Year A — The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23)

Commentary for October 9, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 32:1-14
I used to relish picking arguments with a few of my more “fundamental” brethren (rarely are any of my “sistern” fundamental, for some reason) —  over the statement “God never changes.” Sputtering, they would assert vehemently that, if God could or should ever change in any manner, then surely the fate of the world as we know it would hang in the balance! Supposedly, the created order depends on God not being able to exercise an option available to each and every one of us weak mortals — the ability to change one’s mind.

Of course, I would then cite Exodus 32:14 (which — being part of “the word of God” — is unassailably inerrant and infallible.) There proceeded much gnashing of teeth, and of course, there was no real purpose served by any of it. (I did eventually reform my ways and give up on such exercises.)

All of this to say, just what are we to make of the idea that God sometimes needs input in order to make up God’s mind? I’m probably glad, if the truth were told, that God has not acted instantly upon every stupid decision I have made in my lifetime — I have had my share of “golden calf” moments. 

Doesn’t this have something to do with the concept of God’s grace?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Truer words have never been spoken than those in v.6 — we have sinned, as have all those who have come before us (and, presumably, will those who come after us.) And thus, we have a problem!

I am thankful for those who answer the call of Moses and “stand in the breach.” Parents, teachers, preachers, friends…all of these at one time or another are found in the role of intercessors on our behalf. Sometimes, their intercession comes in the form of a swift kick to the behind — for us, not for God. Anyway, thank God for the “breach-fillers!”

Isaiah 25:1-9
Later preachers and seers would echo Isaiah’s bold words from this passage. Paul found his image of “death is swallowed up in victory” here (see 1 Corinthians 15:54) and John’s Apocalypse brings the message that “God will wipe away the tears” from all eyes (see Revelation 21:4.)

I am a bit partial to the images of “rich, marrow-filled food” and “well-aged wines” as avatars of God’s graciousness. But, it is only fair to note that, sometimes, God’s work takes the form of fortified cities reduced to ruin — and the abode of “aliens” resigned to the midden heap. 

Those final words are the kind of things “that make you go, hmmmmm….” (Kudos to Arsenio Hall.)

Psalm 23
Okay, you know me well enough by now to know that I don’t really try to add to the commentary available for passages like Psalm 23. What else can I say?

I do love the image of the “darkest valley” — perhaps I hear strains of Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — to remind me that there is nowhere I will ever be, that God is not already there.

Philippians 4:1-9
Two godly church women in a squabble — who says the Bible isn’t true to 21st-century life? (A pastor’s life, anyway!)

Euodia and Syntyche were fomenting division in the church. (There is a nice play on words in the Greek here — their names mean “pleasant aroma” and “dwelling together” — and the fight they were having was distinctly odorous and unharmonious.) What is the antidote to such church-rending?

Rejoice in the Lord…let your gentleness be known…don’t worry; instead pray. Think on the kinds of things that are honorable, true, pure, just, et cetera. You’d be surprised how the peace of God can fill a space when we are willing to back down, chill out, and invite God in!

Matthew 22:1-14

Remember what I just said about the handiwork of God sometimes resulting in leveling the town? Well, here you go…here’s a parable for you!
The requirements for being “chosen” in the kingdom of God are beyond mysterious sometimes.Anybody remember the old commercial from American television in the 1970’s — “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature?”
Whatever else may be said, the invitation to come to the Lord is not to be taken lightly or trifled with. That’s about all I’ve got to say about that. 
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
The question of appropriate attire used to be more important than it is now.
I confess that I’m a little old fashioned about this. It bothers me to see men eating with caps on indoors, for instance, and while I don’t expect people to dress up for church the way they used to, a little specialness would be nice. But, the world has changed, and as a sign of my age, I confess I’m not sure it’s for the better.

Anyway, we’re a little out of touch with worries about wearing the wrong thing to a social event; but our Gospel lesson hinges on just such rules and expectations.

Pastor Frank Honeycutt in his book “MARRY A PREGNANT VIRGIN,” says that oftentimes a Bible story seems to be about one thing, but it throws us a curve ball and is really about something else.

