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September 27, 2020 is Pentecost 17A/Proper 21A/Ordinary 27A
Exodus 17:1-7 – The people quarrel with Moses: Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moses strikes the rock for water.
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 – You will no longer say, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Cast away all your transgressions, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Turn, then, and live.
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16 – God divided the sea and let them pass through it, and made the waters stand like a heap. In the daytime he led them with a cloud, and all night long with a fiery light. He split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep. He made streams come out of the rock, and caused waters to flow down like rivers.
Psalm 25:1-9 – Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!
Philippians 2:1-13 – Paul’s Christ Hymn: 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.
Matthew 21:23-32 – Jesus’ authority questioned and the Parable of the Two Sons (not Prodigal Son, but the one who says he’ll work but doesn’t, and one who says he won’t, but does)
Prayer of the Day
God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. My sheep hear my voice, | says the Lord; I know them and they | follow me. Alleluia. (John 10:27)
St. Michael and All Angels – September 29
Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3 – Michael, one of the chief princes, helps Daniel. Michael arises and many who sleep in the dust of the earth awake.
Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22 – Bless the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding.
Revelation 12:7-12 – Michael and his angels fight against the dragon as war breaks out in heaven.
Luke 10:17-20 – The seventy return. Jesus says, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.”
Bread for the Wilderness
We are in the second week of a 5-week series entitled, “Bread for the Wilderness.” This time of pandemic is like a wilderness experience. What can we learn from the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness?
|Complaint||Exodus 16:2-15||September 20||God provides manna/quail as people complain|
|Provision||Exodus 17:1-7||September 27||Moses strikes the rock and water comes out|
|Law||Ex. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20||October 4||Moses receives the Ten Commandments|
|Idolatry||Exodus 32:1-14||October 11||Moses finds the Israelites worshipping a calf|
|Glory||Exodus 33:12-23||October 18||Moses sees God’s back, not face|
Week 2: Provision
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” 3 But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” 4 So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 He called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages…” As a reminder, Sin is the Semitic moon deity. It has nothing to do with the English word “sin” as breaking a commandment, or as a broken relationship with God. There are considerable historical questions about this story, and we aren’t absolutely sure of the locations of the cities mentioned in this story. There are quite a few differing suggestions about where these places might have been, but the map below show the most common best guess.
Last week, in chapter 16, the congregation set out from Elim (perhaps 5 in the map below), heading into the Wilderness of Sin. This week, in chapter 17, the Israelites are camping at Rephidim (perhaps 7 in the map below). We are nearly to what some believe may be the location of Mt. Sinai, and we are not even halfway through Exodus. Half of Exodus will take place at Sinai. More on that next week when Moses receives the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.
These stories, part of the Jewish and Christian Bibles, make up a significant portion of the most important story of the Old Testament. What can we learn from these stories? If we outline Exodus as follows, then 25 out of 40 chapters, 60% of the book of Exodus takes place in the wilderness. These stories must have held great importance for the people of Israel. What can we glean from them today?
- Chapters 1-14 Israel in Egypt
- Chapters 15-18 Israel from the Red Sea to Sinai
- Chapters 19-40 Israel at Sinai
In chapter 16, the people were hungry in the desert, so God provided bread, and quail. So that the people will remember God’s provision, they took some of the bread, which is described in Exodus as a “flaky substance,” and put it in a jar, so that future generations could see what God did. Chapter 16 tells us that the Israelites ate this substance for 40 years.
This week, in chapter 17 we learn that the Israelites are thirsty. Water is a problem in any desert. Our bodies are 60% water. You can live without food for three weeks (Gandhi fasted for 21 days), but you can probably only make it three days without water. Some say a week.
The people quarrel with Moses. This also, is to be expected. There are many leaders who lead by casting vision. This is absolutely essential in providing leadership. In order to make it past the inevitable hardships of getting through any wilderness, the people need leaders to paint a vivid picture of the destination. Nevertheless, if vision is all you have as a leader, you are in trouble. At some point the troops will start to ask, “O wise and visionary one, is there a plan of any kind to get there?” It is a fair question. You’ve led us out of slavery. You’ve helped us cross the Red Sea. Are we now to perish in this wilderness? Did anyone consider the end game? An exit strategy? Did anyone put thought into how might, oh, I don’t know, eat? Drink?
“Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” Moses shifts the blame to the great I AM. Take it up with God. Meanwhile, he’s wearing out his knees in prayer. “Um, God? What shall I do now? These people are about to stone me to death.”
This pandemic is a special kind of wilderness experience. There are plenty of struggles to go around. Add to it the pressure of the economy, the election and hurricane season, and the pressure on leaders is through the roof. A virus has claimed 180,000 lives. Some question the reliability of these statistics. They claim the COVID death toll is inflated. The number of the deaths in the U.S. is already 200,000 above what it was at this time last year. This leads others to the conclusion that the COVID-19 death toll is very likely higher than reported.
Leaders have a responsibility to keep people alive. The people are also clamoring for spiritual sustenance. They crave community. Leaders have to make decisions. No matter what decision is made, someone won’t like it. Quarrelling is inevitable. Prayer is the leaders’ refuge. Quiet time with God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble. It brings clarity. It can bring us to a place of peace and confidence as we make tough calls. Pray for leaders. Pray for teachers, health care workers, and first responders. They need your support. They are carrying a load.
Moses is told to grab his staff, take some elders and go to Horeb. Horeb is where Moses first encountered I AM at the burning bush (Exodus 3). God asks Moses to assemble the elders and prepare to go to Pharaoh. In chapter 4 Moses has more doubts. “What if they don’t believe me, or listen to me?” This is the fear of every leader. I’ve been called by God and the church to lead, but what if the people won’t follow?
God asks Moses, “What’s that there in your hand?” “A staff,” Moses responds. He was, after all, watching the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro, like a shepherd. Moses ends up using the staff to do some miraculous things. Moses uses the “rod of God” to bring thunder, hail, fire, wind. He uses it to part the waters and lead the slaves to freedom. God uses ordinary things for extraordinary purposes. Psalm 23, written before Exodus, says, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” and “thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” The staff is the sign of leadership and provision.
As you provide leadership in this wilderness, what is in your hands? What ordinary things might God be ready to use for extraordinary purposes? Moses’ had a staff. What do you have? What assets are already in your hands that might prove helpful? It may be that the staff was more a source of confidence to Moses than anything, as he worried about whether his voice would be enough. What brings you confidence? Your staff may be something else. What resources do you have? Do some asset mapping. Lead from your strengths. Could it be God has already given you everything you need (and more) for the journey?
Your greatest resources may be your people. God tells Moses to bring along the elders. The word for “staff” מַטֶּה matteh can also mean “tribe.” Take along your family. Don’t alienate one another in the tense moments of the crisis. You need each other. Lean on your tribe. It may be that your staff is your staff. Lean on them too. I rarely do anything without collaboration with the staff, or with the council, or with our deans. It’s not that I don’t trust myself, but I know that I have blind spots. Like Moses, I wonder if my voice will be enough.
God doesn’t seem to worry about these things much in the Bible. Our only responsibility is to say the things. It’s enough. How people respond is outside our control. Like God said to Ezekiel (2:5) “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” Leaders: Say the things. Let your staff give you confidence. And know this: Some will hear you. Some will not.
Water from the rock
Moses is instructed to strike the rock, like he struck the Nile. He does, and water pours forth. Water comes from God, not from Pharaoh. Even today, who controls the water is a big deal. Who owns the rivers and lakes (surface waters)? Who own the aquifers (waters below the surface)? How much can they charge? How much must we pay? Who owns the water that comes down from heaven? How is the possession of water used to dominate people today?
It is easy to doubt God’s provision. After all, we see that people die of hunger-related causes every day. But is this God’s doing? Has God not provided enough? The earth’s bounty is abundant enough to provide for every living thing. There is enough food, and there is more than enough water. What we have is a distribution problem. We have a greed problem. We want to blame God (or Satan) for our problems. Like Adam: “The woman that You gave me, she made me eat of the fruit…” or Eve: “The serpent tricked me!”
