Love in Translation, Christ the King Sunday – November 26, 2017

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

The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the season after Pentecost is coming to a close. It is the longest season of the church year, marking the time by reminding us what it means to live as a disciple, be good stewards of what we have been given, and how to grow in relationship with God. Our church year isn’t a normal, linear calendar. Instead, it is circular, beginning with Advent and ending with this day, the last Sunday after Pentecost. “Always, we begin again,” as the Benedictine saying goes.

Many of the church’s yearly celebrations have gone on for centuries, with over a millennium of tradition and history enriching them. They mark the events of Jesus’ life: his birth, his journey to the cross, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and his sending of the Holy Spirit to remain with us. We tell these stories in our church calendar, year after year. They shape us in a multitude of ways as we become part of the stories—and they become part of us.

Now, here we are, at Christ the King Sunday, the feast day that dates back all the way to…1925. Yes! This tradition is not even 100 years old, yet it came at a time in the world where God seemed to be losing ground. As explained on churchyear.net, the devastating First World War had been fought, and the powers of nationalism and secularism were rising. Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King to lend courage to Christians whose faith might be flagging, to remind nations that the Church has a right to freedom and immunity from the state, and in hopes that leaders and nations would be bound to give respect to Christ.

Initially, the feast was celebrated on the last Sunday of October but was then moved in 1969 to its current place in the liturgical calendar to be a vision of Christ to which the rest of the year points. And what a vision it is! The scriptures today help us understand the shape of what the Messiah is to be and it’s not quite what we expect.

There’s a large mural on the side of a building in downtown Spokane, Washington, that is a copy of artist Pat Marvenko Smith’s painting of the book of Revelation’s vision of the King of Glory. Jesus is depicted crowned with many crowns, with fire in his eyes and a light streaming from his mouth as he rides a white stallion, cavalry following behind him through a cloud. It is quite terrifying and at the same time completely expected of a Messiah who is coming to judge the quick and the dead. Yet, our scriptures today speak of God as shepherd and Jesus as a just and merciful king, not a militant figure who looks like a ring-wraith from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Instead, the focus of today’s scriptures is not on what Jesus as the great judge looks like, but on how we, as followers of Jesus, have responded to God’s call in our lives. This is the last Sunday after the Pentecost—the end of the intentional time in our lectionary of exploring what it means to be a disciple. This is about discipleship and so it is about us.

Think for a moment about the churches that you hear about in your area. What do you hear about them? How do you hear about them? What are they known for? Most churches have some measure of the Christian virtues that we all value: faith, love, and hope. They always have since churches began, but some have a reputation and others don’t. Of course, all the communities are supposed to be living out their faith, bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth while they await Jesus. But the community in Ephesus has especially been noticed because of their reputation. The author of the Ephesians epistle has been impressed by the word-of-mouth reputation that the community has for having faith in the Lord Jesus and demonstrating that faith in love. They don’t just get together to do nice things for other people and talk about Jesus on occasion. Instead, they believe that Jesus is risen and sits at the right hand of God and they have experienced God’s power in their lives. They have been changed. They have been transformed. This transformation informs every single thing they do, individually and as a community.

This section of Ephesians is called a thanksgiving prayer, and it tells us something else about what God values in a community: people knowing their destination. They have a goal and because they know what direction they’re going, they have become people of hope. In our modern times, we sometimes get the meanings of ‘faith’ and ‘hope’ confused, but not the Ephesians. They know that faith means you entrust your life to Jesus today, in the present tense; and hope is about the future, about where our present trust in Jesus eventually leads.

This understanding about the Christian life reflects one of the mottos of the Roman Catholic order of the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits. They are to be contemplatives in action. In other words, to be grounded and centered in our faith in Jesus, so that we would know where God was calling us to action in the world around us. If we are all contemplatives that don’t do anything with the experience of God’s power that we have, then what’s the point? If all we do is reach out to others, but don’t go back to the wellspring of God’s living water and drink deeply, then we’ve missed our call and can become empty shells. We must have both.

Our Gospel of Matthew story of the sheep and the goats asks us a searching question that can be difficult to bear: are we admirers of Jesus or are we followers? The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard describes the difference like this: “The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires.” Becoming a disciple of Jesus is no easy task. Many throughout the ages have admired Jesus, but far fewer have chosen the sacrifice of following.

There is a sign in a church that has gone around on Facebook for the past few years and it says, “Sometimes I want to ask God why [God] allows poverty, famine, and injustice in the world when [God] could do something about it, but I’m afraid [God] might just ask me the same question.” As Christians, we believe that God has full claim on our lives. We are coming into the season of Advent next week and are reminded that God loved us so much that God would become human—become one of us—so that we would fully understand what that claim was and how deep the love goes. How do we translate this love to others? Jesus tells us in our Gospel today that when we feed or welcome or give clothing or visit the sick or those in prison that we are, in turn, feeding, welcoming, clothing, and visiting him. When people respond to human need—or fail to respond—they are responding or failing to respond to Jesus himself.

Through our belief in Jesus, we have the power to heal other people’s lives, just by our presence in theirs. We are called to be healers. We receive our strength, not from ourselves, but from God. On this Christ the King Sunday, our scriptures are clear about the “immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power for us who believe.” As we complete another turning of the wheel of liturgical time, may we renew our commitment to be grounded in this power to seek Christ in all persons and love our neighbor as ourselves, even though we may look foolish to the world for loving so lavishly, and we may fail. With God’s help, we can also, thankfully, begin again. AMEN.

The Rev. Danáe M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFTA is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, and Minnesota, and is currently part-time Priest-in-Charge at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Seattle, and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle, LLC. She is also the Director of The Episcopal Center for Embodied Faith, an online resource for the intersection between our bodies and faith, and a proud member of Thank God for Sex, a psycho-educational group that puts on community education events to promote healing for those who have experienced shame around their bodies and sexuality in faith communities.

Download the sermon for Christ the King Sunday (A).

Love Is Risky Business, Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November 19, 2017

Proper 28

[RCL] Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? You would try something pretty risky, right? After all, if you knew you wouldn’t fail, why try something easy? What risky thing would you do? Would you write the Great American Novel or sail around the world? Would you tell someone, “I love you,” or would you find the courage to leave? Would you go back to school to finish that degree or would you call your mother or father and say, “I’m sorry for the pain I caused you. When can we get together again?”

If failure were not an option, human history would have been marked with more bold attempts at both greatness and villainy. Failure is all too real and many bold plans have never gotten past the stage of dreams.