So it is with the Gospel story we read this morning.

It starts out normal enough – the king’s son is getting married and the king is hosting a banquet to celebrate. The date was announced months ago, the invitations went not long after.

We all know our fairy tales; invitations to this party should be the hottest ticket in the kingdom.

But, in this version, things go wrong immediately. The king’s servants go out to tell the guests that the banquet is ready, but they refuse to come.

The king can’t believe it. The guests must not have understood. So he sends out other servants, makes a new announcement, a more explicit message: “Dinner’s ready. We’ve got a great menu. I’ve booked an A list band. Let’s party!”

Now, it really gets strange. Not only do the guests refuse to come; some of them insult the king with the lame excuse that they have to work, while others, unbelievably, torture and kill the king’s messengers.

Of course the king is outraged, and in true fairy tale fashions, sends in the troops to punish the murderers.

Next, the king sends out more messengers to work up a crowd, to find other people to come to the son’s wedding feast.

“Go out in the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet,” he says.

And the servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests (verses 9 and 10.)

Well, so far so good. The story makes a certain amount of theological sense.

We can read it as the king is God, and the wedding banquet is the Kingdom of God, and the servants are the prophets and the invited guests are like the Jews or the Scribes and Pharisees, or the Chief Priests or something like that.

And the people gathered up off the streets are the tax collectors and sinners or the gentiles, or some combination of the three; sinful gentile tax collectors. So, it makes a certain amount of sense; I guess.

But, remember what Pr. Honeycutt said about Bible stories throwing us curve balls, meaning something else than what we originally think? Well here comes the really strange part.

The king walks through the banquet hall, and throws a guy out of the party for failing to come properly dressed. I think we can understand why Jesus says the man was speechless. He’s probably thinking to himself;
what’s going on here? I was hanging out at the corner, minding my own business, when this guy comes up to me and asks me if I want to go to a free party. I said, sure, why not? So, I came to the party and then this other guy kicks me out ‘cause I’m not wearing the right clothes? What kind of nut cases are these people?

This story only makes sense if we realize it’s not about clothes and banquets; it’s a story about seriousness and faithfulness in responding to the grace of God.

It is a story not about kings and slaves and prophets and Jews. It’s a story about us, and about God’s invitation to us, and about our response to God’s gracious invitations and promises…

This is a story about taking God and God’s Kingdom seriously, about not presuming upon the grace of God to the extent that we assume that God must forgive and accept us no matter what we do. It is a story about the paradox and mystery of God’s love.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ walks a very narrow path between two large ditches.

On the one side is legalism, which sets out a series of things we must do to be saved. We fall into this ditch when we insist that in order to make God love and accept us we must hold a certain form of theology or follow a particular type of worship, or practice a strict code of morality.

The other ditch is “antinomianism,” which is preacher talk for “anything goes,” an attitude that says that no matter what we do God, being God, has to love and accept us anyway.

This parable, this story seeks to point us down the middle path between the ditches.

All are invited, many come, both good and bad, the banquet hall is filled. It is true; God’s invitation to discipleship is offered to all. No legalism here, no prior requirements, no price of admission.

But, once the invitation has been accepted, it is expected that one’s life will be changed in response to God’s gracious gift of love.

The wedding robe represents the desire to amend one’s life, to dress one’s soul in the garments of righteousness, to behave appropriately as befits a guest of the Most High King.

To fail to do so indicates that one does not appreciate the gift one has received.

I’ll tell you a secret; one of my boys, when he was younger, opened all cards from his grandmothers by tearing open the envelope and shaking out the check or cash from inside, never looking at or reading the card.
At least, he did that until I caught him at it. Shall we say the Dad “was enraged and sent in the troops,” and leave it at that?

When Jesus shows the king throwing the inappropriately dressed guest into the outer darkness, He is cautioning us against taking ourselves, our souls or our God lightly. He is warning us not to presume upon the grace of God.

You have been invited to the Wedding Banquet of the Son of God.

You have been brought into come into the Kingdom of God.

