Archives for 2008

Ordinary time, Christ the King, Last Sunday After Pentecost – 2008

[RCL] Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100 or Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

“Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Today, the twenty-eighth and last Sunday after Pentecost, brings to a conclusion the great – perhaps long is a better word for it – season of time after Pentecost. For that matter, it brings to an end the entire cycle of the church year. Next week at this time, on the First Sunday of Advent, we will find ourselves in a brand-new church year.

In some church circles, the season of time after Pentecost that we have just concluded is called “ordinary time,” perhaps to distinguish it from the string of extra-ordinary events in the life of Christ and the Church recounted in the liturgical calendar from Advent to Pentecost. After all, not much seems to happen during the time after Pentecost. There are few, if any, great feasts or fasts of the Church. And the liturgical color remains standard-issue green for months on end.

But the time after Pentecost has traditionally been a good opportunity for study and reflection in the life of the Church. And that in itself is significant. For while folks sometimes tease that Episcopalians do not read or study the Bible, the reality is that our worship is firmly grounded in scripture, and perhaps never more so than in the time after Pentecost. This past year, for instance, in our Sunday lessons we have been reading the Gospel of Matthew pretty much straight through. Ditto for several other books of the Bible, including Paul’s Letter to the Romans, one of the seminal works of the New Testament and our Christian faith. So while these long months of time after Pentecost are sometimes thought of as down time at Church, they are anything but.

Ordinary time may have another sense to it as well when we consider that we are today still living in the time after Pentecost – quite literally. Let’s see. If the original Pentecost occurred about the year AD 33, give or take, that would make about one thousand nine hundred and seventy-five years of Sundays after Pentecost. So, if the math is right, we have already surpassed the one hundred thousandth Sunday after Pentecost. That is a lot of ordinary time in the ordinary lives of ordinary people like all of us.

But that is also a lot of sanctification. Some pretty extraordinary things have happened during these ordinary times. Great saints have inspired us with their learning and holiness. Bishops, rectors, priests, and deacons have come and gone at thousands of cathedrals and churches near and far. Important movements and reforms have arisen in the Church and brought people closer to Christ.

And we have been born, baptized, fed at the Lord’s Table, and lived out our lives and common faith together. We have fed the hungry – if we have heeded today’s gospel account from Matthew. We have given drink to the thirsty, and clothing to the naked. We have tended the sick and visited the prisoner. We have helped others on their journeys and in their struggles. Not once or twice, but day in and day out. Not bad – for being ordinary people in ordinary times.

Truth is: nothing is ever really ordinary about God’s plan for us. Not our birth. Not our life. Not our work. Not our family or friends. And certainly not our death. As humorist Garrison Keillor might say, “We are all above average in the eyes of God,” every last one of us. For in everything we are and do, we share in the very life of God. And that is pretty extraordinary. Just ask anyone.

As we now bring to a close our liturgical ordinary time, listen carefully to the story of God’s extraordinary love for us as recounted in scripture and in our prayers and hymns. Celebrate the extraordinary in your own life, and know that the uncommon gift of God’s love is yours in every ordinary moment of time.

For when God’s amazing work of salvation is over, and when the last star has dimmed, God’s love will persevere, and our faith and deeds in this time and place will remain forever extraordinary and real. And from eternity, as our Gospel account assures us, “The king will say … ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’”

Written by the Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus is interim rector of the extraordinary Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar, California. He welcomes your comments at frankhegedus@hotmail.com.

Offer a simple prayer, Pentecost 27, Proper 28 – 2008

[RCL] Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123; or Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; Psalm 90:1-8, (9-11), 12; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

Jesus was good at providing difficult stories. No doubt they were as hard to hear standing in a group in Palestine as they are from our pews today. If we have sympathy for anyone in today’s gospel reading, it is probably for the poor person who was deprived of the gift once given, just because he was shy, or reserved, or cautious.
We’ll leave aside the whole matter of being cast into the eternal rubbish dump and all the wailing and teeth gnashing.