Time and time again, we see the abundant provision of God. And many have much, much more than they need. “Truly, my cup runneth over,” says the psalmist. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” If you have more than you need, then it’s time to share. This is the message of the Sermon on the Mount. It is the message of the Feeding of the Five Thousand. It is the message of the Good Samaritan. It is the message of Matthew 25: “When I was hungry, you gave me food.” Are any among you hungry or thirsty. Take what is in your hand, take your staff, take your elders, and strike the rock.
Moses names the place Massah (which means “test”) and Meribah (which means “quarrel”) because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord at this place. He remembered this not as the place of provision, but the place of contention. He remembers the stress. We often remember the quarreling, rather than the free gifts.
Moses remembers this as the place of quarreling and testing, because the people asked, “Is God with us or not?” As Christians, we may ask the same question at times, but Paul’s resounding words in Romans 8 (verses 38-39) are these:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Philippians 2: Humility
This Sunday is September 27, 2020. The epistle text is the second of four from Philippians:
- September 20: Philippians 1:21-30
- September 27: Philippians 2:1-13
- October 8: Philippians 3:4b-14
- October 15: Philippians 4:1-9
Philippians 2 is the Christ Hymn. It is worthy of many sermons. For a post on Philippians 2, self-emptying and the theology of the cross CLICK HERE.
If the gospel on September 6 was about conflict, September 13 about forgiveness, and September 20 about grace, then September 27 it is about humility.
Matthew 21: The Parable of the Two Sons
Here’s an overview of our gospel readings this September and October in the Revised Common Lectionary.
- September 6: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
- September 13: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
- September 20: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
- September 27: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
- October 4: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
- October 11: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
- October 18: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
- October 25: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)
For the rest of our year in Matthew, Jesus is in constant controversy with the scribes and the Pharisees. They are critical of him for hanging out with sinners and even eating with them. They criticize him for healing on the Sabbath, and because his disciples don’t fast and follow other laws and traditions.
Jesus, in turn, is critical of the scribes and Pharisees for their legalism. They “strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel.” They follow the letter of the law, giving ten percent, even of their herbs (mint, dill and cumin), but they neglect “the weightier matters of the law:” justice, kindness, humility.
By the time we get to this point in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 21) the tension has reached a boiling point. My eye naturally rests on the most poignant, edgy thing Jesus has to say in this gospel text:
Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Mt. 21:31)
Imagine starting your sermon like this. It would make a great attention getter. Let it hang. Then, if you’re really ready for a new call, change prostitutes to a bawdier synonym and tax collectors to some other group to whom that your audience considers themselves morally superior. Don’t mention that this idea came from me.
Perhaps we should all memorize this passage. The next time someone uses the word “pastoral” as a synonym for “polite” or “Christian” as a synonym for “nice,” quietly remember the passage in your head. Jesus calling a spade a spade before the religious purveyors of holiness. This is, of course, not an encouragement to be impolite or unkind. That would be no virtue. It is, however, a reminder that a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is (Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation), that the first responsibility of a leader is to define reality (Max DePree, Leadership Jazz), and that systems stay stuck until someone names the truth of the situation (Ed Friedman, A Failure of Nerve).
It’s hard to imagine anything more antagonistic for Jesus to say to these religious leaders, who pride themselves in their righteousness – keeping the law to the nth degree. But it is precisely that pride of their own righteousness that is the problem. The Son of God comes to earth dressed in the garb of our humanity, and is surprised to find prostitutes and tax collectors who have more faith than the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus also finds faith in a Canaanite woman (Matthew 15) and a Roman Centurion (Matthew 8). Jesus finds faith in unexpected places, and a surprising lack of faith in places where one would most expect to find it. To suggest that a Tax Collector has more faith than a Pharisee? Heresy.
