part no one else really knows about, but the part that holds your most profound and sacred and valued essence? Is that God within you? Does that very, very deep core essence of yourself love God beyond all things, totally, insatiably, constantly, fully?

Mind. Mind is our rational, logical self, the key to understanding, reason. It is the way we think things through, the science of our hearts, our external value system, the scale upon which we weigh life. Saint Paul speaks of “putting on the mind of Christ.” To love God with our minds is not to see the world around us with the eyes of culture but the eyes of God. Mind is not faith, but mind seeks to grasp our faith with understanding. If we love God with all our minds, our value system is not based on materialism and the things that, as Jesus reminds us, “moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal.” It is a forsaking of power, possession, and popularity. The mind of God places its treasures in the Kingdom of God.

And, oh, yes: the neighbor. To love our neighbor as ourselves. “Who is your neighbor?” asks Jesus. Our neighbor is anyone who stands beside us on this small planet, our island home. Distance is no obstacle to neighbors. A neighbor is any other human being with whom we share the image of God, which is to say, all human beings. A neighbor is not based on worth, on quality of life, on intelligence or beauty, on health or sickness, on moral development or religion, on color or sexuality or geography. We are all neighbors to one another.

So what does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? Do we want to have enough food and shelter for basic human survival? Do we want medical care? Do we want an education? Do we want our children to flourish safely and develop into all they can be?

To love our neighbor as ourselves usually requires two things in our culture: a pocketbook and a suspension of judgment.

If you own a house much larger than you need, and you know there are people being evicted in your hometown, what does that mean in terms of loving your neighbor as yourself?

If your closet is full of new or adequate coats, hats, and shoes, and you know there are children in town without warm clothing, what does that mean in terms of the gospel?

If you buy a new car when the old one still works and others can’t even buy gas, what does that mean in terms of your total love of God?

If you eat steak and or dine out in restaurants, and you know a third of the world is starving to death, what does that mean in terms of loving your neighbor as yourself?

The list can go on and on. And we fall short.

The two great commandments are simple, but they have teeth: they are tough and costly. Basically, we don’t comply and perhaps we can’t. That is one of the beauties of God’s call; it always stretches us, pulls us from wherever we are to be more. It is like the horizon, always beckoning, never reachable.

The secret is to want to live out the commandments, no matter how poorly we actually do it. The secret is in our heart’s desiring. Do we really desire to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and souls and minds and to love our neighbor as ourselves? Truth be known, many say no. We don’t mind loving God or our neighbor, but forget that little word “all.” If we, in our own lives, want to make a choice, a decision, to love God and our neighbor as God asks us, what changes would that require of us?

The answer may lie the word “hang.” “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” This word usually gets overlooked in the text. “Hang” can mean the way we put up our clothes in the closet, or it can mean what we do with the birdfeeder or the peg we put our hat upon. But in this text, the word “hang” is the same one used for “Jesus, whom you slew and hanged upon the cross.” That shifts the entire meaning of the Great Commandment, doesn’t it? To love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and minds, and to love our neighbor as ourselves is a crucifixion. It means to die to ourselves. No wonder there are so few volunteers.

To love with that little word “all” costs everything. Everything. It is the Great Kenosis: a total emptying. God asks no less. God asks everything. God asks all.

Do we dare? Can you believe there is a resurrection in our own life on the other side of that void of death, that emptying, giving, surrendering love?

All. Only “All.”

Written by the Rev. Sister Judith Schenck
The Rev. Sister Judith Schenck is a retired priest and a Franciscan Poor Clare solitary in the Episcopal Diocese of Montana. Email: sistermonk@bresnan.net.

To serve God in joyful freedom, Pentecost 23, Proper 24 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99; or Isaiah 45:1-7, Psalm 96:1-9, (10-13); 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees despised the Herodians with good reason. Like their namesake, Herod, the Herodians cooperated with the Roman occupiers and oppressors. The Pharisees, though not advocates of violent revolution, were loyal to Judaism and its God. The Herodians put political expedience first; the Pharisees put the Jewish faith first.
So, it must have come as a surprise to Jesus to see both Pharisees and Herodians coming to him as a group and saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no one, for you do not regard the position of human beings.”