And surely Jesus is not telling us that our friend who has put extra cash under the mattress is worse off than those of us who are watching our pension funds decrease in the stock market?

Certainly in Jesus’ day a “talent” was a significantly valued coin. Nevertheless, we should forget that piece of information immediately. Nowadays a “talent” is an ability. Martha has a talent for painting. John is a talented musician. We should also forget that definition immediately. Jesus isn’t talking about wealth in terms of cash or natural ability.

Jesus is talking about vocation and the grace given when we accept and enter into a covenant with God. To a new Christian listening to this gospel in, shall we say, Rome in about the year 85, what would immediately strike home would be the meaning of baptism and the task set before the baptized.

To early Christians at that time, baptism was not merely a church rite, something done to little Willy and Jane to which friends may be invited who never darken the porch of our church except when friends are hatched, matched, or dispatched. Far from it. Those Christians were giving their lives for God. In times of relative tranquility they probably just lost their jobs, their reputations, and even their families by becoming Christians. During turbulent times they faced arrest and execution.

Nowadays in America we may be baptized without exciting much comment at all. Unless we belong to a parish facing extinction or financial ruin, or unless we take seriously the statistics about declining membership and revenue in the diocese or national church, the cost of being a Christian and an Episcopalian may seem minimal.

We may bemoan the feuding, fussing, and fighting we witness in our church and wish people would be quiet; but apart from that, our pew is safe, and we are safe, and perhaps our willingness to sing those dreary hymns and jumpy songs and say all those prayers God seems to like may get us a seat in heaven.

If you are honestly not too uncomfortable about this last thought, this parable is for you. Prepare for Jesus to make you uncomfortable. He has a way of doing that.

When we were baptized, we were tasked to be witnesses of the Kingdom which is and which is to come. The word “witness” in Greek is the same as our word “martyr.” That’s a bit confusing for us, because the chance of our being martyred and landing up in the Church Calendar or depicted in a stained-glass window is pretty slim. Life-giving doesn’t always mean dying. Those of us who are married have promised to give our lives to each other. Close friends take seriously Jesus’ words that there is no greater sign of love than to be prepared to surrender everything for the beloved.

The gift of discipleship given to us in our baptism involves our being prepared to be life-givers for Jesus. We are being asked by Jesus to give ourselves up in selfless love for God and selfless love for everyone else and for this world in which we are stewards.

The fault of the person who did not use the gift he was given was that he was entirely passive. That person was so frightened that he would lose what he had been given that he was paralyzed by an awful fear.

You may be thinking that passivity and fear are opposites. Not so. There’s a type of fear that is tranquil. There’s safety in inertia.

Those of us who are inert Christians may even piously mutter that we do pray. Prayer is very dangerous. True prayer propels us into the heart of God and incites us to take on the pains and tragedies of others. “God bless God, and God bless Freda …” doesn’t get us very far. When we risk stepping into the penetrating love of God and into the misery of our neighbor, we step into danger, if only the danger of doing something for others and thus exposing ourselves to rejection or loss.

Episcopalians seem paralyzed by the Biblical word “evangelism.” We are prepared to inflict our politics and even our recipes on others, but not our faith. We come up with all sorts of excuses to justify our apathy or take cover under the cloak of not being a fundamentalist.

We act as if it’s unfortunate that Jesus commanded us to go into the world and proclaim the Good News. We don’t want to admit that our own Christian faith rests on generations of people who have passed on the Gospel.

Of course we are not to force our faith on others. Of course we are not to say that we are going to heaven and they are going to hell. That is God’s business.

Yet we have been given the grace to witness the faith within us to others, and that may be in giving instruction or providing shelter, and hopefully, by telling and showing the love of Jesus at one and the same time.

Each one of us in our baptism was given a wealth of love and an intimate experience of the presence of God. We renew that gift at each Eucharist, as we receive Jesus into our lives and join with the hosts of heaven in worship and thanksgiving.

As we embrace the world in the Prayers of the People, we commit ourselves to embrace that same world in our daily life and work, at school, at business, and with our neighbors next door.