What are you going to wear from this day forth?

Are you going to put on Christ, dress yourself in the garments of righteousness,
put your best foot forward, bring into the Kingdom the best you have to offer?

Not because you have to, but because you want to.

Because God in Christ has been so gracious to you that you can do no other than to offer God your very best.

What are you going to wear?

Amen and Amen.

Year A — The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22)

Commentary for October 2, 2011

Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Okay, how are you going to go wrong preaching the Decalogue? Actually, it’s quite a task. Our listeners have such a “been there, done that” attitude when it comes to the Ten Commandments.

Truth be told, maybe we do, too.

The thing is, for most of us, we may have been there — we’ve heard these statements all of our lives — but perhaps we haven’t quite done that — kept the commandments, wholly (holy) that is.

I love the anecdote from Henry Blackaby (Google the name if you’re not a Baptist or have never heard of the guy) — during the days of Dr. Blackaby’s pastorate, a gentleman came to him concerned with how to know the “will of God” for his life. The gentle pastor’s question, in return: “Well, God has given you Ten Commandments; how are you doing with those?”

Psalm 19
Well, while we’re on the Bible’s greatest hits, we might as well add Psalm 19!

I love these familiar verses because they always remind me that the glory of God is on display — all the time! Day to day, the handiwork of God may be heard everywhere — if you can stop and listen. Night to night, you can come to know God just by opening your eyes and seeing what’s around you.

The written word of the Lord is beautiful and powerful, as well; we do well to keep it around us by the by, just like the heavens.

My good friend and colleague, Bubba #1, never preaches a sermon (I don’t believe) without praying the prayer of v.14. Good idea.

Isaiah 5:1-7
The text begins with a song — a “love song,” no less! But it ends with a dirge of destruction. The Lord is both angry and sorrowful over the results of God’s “planting” in the vineyard of God’s people.

A sobering question in the midst of our worship: what does God expect of us? What has God built and planted in our lives that should be producing a vintage crop?

Psalm 80:7-15
“Restore us, O Lord….”

Indeed, the plaintive cry of the psalm is a poignant response when we consider that our growth has not always been what it should have been.

Pruning and “cutting back” are natural rhythms of the vineyard; sometimes, so too is uprooting and replanting.

Philippians 3:4b-14
Pardon me for another Baptist reference — any of ya’ll ever get a Sunday School pin?

Once upon a time, Baptists gave them out for “perfect attendance” in the Bible study program of the church. They were exciting mostly for the children, but adults were known to strive for them, as well. One gentleman I know of had 17 of them, all connected together and pinned to his chest like the “fruit salad” of a decorated military commander. Seventeen years of perfect attendance — now that’s some record!

Paul puts the Pharisaical equivalent of his Sunday School pins on display in this text; “if anybody has done a good job and ought to boast about it, it’s me!” No matter your denominational heritage, I’m sure there must be comparative activities. We think we’ve done a lot in the service of Christ!

Skubala, Paul calls such efforts. One of those wonderful biblical onomatopoeias that sounds like what it is. Rubbish. Garbage. Trash. (all polite translations) Dung. Doo-doo. Shit.

Well, you won’t really be able to use that last rendering in the pulpit, I don’t suppose. But you get the idea. Our best, which is definitely what we should strive to give the Lord, is still far, far short of God’s glory. If not for Christ, we’re all in deep skubala!

Matthew 21:33-46
I admit I’m a fan; when it’s football time on Saturday, I’m tuning in to College Gameday. Lee Corso has made his catchphrase famous: “Not so fast, my friend!” He pulls his sidekicks Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler up short when he thinks they’re wrong.

Jesus give the Pharisees a big, “Not so fast, my friends!” with this harsh story of the vineyard. They know he is upstaging them, and that they can’t go against the crowds to put an end to his difficult message. Guess they’ll just have to listen one more time and wait for a better moment to get at him.

I hope we’re not guilty of the same ploy when we hear the tougher side of the gospel. We’ll just bide our time, listen to one more sermon, and find a way to get out of the gospel’s demands later.