To make his point, Jesus once told a story of a Pharisee and a Tax Collector going to the temple to pray (Luke 18). The Pharisee prayed, “I’m so glad I’m not like others: thieves, evildoers, fornicators, or like this tax collector. I fast. I tithe.” The tax collector’s prayer was a bit different. He stood at a distance and would not even look into heaven. “God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”
What a different prayer! These two have completely different prayer lives. One is a prayer of pride, and the other a prayer of humility. Jesus follows up this story with a few words on humility. God tends to bring down the haughty, and lift up the lowly. God fills those who are empty, and empties those who are full of only themselves.
Let it not be lost on the reader that the authorship of this gospel is attributed to Matthew, who was… a tax collector. The author has a personal stake in this narrative. For Jesus, the most dangerous sin is self-righteousness.
Of whom is Jesus most critical in the gospels, and why? The Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, because of their self-righteousness. Humble people know they are broken. The humble of heart are not deluded that their own self-righteousness can save them from the power of sin. They understand that the most powerful forces for true righteousness are love and forgiveness. Telling a child she is a horrible person will not inspire or empower them to become. Telling them they are loved with an everlasting love, in spite of their failings will free them to live anew, in spite of past and present failings.
This coming Sunday we have the parable of the Two Sons. The first son says he will not work in the field, but then does. He likely represents tax collectors and other sinners, who are initially disobedient, but who care about God’s justice. The second son says he’ll go work but doesn’t. He likely represents the scribes and Pharisees, who talk a good line and are showy in their faith. However, when the chips are down, they are more interested in status, and the letter of the law, than in the bigger issues of justice, compassion and humility.
This story of these two sons is the counterpart to Luke’s story of two sons (The Prodigal Son, Luke 15). In both stories, one son represents scribes and Pharisees, while the other son represents prostitutes, tax collectors and other “sinners.” One appears to be the better son, but isn’t. The other appears to be disinherited, but isn’t. The father loves both.
There’s nothing wrong with the law. We need it to show us our need of God. But the law cannot save. It has no transformational power. Like the old song:
Do this and live the law commands
But gives me neither feet nor hands
A better way, thy grace doth bring
It bids me fly, and gives me wings
If this is so, then a defining mark of the follower of Christ is humility, not arrogance or judgment. For this reason Philippians 2 is a good choice for the second lesson. Have the mind of Christ who humbled himself, emptied himself and took on the form of a servant. Given Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, one might even say self-righteousness is anti-Christian. Sadly, too many consider “Christian” to be synonymous with “judgmental.”
Richard Rohr writes:
Christianity worldwide has come to have an often negative public image. The Christian religion no longer naturally connotes people who serve the world, people who care about others, other nations or religions, poverty and injustice, or even people who are very happy. In fact, our common image is often exactly the opposite. How did we get to this impossible place, after placing ourselves in the following of Jesus who described himself as “gentle and humble of heart…”
How far we have come from “by this shall all people know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” They’ll know we are Christians by our love, not by our angry moral ethics or superior ability to appear appropriate by societal definitions of what is proper, status quo and upstanding.
Paul plays this theme big in the epistle lesson, Philippians 2.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
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… He humbled himself and became obedient… even death on a cross.
To follow Christ’s way is to walk in the way of humility. This does not mean becoming a doormat, but rather a joyful servant of Christ in the world. This does not mean we do what anyone tells us, for we are servants of the Servant. Rather, we act in selfless love for the world that God loves. With love for all and malice toward none, we recognize we have our own sin to deal with, so we have little time to point the finger. We are under no illusions that self-righteousness is salvific. We are not perfect, only forgiven. Loved in spite of ourselves, we are free to announce God’s grace for all, leaving the sword to God and Caesar.
The word of grace here is that God loves every child, the rebellious and the obedient. The word of challenge here is that we are called to be witnesses to God’s love by reflecting the humility of Christ, by having this mind not to exploit power, but instead to empty ourselves of all that is not of God. Have the mind of Christ, who emptied himself on a cross. Therefore, God highly exalted him…