So I was afraid

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 19, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

“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.”

The gospel lesson today is another of Jesus’ parables. I have said before that Jesus’ parables are not allegories about God—they are stories. In this parable, it would be a particularly bad mistake to think of the man with all the property as God, because this is a story about slavery, and the relationship of human masters and slaves.

Why is there so much about slavery in the New Testament and why is it stated in such a matter-of-fact fashion? Because the economy of the Roman Empire was completely dependent on slavery, at least 10 percent of the population of the empire, and 30-to-40 percent in some areas. Ignoring slaves would be as unreasonable as ignoring the existence of people who make their living at fast food chains or as laborers working for close to minimum wage.  Some people did ignore slaves, treating them as though they were invisible, but for Jesus and the early Christians, slaves were fully human; what happened to them mattered.

This parable takes the form of a folk tale, in which two characters are used to set up the story, while the third character is used for the punchline.  So, I want to just look at the third slave’s situation.  He was afraid. Slavery was quite common, but it was also common for slave-owners to beat, abuse or humiliate their slaves. This was a slave-owner known to be harsh, perhaps even proud of it. We can be sympathetic with this enslaved man; the consequences of his master’s wrath might be very harsh indeed.

The slave was entrusted with a lot of money, basically a cubic foot of silver or gold (and at that time, silver was rarer than now, almost as precious as gold). The amounts might be exaggerated for effect, but it wasn’t unusual for some slaves to be entrusted with important responsibilities, including handling their master’s money. When a story in the New Testament refers to a steward, it’s almost always about a senior slave entrusted with administration of the master’s property. So it was a big responsibility: a bucket of precious metal belonging to an unforgiving owner. And the slave focused on that beating and his fear of it. And in his fear, he thought of nothing except avoiding the risk of punishment and all he could think of was not losing that treasure.  He thought the safest thing was to bury it, I suppose in a place where no one would look.

If you look at the top of the story, it says that the master entrusted his property to the three slaves—in other words, he gave it to them to manage. That was certainly how the first two understood it. In any kind of management, it is important to balance various kinds of risks, to use good judgement, make plans and use your resources prudently. Excessive risk is not good—the 100% return on investment that the first two delivered seems large, probably exaggerated, but we can assume that it was wise and not reckless trading—things would not have gone well for the slave who lost two or five talents of his master’s money. But anyone who works professionally in risk management will tell you that there is no way to eliminate 100% of risk, indeed if all your energy and resources goes into eliminating one risk, you are certain to fall victim to another risk … or simply cease to function. The third slave, in seeking to eliminate his risk, was left with only his fear … and his worst fears were realized. There were all sorts of possibilities for him, clearly the climate for trading was good for the others, he had plenty of resources, there were safe investments to make. Yet his fear took him in the direction of what he feared, and he lived in misery and without hope.

I’ve been asked to talk about stewardship this morning. As stewards of God’s bounty, we are called to a life that is free of fear. We live in the blessing of God’s mercy, and our lives are filled with hope, with realistic hope. Hope is not about wanting resources without limits—that is the province of what our psalm today calls “the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.” Christian hope is based on a community of generosity emerging from God’s mercy and love, generosity right now, in whatever situation of plenty or privation we might find ourselves. We have God’s mercy, and in this community we have more than enough; we have more than enough because God’s love binds us together, we can live and have no need to fear. We live in Christ’s love and in that we have the imagination to be able to help and care for others—we don’t focus on fearfulness and put our resources in the ground out of reach and out of use.

On this consecration Sunday, I encourage you all to consider your whole lives, all of the ways in which you are interconnected with others, all of your responsibilities. Spiritually we are called to love God in every sector of our lives, and to be good managers of the abundance of mercy that God has entrusted to us. Remember that we are all accountable to one another—it is in becoming trustworthy companions to one another that we discover the joy of God’s generosity and live in God’s hope.