Not so fast, my friend!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In three of our texts for today, an important image is played out. The Nation of Israel is portrayed as a Vineyard planted by God.

Each lesson uses this image to make an important point about God’s relationship to God’s people.

In the Isaiah text we hear the voice of God speaking. God says, “I cleared the land, I planted the grapes, I built a tower for protection, I dug out a wine press, I got everything ready;

but, the vines did not produce as God had hoped. The vines did not produce good fruit, instead they produced bad; wild grapes came forth, grapes unsuited to the making of good wine.

God looks the situation over and says, “Well, I did the best I could. I’ve done all I can. I can’t pour good money after bad. I’m going to abandon the field. Let the walls and the watchtower crumble. Go somewhere else where I can be more productive.”

Isaiah the prophet’s point is simple: the Nation of Israel had become an embarrassment and God was ready to abandon them.

The Psalm is a response to this abandonment. Verses 8 and 9 retell the same tale: God planting Israel in a new land; “You have brought a vine out of Egypt, you cast out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took root and filled the land.”

But verses 12 1nd 13 show the people’s bewilderment at being abandoned; “Why have you broken down its wall, so that all who pass by may pluck off its grapes? The wild boar of the forest has ravaged it, and the beasts of the field have grazed upon it.”

And then, in verses 14 and 15, the people plead with God for forgiveness and restoration; “Turn now, O God of hosts, look down from heaven; behold and tend this vine; preserve what your right hand has planted.”

Isaiah and Psalm 80 contain a major theme and plot line of the Hebrew Bible:

God’s showers God’s people with grace.
The people prosper.
The people forget God.
The people become “wild.”
God becomes angry and regrets making or saving or favoring the people.
God allows the people to suffer.
The people cry out for forgiveness.
God hears,
God forgives,
God heals and restores.

And so it goes: over and over and over again.

Our Gospel lesson from Matthew picks up on these two story lines; the Nation of Israel as the Lord’s vineyard and the cycle of rebellion and renewal throughout Israel’s history.

In verse 33 Jesus tells the same story as Isaiah and the Psalmist, but he takes it off in a new direction. In Jesus’ version, the owner rents out the Vineyard to tenants and leaves town.

After a while, at harvest time, in Hebrew, literally “the season of fruit,” the owner sends servants to collect the rent.

And the tenants, the sharecroppers, do an astoundingly cruel and stupid thing; they beat one of the servants and kill the other.

And the owner here is amazingly tolerant and, and, well, kind of stupid. I mean, it’s really silly to keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. But that’s what the owner does. He sends more servants and they get beaten and killed. And then the son is sent.

How ridiculous is that? I mean, would you send your child into a situation like that? Really now?

And sure enough, the tenants beat and kill the son of the owner.

At this point Jesus stops telling the story, looks at his hearers and asks them to finish the story.

So what would the owner do? And the people say, “Simple, he would come with an army and kill the bad tenants and give the vineyard to good tenants.”

Right you are, Jesus says. “And the Kingdom of God, the true vineyard of the Lord, will be taken away from you!

You who reject the prophets and even the very son whom God had given to people who bear the fruit of the Kingdom.”

It would be easy for us to nod and say “Yes, that’s what happened. Those Jewish people were the bad tenants, so God took away the Kingdom and gave it to us Christians.”

It would be easy to say that. It would also be wrong.

Jesus was not talking to the Jews as a people, as a race, or as a religion. Jesus was talking to the religious leaders, the Chief Priests and Pharisees. The people are the vineyard, the leaders are the bad tenants.

The life of the vineyard, the Kingdom, goes on. And God still seeks good fruit. We in the church must listen to the word of judgment in these Bible lessons.

We must realize how often we fail to listen to and obey God’s Word because we find it an embarrassment in our modern world.

And we must realize how often our failure to bear good fruit, our lack of love and charity, are an embarrassment to God.

The Word of God is a powerful stone, Matthew says in verse 44,  pounding on our hearts, shattering our ego and self-serving pride; “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces . . . “

But in that very brokenness lies the opportunity for new life. The Word of God not only breaks us, it also heals us.