You know you are in trouble when your enemies begin to flatter you, so Jesus must have been instantly on his guard. Then after the kinds words came the punch line: “Now, tell us, Jesus,” they asked, “is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”

By “lawful,” of course they meant “according to Torah.” If Jesus said that a good Jew should support the Roman state, then he would have allied himself with a power that was occupying Israel and killing Jews. That would have alienated the Pharisees and given implicit approval to a state that regarded its ruler as a god. It would have been idolatry. But to say that Jews should not pay taxes to Rome would have been treason. The question was a perfect trap for Jesus.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” It was a good question then, and it is as difficult to answer today as it was two thousand years ago.

There is much to say in favor of Jewish or Christian support of the state. The state maintains order; it keeps the roads paved; and it operates schools. Even the Romans, for all their brutality, created a system of roads that ran the length of Europe. It took less time to send a letter from Athens to Rome in the first century when Rome was at the pinnacle of its power than it did in the 11th century when Europe was divided into hundreds of small kingdoms. Under Roman rule, Europe enjoyed a standard of living that fell drastically after the Roman state disintegrated and was not recovered until the late 19th century.

Yet, the Roman state was brutal. Persons found guilty of treason were hung or nailed to a cross and left to bleed to death and asphyxiate; it was the cruelest form of capital punishment ever devised. Men and women flocked to the circuses or amphitheatres to watch convicted criminals fight wild beasts.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

The question seems easier to answer today. Compared to Rome, the United States is a humane and beneficent power. But there are those who question the way their tax money is being spent. Liberals say that too much is spent on national defense and conservatives say that too much is spent on costly and perhaps wasteful welfare programs.

“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?”

One of the interesting things about the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the Herodians is that he never answers their question.

“Show me the money for the tax,” Jesus demanded. And they produced a Roman coin. As Jesus held it up, it glinted in the sunlight, and Jesus asked, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” The coin would have borne the image of Caesar, much as our coins display the profile of Lincoln or Washington or Roosevelt. Finally, Jesus said, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Well, that settles the question, doesn’t it? There are things that belong to Caesar, like the money with which we pay our taxes, and there are things that belong to God. Such as? And there’s the problem.

Jesus threw the question back at the Pharisees and Herodians. His statement just raises some questions. How and where do you draw the line between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God? What are the things of Caesar and what are the things of God?

The modern Western mind likes to put things in compartments. The icon of Western civilization might be the filing cabinet or the encyclopedia. If you look in the filing cabinet under A, you might see “Annual Parish Meeting”; under C, you might find “Copy Machine”; under T, “Taxes”, of course. Should this sermon be filed under T for taxes, C for Caesar, or G for God?

The filing cabinet frame of mind has led most Biblical scholars to misunderstand completely Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the Herodians. Our habit of compartmentalization leads us to believe that “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” means that some things belong to Caesar and others belong to God. But think about what we say when the offering is brought forward on Sunday morning: “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”

We also seem to have forgotten that Jesus was a Jew who every Sabbath of his adult life had recited the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all you soul, and with all your might.”

A whole God demands the service of whole human beings. The God of Jesus has a claim on all of life. So if God demands all of life, what is left to render unto Caesar?

The question Jesus threw back at the Pharisees and Herodians echoes Genesis. Holding up the coin, he asked, “Whose likeness or image is this?” The image of Caesar was imprinted only upon coins; but the image of God is upon every human life.

“The things that are Caesar’s.” What are they? Caesar seems to have a claim on much of our lives, but in fact, nothing belongs to him. Everything belongs to God; the things that Caesar claims are merely on loan.

“The things that are God’s.” The way most of us behave suggests that we believe that God has a claim on about one hour per week and a small percentage of our income. But God’s mark is upon every particle of our being.

When clergy preach stewardship sermons on this text, they usually ask people to consider how much they should pledge to the church. But the real question is not how much we should give to God or the church or how much belongs to Caesar, but how much belongs to God? And if we ask that question, then the real issue of stewardship is not “How much should we pledge?” but “How much should we keep for ourselves?”

All that we are and all that we have belongs to God. But we belong to God not as slaves but as children. Rendering to God what God has a claim on is not burdensome; it is liberation. We cannot divide our lives between God and Caesar. Realizing that life is whole and not fragmented is an insight that brings us freedom. It teaches us that our first and foremost priority is the service of God.

