Year B — Proper 23 (The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)


It seems we had a little mix-up in the readings for this week, and one of us Bubbas (we won’t point any fingers, here) pulled up the lessons for Thanksgiving Day in Canada. Not that we have anything against our Canadian readers — in fact, we’ll just leave those comments up below in their honor!

 But, you can rest assured that the sermon is based on the ACTUAL gospel lesson for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. Passez une bonne journée!

Commentary for October 14, 2012

by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Click here for Thanksgiving Day (Canada) readings
Click here for Sunday’s readings

Joel 2:21-27
English is such a bothersome language sometimes.

The English word “fear” is prominent in the Bible; for most of us, its connotations pack pretty powerful negative images. From it we get words like “afraid” and “frightening” and “fearful.” 

Thus, when we read the ancient wisdom of Proverbs 9:10 — “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” — we can get the idea that God is simply an angry deity, waiting to strike down unrighteous sinners with lightning bolts of wrath (or natural disasters or any number of diseases du jour popular with for-profit prophets and disgruntled pulpiteers.)

Of course, in the original languages of scripture, there is often a great deal of nuance and shading of meaning for these terms; the writer of Proverbs means no such thing. Rather, fear is used in its foundational context of “reverence, respect, awe” — realizing that there is and ought to be a discrete distance to be kept because of the nature of the object or person to be “feared.”
Joel gives a healthy corrective to the angry-god-in-the-sky mantra. The Creator God is one who cares for the creation — do NOT fear, this God says to the soil, the animals, the pastures, the growing things. God’s people will be vindicated, the days of sin and sorrow will be repaid with a great bounty.
Most importantly, there will be a day when God’s words ring true for all of God’s people: “And my people shall never again be put to shame.”
Psalm 126
Like many a poor joke about children in worship, I was actually one of those youngsters who thought the old gospel song based on this text was, “Bringing in the Sheeps.” (Sheaves…get it?)

What is really impressive to me now, as I read the words of the beautiful psalm, is the “dream-like” state of those whose fortunes the Lord has restored. When times are tough and the days look dark, deliverance does, indeed, seem only to be a dream — one that may never become reality.

I’ve never seen the watercourses of the Negev — though I did find a pretty awesome picture of the region (click here) thanks to Wikipedia. I have seen the lakes and ponds in my area of the country awfully low (even dry, in some cases) during a drought. It is a genuine relief — and an abundant blessing — when the rains come and begin to restore the water levels in such a situation. 

This image gives some real power to the prayer of v.4 — “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses….”

1 Timothy 2:1-7
It is election season in America — and a bitter one, at that (aren’t they all, these days?)

Citizens of countries around the world would do well to remember — and preachers would do well to remind them — of the prayer urged upon young Timothy by his older, wiser mentor, Paul.

I would venture to say that genuine prayer is never partisan — may it be passionate and persistent, however!

Matthew 6:25-33
There has simply never been a better explication of faith than this snippet of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” 

Need to understand faith in the sustaining presence of the world’s Creator? Look at the birds — gaze at the flowers in the field. They get along just fine — they get up and get dressed every single morning with complete confidence in God’s supply.

Been a little worried lately, and you just can’t seem to let it go? Try this: get a yardstick or tape measure, and see just how tall you are. Write it down. Now, worry for the next 24 hours about getting taller, then measure yourself again. How did that work for you? (The alternate translation for v.27 has always been my favorite — which of you can add a single cubit to your height by worrying?)

I suppose I could even make do with a sort of “urban slang” translation of v.33, which has the advantage of being succinct: “God’s got this!”

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

Some years ago I found myself at a revival meeting in a small rural church.  One of the young women from my Lutheran youth group had been asked to sing a solo so I went to support her.

The preacher was a traveling evangelist and he put on quite an exhibition; shouting and hollering and stomping his feet and breaking into song and denouncing sins, some of which I had never heard of.  It was quite a show; both his theatrics and the crowd’s reactions. One little boy in particular caught my eye.

While his grandmother tried to pay attention, he kicked the pew in front of him, he laid down, he slid off the pew into the floor, he drew in the back of the hymnal with that stubby little pencil you can usually find in a pew rack, he loudly chewed gum and he sucked on a mint, he played with Grandma’s car-keys, and he asked if it was time to go, oh, about every two minutes.

Finally, as the Preacher launched into a fire-breathing altar call, with the congregation standing, every head bowed, every eye closed, I saw the little boy stand on tip-toe in the pew and whisper loudly into Grandma’s ear, “Are you sure this is the only way to get to heaven?”

This is a question that in one way or another, all of us get around to asking eventually. The man in our Gospel lesson asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus tells the disciples that rich people are going to have a hard time getting in, they ask, “Well, who can be saved then?’ “What must I do to be saved?” says one. “How can I get right with God?” says another.