The crushing and critical word becomes the cornerstone of our lives, the foundation of a new vineyard, a vineyard which then bursts forth to overflowing with the fruits of the spirit: faith, hope and love.

Once we have come face to face with the ugly truth about ourselves, we are ready to hear the beautiful good news about God and God’s undying love for us in Christ.

Our Bible lessons for today call upon us to examine our lives, as individuals and as a community of faith. They call us to discover what sort of vines, what kind of tenants we are.

Are we bearing Good Fruit? Are we giving God God’s due? Are we living our lives as faithful caretakers of God’s Vineyard?

If not, let us cry out with the Psalmist for forgiveness and new life.

Let us trust in the Gospel promise that God will hear, God will forgive, God will restore, God will save.

Amen and Amen.

Year A — The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21)

Commentary for September 25, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 17:1-7
Okay, maybe I’m prone to be a little too hard on the biblical characters sometimes. But, geez, Louise — didn’t God just save their lives (A -GAIN, as Forrest Gump would say) with the whole manna and quail thing. Now, they begin to worry about water to drink?

It’s the same routine as before. “We had PLENTY to drink in EGYPT!” Yeah, and you had taskmasters beating you on the back with whips, too…but who remembers that?

Our human capacity for complaint in the face of the mercy of God seems to be endless. We are all “Massah” — testers of God’s good graces. And we are certainly all “Meribah” — quarreling, whining complainers!

Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Psalm 78 reminds and references the miracles we have been reading in Exodus, most notably the deliverance from the water at the Red Sea and the drawing to the water in the wilderness. In both instances, God’s salvation was made known in the midst of God’s people.

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
The prophet gives a “new” saying for God’s people, one that balances corporate sin and deliverance with individual responsibility for repentance.

Psalm 25:1-9
There is a fairly active debate, when it comes to forgiveness, about whether it is right to both forgive and forget. Certainly, the psalmist asks God to do just that! “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!” (v.7)

Philippians 2:1-13
The “Christ Hymn” is always spectacular, not only in its reach from the heights of heaven to the depths of the earth and back again, but for its simple profundity. “Jesus had these kinds of things in his mind — so should you.”

  • no claim to a privileged standing with God
  • never exploiting the grace and goodness of God
  • allowing self-pride to drain away in the face of greater need
  • humble willingness to do the will of God
  • allowing God to exalt in God’s perfect timing

It is, after all, God who works in us…and, perhaps despite us, much of the time!

Matthew 21:23-32
Jesus wins a game of one-upmanship against the temple officials. “You go first.” “No, you go first.” “No, you go ahead, then I’ll give you your answer.” “Okay, you win.”
Interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus never steps into a box of our own construction!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton 
Didn’t you hear me? That’s what my Daddy would say when we failed to obey him quickly enough. Didn’t you hear me? That’s what my Mama would say when she got home from work and found our chores undone. Didn’t you hear me? That’s what the elementary school principal would say when we failed to immediately do whatever it was he told us to do.

I grew up in a world in which it was assumed that children would do what their parents and teachers told them, without grumbling, hesitation or backtalk. Since they could not imagine a child NOT doing as he or she was told, the only excuse they could think of for such failure was not hearing the command, thus, “Didn’t you hear me?”

I heard those words a whole lot more than I care to admit or remember. I was not a terribly obedient child, but I was not outwardly rebellious either. I was a bit of a passive-aggressive slacker. So when a parent or teacher or coach or youth minister said, “Didn’t you hear me?”
I usually responded with something really clever like; “Oh, you meant me?” or “Oh, you meant take out THAT trash can.” No one was ever fooled by this, of course.

One of the distressing things about growing up is that we do indeed become our parents. This has led me to a peculiar and I think unique theory of genetics: I believe that we inherit traits from our parents through our children. I know I didn’t become my father until I had two sons.