There are all kinds of risks and all kinds of rewards, but there is a common reason why we are naturally risk averse—fear. Fear is a natural, healthy reaction that can keep you safe. Healthy fear of fire prevents you from getting burned. Unhealthy fear of fire can also keep you from enjoying the simple pleasure of making your own s’mores on a campfire.

There has to be a balance between fear and reward. Those with no fear fill our cemeteries at an early age. At the other extreme, too much fear is unhealthy and paralyzing. Fear keeps hope locked in a room of doubt.

Great ships were not built to cling to the coastline. They were created to cross oceans. Few great discoveries were made by playing it safe. There is also no risk-free way to fall in love or to raise children. And there is no risk-free way to mend broken relationships and make amends for past hurts.

In our Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus tells a parable of risk and rewards and the responsibility that comes with great gifts. In the parable, a very wealthy landowner entrusts his servants with vast sums of money. A talent was a measure of gold worth roughly fifteen years’ wages for a day laborer. The life expectancy of the time for common laborers was such that making it to forty was never a sure thing, even though many lived longer. Fifteen years’ wages was more than half of what you might expect to make in a lifetime—maybe all you hoped to make in a lifetime. Each talent in this parable is that kind of wealth.

The master gives one servant five talents, another two, and the last a single talent. Now, this is where the parable gets hard to hear. The problem is that we have a word, “talent,” that means “ability” or “skill”. Singing, for example, is a talent. So, when we hear of a servant given one talent and another given five talents, it sounds like we are talking about abilities or skills, and then the parable immediately sounds different.

This is not a coincidence. Our English word, “talent,” comes to its current meaning through the preaching of the Middle Ages. In that time, when the English language as we know it was being forged, this parable was being preached. In preaching the story, congregations were told how these servants were given these large sums of money to watch over for their master. As the preaching went on through the centuries, it became easier to directly see the talents in this parable representing God’s gifts to us, posing the question, “What have you done with the talents God entrusted to you?” This created the meaning of our word, in which “talent” refers to our God-given gifts and abilities.

For the first hearers of the parable, it was clear that it was large sums of money with which the master entrusted his servants. The one in whom the master put the greatest trust made a vast sum of money, but to do so, he had to put at risk seventy-five years’ wages for a day laborer. If his plan for using the money entrusted to him failed, that servant could never have hoped to pay back his master.

The parable tells of three persons entrusted with great responsibility. Even the one who was given the care of a single talent was entrusted with much. Each of them would have to risk much if they wanted to show a return on investment.

In the parable, the first two servants doubled the master’s money. Each was rewarded with more money. Not money for themselves; they didn’t get a big payday. Each was given more money to invest for their master. The reward for faithfulness was more responsibility. Then came that fateful last servant. He, not too diplomatically, tells the master, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”

This last servant risked nothing. He took what was entrusted to him and hid it. It was safe. There was little risk in digging a hole and hiding the loot. There was also no potential gain. And for not taking any risk with the money entrusted to him, the servant gets the worst possible punishment as his reward.

Jesus taught that the heart of the Good News is love. Our world was created for love, which means the freedom to do great evil as well as good. There is no other way. God gave us choices and through our choices, we can get hurt and we can hurt others. A universe where real love is an option is a risky place, as pain and suffering are not only possible, but likely. And yet, this world of choice founded on love is also what makes possible all the noble acts of self-sacrifice. This world is not only a world of pain and suffering, but also a world of generosity, kindness, and self-sacrificial love.

God invested so much love in you through Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection. You can never repay that love. The good news is that you don’t exactly have to pay Jesus back, as much as pay it forward. God is not looking for a return on investment in quite the same way as the hard landowner in the parable. Jesus calls on a muscular faith that is put to work and so grows stronger.

At the heart of this parable is really faith and trust that when we step out in faith, God will not leave us alone. This is like the Apostle Peter asking if he can walk out on the water to join Jesus. Jesus calls him out of the boat. This is Peter stepping out in faith. But once on the waves, with his whole life at risk, Peter is paralyzed by fear and begins to sink. Then Jesus rescues Peter. Christ was with him on the water; he couldn’t fail.

Living the Gospel always involves risk. Risk is inherent in saying, “I love you,” or in asking for forgiveness, or in offering to reconcile with someone who hurt you. God has shown you great love and asks only that you share that love with others. When you take the risk to love, it is the grace of God working through you that does the heavy lifting. Living into the love of God happens through concrete actions toward others as we give as we have been given, and forgive as we have been forgiven.

How might you share the love of God with someone today? Who do you need to ask for forgiveness? Who do you need to forgive? In whom might you invest the love that God has shown you? What would you risk for love if you knew you couldn’t fail?

Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. He blogs at loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Awakening to God’s Presence, Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost – November 12, 2017

Proper 27

[RCL] Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

Archbishop William Temple said, “The source of humility is the habit of realizing the presence of God.”

We may as well face it, none of us likes to wait. Modern culture demands immediacy. Whatever we want, we want it now. If that’s not enough, we want the newest and the best, we want the latest and greatest, and we want it all right now.

Yet, recent research on economic success suggests that delayed gratification may lead to more sustainable innovation and success. The study is based on parking habits: Do you park head-in to a parking space, or do you back in, making it easier to pull out when you leave? Brain research has long concluded that hard work and persistent effort helps to “grow the brain.” That is, we can make ourselves smarter and more successful through hard work. It is called neuroplasticity – the brain’s capacity to always, throughout life, make new connections, new neural pathways, to make us smarter and more aware.

So someone researched national parking habits in countries around the world, correlated with economic innovation and success, and concluded that since backing in to a parking space tends to take more work and persistence, countries in which that is the predominant parking method tend to be more productive and successful.

What does all this have to do with bridesmaids, Jesus and keeping awake? Anthony De Mello, a Jesuit priest, psychologist and retreat leader made a career out of teaching us that the main task of the spiritual life is to wake up. Despite our over-stimulation with electronic devices, addictions to the Internet and social media, and our endless quest for the newest, the best and the most, we tend to make our way through life sleepwalking. We remain somehow unaware of the spiritual dimension of our lives. Like all of the bridesmaids, we let that part of our life wait. There will be time for that later, we say to ourselves.

Or worse still, we see the life of the spirit as something we need to acquire or earn. We buy and consume books, DVDs, we watch TV shows, read blogs and whatever we can get our hands on. But none of these activities quench our desire and need for an awareness of our spiritual self. In the midst of all this working on our spiritual life, we are still distracting ourselves from experiencing it. De Mello and Jesus both knew this and call us to wake up! And once awake to stay awake!

Since we know that we can grow our brains to develop new habits and awareness, what will be the spiritual equivalent of filling our lamps with oil and trimming our wicks?