St. Paul put it this way, in this letter to Thessalonica, one of the very earliest of Christian writings:

Since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

 

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A Great Multitude


A sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Today we observe the feast of All Saints with the baptism of two new saints. In popular parlance, the term “saint” refers to some sort of religious superhero. But that’s not how the Scriptures describe the saints, and I think it is a mistake when the church looks at its saints that way. The word “saint” means holy—that’s its entire meaning both in Latin and Greek. A person is holy because they belong to God—and our reading from the book of Revelation shows a throng of saints, the holy people of God, more than anyone can count—all kinds of people, from all nations, tribes, peoples and languages—every sort and category of person: all holy and blessed and beloved of God.

The saints we remember are ordinary people, in whose lives some memorable things happened that illustrate the Christian life. Martyrs are ordinary Christians, who in the course of doing what Christians do, had a really bad day.

“They have come out of the great ordeal, they have washed their robes and made them white.” “A great multitude that no one could count…”

The image of the people of God—all of them holy, all of them saints. We here are among saints, people blessed and loved by God. We heard it from George last week—of being enfolded and nourished by the love of God in this place by the Body of Christ, which is to say: You.

This week I heard from a friend whose birthday happens to be on November 1, All Saints Day.  Thirty-seven years ago, I met him and his wife Ruth and their two eldest daughters when we were next-door neighbors during my last year of seminary. Sebastian wrote to say that Ruth died of cancer last month.

Ruth Bakare

Sebastian and Ruth spent their lives serving the church and people of Zimbabwe, courageously standing for justice and the poor. Ruth was president of the Mothers’ Union, and undertook projects for the education and wellness of girls and women in places where those things were hard to come by. Sebastian was Bishop of Manicaland and Acting Bishop of Harare, speaking for the church in a time of great conflict in his country. He told me that one time, while preparing the Eucharist at All Saints Cathedral in Harare, he went to the altar rail and said to riot police that had lined up there, “I am in your hands.” They walked away, and the congregation celebrated the Supper of the Lord.

We never know what will next occur in our Christian life, and in Sebastian and Ruth, I have known friends who calmly and confidently lived in God’s compassion, whatever came. Living a life of generosity and caring for others gave them joy, a joy Sebastian continues to share with his three beautiful daughters and grandchildren. We gather with them in Thanksgiving for God’s love embodied in Jesus Christ and known in the love of all God’s Saints.

There are stories like this in our own community. In our church and in our towns, the saints who have been among us and who continue still. The wonderful thing about this time of discernment at Calvary is that now is the time we can pause and listen to those stories.

This morning, Flynn and Grant are presented for baptism into this Body of Christ.  They are our youngest saints, incorporated into the witness of Christ. They are loved by God, more than any of us here love them—even more than their mothers and fathers love them—and I say that, having seen how precious these two children are to Sarah and Andre and to Kate and Frank. God loves each of us more than we can love ourselves. In a few minutes, we will join in committing to support Grant, Flynn, their parents and godparents in seeing that they are brought up in the Christian faith and life, in renouncing the forces of evil in this world, in affirming and holding the faith of the church, serving Christ in all persons and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

In other words, as a Christian community we are accountable to God and to one another for living and growing together. We are accountable to Grant and Flynn for being the community in which God’s love is concrete in our time and place. Flynn and Grant will likely live to see the end of the twenty-first century and the church will still be here, witnessing to the love of Christ, not because we are smart or efficient, but because God continues to love God’s people. There is no doubt that life will continue to be complex, that there will be doubts and discouragements. There is no saint that does not have doubts and discouragements—the wonderful thing about the saints is that they are real people, living in our real challenging and complex world.

With all the saints, we celebrate the God of Life—God who is the beginning and the end is not about death, but about life that is not stopped or defeated by those powers of evil and hurt that distract us. When we see and know and remember the saints, they affirm life and do not fear the powers that bring death. As my friend Sebastian said, “I am in your hands.”

We join with all the saints in the feast of life—if anyone is discouraged, or fearful, or confused, rejoice—that shows that you are a real person like the real saints. Rejoice that we have life to give, and we can live it for the new Christians in our midst—our love and accountability to Grant and Flynn is a gift from God, both the sign and the medium of our inclusion in the Resurrection of Christ.

For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the One who is seated on the Throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind

A sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 29, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.

