Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
Jonah Is Reproved
But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’
Imagine being so angry, disgusted, or frightened by a group of people that you don't even want to see them to give them bad news. That's where we find Jonah at the beginning of the book that bears his name. God told him to go to Ninevah to deliver some bad news and he ran away in the opposite direction to avoid going. In her commentary on this text, Kathryn Schifferdecker notes that when we say he left town to run from God, we mean he did the leave- town, jump- on- a- boat, and go- out- to- sea- to- try- to- get- away- from- God kind of running off. He so objected to the call that God gave him that only getting swamped in a storm and swallowed up by a big fish could change his mind. He had to sit in the belly of that fish for three whole days and get vomited up by that very same fish before he finally did what God wanted. And, even then, it was kind of begrudgingly.
Now, Jonah might have actually had a good reason to dislike Ninevah. Beth L. Tanner’s commentary on this text notes that Ninevah was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, an empire known for its brutality. Assyria had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and subjugated the Southern Kingdom of Judah. It is likely that anyone who had lived in either territory would hear the name of the city of Ninevah, and automatically think “enemy.” The first hearers of this story wouldn't have wanted to go to Ninevah, either. The thing is, though, when God calls you to do something, it can be very hard to say no, especially if you're a prophet. Jonah, the prophet, tried really hard to say no. In the end though, the big fish made an impression. Jonah saw that some things are bigger than his fear and anger... that God was bigger than his fear and anger. He realized that he had to go to Ninevah and take them God's message.
When he arrived in Ninevah, Jonah shouted God's message as he walked across the enormous city: "Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!" I don't know about you, but if I hear a stranger shouting about the place I live getting ready to be overthrown, I tend not to listen very closely. I tend to assume that the shouter doesn't really know what they are talking about. The Bible is full of nations that chose to attack God's prophets rather than listen to them.
That’s not what happened in Ninevah. In her commentary on the text, Callie Plunket-Brewton describes Ninevah as being especially and surprisingly responsive to God’s prophet. The people suddenly proclaim a fast as a sign of repentance. They also begin to wear sackcloth, an itchy, uncomfortable fabric, another sign of repentance. The word of reluctant Jonah's prophecy travels quickly among the people, seeming to reach the king before Jonah does. The king declares an official fast for the city, saying that not only must the people fast, the animals should fast, too. And, everybody, animals, people... everybody should be covered in sackcloth, and "cry mightily to God." Now, take a minute to truly imagine this. Every donkey trough is empty. The hay remains in every hayloft. Forlorn sheep wrapped in burlap are wondering the city streets. Everyone is lamenting and repenting aloud, even the goats... probably especially the goats. They are always quick to complain. The king instigates this whole ridiculous scene in hopes that his people (and animals) will give up their evil ways and that they might be spared by God (who, by the way, isn't even their god... yet one more reason it is surprising that they make such drastic changes).
God sees the people making changes and making amends. God sees them trying and God changes God's mind. God decides not to destroy them. Jonah finds out about God's change of heart and is not happy about it one little bit. Jonah throws a proper tantrum, saying to God, "See... this is why I ran off to Tarshish. I knew you couldn't go through with it. I knew that you are merciful and loving and willing to be changed when you see legitimate repentance. I knew that you'd spare them if you had the chance. Ugh. I'd rather die than to see you offer compassion to those people. They are sooo awful." God responds with something like, "Wait, what? You're mad I didn't kill them?" Jonah doesn't even respond. He just huffs and puffs out of the city and builds himself a little shelter from which he will watch and wait, hoping God will come to God's senses and destroy the city.
God, who is merciful, moved a plant to offer Jonah shade while he waited. God, who also needs to teach Jonah a lesson, sends a pest to destroy the bush. In the heat of the day, petulant Jonah grows faint and again wishes for death. It’s ok, Jonah, lots of people are miserable when they get too hot. Bitter, he says, "It is better for me to die than to live." God, not yet ready to give up on Jonah, asks him a simple question, "Is it right for you to be mad that the plant was destroyed?" Jonah says, "Yes, of course it is. I'm so mad about it that I could die and that's ok." God, ever patient, says, "You're worried about this plant that you have done nothing to create. It just appeared here as far as you're concerned. You have no investment of time or energy in its life. If you're worried about this plant, that was only around for a day and you did nothing to help it grow, why shouldn't I not be concerned about Ninevah and all of the creatures within her gates? Shouldn't I love them? I made them. I invested time and energy in their thriving. Shouldn't I be concerned?"
