Archives for September 2011

Round one goes to Jesus of Nazareth, Pentecost 15, Proper 21 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 (Track 2: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 and Psalm 25: 1-8); Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Ding, ding, ding! Round one goes to Jesus of Nazareth.

That’s how we’re tempted to see exchanges between Jesus and the religious champions of his day – as theological boxing matches. In today’s gospel passage, the chief priests and elders throw out a cunning challenge, and Jesus sidesteps the attack and lands a one-two, question-dilemma combination that leaves them stunned. Then while they’re staggering, he backs them against the ropes with a parable and pummels them with an insult to their social standing.

We in the crowd may be going wild, but likely we’ve missed the point as entirely as the scribes and Pharisees did before us. Jesus seldom asks questions, poses parables, or challenges the status quo merely to win arguments or to defend himself from accusations. Rather, he does all these things as an extension of the rest of his work – teaching, healing, and saving.

In fact, it’s just this work that the chief priests are challenging. “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” What Jesus has been doing is teaching in the temple; before that, healing; before that, cleansing the temple; before that, accepting cries for saving help – “Hosanna!” – as he entered Jerusalem.

But in answering the chief priests’ challenge with a question of his own, Jesus is doing more than deflecting their attack. He is teaching by exposing the assumptions that lie under the priests’ challenge. He asks them whether the baptism of John was from heaven, or of human origin. The priests and elders aren’t happy with either option – and that’s precisely Jesus’ point.

If John’s teaching or the teaching of Jesus or of the priests themselves were solely and unambiguously a matter of channeling God’s will, everyone would recognize its divine origin. The human teacher would be nothing but a mouthpiece for God, but would become less human for being so. On the other hand, if John or Jesus or the priests were acting only from their own human understanding, their teaching about God would lack any special authority.

By leaving his own question unanswered, Jesus suggests that doing God’s will requires a human being in relationship with the divine. If our work is based on an arrogant claim of our own authority, it can’t long remain true to God’s will. But neither does God require that we minimize our own humanity in order to do God’s work in the world. We are fallible creatures trying to teach and heal and love other fallible creatures, and perhaps our humility in teaching, healing, and loving is a more essential ingredient than our authority ever could be.

Paul writes that Jesus, though infallible and in the form of God, “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.”

By taking our form, Jesus also humbled himself by setting aside obvious signs of his divinity and divine authority, and instead doing the slow and hard and uncertain work of teaching and healing as a human among humans. His entire life became a great teaching for us – the example of a person wholly in relationship with God.

Jesus’ obedience, even to death on a cross, also shows that he understood completely the role of God’s authority over us as human beings. When Jesus refused to declare to the chief priests and elders “by what authority I am doing these things,” it was because they were asking him about the wrong sort of authority.

In questioning “by what authority” Jesus did his works, and who gave him “this authority” the priests seemed to be concerned with a human hierarchy, a granting of licenses and diplomas and societal roles. “Show us your credentials,” they seemed to be asking him. Instead, Jesus gave them a parable to suggest that the only credentials needed were the works themselves.

The two sons in the parable contrast the saying versus the doing of God’s will. As even the priests and elders could see, it was the son who went and worked who was doing his father’s will. Despite having been rebellious and lippy and arrogant, he changed his mind and went. In doing so, he demonstrated the only authority that mattered – the authority of the one who gave him the assignment. The newly faithful son didn’t get authority of his own for obeying; all he got was work.

That son went into the fields as a flawed and a humbled person, and did his father’s will. Paul encourages the Philippians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” That is, to follow Jesus’ example of complete humility and obedience. Fear and respect for God’s authority, trembling in the recognition that we’re mere humans doing God’s own work.

We can only do God’s own work because it is God who is at work in us, enabling us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God’s authority keeps us on track; our humility in accepting God’s grace keeps us from acting in pride by which we might seek our own authority over others in God’s name.

Doing God’s will doesn’t require status in the church hierarchy, or authority gained from years of study – thanks be to God! All that is required is that we change our minds and believe, and that we then go and work in the vineyard – work as human beings, for God’s good pleasure.