There are secular, non-religious versions of the question: “What is the meaning of life?” “How can I be fulfilled?” “What does success look like for me?” To me, it’s all a part of the same question.

In the Gospel, a man came up and knelt in front of Jesus. We have traditionally referred to him as the “Rich Young Ruler.” This is a composite name from three gospel writers. Matthew calls him “young,” Luke calls him a “ruler,” and all three say he’s “rich.”

The man came asking a question to which he thought he already knew the answer. He’s like the wicked witch in Snow White talking to the mirror. “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all.” The rich Young ruler believes he is, and comes to Jesus for affirmation, not information.

He wants Jesus to give him a benediction, a good word. He wants the JESUS OF NAZERETH, PROPHET AND TEACHER, seal of approval on his life. And much to his surprise he doesn’t get it, not in the way he had expected.

You see, he had rested his claim on the Kingdom of God on the twin pillars of righteousness and riches. Obey the Ten Commandments and enjoy worldly success. And worldly success is an outward and visible sign of God’s inward and visible blessing.

So the young man believed. And honestly, so did everyone else in that time and place. That very debate was part of what the book of Job was about. Do we love God because we’re blessed with material things; or are we blessed with material things because we love God?

If we’re not blessed, does that mean we’re bad? And if we’re clearly good, and we have nothing, does that mean God’s not fair? The people in Jesus’ world, including his disciples, believed that morality and material blessing went hand in hand. If you were good, God would bless you with riches and comforts in this world.

So, when Jesus said to the young man, “You lack one thing, go and sell all and give it to the poor. . .” it wasn’t just the giving up of his money and stuff that bumfuzzled him; the rich young ruler’s whole world view, his entire way of looking at how the world works, has been turned upside down and inside out.

Remember the little boy at the revival meeting? After church I was standing in the parking lot chatting when Grandma came marching him out the door; hat squarely on her head, suitcase-size pocketbook on her arm, holding him by the neck with one hand and swatting at this behind with the other. He danced ahead of her with that pelvis-forward, swat-avoiding, Michael Jackson moon walk we’ve all seen. He yelled back at her, “What you hitting me for? I ain’t done nothing.”

The rich young ruler hasn’t done anything either, and that’s just the point. Though he has lived a fastidiously moral life, (“All these I have kept from my youth”), he had never learned that there is more to the moral life, to life in the Kingdom of God, than being good and safe and not wrong. He had never learned to go the extra mile, to take a risk, to boldly go where he has never gone before.

Jesus looked upon him with love and spoke to him out of that love when he said to him, “You lack one thing.” Because Jesus then tells him to get rid of his wealth and give it to the poor, we can become confused about what Jesus sees as missing in his life.

The man doesn’t lack generosity, he doesn’t lack compassion for others, he doesn’t lack doesn’t lack morality; he doesn’t lack an awareness of call of God on the Jews to hospitality to the stranger. This man lacks faith.  He lacks a willingness to trust God both now and into the future. He lacks a confident and joyous reliance upon the love and generosity of God.

He is relying upon his goodness and his goods to get him through this life and into the next, and Jesus says, “Friend, that’s just not good enough. “Why is it hard for a rich person to get into heaven, harder than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle?  Because when you’re rich, it’s really hard to realize how much you need God and other people.

Being rich is not evil; it is just exceptionally dangerous to your spiritual health. The question for us today is this: what are we depending on in our relationship with God? Are we depending on our rightness, our ability to discern and know the right answer to spiritual and religious questions? Are we depending on our righteousness, on our goodness, on our obedience to the Ten Commandments? What is it that keeps us trusting ourselves and not fully trusting God?

What is the one thing that we lack, the one thing that keeps us from totally and completely committing ourselves to God’s will and God’s way. What keeps us from doing wild and wonderful right things in the name of the Living Christ?

The Good News is that Jesus has come to transform the impossible into the possible. Jesus has come to release us from our bondage of serving ourselves and our things. Jesus has come to take us by the scruff of the neck and to drag us kicking and screaming through the eye of that needle, into the center of God’s love.

Amen and amen.

2 thoughts on “Year B — Proper 23 (The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)

  1. I love this sermon. It's one of the best since I started reading this blog whenever I was preparing a sermon as a lay person, starting on Transfiguration Sunday this year.Your explanation of the 'rich young ruler's' dilemna –and ours- really makes sense. I hope it comes out in the sermon today (another lay person is preaching) Thank you.Btw, last weekend was Canadian Thanksgiving. I know it was early. Thanksgiving Day is the second Monday in October so Oct. 8th is as early as it can ever be!Eva in NS

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