The warning that the gift may be taken back flies against our popular notion of God. Surely God wouldn’t be so mean. But the warning comes from Jesus, so it is worth taking seriously.

Perhaps when we come to the Table this morning, we might offer a simple prayer: “Lord give me the will to be faithful and active.” Jesus will tell you what he wants you to do.

Written by the Very Rev. Anthony F.M. Clavier
Fr. Tony Clavier is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, La Porte, Indiana, in the Diocese of Northern Indiana. He is also dean of the Michigan City deanery. His email address is anthony.clavier@gmail.com.

Mindful of God’s abundance, Pentecost 26, Proper 27 – 2008

[RCL] Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

What are we to do with Jesus’ parable of wise and foolish bridesmaids? It’s not easy to be sympathetic with any of the characters here. The bridegroom sends out invitations, but shows up hours late himself and then shuts the door on half of the bridesmaids. Those maidens who get shut out are off trying to buy oil in the middle of the night, when the wedding is about to begin. Meanwhile, the bridesmaids who did bring extra oil won’t share it, and come off looking selfish and snotty.

And what shall we do with a parable that speaks about God closing the door to heaven? That much seems clear – the wedding banquet represents the joy of being in the presence of God. A month ago we heard another parable about a wedding feast, in which the king sends out invitations to his son’s wedding feast, only to have the invitations refused. Not to be deterred, he invites in whoever is standing at the street corners, and has a huge party anyway.

Once again in today’s parable, everyone is invited to the banquet. So why does anyone get shut out? They all do show up; they all do bring their lamps; they all are ready. Could the problem be their lack of watchfulness? True, the bridesmaids do fall asleep while they’re waiting; and Jesus admonishes us at the end of the parable to “Keep awake … for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

But let’s be fair – all the bridesmaids fall asleep, the wise and the foolish alike, yet half of them end up enjoying the wedding anyhow.

That leaves us with the oil. We’re told the wise maidens bring extra oil, and the foolish ones don’t. That sounds simple enough, but we’re on pretty shaky ground if we look for the easy answers, and decide that the oil represents Goodness, or Piety, or Works, or even Faith. If we do, then it starts to sound as though what’s important is the amount of oil we’re carrying around – as though we all ought to be doing extra good deeds, or praying extra hard, or living a perfect life, so that we can store up a spare flask full of midnight oil, ready to burn if the Messiah decides to pull a pop quiz at the end of days.

The pattern of Jesus’ teaching throughout the gospels simply doesn’t support that viewpoint. Instead, in his parables the invitations always go out to everyone, the pay is the same for those who start work early or late, and everyone is considered a faithful servant so long as they don’t bury their gifts.

No, it’s not that the foolish bridesmaids are shut out because they don’t have enough oil – after all, their lamps are trimmed and still burning when the bridegroom’s arrival is announced. They get excluded because they’re so worried their lamps might go out that they run off in search of extra oil, and wind up missing their grand entrance.

What they seem to forget is that God hasn’t retired from the miracle business; that in fact, God seems particularly fond of weddings, of making a little go a long way, and of keeping oil burning when it really matters. Jesus turned an ordinary wedding into a foretaste of the banquet to come when he turned water into wine. He defied scarcity with the abundance of the kingdom of God, and fed thousands from a small boy’s lunch.

According to rabbinic tradition, when the Maccabees liberated Jerusalem from the Seleucid Empire, only a single night’s worth of oil remained undefiled in the Temple. Nevertheless, the sanctuary lamps remained lit for eight days until fresh oil could be prepared. Next month Jews around the world will commemorate this unquenchable abundance as they light candles in celebration of Hanukkah.

Mindful of God’s abundance, consider the passage from the book of Wisdom that was offered today as an alternate reading in place of a psalm:

Wisdom is radiant and unfading,
and she is easily discerned by those who love her,
and is found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.
One who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty,
for she will be found sitting at the gate.
To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding,
And one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care,
because she goes about seeking those worthy of her,
and she graciously appears to them in their paths,
and meets them in every thought.
We don’t need to chase after Wisdom – just seeking her is enough. In fact, Wisdom herself is seeking us.