It is fairly common for Christians to think because Jesus says this in a controversy with the Pharisees, that he came up with it, or at least that he was saying something that they disagreed with. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus’ answer was from the scriptural text that is most important to all Jews, and certainly the Pharisees. From the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, it is known as the Shema: “Hear O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Jesus is telling these figures of the religious establishment that he fully shares and agrees with the most essential point of their belief: that it is God and God alone that deserves reverence and obedience.  In fact, in the Gospel of Luke, a young lawyer asks Jesus about how to attain eternal life, and Jesus asks the lawyer what the law says and it is the lawyer who tells Jesus exactly the words that Jesus repeats to the Pharisees. It’s not complicated, it’s not secret, it’s not innovative—it’s just very serious business.

In Luke, the young lawyer tries to justify himself, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” And Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. You’ll have to wait until that text comes up for a sermon on the Good Samaritan, however.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” Note that he doesn’t say, “Act like you love the Lord with all your heart” or “be really showy with how pious you are” or “tell everybody if they don’t believe and act just like you do that they will be damned to hell.” The command is to live in God’s love—always—at all times and in all ways. Most people have a god that is far too small, a mascot god that does what they want, makes them comfortable, helps them feel justified in however they do things. That is not the One God of Scripture. The true and only God is no one’s mascot. I once calculated approximately how far a particle traveling at the speed of light would have travelled in the 13 billion years since the Big Bang—80 sextillion miles and change. All of that distance, in all directions, could fit in the palm of God’s hand. God’s love is likewise infinite and it is not subject to manipulation—by magic, or self-serving rhetoric, or use of power over others, or by any attempt to turn the Gospel upside down.

We like to duck out of our responsibility to the one God, who created everything that is and who loves even the poorest of god’s creatures, and find some kind of religious expression that will confirm our prejudices and privileges. It’s always a temptation. Jesus came to hold people to the truth—I think that is what is behind his question at the end of this lesson about the Messiah—the Pharisees were looking back at an idea of the Kingdom of God based on David the monarch of Israel from a thousand years before—Jesus says the Kingdom of God is infinitely more. Ultimately, Jesus speaking the truth and meaning it resulted in the discomfort that led to his crucifixion.

That seems like a big jump, but it’s not. Because it is not a matter of words or philosophies and discussion groups. The problem was Jesus really meant it and held people accountable to loving God in their lives and actions.

It was not a controversial or unusual thing to continue his quote from the Shema with his next sentence: “And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That quote comes from the holiness code in the Book of Leviticus, which lays out how the holy people of God are supposed to behave. Thus, it interprets what it is to love God with all your heart in terms of a person’s behavior. Loving other people and valuing their welfare every bit as much as you value your own is living the love of God.  The God of heaven and earth leads us beyond what is good for us and into what is good. Abundant life is life for others, living in generosity, living in God with our entire heart, soul, mind and strength. Living this way is not a matter of being more religious or better than the ordinary—actually it is very ordinary and it isn’t optional at all.  Being connected in love is what gives life—it is redirecting concern toward maintaining ourselves or our own community that causes life to shrivel.

At Calvary, we have the opportunity to live for others. Some of us walked last week in the CROP walk up in Clinton. Some of us will give contributions today for the relief of those affected by recent natural disasters in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico and California. Over the next months we will have the opportunity to reflect on how our lives, our life together and our individual lives in the world of work and community, affect the well-being of others and how we can grow in compassion.

Let us pray once more our Collect for today:

Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice

A sermon for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, October 15, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Paul wrote this letter to the Church at Philippi from prison. The word that is translated here as “Rejoice,” is Chairete. There is a footnote in my Bible which says it could also mean “Farewell.” It is a word that was frequently used for a greeting – it means joy, but also connotes peace, quite similar in usage to the Hebrew word Shalom. As Paul reaches this last section of the letter where he sums up and bids his farewell, he emphasizes it, like, “Farewell in the Lord, but I mean, really, Rejoice.”  Paul rejoices in this community which he came to love long before and in the love of God. He rejoices in the ability to live for others and to encourage the Philippians, and he encourages the Philippians to rejoice, not in what they have received for themselves, not in any comfort or material well-being, but in their ability to serve and give to others.