If you, like many people, feel many claims upon your time and finances and energy, then it is freeing to realize that in reality is that there is only one claim upon our lives: to serve God in joyful freedom.

Written by the Rev. Dr. J. Barry Vaughn
The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama.

Many are called, but few are chosen, Pentecost 22, Proper 23 – 2008

[RCL] Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Our gospel reading is one of those stories from the Bible that makes you want to call for a time out or an instant reply. In fact, if the parable was a football game, at least one referee would throw his yellow flag high in the air. He wouldn’t be calling “failure to wear proper equipment” on the man tossed out of the banquet. Any fair referee would spread his arms wide to signal “unsportsmanlike conduct.”
The parable would come to a halt and the referees would confer, talking about how the guest discovered out of uniform was bound hand and foot and cast into darkness. The king is in clear violation of the rules of sportsmanship.

Yet kings have never been ruled on by referees. The king in this parable does as he will, punishing a last-minute guest for not being properly attired. There is no one to cry foul in the parable. We are left scratching our heads, as this is Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of Heaven. Why does God’s kingdom sound unjust?

We begin by acknowledging that Jesus’ parables always catch us off guard.

They are meant to do so. Jesus creates stories that pull you in. You cruise along, listening to Jesus’ story, watching the scenery of the parable as you ride by. Then Jesus slams on the breaks, turns the wheel hard to the left, and you find yourself driving straight into oncoming traffic. Jesus’ stories have a way of getting you turned around, seeing things from a different angle.

Jesus begins with images we understand at once: a king is giving a wedding banquet in honor of his son. As thoughtful Christians, we immediately see the parallels. As this is the Kingdom of Heaven, then the king is God the Father, and the Son being honored is Jesus. Easy enough to follow so far.

The king sends servants out to personally encourage those who have been invited to the banquet. The guests refuse. The king makes the offer more tempting by giving the servants a description of the party. The guests make light of the offer, and one goes to his farm, another to his business, and Jesus tells us, “the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.”

This starts to sound like Jesus’ teaching in a parable that occurs at the end of the previous chapter in which a landowner planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a winepress, and built a watchtower. But at harvest time the tenants refused to give his servants the produce. After some attempts at sending servants, the landowner sends his son, whom they seize, throw out of the vineyard, and kill. This earlier parable tells of God sending the prophets who were beaten and killed and then God sending his own son who would also be put to death.

The parable for today as well as the one that precedes it fit with our understanding of salvation history – God comes first through the prophets and then through Jesus, and some people reject both. Despite the offers, many choose not to attend the wedding banquet, which is the end-times feast Isaiah promises in our Old Testament lesson.

The king gives an invitation, which is so like Jesus. He says, “Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Everyone is invited into God’s kingdom, even those who were previously outcasts. All is well until the king bumps into an improperly attired guest and remarks, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” The wrongly dressed guest could have answered, “Your servants practically dragged me in off the street.” The man gives no reply.

Then we get the ending that makes us wonder where Jesus is coming from. The king tells his servants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This is when the flags get thrown on the play. The whole scene needs to be reviewed. We look at the instant replay and see the moment everything changed. Jesus said, “Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

The parable at that point comes to mirror Jesus’ teachings on judgment. Later in this same week before he dies, Matthew writes of Jesus teaching that the Great Judgment will be like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. Those who took care of the least will be placed on one side. Those who did not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and so on, are placed on the other. Judgment falls on those who did not care for the needy.

In the same way, the parable of the Kingdom of Heaven from today’s reading is a picture of the coming judgment. If we focus on the weeping and gnashing of teeth, we miss the grace of this parable. The king gives a free invitation to the wedding banquet. No one has to earn his or her seat at the table. Both the good and the bad are encouraged to come into the feast.

Guests to a wedding feast were not expected to provide their own attire. They would be given robes on entering the banquet hall. The invitation was open. The feast was an unearned gift, and so was the necessary clothing. For the first Christians, the parallel was baptism. The early church placed robes on those coming out of the waters of baptism. The white robes were an outward sign of the inward grace of being clothed in Christ. Candidates for baptism were washed clean by the Blood of the Lamb as Jesus’ righteousness covered their sins.