Now we can see how the foolish bridesmaids have gone astray. Instead of trusting that they can find Wisdom sitting alongside them at the gate, they run off to the marketplace of ideas in search of illumination. Instead of trusting that Wisdom is radiant and unfading, they worry that their own little lamps won’t be enough for the bridegroom’s party. So they hurry off, hoping to find someone who can sell them some security, who can take their money and hand them a nicely packaged flask of enlightenment that will be sufficient to please the bridegroom.

Perhaps if the foolish bridesmaids had trusted that wisdom is unfading, they would have stayed and greeted the bridegroom and would have been welcomed into the feast. Perhaps the wise maidens never even needed to open their extra flasks, because the banquet hall itself was so brilliantly lit.

You see, God doesn’t only perform miracles with oil and with water – the sorts of miracles that defy the physical laws of nature. God’s greatest miracles are those that defy the laws of human nature, our ingrained expectations of work and reward. We’re used to thinking that doing more gets us more, that by and large we are rewarded in proportion to our effort.

But the Bridegroom does not open the door to us because of more work, or even more faith. He opens the door to us so long as so long as we keep our lamps burning for him; so long as our faith allows us wisdom enough – a gallon of wisdom or one radiant drop – to answer his gracious invitation and await his arrival at the feast.

Written by the Rev. G. Cole Gruberth
The Rev. Cole Gruberth is an associate rector at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Poway, California.

Fellow travelers, Pentecost 25, Proper 26 – 2008

[RCL] Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; or Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

One way to approach scripture is by asking ourselves two questions.

“What’s going on here?” is the first. It forces us to delve a little deeper, to see if we can get a handle on the passage in question and really understand it.

The second question is “What does that mean for us?” This question is often the more difficult because, of course, it forces us to consider our own ways of thinking and acting in light of the gospel values.

What’s going on here? Jesus is having another one of his run-ins with the Pharisees. Many Christians see the Pharisees as the “bad guys,” always wearing the black hats. This is not true. The Pharisees were a group of pious Jews who put great emphasis on beliefs and practices of the prophets and adapted these to their own times. They sought to make the love of God and love of neighbor the chief commandments, the essence of the Torah from which all else flowed. That sounds quite a bit like Jesus himself, doesn’t it? The Pharisees were very concerned about preserving Jewish religious and cultural life in the midst of Hellenistic Roman society, and so they emphasized the laws concerning food, purity, and group practices. These practices served to keep Jews united to one another and distinct from the dominant gentile society.

Many Pharisees of Jesus’ time went one step further to make their way of life even more distinctive. They drew on an old tradition of using the priestly laws concerning purity, food, and marriage for all Jews, not just for the priests. These purity regulations, which may seem mysterious and strange to us today, regularized life and separated that which was normal and life-giving from that which was abnormal or ambiguous. The Pharisees with whom Jesus contends attempted to keep themselves in a state of purity at all times as would a priest in the Temple. They were scrupulous in their behavior and took great care not to come in contact with any source of defilement.

The gentiles presented a danger to those who would keep themselves pure, but another danger to purity was the presence of the “people of the land.” These were the ordinary folk who had neither the time, money, nor inclination to keep the priestly laws of purity. They were unable to tithe properly and their food – what little they had – was not properly sanctified and could not be eaten by the Pharisees. “The people of the land” were poor and lived a subsistence existence; they were probably too busy trying to keep food on the table to worry about what kind of food it was and if it had been properly prepared.

A word about the dietary laws today: Jews who keep these laws do so as a spiritual practice. They may be inconvenient at times, but they are not burdensome to them. Like spiritual disciplines we might practice – daily prayer, fasting or abstaining from certain foods – they serve to integrate our beliefs with daily life, to give shape to our everyday lives by living according to our principles.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is not criticizing those who try faithfully to keep the Law. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks of the Torah as good and God-given. Here he is speaking about those who forget what really mattered in it: loving God and loving your neighbor. He is speaking about the big things: justice and mercy and faithfulness. He is speaking to the experts, the ones who were so good at telling other people what they should be doing. And he is speaking to those who work really hard at keeping the letter of the law while forgetting about the spirit of the law.