But, I was not an exact carbon-copy of my father. While, like him, I equated my giving orders to their immediate obedience (oh silly me); I developed a more modern, ironic, sarcastic approach, as in “exactly what part of “unload the dishwasher” did you not understand?” but the point is the same: to hear is to obey.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus has a conversation with the usual suspects, the “Chief Priests and Elders.” They have questions about Jesus’ authority to teach. They are trying to set a trap for him, hoping he will claim divine authority in such a way that they came accuse him of the crime of blasphemy.

Jesus does two things. First, he shows up their lack of honesty and integrity by asking them about John the Baptist. He shows that they are so afraid of public opinion that they will not dare speak an unpopular word. He then lays out for them a parable about obedience:

He tells a simple tale of two brothers. They were both told by their father to go to the vineyard to work. One says Yes Father, but does not go. The other says no, but later changes his mind and goes. Jesus poses the question: Which of the two did the will of the father?

In this story, Jesus makes it clear that the tax collectors and prostitutes and other sinners may have turned their backs on God at first, but they later repented and turned their lives around.

Meanwhile, the Chief Priests and Elders have spent their lives professing obedience to God’s will, saying yes to God; but have never done any of the works of love and mercy to which God calls them.

This, Jesus says, makes it clear that the sinners will get into the Kingdom first.

Many of us in the church are like the Chief Priests and Elders; we are guilty of saying yes and living no.

We say yes to the belief that God is the creator of all things, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth,” and yet how do we treat that which God has made?

We say yes to the truth that all that we have and all that we are gifts to us from God, we say yes to the idea that we own nothing but simply take care of it on behalf of God and the Kingdom. We say “Yes, our time, talent and treasure belong to God.”

We say yes to all this; and then worry about whether our percentage of giving is to be calculated on our gross or net earnings. We question whether or not the Christian is really expected to give a tithe. Oh did you mean me? Oh, did you mean those poor people? Oh, you meant for me to sell all I have and give to the poor. We say yes; but find a way to live no.

We say yes, the Gospel calls us to serve the poor and needy of the world, we say yes to the truth that “if we do it for the least of these,” we have done it for Jesus.

We say yes, Christ calls us to die to self and take up a cross. Oh, you meant that scruffy Bum, that homeless alcoholic, that boy with AIDS, that unwed mother. We say yes, but find a way to live nO.

Soren Kierkegaard created a parable about this. It went something like this:

Suppose a King issued an order to his Kingdom to be obeyed by all. But instead of obeying it the people created Schools to teach people to teach this order to the people. And these new Teachers then went out and held weekly study groups so people could study the King’s order and then they also had weekly Celebrations to sing praises to the King for giving the order. And, in the Universities, those who wrote the most interesting interpretations of the King’s order won
prizes and important titles. What if they did all this, but throughout the whole Kingdom, no one actually bothered to obey the order? “How,” Kirkegaard asks, “Do you think the King would react?”

I think the King would thunder, “Didn’t you hear me?”

This story is about us, the church, and our tendency to say yes while living no.

And, you know what? If we were left only with words, directives, orders, from Jesus, I think we would be stuck in this cycle of self-deception and failure forever.

Fortunately for us, the Creator not only invited us to go into the vineyard to work, the Creator also sent us a Savior to show us the way.

This is the point of our Second Lesson, the reading from Philippians.
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.

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 should bend
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
And every tongue confess,
that Jesus Christ is LORD.

Jesus came to the Vineyard to work, fulfilling the will of the Creator. He obeyed, and this obedience led to his death, his death upon a cross.

But Christ’s obedience did not end there; the cross was not the end but the beginning of life, both for Jesus and for us. God’s yes at Easter led Jesus and us out the other side of the tomb.

We are the new and risen Body of Christ in the world, called to obedience, called to shout out and live out a resounding yes to God’s call and promise.

In the early days of the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote an essay in answer to what he called “Poor, confused persons trying to find the true Christian Church in the world.”

In this essay, Luther laid out seven marks of the Church:
1 – Preaching of the Word
2 – Baptism
3 – Communion
4 – Confession and Forgiveness
5 – Ordaining Ministers
6 – Thanksgiving, prayer and praise
7 – “the suffering of the Cross”

We are all more than willing to say yes to the first six of these. The seventh one, “the suffering of the cross” makes us hesitate, gives us pause.