As the wedding banquet is the judgment at the end of time, the robe expected of the guests was this baptismal robe. The grace is that the guests, both good and bad, did not have to provide the robe. The king wants the man to explain how he is improperly attired after having been offered the garment needed for the feast. He was given the team jersey for the Kingdom of Heaven and refused to wear it.

It wouldn’t fit with the rest of Jesus’ teachings to decide that the point of the story is that we already have our baptismal robes and therefore can afford to be smug. No guest to the wedding banquet should enjoy seeing others who were invited failing to join the feast. The cost of the free gift of grace was too high for us to feel self-righteous and to show no concern for others.

The gift is to see that even after having his gracious invitation rudely rejected, the king continues to invite others to the banquet. The feast is not reserved for the perfect, but for those willing to be perfected by the generous offer of the host to cover our imperfections with his own robes of righteousness. Far from making us arrogant, this is cause to be humble, knowing that we neither deserved nor earned our invitation.

But as the last line, “Many are called, but few are chosen” hangs in the air, we also see that those who have been robed in Christ are to live into that new life of grace. Having been perfected in Christ does not give us license to continue unchanged. We are to respond to God’s call by conforming our lives ever more closely to Jesus’ life.

The parable may sound offensive on first reading, and we may be tempted to call a foul. But sports analogies miss the mark. In sports, you have to earn your place on the team by your own merit. To enter the Kingdom of Heaven, you just have to receive the gift freely offered and then live into the life to which God has called us.

Written by the Rev. Frank Logue
The Rev. Frank Logue is a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia and the vicar of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia. Email: frank@kingofpeace.org.

It’s not always easy, Pentecost 17, Proper 18 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149; or Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

We thought last week’s gospel was the tough one, didn’t we? Last Sunday’s passage was the turning point in Matthew’s gospel – the point where Jesus begins to announce his fate. He begins telling his followers that his end is death and theirs, most likely, would be death, too.

Remember, Peter said, “God forbid,” and got severely reprimanded by Jesus: “Get behind me Satan, you are a stumbling block to me.”

That whole story was pretty serious. It’s the kind of gospel that should make us sit up and take notice and realize that being a Christian isn’t a lark, it’s a serious commitment to a radical new way of life.

Well, to tell you the truth, this week’s gospel makes taking up your cross and following Jesus look a whole lot easier. There’s a little bit of chest-swelling pride in being able to say, “Yes, indeed, I’m willing to carry any cross. Willing even to die for my faith.” We can say that because as we sit here in the U.S., we can be pretty sure we’ll never have to die for our faith.

But look at this gospel. Here’s where the rubber hits the road. This is part of what Jesus means when he says, “Take up your cross.”

Today Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

Oh, right! Is there anything harder than confronting someone who’s grieved you? Especially when it’s someone you know well? It’s so much easier for us to take our grievance to someone else – to talk about it to anyone else who would listen. Anyone else that is, except the one we ought to. But this is what this gospel is all about. It’s about how we should behave if we are indeed going to call ourselves members of God’s family.

So, let’s take a look at what’s going on in this straightforward gospel passage.

There are no secrets here. We don’t have to look too far beyond the images Jesus uses in order to understand what he’s saying.

What is often helpful is to look at what comes before and after the Sunday passage. The whole of chapter 18 talks about our behavior as God’s people. In verse 1, the disciples ask Jesus who the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven is, and he says it’s anyone who is like a little child. In fact, he says unless you become like a child, you cannot enter the kingdom. And worse, anyone who causes the downfall of a child would be better thrown into the sea and drowned.

Then he told the parable of the lost sheep. The good shepherd leaves the 99 and goes to find the 1 that is lost.

Today’s gospel follows directly after this parable. All of this concerns what our faith life should be like. Bottom line: we should look after one another and be honest with one another.

But of course, that’s not as easy as it sounds, and we know this. We often fail, even in the best of circumstances – or more accurately, in what we know should be the best of circumstances.

But this is life. Gossip happens and people are wronged in many different ways. We all make poor choices at times. We’re human; life here will never be perfect.

So this gospel also talks about reconciliation. Reconciliation, because our actions have an impact not only on the one person we’ve wronged, but on the whole community. Because we are the people of God, what we do affects the whole. We show that in the way we worship together. That’s why we baptize and confirm people within a community celebration. That’s why we say the confession and pass the peace together. That’s why we say, “We” believe in one God. That’s why our hymns have a lot of “we” and “us” in them instead of “me” and “I.”