Tom Wright, a Biblical commentator, wrote that “Generations of preachers have used this passage to criticize church leaders who like dressing up and being seen in public. That’s fair enough.”

But this is about more than fancy clothes and good seats. Jesus criticized the Pharisees because they didn’t practice what they preached; their lives did not reflect the law that they continually debated; they didn’t live out what they taught. While Jesus’ rebuke seems general, as though all scribes and Pharisees were guilty of love of place and honor, we know the rabbis themselves condemned such behavior. We know that leaders of every generation – second temple Judaism, the early church, the church through the ages, and the church today – have not lived out their vocations in congruence with the values of the gospel. So the real audience is not the Pharisees, but the disciples and, by extension, us; Jesus is talking to his church and especially to its leaders.

Remember who it is that is speaking in our gospel lesson. It is Christ Jesus, who, as we read in Philippians, “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Remember also, that Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is Tuesday, the Tuesday following the triumphal entry. He has returned to the Temple after casting out the animal buyers and sellers and overturning the tables of the money changers. He must have known that his time was short, that confrontation was ahead. He has just a little time left to teach his disciples, to help them to practice what they will preach.

Kathleen Norris, in her book, The Cloister Walk, writes of the congruence between monastic practice and the discipline of writing. After giving a poetry reading to a community of Trappists, she writes:

“I told the monks that I had come to see both writing and monasticism as vocations that require periods of apprenticeship and formation. Prodigies are common in mathematics, but extremely rare in literature, and, I add, ‘As far as I know, there are no prodigies in monastic life.’”
We know, from our life in the Christian community, that this is true, not just for monastics or writers, but for all of us. There are no prodigies in the Christian life; all of us are apprentices; all of us are in need of conversion; all of us require formation. That’s why we come together, week by week, to be nourished by word and sacrament. That’s why we have preaching and teaching. That’s why we gather together as a community of faith. We are not prodigies, we are fellow travelers on the journey of faith. We are here to help each other, for we all journey together.

Written by the Rev. Mary K. Morrison
The Rev. Mary K. Morrison is pastoral associate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, California. E-mail: mkmorrison@stlukeslg.org.

Looking for good examples, All Saints’ Day – 2008

[RCL] Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12

Another Halloween has come and gone, and how well did we do in making it All Saints’ Eve? What did we notice as the little ones with smiley faces gave cheery “Trick or Treat” greetings? Beyond the joy of giving out candy, how many of us kept track of the costumes the children wore?
It depends on the fads of the year, of course, but you can count on scary, dark characters: murderers from horror movies, Grim Reapers, Draculas, vampires, skeletons, ghosts, monsters, headless horsemen, and mummies.

There are bound to be warriors of one sort or another: Power Rangers, ninjas, superheroes such as Batman and Spiderman, as well as matadors, football players, professional wrestlers, soldiers, and pirates.

And don’t forget animals: gorillas, leopards, lions, tigers, and black widow spiders.

There are always happy characters, too: fairies, Cinderellas, princesses, cheerleaders, prom queens, clowns, ladybugs, flowers, pumpkins, ballerinas, and brides.

And there are sometimes costumes of actual people: Queen Elizabeth, Davy Crockett, Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, and the like.

But think about it. How many children come dressed as something we would identify as religious? Angels, maybe, but that’s about it. Is this likely to disappoint us, if not totally disillusion us? How naive or idiotic is it to expect to get Sunday school children to dress as saints when they go trick-or-treating? That’s about as realistic as trying to get adults to come to a costume party dressed as their favorite saints. Besides, it’s totally impractical: where would you buy a saint costume?

But what about making costumes depicting saints? How many of us would resort to designing flowing robes and halos or something that looks like the way we think people dressed in Jesus’ day?