It is this hesitancy to say yes to the suffering of the cross that leads us to the sin of saying yes with our lips while saying no with our lives.

But, the Gospel is, we are incomplete until our yes to God leads us to solidarity with those who suffer. We are incomplete in our yes to God until our yes leads us to suffer with those who suffer. We are incomplete until our yes to God leads us to suffer with Christ for the salvation of the world.

Then, we can rest assured that when our days here on earth are over, God will look at us and say “Well done, good and faithful servant. I see that you heard me.”

Amen and amen.

Year A — The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20)

Commentary for September 18, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 16:2-15
In evaluating the Exodus text for this day, it is insightful to remember that the Hebrew Bible’s “hymnbook” — the book of Psalms — is filled primarily with two types of songs to the Lord. There are the psalms of praise (such as the glorious Psalm 100 — “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!”) and there are the psalms of lament, sometimes known as complaint (ya gotta love Psalm 6:3 — “My soul is in deep anguish. How long, LORD, how long?”) I often ask Bible study groups which type they would expect to predominate in the book of Psalms, and the answer is almost always, “Well, praise of course!”

Wrong again, bucko! The lament, or complaining psalms outnumber the praise songs by a considerable margin.

All of which helps us to understand the situation Moses (and Yahweh) are dealing with here. Are the Israelites happy and thankful for all that has happened to them? We are, after all, only a chapter or two removed from the deliverance at the Red Sea and a truly “mighty act of God” in obliterating Pharaoh’s army.

No, true to human nature, they begin to complain and lament — remembering how delicious it was by the “fleshpots of Egypt.” (Not sure that sounds all that tempting to me, but hey — the memory tends to magnify whatever it is we don’t currently possess.)

Of course, this is the setup to the miracle of the manna — I’ve always loved that little word play in Hebrew, the fact that manna means “what is it?” And I suppose there’s something to be said here for the fact that the God who appeared in such awesome power at the Red Sea is also willing and patient enough to bless his grumbling people as they wander in the wilderness.

How long, O Lord, indeed?

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Psalm 105 fits the description (see above) of a psalm of praise; once again, we are reminded of God’s presence in the cloud and the fire. It is a tenacious presence, enduring all sorts of travail and difficulty. It is also a patient presence, enduring all manner of our doubt and sometime faithlessness to feed our bodies and our souls.

Jonah 3:10-4:11
Jonah, the pouting prophet, who was upset that God proved to be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah much preferred the vengeful, angry God who does things like bury horses and riders in the sea!

But, that’s God for you! God was awfully honest with Moses that day at the burning bush: “I AM WHO I AM….” God will be who and what God will be; God always chooses God’s own response. (Exodus 3:14)

And besides, if any of us get pouty and decide we don’t want any part of God’s work of redemption in the world — God can always use a worm instead!

Psalm 145:1-8
The psalm connects God’s worthiness to be praised with the fact that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Id est — praise, don’t pout!

Philippians 1:21-30
Most of us preachers — and, no doubt, most of those who fill our pews — have experienced the dilemma Paul outlines in this text. Some days, we would just as soon cash it in and go on to whatever reward awaits us in the life after this life. That might be relief from pain and suffering, or the joy of hearing the Master’s “well done, good and faithful servant.”

But, as long as we draw another breath, it is apparently more needful that we “remain in the flesh.” Living with Christ in eternity is the better place; however, living for Christ in my present circumstance is my calling, my privilege and the commitment that I will seek to fulfill.

Even if I am prone to the occasional, “How long, O Lord?” (see how handy those laments are?)

Matthew 20:1-16
There are very few of Jesus’ stories or parables that invade our sense of fairness more than this one. If we are ever likely to join the hearers gathered in the crowd that day in a sputter or a shout, it is after the “punch line” of this jewel of an illustration.