Some of the most encouraging and inspiring Christian writings have come from pastors who were imprisoned. In the twentieth century Martin Luther King wrote his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his “Letters and Papers from Prison.” The notable thing about these writings from faithful pastors is that they don’t dwell or focus on their own plight, or even how God might be doing something for them, or how they feel about things. Rather their perspective of concern for their correspondents on the outside emphasizes God’s call. In the case of Dr. King, he was reminding his fellow pastors of God’s call to justice and compassion for those who were oppressed by unjust laws; in the case of Bonhoeffer he was sending encouragement to family, friends and colleagues in the ministry for them to have courage and hope in the midst of the Nazi terror and the raging war around them. Near the end of Dr. King’s letter he writes:

Never before have I written so long a letter. I’m afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

St. Paul gives thanks for the ministries of two women in the congregation, women who had struggled along with him in his work—he encouraged them to continue steadfast and enjoined the congregation to support them in that. He rejoices in the opportunity to serve, and to see the service that others extend to others in the love of God. Knowing his perspective was from prison made his words of thanksgiving and encouragement all the more potent, for he was not serving himself, but the Kingdom of God.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” The Greek word meaning “gentleness” refers to flexibility and reasonableness, the opposite of rigidity or harshness—everyone should know that when they approach you, you will be humble and listen.  Paul is not saying this to showcase people who are naturally gentle, but rather to remind each of us that our interactions with one another require flexibility from the outset and at all times.

Then he says, “the Lord is near, do not worry about anything.”  Usually when somebody says that, the smart and worldly answer is, “Easy for you to say.”  This is one of the things about letters from prison. That cynical, discouraged and often argument-winning remark comes up short against the reality of what it means to be in prison. We don’t know whether it was at the end of this imprisonment or some later imprisonment that Paul was beheaded.  When he says, “Do not worry about anything,” he means it, and he’s not whistling in the dark. He’s not talking about ignoring his chains or our situation. He’s not talking about giving up on planning or concern about the realities of finances, of expenses or of revenue. What St. Paul is saying is exactly what is not easy to say: the outcomes of our planning, and the vagaries of human existence may not be what we envision, and our comfort may be intruded upon, but God remains present and his mercy is with us—encouraging us in our gentleness of spirit to rejoice rather than to worry.  It is not that our physical wellbeing and our presence in this world does not matter—Paul encourages all of our desires and needs and concerns to be expressed in prayer to God. But note, each of those prayers is to be with thanksgiving, thanksgiving that Paul gives for the generous and helping spirit of his congregation, of their concern beyond themselves.

As we are bound in the network of prayer into the body of God’s love we discover the peace of God. That peace is not from material security—it is the peace that comes from the prison, whether it is in Birmingham, Berlin, or Ephesus—the peace of rejoicing in the generosity of God known in the love and generosity of God’s people.

Here at Calvary, we live in God’s generosity–on Friday we shared in the fellowship of the Oktoberfest celebration. We encourage one another in our ministries in our everyday lives, as we all grow into the compassion of God in Jesus. We will soon celebrate the love of our neighborhood children on Halloween and then the following Sunday, All Saints Sunday, we will baptize Flynn and Grant, affirming our own baptisms for the sake of their Christian lives going forward. We have much to rejoice about.  Primarily it is that peace of God, that Shalom of God, which surpasses anything we can understand, figure out or worry about—it is that peace that guards our hearts and gives us opportunity to rejoice.  Let us listen to Paul’s final words of farewell, that is, rejoicing—you can see that in the farewell is the beginning of an ongoing path of abundant life:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them

A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 8, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

You shall not bow down to them or worship them…

Today’s lesson from the Old Testament is the beginning of the law as God gave it to Moses—it is the Ten Commandments. They are worth memorizing, and certainly that was one of the virtues of the old-fashioned way of doing things—such texts would be absorbed into people’s minds, their way of doing things, into their hearts. They can be found at Exodus Chapter 20 in your Bible, or at pages 317 and 318 or page 350 in the Book of Common Prayer. It wouldn’t hurt to refresh your memory.

I noticed something in looking over the text, however. The text of the first four commandments is more than three-quarters of the text of the ten commandments. Why is that? The law is not a set of rules that we can use to protect ourselves by obeying them. The living God is far too free and dangerous for that little fantasy of ours to be true. The law is the statement of the relationship between God and God’s people.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” God’s mercy brings his people out of the house of slavery. God is the God of compassion, justice and life—no other God is acceptable. A God who does not bring life and freedom is no true God.