Let’s first address wick trimming, since lamps and candles burn slower when we regularly trim the wick. It is similar with fruit trees – they produce more fruit when we do the work of pruning. Just as it is easier to get out of our parking spaces head first, Jesus is always extolling the value of doing the upfront work so that we can reap the dividends more easily when the fruit comes in. So trimming and pruning our lives, reducing the amount of distractions, would seem to be the No. 1 lesson for those of us who aspire to be bridesmaids for Christ when he comes. The paradox is that doing less can also help us to awaken to the presence of the Spirit in every breath we take. Doing less can help us to wake up and stay awake for the presence of Christ here and now.

As to filling our lamps with oil, doing less points us in the right direction. For it turns out that another way to encourage and promote neuroplasticity is to do nothing – not just less, but nothing. All religious traditions have some form of mindfulness meditation, centering prayer and contemplation as a religious or spiritual practice. Sadly, it is rarely found in church, where we tend to relentlessly work our way through the liturgy without pause so we can get to the end. And then what? Go to coffee hour, “the 8th sacrament”? Or go watch the ball game?

Contemplative prayer or mindfulness meditation helps us to create an empty space within. This has two immediate benefits.

It gives God and the Spirit a point of entry into our otherwise busy and sleepwalking lives. Once we prepare a place within for the God to dwell within us, we become more aware and awake to the fact that God has been and is always with us. We recognize that the work of spiritual growth is, in fact, no work at all.

Also, as it turns out, letting the brain rest promotes neuroplasticity. When we emerge from our prayer or meditation, we are made new, re-wired and more aware of not only who we are but whose we are. The German theologian Meister Eckhart is quoted as saying, “God is at home. It is we who have gone out for a walk.”

So what are we waiting for? Are we to spend our time like the bridesmaids, waiting for Christ to come? Or are we to heed our Lord’s final imperative in the story: Keep awake!

These parables are tricky. We tend to treat them as doctrinal treatises or allegories, assigning parts to each character in the story. But what if Jesus meant to simply shock us with details such as closing the door on the foolish ones only to deliver the real message: Keep awake! One suspects Jesus really did not want us spending hours of Bible study dithering over questions such as “How could Jesus do that? Why would he close the door on anyone?” when we already know the answer is that he closed the door on no one. Not prostitute, not tax collector, not sinner. His door is always open. The disciples to whom this little tale is told know that and have witnessed it every day. And like them, we ought to be those who recognize that what seems like his coming again is simply our awakening to the very real Good News of Jesus, that he is with us always to the end of the age. No waiting required. He is here. Forever and always. We might even say forever and all ways.

What is Jesus calling us to do? Wake up and keep awake!

The time and effort put into doing less and doing nothing will awaken us to the clever truth buried deep within this tale of lamps and oil and bridesmaids: He is here. His door is open to all at all times of day and night.

When we wake up to this truth all things are made new – including most importantly we ourselves.

 

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

 Note: This sermon originally ran for Proper 27 on November 9, 2014.

Download the sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Do You Feel Burdened?, 22nd Sunday after Pentecost – November 5, 2017

Proper 26

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

 Do you feel burdened? The writers of our epistle and gospel want to know. “You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul says. Jesus speaks of the scribes and Pharisees, saying, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” What is the difference between the two? What separates those in the Beloved Community who impose burdens on others, and those who remove them?

The topic of burdens is important throughout the Bible. Paul tells us in the Letter to the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you fulfill the law of Christ.” Jesus himself says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” We all know what it is like to feel burdened by life. Every single person we know is bearing a burden of some kind, some seen, some unseen. Cancer, financial hardship, caregiving for an elderly parent, a child struggling in school, addiction—the burdens add up and weigh us down. And we all feel the collective burdens of lives lost or altered in natural disasters, mass shootings, and the global struggles of poverty and disease.

It’s no surprise that the bearing of burdens shows up all over scripture. And in our texts for today, we have the contrast between how Paul is trying to relate to his spiritual community, and how the scribes and Pharisees are. What differentiates the two? After all, Paul began religious life as a Pharisee. What helped him escape being a burden to his community? And more than that, how did he become someone who lessened the burdens of others?

We can immediately see from how Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees that they are creating burdens for others because they are carrying crippling burdens of their own. Their burden is made of a toxic combination of trying to earn God’s favor by their works and demanding that everyone around them acknowledge their superior efforts. They have taken the sacred Law of Moses, which Jesus upholds in this passage, and burdened it with the deceptively heavy weight of their fragile egos.

The scribes and Pharisees that Jesus describes do not believe that God loves them freely and fully regardless of what actions they do or do not take. They are constantly hustling for God’s favor. They do not believe in an unconditionally loving God in their heart of hearts. This is not the fault of the law, but the predictable result of any religious person who has never grown beyond the petty and fearful tyranny of the ego. There are many Christians today who suffer from this unseen burden of functional works righteousness. We say we believe God loves us, but we feel safer hedging our bets by racking up good works.

And those good works are usually seen by others. That public do-gooding starts to earn us the approval and congratulations of others, and we get addicted to it. Before long we start to think we’re better than other people who aren’t working as hard as we are to build the Kingdom of God. It can be a short road from “trying to help and care for others” to “holier-than-thou and insufferable.”

What began as an honest search for the love of God and a life in the center of God’s will has turned into our becoming a burden to our faith community. Why did this happen? What is missing?

What is missing is the space, silence, and vulnerability necessary to actually receive the radiant love of God. When we approach the Christian life as a constant stream of virtuous activity directed as loudly as possible both at God and at our faith community—“Look at me! Look at all the wonderful things I’m doing!”—the still, small voice of the Spirit is very easily drowned out. Our self-imposed burden of a needy ego, never patient enough to learn the love of God, will sooner or later become the arrogance and self-satisfaction of the scribes and Pharisees in our gospel passage today.

“You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God,” Paul tells us. This “labor and toil,” “night and day,” that Paul speaks of consists in large part of patient and faithful prayer. Going within in silence and stillness, engaging in spiritual disciplines, finding and remaining faithful to daily spiritual practice—this is the labor and toil that over time, lifts our false internal burdens and makes us free. The freely chosen work of prayer and building spiritual intimacy with God slowly transforms us from being burdens, to merely having burdens, to one day lifting the burdens of others.

That’s one half of the equation—the labor and toil of prayer and individual encounter with God. The other half is the night and day patient engagement with one another in community. Moving from being a burden to others to lifting burdens from others requires exactly that—others. The quest for gospel transformation does not take place in a bubble. There are some of us who might enjoy sitting alone all day and thinking beautiful thoughts about God—but that is not love. Individualistic spiritual practice taken to an extreme will make us a burden to our community as surely as no spiritual practice at all.

