Sylvania United Church of Christ
Claimed by God, Responding as Disciples
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The sermon for week October 02, 2011

October 2, 2011 HC
Philippians 3: 4b-14
Matthew 21: 23-32

Paul's prison epistle, which has been referred to as a "Hymn of Joy" is one of my favorite texts, it’s the place I turn to when my spirits droop and I need encouragement. It is Paul's pastoral letter to the church he served in Philippi, written from a prison cell.

It begins: "I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now." In this letter Paul reminds the Church that the marks of the Christian life are standing firm in one spirit with humility, perseverance and joy.

But I have to admit that I prefer to preach from a text that provides a strong visual image…fishing boats as they set out to sea, or blind men receiving their sight, bread as it is broken or birds flying high in the sky. So I turned to the Gospel reading for today to find the boats, or the blind men, the bread, or the birds, but this time Matthew gives us none of these. Instead, Matthew records Jesus’ response to a mean-spirited attack on Jesus’ authority from the chief priests and the elders of the temple! Come to think of it, there may have been blind men in this scripture after all!

Paul would have had no difficulty in identifying with the Jewish leaders in Matthew’s account. His zeal for the Law was legendary. Paul defended the Law to the point of persecuting the Church, until his eyes were opened on a Damascus road and he found his passion in proclaiming the gospel of Christ. Now he pastors the church at Philippi from a prison cell and confesses “Whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

From our distance in history it is easy to characterize the leaders of the temple as “the bad guys"; but, in a sense, they were just doing their job. As defenders of the faith they believed that by judiciously keeping the Law, Israel would one day usher in the Messianic Age. But Israel's continuing failure to do so had postponed that inevitability again and again. No wonder they were so irritable and suspicious!

They were especially on guard against the false prophets that arose from time to time with claims that the time for the Messiah to appear was near. Some of these false prophets even claimed to be the Messiah himself! And now there were rumors all over Jerusalem about a man from Nazareth called, Jesus. They had just seen him ride into the city to shouts of "Hosanna"! In a matter of hours the whole city was in turmoil. People shouted his name and called him the "Son of David". Then he came into the temple and turned over the tables of the money-changers and threw the merchants out on the streets!

It is the religious authorities in charge of keeping holy things "holy" who confront Jesus in our Gospel reading for today. "By what authority are you doing these things?" they demand. A free translation might be, "Just who do you think you are?"

Jesus does not answer them directly. Perhaps you’ve noticed. Jesus typically answers a question with a question. “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Jesus asks. The temple leaders recognize Jesus is questioning their authority to distinguish a true prophet by asking their opinion of John the Baptist. Their response to Jesus sounds more like a lame excuse, "We don't know," they admitted.

So Jesus told a parable to those who do not know because they refuse to see. It was about a man who had two sons. The first son refused to obey his father's demand to work in the vineyard, but later overcame his reluctance and went to work.
The second son immediately agreed to the father's request; but never performed the work. "Which of the two did the will of his father?" Jesus asks.

In response, the temple leaders had to admit that, however reluctantly, the obedient son had done the will of the Father.

"The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the Kingdom of God ahead of you," Jesus declared. There must have been a visible shudder among the temple leaders. Jesus had left them with only two options. They could enter the Kingdom through repentance and faith like the tax-collectors and harlots, whom they judged to be inferior, or remain lost and outside the Kingdom with others, like themselves, who prefer their own kind of power to the Truth that Jesus came to proclaim.

From our vantage point it is easy to forget that the parables of Jesus were subversive. The boats and the blind men, the bread and the birds are all poetic devices that Jesus employed to break through the flat and uninspired legalism that had drained God’s people of their energy. All societies, however configured, eventually conform to the powers that be in order to feel safe. But convention rarely inspires devotion. Where there is no challenge, there is no energy, no “new thing” springing forth from the soil of the tradition that has fed us in the past.

Today’s Christians may share more in common with the Jewish elders and chief priest than we’d care to admit. There is often a discrepancy between vision and practice in which Paul’s admonition to “work out your own salvation” may sound like “just another thing to do”! Like the two sons in the parable, when asked to go to work in the field, we may go; but we do so reluctantly and without a sense of purpose, much less joy.

Years ago when I was interning as a chaplain at one of the local hospitals, I walked into the room of an elderly woman who was seriously ill with kidney failure.
She had been on dialysis for years. She told me she was sick of being sick and wondered out loud, "Why doesn't God just take me?"

In a sincere but misguided attempt to provide comfort and encouragement, I suggested, "Perhaps it's because God has something left for you to do."

She considered that idea for a moment and then fixed me with a determined look and said, "Well, whatever it is--I'm not going to do it!"