Aren’t there those times when you would like to argue with the text…say to Jesus, “I just don’t think that’s right!” We want to stick up for the poor guys who got in too soon and worked all day on the cheap. And those laggards that showed up and got a whole day’s pay for just an hour or so of work? Who do they think they are?

Well, they are blessed by the generosity of the master, evidently. It is true that everyone got the wages they agreed to, despite what we may think of as fair or unfair.

Again, I refer you to Dr. Chilton’s treatment in the sermon below; he has given us a pretty good payoff line, as well. “God’s generosity is not tied to any of our human notions of fairness or equity.”

How long, O Lord? Hopefully, forever.
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

When Jesus tells a parable, he often uses many of the story-telling techniques that are vital to telling a joke.
In a joke you usually start out with a reasonable situation; then you gradually make it less believable so that people can’t be sure where you’re going. You drop subtle hints that the joke will turn out one way, and then you spring the twist, the revelatory surprise.
In the parable of the vineyard Jesus starts with a reasonable situation, then begins to slowly build toward the surprise, the twist that makes his point.
This story of workers and wages is not about economics, or farm management, or even human relations; it is about the incredible grace of God.
The story really begins in Chapter 19 after Jesus tells the rich young ruler to give away all that he has for the kingdom.
Peter overhears this and brags to Jesus, “Look, we gave up everything and followed you; what then will we have?
I imagine Jesus getting a somewhat pained look on his face and then saying with a crooked smile, “Hey, Peter, did you hear the one about?”
There was this man who owned a small vineyard. He needed some workers so he went into town around dawn and went down to the corner where all the unemployed guys hang out. He talked to a few of them and hired them. (The set-up; a reasonable situation)
As the day goes by the vineyard owner keeps going back to town to hire more people, at 9 at noon, at 3 in the afternoon. All he says is, “I’ll pay you what’s right.”
No money amount is mentioned. (Less reasonable, but building to “punch-line.)
Then, a really crazy thing happens that upsets the “reasonableness” of the story. The owner goes back to town and hires still more workers with only an hour to go in the workday, again saying “I’ll pay you what’s right.” (Nobody does that, what’s going on here?)
Then we have the pay-off scene. Jesus has set us in the minds of his hearers and in our minds the idea that since this is a story of God’s generosity, and since we have an assumption that God is fair; then, we think, whoever worked all day will make the most and the ones hired last will make the least.
So when the ones who only worked an hour get a full day’s wage, why there is jubilation in the camp, there is joy, joy, joy, deep in their hearts. Glory Hallelujah, Christmas has come early this year.
Everybody is multiplying their hours in the vineyard against a day’s wage and coming up with some goodly sums. Then they start listening, what, what did he say? That can’t be right. Everybody gets a day’s wage. But, but, we were out there all day, and these people were only out there an hour. This is not fair.
And the owner said, “Why isn’t it fair? I paid you what I said I would pay you.”
Now Jesus is not naive, he knows this sort of thing wouldn’t work in the real world. No employer is likely to really do that.
No, Jesus is using the stark unfairness of the story to teach one basic truth:
God’s generosity is not tied to any of our human notions of fairness or equity.
The whole story was told in response to Peter’s question about what rewards the disciples would get for giving up everything and following Jesus.
Underneath Peter’s question is the assumption that somehow those who serve longest and best receive more rewards than those who serve short term and poorly.
We think like that sometimes, don’t we? We say, “Well, if anybody’s in heaven, it’ll be old so-and-so. What a genuinely good guy he is.” as is salvation had anything to do with human goodness.
Jesus takes this assumption and turns it upside down with this parable.
He reminds us that God is both good and fair, but god is good and fair on God’s terms, not ours.
Friend, I am doing you no wrong, did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?
We have, Jesus shows us here, an almost unstoppable capacity for figuring our own advantage in almost any situation.
And the Gospel is; thank God, God doesn’t calculate things the way we do.
God figures our merits with a calculus of grace that is far beyond anything we can comprehend except to know that God’s love is so overwhelming and generous that all we can do is receive it into our lives and share it with others without trying to figure out how we earned it or whether or not others are worthy.
Amen and amen.