Anyone who has had to carry heavy burdens will know that balance is the key. Trying to carry heavy bags of groceries up flights of stairs in only one hand is very difficult. Shift the bags to carry them equally in both hands and the burden is suddenly much easier to bear. So it is with our balance of individual and community spiritual intimacy. Keep it all on one side of the equation and we are quickly out of balance, becoming heavy to both ourselves and others. Seek an even distribution of time alone with God and time together with God, and suddenly progress forward is smoother and easier.

Paul says in our epistle today that the Word is at work in us as believers. That’s the most important thing of all as we seek to carry our own burdens and those of our fellow disciples. No burden we shoulder is ours to carry alone. The Holy Spirit within us is always present and ready to do the heavy lifting. Jesus says it himself in the Gospel of Matthew: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” The burdens of life and community may never go away, but when the love of God pervades them, they are no longer crushing weights. Our burdens become a steadying presence, anchoring and grounding us in the faithful pursuit of grace and truth. For it is when we commit to turning our burdens over to God that we are at last empowered to bear the burdens of one another. And a burden shared becomes a burden halved, as the old saying goes. Perhaps we could modify it for ourselves—a burden shared becomes a burden graced.

 The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Associate Rector the St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana.  A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (A).

 

Everything Hangs on Love, Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost – October 29, 2017

Proper 25

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

An authority on the Law of Moses gives Jesus a pop quiz: name the greatest commandment. The request is not to name the top commandment of the Ten Commandments. Specifically, Jesus is to consider the 613 commandments found in the first five books of the Bible, known as the Torah, or The Teaching, and to select the cornerstone. These commandments include 365 “negative commandments”, sometimes described as one for every day of the year, where you are ordered not to do something, like, “Do not commit murder.” Then there are 248 “positive commandments” which describe what one is to do to faithfully follow the Torah, the teaching given to Moses.

But we know this is not a casual conversation among colleagues. Matthew reminds us that Jesus silenced the Sadducees, the priests who served at the Temple in Jerusalem. They asked their thorniest question about the Torah, and Jesus aced that test. Now it is the Pharisees’ turn. We use the term Pharisee today as a term of derision; we say someone is pharisaical if he or she is hypocritical or self-righteous. But this would not have been true during Jesus’ ministry.

The Pharisees were a sect within Judaism, which worked as a social movement seeking to change society with a greater faithfulness to following the Torah. The Pharisees championed synagogue worship in addition to going to the Temple. Jesus taught faithfulness to God and worshipped in the synagogue. Many persons would likely have seen Jesus as a Pharisee or at least being in line with the Pharisees’ school of thought. So this debate is a bit of an in-house argument.

The stakes are higher though, as the Pharisees in Jerusalem see Jesus’ growing influence on the crowds, and they seem to want to shut down this movement before it goes any further. The question then comes from a place not of wanting to learn but desiring to trip up the rabbi from Galilee. Jesus immediately answers with what is the most succinct statement of everything he taught and his every action:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

We are not just to love God, but our neighbor, and not just God and our neighbor, but we are to love ourselves, as only then can we love our neighbors as ourselves. Everything hangs on love.

The love Jesus is talking about here cost him his life, so this is love beyond mere sentimentality or emotion. Jesus teaches about the form of love that in Greek is called agape. This is a self-giving love, which is more concerned about the other person than oneself. Agape love starts with God, and God’s love for us. With this love of God and God’s love for me, I can then begin to see other people as God sees them. I can even begin to see myself as God sees me. From this experience, I reach out in love to others with the love that begins in the very life and nature of God.

The love that is within the Trinity is not merely a feeling or emotion. And so, God’s love for your husband or wife is not dependent on his or her likes and dislikes, job, mood, or anything else so changeable. God’s love for your brother or sister does not depend on whether he or she just got on your nerves. God’s love for your co-workers does not depend on their lovability. God’s love for your friends does not depend on whether or not they let you down. God’s love for everyone else is a lot like God’s love for you. This love is a lot more dependable than you or I, even on our best days.

Love that is more concerned about others than yourself is not about self-loathing, or being abused. Real love can also come with a hard edge, for it is not loving to become co-dependent and support someone in their abuse of their own bodies with drugs—legal or illegal—or alcohol abuse. Real love can mean setting clear boundaries. Love more concerned for the other can be lived in many ways that involve standing up to abuse and not letting it continue.

The love that wants something better than abuse and acts to make changes to end such needless suffering is part of the love God has for all creation. The love of God that was in the Trinity before creation overflowed into this world of ours, and that love continues even though we are fallen and not deserving of it. This love that was in the very life of God before Creation is the love that never fails. This is the love Jesus had, so that as he died on the cross he could look out at those who killed him, as they mocked him, and say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Forgiving those who killed him was the most precarious thing an all-powerful God could do. And in these words of forgiveness from the cross, we see that God’s love is more concerned about the other than your own self.

Agape love is a decision, an act of the will. Decide to see others as God sees them. Act on this decision rather than just whether you feel the emotions of love. Do you want to experience that sort of godly love for your friends, your family, your spouse? Then the love you have for them cannot start with you and go out to them. The love you have for others must start with God. Ask God to give you this gift. Pray for God to reveal to you the way God sees these other people in your life, especially the difficult people you deal with.

Trying to decide what to do? Put agape into the equation. Should you forgive? Should you pick up the phone and make a call? Should you write a letter? Should you make a visit? Setting aside people who have a pattern of abuse that you must avoid, in the many garden-variety painful relationships in your life, the answer is love. The decision to forgive, or call, or write, or visit, or whatever it is that will make this love concrete should not depend alone on whether you have been hurt or could be hurt. The answer should depend on answering the question, “What would love do?”

This is how the ideal of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself is made real. During this sermon, perhaps you have thought of someone who has hurt you, someone with whom you have lost contact, or broken off your relationship. Trust that the Holy Spirit has been involved in this person coming to mind. If this applies to you, then love is speaking to your heart—the love of God calling you to act on agape love.

This love I am talking about is a choice, a decision, an act of the will, and it belongs in the heart of your relationship with your spouse, your children, your parents, your siblings, your friends, your co-workers. Have the courage to not simply talk of love, but to put love into action. The love God has for you is patient and kind and will never fail. Choose to share that same amazing love with the people in your life.

Amen.

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He is also a member of the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church and serves on the Advisory Group on Church Planting. Frank blogs on mostly church development related topics at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

Download the sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (A).