I have a feeling that such moments of unguarded honesty are precious to God, and as close as some of us come to a sincere confession.

Where did we get the idea that "God's will" is something we don't want to do? Like this elderly woman, many of us hear "ministry" as an invitation to do more-to lead the stewardship drive, or cook suppers for the homeless, or to teach church school. Or we hear the invitation to ministry as an invitation to be more--to be more generous, more loving, more thoughtful of others.

All these things are well and good and necessary, yet we seldom hear that our ministry might involve being who we already are, doing what we already do--with a difference: namely, as God's person in and for the world.

As a Christian community our identity is always more than a matter of subscribed beliefs. What we say and do reveal our identity and prove our faith. In religious language, it means participating in the work of God.

It's the sort of language we employ when we're talking about stewardship as we often do in the fall. Some years ago on a similar occasion (like Mark)I was asked to address the congregation on the topic of giving to the work of the church. I encouraged my fellow Christians to self-giving generosity and ended my words of encouragement with a Biblical flourish, "God loves a cheerful giver!" After the service an elderly gentlemen approached me with twinkle in his eye and posed a question to me: "What about the not so cheerful giver?" he asked. I laughed; but he was serious.

His question revealed that he had understood there was a difference.
The joyful giver “gets it” in a way the reluctant giver does not. The reluctant giver is the one, who gives something of what he has received out of a sense of obligation…in a kind of quid pro quo. This is the Law of even exchange. It works in business; but it is lacking in grace. The joyful giver gets the blessing of giving the way God gives…joyfully, and generously because their faith informs them that their giving is simply the return we make on the gift God gave when he first loved us.

What always comes to mind when this analogy is used is one of my favorite stories of the anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany shortly before his death on the cross. Mary witnessed to her faith in Jesus with an act of extravagant devotion. Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and then wiped his feet with her hair.

The alabaster jar stood empty; but the house where they were staying was filled with the fragrance of Mary’s devotion. My hope is that Jesus carried the fragrance with him even to the cross. My fear is that I may fail to recognize my own opportunity to do likewise and so miss the occasion for my greatest joy.

What might prevent our indulging a similar extravagance? We may be tempted to undervalue our resources and to guard them more closely because to us they seem so meager or so few. Like the boy with the loaf and a few fish we may be tempted to withhold our gifts because we reason, "What are they among so many?" But once they are offered and received by Christ we find that even the small amount that we are able to give is multiplied by his hand, and somehow sufficient.

If we are to find our true joy we must learn to identify our passion. Contemporary writer, Annie Dillard, advises:

"I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure,
to grasp your one necessity and not to let it go, to dangle from it wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you're going no matter how you live,
cannot you part."

Passion is extravagant. Jesus' extravagance led to the cross. Paul's "one necessity" led to his imprisonment. Yet even from a prison cell Paul describes for us the wondrous passion in our Lord's most precious gift of himself: "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped; but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant..."

Immersed in the corporate worlds of business and finance, and in the domestic worlds of household and family, it is often hard to see how our lives relate to the life of God. Yet the ancient vision of the church affirms a priesthood of all believers-set apart for ministry in baptism, confirmed and strengthened in worship, and made manifest in service to the world.

We are a congregation of ministers here in Sylvania where many of you have found your “one necessity” and discovered your greatest joy in sharing your time and talents with others. You became aware of it when you began to call on our shut-ins, joined a prayer group, or worked on one of our many out-reach programs. Now it’s more than something you do. It is also your highest joy.

What our loving God desires for us is not that we do a specific thing, or that we do it remarkably well; but that we do it with him and for him, and, if possible, with a sense of gratitude and joyful abandon.

Individual and corporate acts of caring, hospitality and mercy (whether they occur in church, family or work place) are simply the responses we make to the love of God we have already received. It is the return we make on the debt of love we owe to God who receives it as our true and sincerest form of worship.

When our work is done, we would like to point to the beautiful ripening garden, the perfectly completed class-assignment, the well-adjusted children and the charming home and receive at last God’s earnestly desired approval. But life has a way of frustrating our plans and all we may have to show for it is shattered purposes and the wreckage of the beautiful structure we thought we were creating. That’s when God will catch us up in his arms, wipe away all our tears and whisper to us, “It’s not your work I wanted, but you!”

This is the one necessity we must all discover if we are to identify our passion and find our true joy, which is to be found, not at the end of some rainbow but now, while we are making all our plans and going about our daily business.

Our necessity is transformed when we discover that we are God's one necessity! We are God's passion! And God will not let us go!

Thanks be to God! Amen.

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