So, Jesus says, go to the one who wronged you. If that doesn’t work, go to the community. Now, more than one thing can happen. Going to the community means sharing perceptions. Maybe we’ve misunderstood what someone has done. The community could help us see our misperceptions – see things in a different light so to speak. Maybe it turns out that we’ve not been wronged at all.

But if the other is at fault, he says, and if the community doesn’t seem to be able to help, treat this person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. His disciples would understand that image immediately. A gentile or tax collector was about as much of an outsider as you could be in that culture. They could be ignored, pushed aside.

Except these same disciples had seen how Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors.

A couple weeks ago, we had Matthew’s account of the Canaanite woman. Remember how Jesus was forced to go beyond the cultural boundary and extend his care and healing to a gentile? Jesus also called a tax collector to be in his closest circle of disciples.

So, evidently, we can’t put limits to our forgiveness either. We can’t say, “OK, fine, that didn’t work. I don’t have to do anything more.” Reconciliation means the door to forgiveness has to stay open. But there’s more. When we wrong others, we must repent. We’ll hear more about that in next week’s gospel.

So, what do we take home today? If we want our life as a church to grow, we need to work constantly on our witness. Others must see us care for each other. They should hear us speak kindly of one another and they should see us forgive and ask forgiveness.

It’s not always easy, and we won’t always do it. But as we try to live as we are called to live, we have only to remember that Jesus also said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”

Written by the Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz
The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is executive director of the Center for Ministry in Small Churches at the School of Theology, Sewanee, Tennessee, and assistant professor of Contextual Education. She is also publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal of ministry and liturgical preaching.

God’s story and our stories are not over yet, Pentecost 21, Proper 22 – 2008

[RCL] Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19; or Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80: 7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Today’s gospel is like any clear, simple narrative account in many regards. First of all, it is a story, not exactly a factual account: the characters are anonymous, and the setting is spare. It’s another in a long series of stories told by Jesus, a series that we’ve been hearing for a few Sundays, and will continue to hear for a few weeks yet.
Jesus tells us a story, about an anonymous landowner. We hear it and we figure it’s just another ordinary, unremarkable, simple story: no complications, no allusions, no hard life lessons to be learned. Jesus’ story appears to be just another story.

And what we may miss on first hearing is how like Jesus’ own personal situation the story is. In this parable, we can imagine the landowner as a metaphor for God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity.

The Creator did a lot more than plant a vineyard, put a fence around it, dig a wine press in it, and build a watchtower; but those images show us some basic truths. God created this earth, and the land on it; God separated the water from the land; God leased the land to people; and God developed the property, with and through the work of those human hands.

Simple, right? God owns the universe, and we are mere tenants in it, or stewards of it.

And then we look at the history of the Israelites: God sent his holy prophets to his people, and great leaders, and monarchs, people like King David, Moses, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. And yet the people didn’t listen to what the leaders said. They rebelled, and sinned, and transgressed the law – again and again and again.

So God sent his only son, saying, “They will respect my son.” Up till now, we can imagine this story – and Jesus’ place in it – with no difficulty whatsoever. The landowner’s son, of course, represents Jesus, God’s son. And the son, like Jesus, comes to the story after a series of unsuccessful attempts to deliver a message.

Yet when Jesus tells this story, he knows – and reveals – something else about himself. Jesus predicts something more profound than his return home. Jesus predicts his death, his murder at the hands of our fellow humans.

Just imagine what it was like to hear Jesus tell this story.

Just imagine how it feels to see him drive out all who were selling and buying in the temple, to hear him say, “My house shall be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.”

Just imagine what it would be like to take part in the great procession from the Mount of Olives, with Jesus riding on a donkey, and the crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

Just imagine what it was like to sit and listen to him tell stories – prophetic stories, about himself and about us – the very next morning. That’s the setting for this passage from Matthew’s gospel, by the way.

Today’s gospel is not about Jesus teaching on a mountainside early in his ministry, or visiting a village to cure the sick. Today’s gospel is about Jesus stopping to teach on his way to the cross. Jesus, who knows that he has come from God and is returning to God, Jesus tells us his story. Jesus tells us the story in simple, uncomplicated, ordinary terms. He does this, I suspect, not because he thinks we are dullards. Rather, because he wants to be sure we don’t miss the simplicity of the message.