 

Whose Image?, Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 22, 2017

Proper 24

[RCL] Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

I strongly suspect that even a casual familiarity with any of today’s various sources of streaming news would absolutely satiate anyone’s interest in Caesar and Caesar’s taxes—but here they are again. Still, Jesus is being quite non-partisan here, and, although frequently misunderstood, this little story has much to say to any age, including our own.

The question of the Pharisees and the Herodians, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” didn’t trap Jesus. But it has trapped countless others. It has been used as a blanket statement of Christian political obligation—a quick and easy answer to any questions or qualms the dictates of a government may engender. Jesus’ statement about rendering to Caesar, of giving to the Emperor, has been used as a general rule that can answer any number of specific questions. Actually, it’s just the opposite. It’s a brilliant answer to one very specific question. But it also raises all sorts of general questions about God and Caesar—and only hints at a way to answer them.

Look at the story itself. Two important political groups in Jerusalem—the Pharisees and the Herodians—are ganging up on Jesus. It’s a strange partnership; the two groups didn’t like each other at all. First are the Herodians; they were supporters of Herod, the puppet King of Israel who was nothing more than a Roman lackey. Herodians would have a great investment in obeying Roman laws and paying Roman taxes. Then we have the Pharisees, who, as religious purists, would object strongly to paying taxes to any pagan king and especially to a king who, like Caesar, claimed to be of divine lineage.

At the same time, the crowds, who were watching the debate, also had a stake in this. They didn’t like either the Romans or their taxes, and they frequently showed their dislike by rioting. They would be very unhappy at any answer that seemed to approve of the taxes.

Next, there are the soldiers, who were watching the crowds. They were Romans who were paid by the taxes in question. They didn’t much like the crowds, who had a penchant for rioting and whose rioting they had to control. Finally, it was Passover time—the most likely time of the year for a good riot about religion, the emperor, Rome in general, and Roman taxes in particular.

In other words, this was not an abstract debate about either political philosophy in general or the relationship between Church and state. It was a perfect set-up, a very clever trap. The intent of the question was to ensure that Jesus was either arrested for treason by the Romans, discredited as a false teacher by the Pharisees, finked out by the Herodians, or lynched by the crowd as a traitor to his own people.

On one level, Jesus slipped out of the trap on a technicality. He asked for a coin (notice that Jesus doesn’t have one, but the Pharisees do). It’s a special minting of the denarius. On the coin is marked, “Tiberius Caesar, majestic son of divine Augustus, High Priest”. Below these words, the image of the emperor is pressed into the metal. To any good Jew, the coin itself was an abomination. It violated the first commandment by claiming that Caesar had divine pretensions, and it violated the second commandment by containing an image of this false god.

A big part of what Jesus said was simply “give the cursed thing back.” It could belong to no one but Caesar; it could certainly not belong to anyone who worshiped the God of Israel.

This answer was a brilliant counter stroke by Jesus. It avoided the trap, and it allowed that particular tax to be paid with that particular coin—not as an act of political submission, but as a sign of religious fidelity. It was a very specific, and very narrow answer that made it possible for Jesus both to escape the trap and to preach a bit.

But this answer, good as it is, doesn’t directly address the broader questions. Clearly, that coin belonged to Caesar—but what else does? No doubt some things belong to God, but what are those things, and how does one decide? Until we begin to get clear on these questions, what Jesus had to say about that one Roman coin is not much help for us as we make decisions about possible conflicts of loyalty, obligation, or actions involving the claims of the government and the claims of God.

Although Jesus is neither giving a theory about the relationship of religious people to their government nor making a simple division of life into two neat and distinct parts—this is Caesar’s, this is God’s—he is, on a much deeper level, doing something subtler, something more profound.

Remember, that coin belonged to Caesar because it was stamped with Caesar’s image (the Greek word here for “image” is eikōn) and marked with Caesar’s inscription. The coin was made by the emperor for the emperor’s purposes. All that is a pretty good claim to ownership—a claim that Jesus recognized, at least for that coin.

The next question that naturally flows from Jesus’ words is: “What, then, belongs to God?” Well, what is made in the image of God? What is stamped in the likeness of God and created for God’s purposes? Do you see where he’s going here?

Our central definitive characteristic, what it is that makes us human beings, is that we are created in the image of God. And what’s more, at our baptism we are further marked, we are stamped, we are inscribed, with the sign of the cross. Our image and likeness, and what is written upon us, is that of God himself. To whom, then, do we belong? To whom are we to render, to surrender, ourselves?

This, the question of our ultimate loyalty and our deepest allegiances, is what Jesus is really talking about as he deals with the plots and the traps of his enemies. The Lord is saying simply that what belongs to God is nothing other than we ourselves. There is no higher claim upon us, and there can be no higher claim upon us. Our lives are God’s, and all that we do is to be marked by that conviction. All competing claims for our lives and for our allegiance are to be evaluated and understood in the light of whose we are, and whose image we bear.

Alas, all of this does not provide us any easy answers when we face problems with a particular moral or political question. It does not automatically tell us who to vote for, or what policy to support, or which course of action is best regarding energy, taxes, the economy, or our current and future wars. Problems like these will continue to be difficult and ambiguous, and that difficulty and that ambiguity will not change if we toss these few verses from Matthew, or from anywhere else, at them. Still, what Jesus said to the Pharisees and the Herodians can provide us a very good place to start.

Give to God what is God’s—for God owns that which he has made in his image, and he is Lord over that which bears his inscription. It is that image, in ourselves and in others, that leads to concrete imperatives for justice, compassion, and righteousness.

It is that image that both claims our allegiance and directs our efforts. It is God’s image that gives ultimate value and meaning to what we do. It is that image, and no other, which gives us the assurance that something lasting, something permanently worthwhile, is being formed at the core of our personal histories, and at the heart of this broken and yet redeemed world. That, at least, is where we begin.

Certainly, give to Caesar the things that are Caesars—but give to God the things that are God’s.

The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma.

 

Download the sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Are We Ready to Choose?, Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 15, 2017

Proper 23

[RCL] Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

The gospel for today begs allegory and analogy, leading inevitably to dividing people into groups of good and bad. It is an invitation to play the Blame Game. Coupled with our innate curiosity, like Pandora, we cannot help but want to know just who is going to be bound hand and foot and cast into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth! I suspect that as we hear this read, we all have candidates that leap to mind. It is the rare person who may reflect on why he or she might be that unlucky soul whose only sin appears to be not making the acceptable fashion statement for the occasion.