The next three commandments—about idols, making wrongful use of the name of God, and about the Sabbath continue to define who God is in relation to God’s people. The other six commandments define our relationship to God as well—being accountable to living a responsible life in God’s community. But let’s consider the longest of the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…

And it continues for thirty-six more words. God has defined our relationship according to mercy, compassion, justice, life. Bowing down in worship to things of the world change that focus to things like power, wealth, personal success. To win any of those things is not intrinsically merciful, compassionate, just or life giving. In ancient Israel, idolatry referred to what anthropologists might call “magic,” which is to say using things of this world to manipulate powers in the world. This was done, largely, for individual advantage, or the advantage of one’s close associates. In the Old Testament, it wasn’t really that this magic or those powers didn’t exist but rather that bowing to them violated the relationship with God—it could mean worshiping death, or the means of death for others rather than devotion to the God of Life, of Compassion, of Truth. The true God, the ultimate God is the God of life and mercy. The powers of death are not an alternate God, they are powers and things within this world which take advantage of the fears, selfishness and dishonesty of human beings. We moderns tend to think that we have outgrown such things, but they are very much real and very much with us.  That is why the first question in presenting a person for baptism is: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Think about this world, all the systems, organizations and ideologies that pressure and manipulate people’s decisions and feelings. The almost magical way that Google or Facebook presents you with ads that are tailored to your own very needs, the ways in which we ourselves conclude derogatory things about members of groups that we aren’t part of—based on—repeated rumors that we might hear on our favorite radio station, or things on our twitter feed, or the feelings and attitudes of parents, friends and relatives. These things have precious little to do with the God of mercy, justice and compassion. The God who freed the slaves and brings his children to safety.  Worshiping forces in this world—be they the internet, or political party, some idea of the power of science (other than the real truth of science which is that it is supposed to be about trying things out and being honest about mistakes and when hypotheses need to be changed) or social pressure—worshiping any of these things and bowing down to them breaches the relationship of faith in the Living God. Often people do not see how they are drifting into the worship of death until it is too late.

A priest that I know became very concerned when a girls’ softball team in a neighboring town advertised a raffle of an assault rifle to raise money to go to a tournament. He offered to pay their expenses instead, but that couldn’t happen since the raffle had been announced already.  So he bought most of the tickets and won the rifle.  He announced that he would have it destroyed and turned into a work of art.  This had some notoriety for a while and he received all sorts of messages.  He shared one of them with me. The person took him to task for destroying the gun. Like me, Fr. Jeremy has had plenty of experience with the rough language that filled the message, but what was striking was what he said, “how dare you destroy that beautiful weapon? How would you feel if someone smashed an image of Jesus Christ?”

I’m sure he would deny it, but in his message this man put a gun on a level with the Word made Flesh, God come amongst us. Note that the man had no claim to the gun, it belonged to Jeremy, a machine made of metal, wood and plastic. But its symbolic function was powerful enough to trigger his outrage—to call the destruction of this machine made from the earth, an act of blasphemy. Holiness, reverence and worship was invested in this machine, whose design was solely to cause death.

There are many such symbols, systems and ideas in this world, which serve a God-given purpose but which become idols, controlling the allegiance of people and turning them to the worship of death.

A week ago, a man broke out some windows from his high-rise hotel room and sprayed a crowd with automatic gunfire for ten minutes, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500. From what we have learned so far, Stephen Paddock wasn’t known very well, not even by the two wives and a girlfriend he had lived with. It’s a fair bet that we will come to know much about him and his grievance. Such a grievance couldn’t be proportional to the death and injury he caused—that could only be proportional to emptiness and fury that gives reverence to death over life.

 

Idolatry is commitment to powers that are contrary to life, contrary to God—gaming this world by using the power of death to get an advantage.

.           It is the God of Life who brought the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It is the God of life that brought Jesus into this world to proclaim his mercy and compassion. If is the God of life that raised Jesus from the dead and who makes life, compassion, justice and peace possible for all his people. Do not join with those who make idols in our time, and do not bow down to them.

By what authority?

A sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 1, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

The chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things?”

What’s going on in this story? This event takes place during that time we remember as Holy Week, after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and before his betrayal on Maundy Thursday.  He has knocked over the tables of the money changers in the temple, saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” The following day, he’s back teaching in the temple when this confrontation takes place. The chief priests and elders were like religious and civil authorities of any time and place—they wanted to keep things quiet and cover up anything wrong, or disturbing, or contradictory in places where they seek to maintain control. That’s why Jesus brings up John the Baptist when he’s questioned.

John had appeared out in the wilderness of Judea a few years previous. He was very much in the tradition of the prophets, like Elijah, Amos, Jeremiah or Ezekiel. They were about uncovering wrongs and disturbing people who were all about protecting their comfort and influence, rather than following the challenging way of God. Prophets often performed physical signs to emphasize God’s word—Jeremiah wore a yoke to symbolize the oppression that Babylon would bring, for instance. So John the Baptist went out into the desert by the River Jordan, the traditional boundary and entry into the land of Israel, and there he had people repent of their sins and be washed in the waters of that river as a sign of repentance from their sins—from their denial of how they were a part of the evil of their time, of exploiting others, and being part of the death-dealing and self-serving corruption that arose during the dynasty of Herod—the rulers of Judea that served at the behest of the occupying Roman empire. John was arrested and later executed for publicly calling out Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for his immorality and corruption. All four Gospels connect John’s arrest with the beginning of Jesus’ public preaching.

I once heard someone describe John’s preaching as “weak tea” because all that John said in his preaching was to do things that people were legally obligated to do and to live with compassion—things like don’t coerce others, bully them or take bribes.  We mostly like our religion to be bigger, more flashy, doing things wholesale with lots of fireworks—I guess that would be stronger tea than John offered.  Thing is: John meant it.  The way people live their everyday lives makes a difference. God does not demand much—no grand show, no championships in ascetical practice, just living justly and compassionately.  John the Baptist had no time to be fashionable or political. He lived the life of the prophet and that meant that he wasn’t about to coddle injustice or dishonesty. So they killed him.

These elders and chief priests knew all about John the Baptist. These were political guys; they knew that John spoke the truth and it was exactly the kind of trouble they needed to cover up. Jesus knew and he was notifying them—the truth was not going away.  God was not going to stop calling people to justice and compassion.  They answered Jesus, “We do not know.” Because they couldn’t think of any other answer to make this issue disappear. The authority of both Jesus and John the Baptist was truth, the truth of God’s love and justice, and like so many, these authorities needed to deflect the conversation away from that.

So as they paused, as they weren’t sure what to do, Jesus began to tell a little story. We know those kids. At least those of us who have had teenagers know them. Heck, I’ve been those kids, both of them.  If you ask my wife, she will tell you that I’m the one that promises to do everything and then, hours later, is still flipping through Facebook or doing whatever else than the chores I’d promised. Lots of people like to pose as the really righteous, or the really religious or the one who will get things done. But the focus of Jesus’ story is on that other kid, the one who didn’t cooperate at first, who did not appear to be the righteous one. But he had a conscience, he was able to turn, to repent, and to be generous and drop his self-serving choices. That’s the truth that God requires of us, to be able to turn, and to give, not to protect our reputation and privilege, but to humbly do the will of God.

“John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him.”

The Kingdom of God can be built even from those that are most despised, and even those we respect the least—what is required is to turn away from anxiety about our own standing and success, and to follow the truth of God.

Paul is saying the same thing in this marvelous passage that was read this morning from his letter to the Philippians:

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

That doesn’t mean Paul is saying we should want to be regarded as the most humble, religious or generous people around. What Paul is saying is look out for the interests of others. Our life in Christ is focused on the well-being of somebody besides ourselves. It’s also not important to focus on the times we failed to do that – now is the time to look out for the good of others: the weak, the poor, those who are disrespected by others, especially by those who watch out for their own reputations and perquisites. Paul continues:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was 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—even death on a cross.