Anathea Portier-Young, in her commentary on this text, points out that, interestingly, this is the moment when the story stops. Did you notice that? Chapter 4, verse 10 is the end of the book. We are given no idea if Jonah learns something new about God and mercy as he sweats in the heat of the day, waiting for God to be as mad at Ninevah as he is. The last time I preached on this text, I wondered if we should read the abrupt ending as an invitation to spend some time figuring out how we fit in this story. Might we be the Ninevites, more faithful than anyone expected, struggling to repent of our brutish ways and surprised by the mercy of a God we really didn't even know? Might we be Jonah, hoping so hard for bad news and bemoaning the grace that shows up instead?
This story might also be inviting us to really consider what it means to make amends. Beth Tanner notes that modern Jewish communities read this text during the holy day of Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, which falls on September 25th this year. While we, as Christians, don’t need to try to take over a Jewish holiday, it is wise to look to our neighbors for insight about how we might learn from this text. Tanner says that this story shows us that “Salvation is pure gift and grace and Jonah’s story reminds us that we do not own that grace, nor is it ours to dole out as we wish.” May we go through this week remembering that the cruel can change their ways, that God can offer us challenges that we can rise up to, and that even if we have to pout under a tree for a little while, God is still with us, showing us how to love and love and love once more. May we hope for change of hearts as much as we hope for bad news to befall our greatest enemies.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Kathryn Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2347
Callie Plunket-Brewton: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1214
Beth L. Tanner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=229
Anathea Portier-Young: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=158
Isaiah 6:1-8 A Vision of God in the Temple
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’
Today’s reading is terrifying and glorious. Do you hear it? Do you feel it? Isaiah certainly did. And I’d like to invite you now to join Isaiah in this story. Some people find this practice easier or more effective when they close their eyes. Make a choice you feel safe and comfortable with. But most importantly, open your ears and your heart. Give yourself permission to feel it.
You remember where you are. You are standing at Isaiah’s shoulder in the calm evening. You are looking out of the huge, heavy wooden doors that close off the holiest of holies. The dwelling place of the ark. It’s behind you now. You’re looking out, into the calm of the courtyard beyond. It’s quiet.
You remember when you are. The king, Uzziah, is dead. Who is king now? It’s not mentioned. Why? It’s not important. You are with the true king here in this space. The only King that really matters in this moment is God. And you’re in God’s house.
Suddenly, a rumble behind you. It starts small, some sand on the ground blows past your feet out to the courtyard. Your eyes go to the ground and slowly you look up behind you. Then all at once everything erupts! A God enthroned, only briefly glimpsed, whose robe fills the entire temple. You’re blinded by its folds of glorious fabric spinning through the air. Seraphim, six-winged angels of the lord, call out the Trisagion, the acclamation of God as thrice Holy, Holy, Holy! The only such Trisagion in the Hebrew Bible. Imagine the blinding light obscuring your vision of the One enthroned. The soft brush of their robe as it swirls around you still. The wind rushing from the beating of the six wings of each seraphim, the temple is full of them. A hurricane of heavenly wing beats. The sound of their voices shaking the doors of the temple as they sing out praises to your God!
You close your eyes. You are in the presence of the Lord! But who are you? Why are you chosen to be here at this moment? You know you are not worthy to be in this space of heavenly majesty. In the middle of this cacophony of Divine Beings! You feel very small, very, very small. You fall to your knees and cry out! Woe is me! I am lost, for I am of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Expecting to be struck down at any moment, you are curled on the ground but look up at one of the seraphim breaks from the chorus, swooping from the altar fire to hover right in front of you. The rustle of the feathers from their wings sounds so familiar, you can almost feel it, you’ve held doves in your hands many times, but these wings. They are strong. The angel lifts a live, hot coal taken from the altar fire and presses to your lips. You recoil for fear of the searing pain it must surely bring, but instead, it is as if you are feeling your mouth for the first time. Once unclean, now made new again, and all through the divine power of God’s forgiveness. Your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out! What will you do now? You feel like you could sing the Trisagion just as loudly as the heavenly host assembled before you!