No matter how one parses this particular parable in Matthew, the results are baffling at best. Particularly in light of the fact that, at the end of the day, it simply means to express how passionately our God wants us to come to his banquet – how passionately our God wants us to come home – how passionately our God loves us – all of us – all of the time. Many are called, says our Lord,  but few are chosen. What remains mysteriously hidden and unsaid here is that it is we who do the choosing. Few choose to return to God, too busy are they wasting time on inconsequential disputes over what is right and what is wrong.

Which message is also at the heart of Paul’s correspondence with the Christ-followers in Philippi. He returns to the theme with which he began: there is no time for bickering, and no time to contemplate retribution against those who imprison me and those who hate us. There is simply no time for anything but the Love of God in Christ Jesus crucified and raised from the dead.

So please, get these two magnificent women, women who have struggled with me to proclaim the good news, get them back together again. Once you reconcile them you can rejoice! “And again I will say, Rejoice! The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything. Then you can get on with the business at hand: spreading the Good News of Christ crucified and raised from the dead.”

Paul is in prison and he believes this is the only way to be: joyful in the Lord. Be joyful in the Lord all you lands! Jubilate Deo! “And the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus…Keep doing the things that you have learned and received…and the God of Peace will be with you.”

Just what “things” have the Philippians learned? When Paul left Macedonia, he issued an invitation to the churches he knew to enter into partnership with him – a partnership of money and ministry. It was to be a partnership of giving and receiving. It is in giving with Christ that we receive, it is in dying with Christ that we live. Christ, who did not consider equality with God something to be exploited, emptied himself, and invites us to do the same. Of all the churches with which Paul was associated – Rome, Corinth, Thessalonica, Colossae, Galatia, Ephesus, and Philippi – it was only the Philippians who responded to his invitation. It was only the Philippians who sent Paul help, sending one of their own, Epaphroditus, who nearly died while serving Paul in prison.

Paul is the first pastoral counselor. He is sending them encouragement in hard times. He reminds the Philippians that they know what to do and how to do it. He has personally benefitted from their faithfulness in Christ Jesus. They have sacrificed money and gifts and nearly one of their own to further the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ – that God is at home and it is we who need to return to his banquet hall, fully prepared to do the work God calls us to do in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s gift to us is the realization that the Church of Jesus Christ goes way beyond any single person or congregation. It is a vast network of congregations and peoples working together, sacrificing for one another, supporting one another.

But it is we who want to be left alone by the God who has made the most inconvenient men and women our neighbors – and instructed us to love them as much as we love God and love ourselves!

Against this backdrop, writes Paul, there is simply no time for division and argument. And there is no way to go it alone. Stop the dissension and disagreement right now. Disengage from worldly concerns and engage yourselves in God’s work – “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches.”

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s final book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee, an uncommonly courageous little Hobbit, wakes up after the climactic battle. Thinking everything is lost, he discovers all his friends are around him. He cries out to Gandalf the great wizard, “I thought you were dead. But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue?”

Is everything sad going to come untrue? For those of us who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Many are called, says our Lord Jesus, but few are chosen. It is we who do the choosing. Are we ready to choose? Are we ready to choose to keep doing the things that we have learned and received? Are we ready to move on and leave controversy behind us?

For if we are, the God of Peace shall be with us wherever we are, wherever we go. And everything sad will come untrue. Because our God passionately wants us to come to his banquet. And our God passionately wants us to come home. And our God will passionately supply every need, including finding us a new home in Christ Jesus. Our God will make sure that everything sad will come untrue.

So, it is that even from a prison cell, Saint Paul urges us to Rejoice!

And again I will say, Rejoice!

The Lord is near.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus every step of the way!

Amen.

Written by the Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek. Ordained in the Diocese of Chicago in 1983, I served as a parish priest in the dioceses of Chicago, Connecticut and Maryland. After nearly 18 years as rector of St. Peter’s in Ellicott City, MD, I spent six years as Chaplain and teacher at St. Timothy’s School for Girls, an Episcopal and international boarding and day-school in Stevenson, MD. In the mid-1980’s I was trained to work as a Stewardship Consultant through the Office of Stewardship at the Episcopal Church Center. I also helped to lead retreats for the Ministry of Money, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour, Washington, DC. Recently retired from full-time parish ministry, I do Interim and Supply work throughout the Diocese of Maryland. I also continue a lifetime as a drummer in various rock and jazz bands, currently playing with On The Bus, a Grateful Dead tribute band centered in the greater DC Metro region. I also use guitar and write music to supplement worship and the preaching event. Some of these songs can be seen on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/user/SoundsDivine1. My sermons are archived at www.perechief.blogspot.com, and I have been writing for Sermons that Work for as long as I can remember! Feel free to contact me at kkub@aol.com.

Download the sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

To Work in the Vineyard, Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 8, 2017

Proper 22

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

The easiest way for a preacher to deal with the challenging story in today’s Gospel reading might be to understand it as simply a metaphor for events we already know well – another tale of deadly confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leadership of his day. As we heard at the end of the passage, the religious chiefs perceived that Jesus was referring to them as the wicked tenants. Therefore, they felt threatened and angry and decided to arrest Jesus. However, they had to wait for a more opportune time because they feared resistance from the crowd of Jesus’ followers. And of course, we remember what happened next – Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion – all followed by the resurrection that concluded the action and began a whole new relationship between God and another people.

To follow the story in this way is to see it as an allegory, explaining how the church grew beyond the control of the then-current religious establishment. In such a symbolic narrative, each character corresponds to something in real life. The wicked tenants represent the religious leaders of Jerusalem, the owner of the vineyard is God, the vineyard itself is Israel, the slaves sent to collect the owner’s share are the Old Testament Prophets, the son is Jesus, and the new tenants who would gain use of the vineyard are the Gentiles and/or Jesus-following Jews.

But, to be honest, all this does is provide for us a history lesson, and, in fact, one that we already know. A more difficult way to deal with the story in today’s Gospel is to find courage enough to reflect on a more general theme that few like to consider – the concept of God as a condemning divinity. We may need to face up to the possibility that the story reveals God to us as a punishing one, prone toward retribution against those who choose not to follow his way. The wicked tenants who failed to give God his due suffered the fate of a miserable death, losing all they had hoped to gain for refusing to pay their fair rent, not giving the owner, not giving God, what he deserved.

How can we face the seeming inconsistency of knowing God as loving and gracious and all-giving on the one hand, and on the other – following the tone of today’s story – seeing God as a punishing and judging entity?

And closer to home – can we face the question, “What connection is there between ourselves and the wicked tenants and the selfish, misguided religious leaders who rejected Jesus?” Could their fate also be ours? After all, don’t we often shy away from what Christ would have us do? Are we not sometimes selfish like the wicked tenants? Do we not refuse to share the fruits of the “vineyard” as stingily and stubbornly as they? How often have we failed to respond lovingly to the gifts of God’s creation that envelope our lives – the good earth, the resources we use to sustain ourselves, other people – our brothers and sisters who dwell beside us in this blessed life? Does it not follow, then, that we also deserve to be put to a miserable death?