Written by the Rev. G. Cole Gruberth

The Rev. G. Cole Gruberth is priest-in-charge of the Allegany County Episcopal Ministry, a community of four houses of worship and welcome, within the Diocese of Rochester, New York.

We are created to love and to give, Pentecost 14, Proper 20 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 16:2-15 and Psalm 105:1-6,37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

The scene in today’s reading from Matthew becomes more and more familiar. People are waiting for work. Waiting to be hired. Waiting to earn a day’s wage – which in those days was just enough to feed one’s family.

The issue, then, is one of daily bread. Just like manna in the Exodus narrative. Just as in the prayer Jesus gives us when we ask him how we should pray.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” We say this every time we say the Lord’s Prayer. Does it ever occur to us just what it is we are praying for and saying? How many of us have experienced living one day to the next?

Consider what it feels like to be hired late in the day. To be hired late in the day and get less than a day’s wage means belt-tightening for the entire family. Not to mention what it does to one’s sense of self-worth to be overlooked or passed by when the hiring is being done.

To not be chosen to work creates anxiety, and the anxiety of going home empty handed becomes more and more intense as each hour passes by. Is laboring through the heat of the day any worse than having one’s hope of a meal for the family fade away as the sun begins to set in the western sky?

Even apart from the need for daily bread, work is an integral part of identity, and those denied the opportunity, whether for disability, age, or any other cause often feel a deep sense of despair and a keen lack of purpose and meaning in life. Work can be stressful, monotonous, and difficult; but to be out of work can be even worse.

The lesson in today’s gospel reading is one of extraordinary generosity and fairness. Everyone got a day’s wage. Everyone could go home and feed his or her family. Just as it was with manna, everyone got enough, no one got too much, nothing was left over.

Jesus is somehow trying to engineer a return to the wilderness sojourn, a return to manna season, a return to utter and radical dependence on God and God’s daily provisions. God makes it clear to Moses that you cannot gather the stuff up and save it for a rainy day. It goes sour on you. It spoils. It begins to crawl with worms. Take it one day at a time and all will be well.

So with Jesus, everyone is given a day’s provision, those who worked all day and those who worked just a few hours. Like any household with children, the cry of those hired early in the day is oh so familiar. “It isn’t fair!” they whine. “We were here first. We deserve more because we did more.”

And we glibly reply to our children, “Life isn’t fair.”

Or is it? What Jesus seems to be getting at is that what is fair and what is just, is established by God, not by our standards of merit. What is being discussed, as usual, is God’s kingdom – life lived under the reign of God – a God who is generous to a fault, a God whose generosity offends us and baffles us.

The temptation is always to believe that somehow those who come to the vineyard first and early are more deserving to stake a higher claim on God’s generosity, love, and forgiveness. The temptation is to believe that we can really earn the right to more than bread that is given daily. An even worse temptation is to think that it is always too late to accept the Master’s invitation to work in God’s vineyard.

The good news is that God’s grace is so great and so surprising that it can provide enough no matter how late in the day it is – on the deathbed, in the jail cell, after repeated failures – because the recipient need not add anything to the grace, but simply receive it in order for it to do its life-sustaining work. Even as the sun sets on this life, it is not too late to accept God’s Amazing Grace.

And it is never too soon for the rest of us to begin to consider that heaven is “enough,” heaven’s daily bread and heaven’s daily wage make all earthly comparisons look meaningless and silly.

We are called to be those people who pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and really make an effort to live that out. To live life in God’s kingdom is a journey to return to manna season.

One suspects this journey begins with being as generous toward God and others as God is with us. After all, there must be some reason that God has created us in God’s own image. As John 3:16 states, ‘God so loved the world that God gave his only son.’ We are created to love and to give. And to be as surprisingly generous with our giving to God and to others as God is with us.

Written by the Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek
The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek is co-rector of Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church at Ellicott Mills, Ellicott City, Maryland, a parish in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. He is also chaplain and teaches at Saint Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland. His sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com.