Can’t we get more creative than that? How about dressing as an old worn-down woman with scars from beatings by cruel overseers? This would be Sojourner Truth, a saint who gained freedom from slavery and preached the gospel of liberation to a prejudiced generation.

How about wearing a plain white shirt with a stethoscope and a big white handlebar mustache? This would be Albert Schweitzer, a saint who gave his life as a missionary and doctor in Africa, even though he could have remained in Europe, living in luxury and fame.

Why not dress in a black suit and simple tie, with a dark mustache, carrying a Bible? This would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a saint who gave his life trying to end racial discrimination in America.

How about going out wearing rags with stuffed animals and toy birds attached to them? This would be St. Francis of Assisi, who loved all God’s creatures as brothers and sisters.

Or how about dressing as a woman with dark circles under her eyes and rough hands from being up nights caring for a sick child and working days at some arduous labor to put food the table? This would be a single, working mother, giving herself away to make a better life for her family.

Maybe a trick-or-treater could just go dressed as a regular child, such as the boy who went to a scouting contest for homemade racing cars. It was one of those events where the contestants are supposed to do their own work but most of the fathers help too much. At one such event, a youngster with no dad showed up with a racer he had obviously made with his own unskilled hands. The contest pitted boys in pairs, one against another with the winner advancing to the next round in a series of eliminations. Somehow this one kid’s funny-looking car won again and again, until, defying all odds, he was in the finals against another scout with a slick-looking, well-made racer.

Before the championship race, the boy asked the director to wait a moment so he could pray. The crowd, now enthralled by the unlikely story unfolding before them, stood in silence, loving the boy and secretly praying with him that he might win; he seemed so deserving.

After the boy won the race and was given a trophy, the director said, “Well, I guess it is a good thing you prayed, so you could win.”

“Oh, no!” the boy protested, horrified to have been misunderstood. “I didn’t pray to win. That would have been wrong. The other scout had as much right to win as I did. I couldn’t pray that God would make him lose. I just prayed that God would help me keep from crying if I lost.”

There is, of course, something more important than how children or adults costume themselves on Halloween. It is understanding that we can emulate the saints, that we can become saints too, that we can become faithful disciples of Christ, following the saints who show us the way.

Isn’t that why we remember the saints, some of whom are publicly known and recognized in the light of history, and others, like the Boy Scout, whom we come across in the obscurity of ordinary struggles?

All Saints’ Day celebrates those whose good examples remind us of what we can be at our best. The stories of their lives remind us of who we are, what we believe, and what we can become. They remind us how closely a human being can follow the example of Jesus. They draw us forward, give us courage, strengthen us to do God’s will, and lead the way. Their good examples remind us that God reaches out to us with grace and love and care.

All Saints’ Day helps us reestablish, in faith and prayer, our links with these Christians and with the people in our lives they may represent. They have gone on before us to the nearer presence of God, but they are also connected to us. Those who know rest from their labors help keep us from growing weary on our often difficult Christian pilgrimages.

The saints inspire us not to lose sight of the ultimate goal: Jesus’ imperative to love God with all our hearts and minds and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Remembering the witness of the saints allows us to continue to hold them close and can give us strength whenever and wherever we stand. Remembering their witnesses can help us feel God’s comforting touch when we are discouraged or sorrowful and can help raise us up when we fall.

The saints call us to an awareness of God’s peace that surpasses human knowing. They help keep us from presuming too much about our own strength. They teach us to trust in the one who has loved us beyond all measure.

All Saints’ Day is a time when looking at the good examples of those who have come before us can enable us to think beyond our limitations and to believe that we have the potential to respond to God’s gracious love with active love for others and with commitment and caring and giving. The saints lead us into the fullness of life that God intends for us all.

Written by the Rev. Ken Kesselus
The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire (Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, 1995), is retired from full-time, active ministry and lives with his wife, Toni, in his native home, Bastrop, Texas. Email: Kesselus@juno.com.

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.