But surely there is something wrong with such an assessment. Perhaps a better way to deal with this dilemma is to examine today’s story in the full context of the Gospel, to view it against the backdrop of all we know of God’s action in Christ. Then we can draw a less harsh—and truer—conclusion about the conflict of experiencing a totally loving God and the punishment apparent in today’s story. As Christians, we always start with the fact that God initiates the relationship with us – not we with God. God calls us to be in unity with him and all people. God’s reaching out to us is best understood as his giving us everything we have – with no strings attached and without our deserving it, without our having done anything to gain it. Despite this, Jesus made it clear that we are the most precious beings in all creation – so valuable, as he proved on the cross, that we are worth dying for.

We don’t have to earn God’s love; it is given freely. So, why would a loving God put us to a miserable death? The answer to this question lies not in the possibility that we might wind up experiencing a miserable spiritual death, but, if so, to recognize that such a fate can only result because of our choosing. The wicked tenants received all they needed from the owner, but they refused to accept his graciousness and turned their backs on him, his servants, and even his son. They, by their actions and inactions, cast themselves out of the vineyard, no less than Adam and Eve’s disobedience resulted in their loss of the benefits of the Garden of Eden. The miserable death we might experience can only result from our failure to accept the gifts of God and respond to them in thanksgiving and by reflecting God’s love back on that creation and all people in it. It can only result from our selfishly acting as if the vineyard is all ours – or should be all ours and no one else’s, let alone God’s.

It is not so much that God’s patience with us might eventually run out, causing us to be put to a miserable death. It is more like our time runs out only because we wait too long to catch on to what God wants for us, and then we actually by our actions or inactions cast ourselves out of God’s vineyard, producing a self-inflicted kind of misery that we alone can create.

Today’s Gospel story, of course, provides for us a warning about what we can miss out on if we act like the wicked servants. It reminds us of the great theme of stewardship that is so central to the life of the church and to the healthful focus of individual Christians. When we sing the familiar words, “Praise God from who all blessings flow,” we need to remember the actions that they imply – that we need to “walk the talk” by remembering that what we have is not ours to own, but is on loan from God. We need to remember that God’s way of grace and love is wooing us to respond to our good fortune of living in his vineyard by reflecting that love in our actions toward others. That as we care for, as we exercise stewardship over God’s creation – especially our fellow human beings – we do so as a reflection of God’s love. That love is poured out to us in such measure that it overflows from us, and through us can overflow onto all creation. An overflow that allows us to maintain creation and preserve it and protect it from harm. An overflow that impels us to love others and share with them the Good News of God in Christ – a truth they might miss if we ignore our mission and neglect that which so graciously enriches us.

If, in reflecting on today’s Gospel story, we will concentrate on God’s setting us up on a fabulous vineyard, lovingly and graciously giving us all we have, we can recognize that this is his way of coaxing us and wooing us and encouraging us into being good and faithful servants – good and loving workers in the world he has left to our care – good and faithful followers of his son, Jesus. Wooing us to give and pray for the spread of his kingdom and for the wellbeing of his children, our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Download the sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

How Is God Calling Us?, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 1, 2017

Proper 21

[RCL] Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

In March of 1979, a nonprofit organization by the name of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network was launched. It is better-known by its acronym: C-SPAN. The organization’s mission is to provide continuous coverage of the goings-on of the US Government. You may have tuned in on occasion to watch as Congress works—or, depending on your perspective, as Congress doesn’t work.

Along with American programming, there are also occasionally programs from other countries, including one from the United Kingdom: Prime Minister’s Questions. The program airs straight from the British House of Commons and features the British Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition party.

The entire program consists of these two figures, along with other members of the House, pummeling each other with rapid-fire and hard-hitting questions, above a cacophony of cheers, jeers, and occasional pleas for “order” from the Speaker of the House. This can go on for hours! One person bounds to his feet and asks a biting rhetorical question, then someone else jumps up with a pithy answer or an even more searing question. It’s the political version of whack-a-mole!

If C-SPAN were around in Jesus’ day, there might have been a show called The Messiah’s Questions! Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is berated with all manner of rapid-fire rhetorical questions.

At the outset of the Gospel, John asks Jesus, “Are you the one we have been waiting for?” Then the Chief Priests—the opposition party if ever there were one—ask Jesus one question after another. They ask why the disciples don’t abide by the tradition of the elders, they ask about divorce, they ask about taxes, they ask about the role of the Ten Commandments, and on and on it goes until even Pilate himself asks Jesus if he is, in fact, the King of the Jews.

In today’s passage in particular, the Chief Priests and the elders ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things?” and “Who gave you this authority?” Then Jesus asks a few questions of his own. The Chief Priests and the elders knew how to play politics, and so they decide not to answer—not because they didn’t have an answer, but because they were afraid of how Jesus might respond to their answer.

And so, Jesus asks yet another question— “What do you think?”—and then launches into a parable about two sons. When their father asks the sons to work in the vineyard, one son says something like, “Sure! I’ll get right on that!” But he doesn’t follow through in the end. Truth be told, most of us can sympathize with this son. How often have we made a promise or a commitment that, for whatever reason, we couldn’t keep?

But the focus of the parable is on the other son—the one who, unlike his brother, initially says he won’t help out but winds up doing so in the end. We might be tempted to ask why he chose to help in the end— “Did he have something else to do first?” “Was his schedule full?” “Was he angry with his father or his brother?” But if we’re not careful, these questions can bog us down in homiletical quicksand and we can lose the larger, more important point: regardless of what initially prevented him, the son eventually accepted his father’s invitation to go to work in the vineyard.

At its core, this parable is the pattern of our life with God. No matter what we’ve done, or what may have initially prevented us, God is always extending an invitation to us. We are constantly being drawn into a new place—to new depths of faith, to a new place of divine discovery.

No matter if this is the first time we’ve ever heard the Gospel, or if we’ve been faithful Christians for decades, this parable lays bare one incontrovertible fact: God isn’t finished with us yet! The baptized life has no emeritus status, and there’s no such thing as a retired or part-time disciple of Jesus!

But here’s the thing: life with God is always forward-looking, always calling us out of the confines of our past and present and into something new. In order to live into God’s invitation, we must be willing to leave the past behind—no matter how comfortable or familiar or profitable—and turn toward the future, complete with all of its uncertainties and questions and anxieties.