Notice that this obedience that resulted in death on the cross, was this very teaching that we hear today. Being a Christian is simple, and requires nothing fancy, just the humility to follow Jesus on his path along with all those who are able to turn and give up their fear.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

You also go into the vineyard

A sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2017

Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey

He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”

Today’s Gospel lesson is another parable from Jesus. As I said last week, parables are not allegories, which is to say, the characters and events are not symbolic stand-ins for things and people that we know about.  Basically, they are just stories to illustrate something. So when Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like…” He’s not saying that the kingdom of heaven is like this landowner, he’s certainly not saying that the landowner is God. The kingdom of heaven is like this story.

This story is a bit unusual—it catches our attention. Not the first part where he finds day laborers throughout the day. At grape harvest, time is of the essence, as many hands as possible are important to get the ripe grapes in before they start to dry out or fall off the vine. But then comes time for pay. That’s when it gets interesting—people who had only worked a single hour received as much as those who had worked for twelve.  The people who worked all day were upset—and probably most of us would be too.  How unfair! We worked more, we deserve more!  Or at least those others deserve less.

In looking out for ourselves, we sometimes over-estimate our own work and other virtues and the difficulties we face at the same time as we underestimate others abilities and their difficulties.  That’s kind of the way that people work. It’s more important to be aware of that tendency than to condemn ourselves or others when we figure it out.

So all the people who had been working all day were angry. If we take a peek at this morning’s lesson from Exodus, we see that it takes less than a chapter after being saved from slaughter by the Egyptians for the Israelites following Moses to get angry. Angry has become a pretty popular thing to be.

All those folks were quick to conclude that the landowner was being unfair—or that Moses or even God is unfair in not giving us what we think should be our fair portion. The landowner was unimpressed. At the beginning of the day, the workers were satisfied to work for a denarius—a silver coin a bit smaller than a quarter that was typically what a day laborer was paid for a day’s work. Why did he pay the others that came later the same amount?  We don’t know—the people who were angry certainly thought it was unfair and unequal—but one could speculate why a landowner would do this. Maybe he just didn’t want to get into complex accounting—a day’s wage was a single coin, why start subdividing and messing with small change? Perhaps—and this wouldn’t make the people who had worked all day happy, but as a long-time boss, I have seen this—perhaps the latecomers were better workers and he wanted to make sure that they would want to work for him the next day.  Maybe the landowner realized that a denarius really only covered the basic needs of his workers and he wanted all the workers to be able to be healthy and fed for the next day of work.

When the landowner asked the last ones he hired why they weren’t working, they told him, “Because no one has hired us.” I can remember times looking for work when I didn’t have a job, perhaps some others have experienced this, being ready to work, looking, willing to take anything and no opportunities appeared. That is likely the experience of those hired at the eleventh hour—desperation, discouragement, having a hard time holding on to hope. So this man hired them and they took the job at the end of the day, to work for whatever bit they might get.  There was nothing requiring the landowner to pay them a day’s pay, no expectation of it at all. The landlord would not explain or justify himself to the gripers,

Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go: I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous? So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

“Are you envious because I am generous?” When I read this story, that is the key—the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s overwhelming generosity, God’s compassion for those who are beyond hope, discouraged, last in line, or at the bottom of all the advantages and opportunities. “The last will be first” in God’s Kingdom. It’s a kingdom of grace, not of self-pity, selfishness, or envy.  Fair is not what we desire for ourselves, but how abundant life and healing is given to all God’s children.

Living in Christ means looking beyond our self-interest, and enduring the challenges that comprise the real world we live in. It is praising God for God’s generosity, not so much his generosity to us, but God’s generosity in giving life and well-being to those who may not expect it, those that are last in the eyes of the worldly around us.  We praise God for bringing us together with all humanity and glorify God for giving life and hope when it seems near to running out.

Let’s conclude with words from today’s psalm:

Give thanks to the Lord and call upon his Name,

Make known his deeds among the peoples.

Remember the marvels he has done,

His wonders and the judgments of his mouth.

He led out his people with silver and gold;

In all their tribes there was not one that stumbled.

Egypt was glad of their going,

Because they were afraid of them.

He spread out a cloud for a covering

And a fire to give light in the night season.

They asked, and quails appeared,

And he satisfied them with bread from heaven.

He opened the rock, and water flowed,

So the river ran in the dry places.

For God remembered his holy word

And Abraham his servant.