God has not given up on the ancient Israelites, just as God has not given up on us. No matter how unloving and uncaring, no matter how many mistakes we make, no matter how often we turn away from his messengers, God still loves us, and continues to reach out again and again and again.

And when we reject a stone, when we turn away from Jesus, when we kill the landowner’s son or commit some lesser sin, well, then God just turns around and takes that very rejection and makes it into the cornerstone of the strongest foundation ever, for a structure built of love. God hasn’t given up on us: not then, not now, not ever.

For God loves us, and desperately wants us to produce fruit for the kingdom. God craves a new Jerusalem, where all people live together in harmony, where peace and prosperity abound, where truth and justice reign. But God loves us nonetheless even though we have not yet achieved this state.

God loves us so much that God just keeps on telling us that – in stories, in sermons, in our everyday experiences. God loves us so much that he created us, and made this world for us to live in as his beloved friends. God loves us so much that he gave his only son to suffer death upon a cross. And God loves us so much that he made sure that this rejection, this defeat, was not the end of the story. God loves us so much that the end of the story is yet to come, and it is more glorious and wonderful than we can imagine or understand.

God’s story and our stories are not over yet. There is still time for change, still time for new plot lines, still time to introduce new characters.

The story of salvation is not like a fairy tale; they always end with everyone living “happily ever after.” But our lives are pretty rarely like that. Sometimes, then, knowing that the story is not yet over can be very good news indeed.

Consider, for example, the current financial situation here in this country. Major investment banks have failed, a huge international insurer needs to be bailed out, and our two government-backed mortgage agencies have collapsed. And this may be only the tip of the iceberg.

This particular chapter in our story is a scary one. Retirement savings are at risk, tax revenues are in question (and therefore, significant tax hikes are a possibility), and the health of the US economy is threatened.

Churches are not exempt from all this. We rely on the voluntary contributions of our members, and we know that members are as generous as they are able to be. When your investments are going well, when your savings are safe and secure, when your salary is increasing, then you are able to be generous to your church. In difficult times, charitable giving declines. That is understandable, as we need to take care of our own family first. Yet it creates a challenge that every congregation in this country will have to face in some way.

There may be tough times ahead. We may not suffer the likes of the Great Depression, but it is clear that things are already worse than they were just a few months ago.

And that is why we give thanks that the story is not over, not yet. There is time for the Federal Reserve Bank and the US Congress to come to the rescue. There is time for the market economy to adjust to a new set of circumstances. And there is time for God’s Word to be heard anew.

When God’s Word is carefully considered, there are fewer financial crises, less economic inequity, and there is greater stability for everyone.

In 2007, the average C.E.O. of a Standard & Poor’s 500 company received $14.2 million in total compensation. Five hundred people made a total of more than $7 billion.

At the same time 1.1 billion people in this world had consumption levels less than $1 per day – what the World Bank describes as “extreme poverty.” And a total of 2.7 billion live on less than $2 a day. That’s about 40 per cent of the world’s population.

Surely this is not a sign of God’s inestimable love for all people.

This is why the United Nations’ set of Millennium Development Goals is so crucial for us as people of faith. Goal number one is to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, and the first target within that is to halve by the year 2015 the number of people whose income is less than $1 a day.

This is not only a goal of the U.N. It is the mission of the Church. In his earthly ministry, our Savior demonstrated solidarity with the poor, the sick, the outcast, and those on the margins of society. He was anointed to bring good news to the poor. And now that ministry has fallen to us.

We are the Body of Christ here on earth, and it must be our care and delight to help lift up the most lowly, to exalt the humble and meek, to fill the hungry with good things. Justice, mercy, and love for all people: that is what God intends. And we can help.

When the landowner returns, let us be found working not for our own selfish greed, but for the good of all people. The Millennium Development Goals are incredibly ambitious, and we probably will not achieve them fully in just seven short years. But every small step we take means one fewer person in extreme poverty, one more productive citizen of the world, one more righteous soul striving for the kingdom of God.

By more faithful participation in God’s mission for humanity, we can and will make this world a better place for every one of God’s beloved children.

Written by the Rev. J. Barrington Bates
The Rev. J. Barrington Bates is rector of the Church of the Annunciation in Oradell, New Jersey.