And make no mistake: that’s hard!

Consider, for example, the Chief Priests and the elders of Jesus’ day. They had quite a bit invested in the status quo. Leaving the past behind meant forfeiting their claims to power and position, which had become their entire identity. Stepping into life with God meant leaving all of that behind, in favor of a future they couldn’t predict and couldn’t control.

How about in our own day?

How willing are any of us to forfeit our positions, our authority, or our privilege? The truth is that, for most of us, the past is pretty enticing—especially when we enjoy privileges we haven’t earned.

But then there are the tax collectors and prostitutes, whose past was marked by derision and servitude; of being treated as things rather than as persons. For them, God’s future brought new life!

This is the essential question that every single one of us must faithfully discern: How is God calling us out of our past or present circumstances, into something new?

The truth is, sometimes the answer to that question is unsettling. After all, for as hopeful and encouraging as the future might seem, it’s always uncertain. At least we know our past, even if it is limited and dysfunctional.

As people of faith, we are called to hold that tension between the certainty and comfort of our past and the uncertainty and discomfort of God’s future. We’re called to ask ourselves how our past has been allowed to determine our future, how it has restricted our ability to live faithfully, and to consider where it is that we find life and joy and peace, versus where we find resentment and fear and death.

We’re called to ask these questions of our communities of faith, too. How have our churches become entrenched in the structures and strictures of the past? How does doing the same old thing because we’ve always done it that way cut us off from new and life-giving possibilities? What parts of our common life together need holding onto, and what needs letting go?

One final word of caution: when we ask these questions from a place of fear and anxiety—wringing our hands over what our future or our church’s future will be—these questions bear little transformative power. But if we ask them from a place of discernment and faithfulness, we can be sure that as we do this hard and holy work, God will be with us on the journey.

And in the end, we will find life more abundant!

Amen.

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is the rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina. He studied at Transylvania University and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where he is currently completing doctoral work. He is the editor of Modern Metanoia—a lectionary-based preaching resource authored exclusively by Millennial clergy, lay leaders, and teachers. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.

Download the sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (A).

Gratitude, Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 24, 2017

Proper 20

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

Children’s books seem to fall into categories: one appears to be about obedience or learning to follow the rules, a great number are about bravery and perseverance, others are about understanding the world around you, but a great many of the books for children today are about teaching our children that they are loved unconditionally. There seems to be a lot of these books, yearning to reassure us that we are lovable. One book, Mama, Do You Love Me?, follows an Alaskan mother and daughter through a conversation where the toddler tests the boundaries and limits of her mother’s love, only to find that even if mama is angry, she loves her daughter still. It’s a story about how fragile we are as humans and how each of us is intrinsically good and worthy of love. It’s a great and honest book, and in some way tells the story of how much God loves us.

Today we find Jesus telling a parable that is also about how much we are loved. The parable of the five o’clock people tells of how fragile we are as humans and how boundless God’s love truly is. Many of us have heard a sermon every year on this parable. Sometimes it focuses on the anger and resentment of the people who showed up earlier in the day, sometimes it looks at why the people showed up at five, and other times we hear about how grace is given freely to all simply because they showed up. All of these ring true.

There is something quite fragile about humans; our fragility shows up when we baptize babies and ask their families to protect them from evil and for the community gathered to look after them. Each of us is born with the love and hope of God implanted in our hearts; unfortunately, we are born into a fragile and broken world. At baptism, each of us had people promise to look after us as we grew into the person God imagined us to be in the midst of our communities.

This is the world of the parable: good and fragile people doing their best, wondering why some got more for doing less. What we and the workers forget is that God is not like us. God is better and more loving than we can imagine being. God looks at the workers and says, “I love you regardless of what time you showed up for work, I’m just glad you showed up.” Like the mother in the book, God’s love is not conditional on our behavior, God just wants us to show up and work. It is a reminder that we need to be grateful for help in the work God has given us to do, regardless of what time that help arrives. The work is often about being a sign of love to the world, and finding ways to love others even if they don’t agree with us, look like us, or behave the way we want them to… or show up first thing in the morning for work.

One of the best ways we can be signs of love in the world is to say thank you. Gratitude is an expression of love. When someone does something kind for us, regardless of whether they had to or not, it is a reminder of the goodness in them meeting the goodness in us—and the natural response to kindness is gratitude. Gratitude is extraordinarily important because it is a way for us to remember the goodness in others and ourselves—but still, it is easy to forget to be grateful.

Today in the Episcopal Church, we are remembering and giving thanks for the birth of Julia Chester Emery. One could argue that she was one who showed up early to work and that she worked without complaint. In the early 1900s, Julia helped organize the women of the church to participate in a daily spiritual discipline of gratitude. She asked that everyone remember that when something good happens in his or her day, that this is a gift from God, and to make a thank offering in remembrance that all good things come from God.

With this simple task, she began inviting people to participate in a spiritual discipline of gratitude. She worked tirelessly to promote gratitude and to support mission in the Episcopal Church with the funds collected each year. She did all of this at a time when women were not allowed to work if married and had very little status in the working world. She overcame much adversity to do the good thing that God planted in her heart. She was well known for her tireless dedication to her goal of helping support innovative ministries in the Episcopal Church. She rarely took “no” for an answer. Julia Chester Emery exemplified grit, faith, and the willingness to live more fully into being the hands and feet of Christ in the world.

A spiritual discipline of gratitude doesn’t sound like much, but how often do we forget to say thank you? Thank you seems too simple, and yet it has the power to transform our lives. Have you ever tried genuinely thanking someone from whom you ordered food or coffee? Yes, it is that person’s job to make the coffee, but aren’t you glad that he or she said “yes” to doing the job that day? What about people you work with? Have you thanked them for all they do to support you? Have you thanked your family and friends? Most of us know the pain of someone dying suddenly with words of gratitude left unspoken between us. Saying thank you is simple, but it is transformative.

The simple thank offering collected in 1883 continues to this day in the form of the United Thank Offering. All of the funds collected are given away to support innovative mission and ministry in our church, as a sign of gratitude for the good that God has done in our lives and a sign of gratitude for the good being done through others.

Today we give thanks for Julia Chester Emery, for her vision, dedication, and belief that we should all be more grateful. We’re thankful for the workers, missionaries, and grant sites that the United Thank Offering has supported. We give thanks for those that showed up early to labor to make the world better, and for those who are still showing up. We give thanks for all of those who promised to support us at our baptism, and we give thanks for all who do ministry on our behalf. Today we give thanks for the goodness planted in our hearts, and we ask that we might be brave and tireless in our task, just like Julia Chester Emery.

Download the sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost (A).