And then, as if your new-found confidence and faith was broadcasting from you with pulsating lights, you hear the voice of the one unseen. The voice of the Lord asking, “Who shall I send? Who will speak for us?” You don’t hesitate. The liberating kiss of the hot coal’s forgiveness has cracked open your heart and without thinking you say “Here I am, send me!”
Slowly. Slowly. Return to this space. Carry that feeling of overwhelming conviction and trust and faith. Hold it in your heart as you rejoin us now.
This reading tells us that even when we think we are not worthy to be in a shared space with the divine, the divine sees through us. God sees not our unclean lips or the unclean lips of those around us, but the pure and eternally lovable center to each of our beings. And God knows what that centered, open being is capable of.
Today is about a calling. A literal call from a God unseen, but whose presence is felt just as tangibly as you feel the chair you are sitting on now. It’s also about a man who thought, “You’ve got the wrong guy! I am very, very small. I have unclean lips and am surrounded by other people who say things and act in a way that’s even WORSE than that! How can I belong here, with you?”
But today is also about a God that forgives and cleanses, and asks, not demands, but asks, “Who will speak for me? Who will go out and “tell everyone in the world that I’m yours”? Today... is about stepping up and saying, yes!
But saying yes? That’s not easy! There are ten words, ten words that, when combined, form a question we’ve all asked and been asked more times than we can count: What do you want to be when you grow up?
Sure, this question is posed to kids all the time, but it is more and more unusual for folks well out of their childhood to still ponder this question themselves. And as people of faith, we need to constantly ask ourselves “What am I called by God to do? What does God see in me through smoke and the swirling robe-filled temple? What has my mouth been unlocked to proclaim? When I lace up or slip on my shoes, where will I go to serve God and be a voice for God’s creation?”
You don’t need to have it figured out just yet. I certainly don’t. That’s the beauty of discernment. We are all on a walk with God while we are out in the world, trying our best to speak up for God through our work, our exchanges with others, our presence.
It’s also helpful to remember that not every encounter with God need happen in the holiest place on Earth. It can happen in your office at work, on the bus, my most direct experience with God happened while I was alone in my bedroom when I was living in Canterbury. I had decided to investigate the New Testament a bit to see if there was anything more I connected to than just an academic interest in religion.
And then I came upon Matthew 11: 28-30: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
I felt a physical weight lift off of me. In the same way that that kiss of the hot coal freed Isaiah from guilt and sin, I felt freed from the voices of self-doubt and self-criticism that hounded me constantly. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I could say “Here I am! This is me, the me that Jesus sees. The me that can go out in the world and set aside the doubt and fear, even just for a minute. and just exist. Listen to where the spirit would lead me.”
And here I am now. With you all in this uncertain time. We are all being asked questions by God about how we will act. What will we say and do during the weeks, months, and years to come. How will we speak for God in our community? Do you have ideas? I want to hear them! Do you need a partner? Look at the others on this call with you, journeying with you. What a crew we have! What a blessing God has given us. Let’s work together to say as loudly and clearly as we can. Here I am, Lord! Send me!
Romans 13:8-14 Love for One Another
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
An Urgent Appeal
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Something that we should remember about the Apostle Paul is that he thought Jesus would be coming back at any minute. This anticipation of the second coming of Christ shaped so much of the letters he wrote to both the churches he started and the churches he wanted to build relationships with, like the church in Rome. In a commentary on Romans 13, J.R. Daniel Kirk points to verse 11 of today’s reading as a clear marker that Paul is waiting on Jesus who will return soon: “Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now that when we became believers.” Paul knows that the Resurrection is real and awaits Jesus’ promised return. He wants to be ready... to be prepared for Jesus’ return. This part of Romans is where he sets forth the foundation of his plan for preparedness. He said you have to start with love.
The preparation was not simply watching and putting your life on hold while you wait. Instead, it was an active preparation. It was doing something... changing how you live. In her commentary, Valérie Nicolet points to Paul’s exhortation to “be in the world but not of the world” as one way Paul describes the complete change of life he believed Jesus could bring about in his followers. How we wait for God's new revelation in the world matters because it is how we practice being transformed by Jesus. And, the changes we make in our lives, particularly in how we treat our neighbors, is how Jesus transforms the world through us while we wait. Paul believed that the love we share from Christ out into the world can change things.
Nicolet notes in her commentary that this is not a letter that is just telling people how to achieve individual salvation. It is a letter where Paul points to ancient Jewish religious law as a source for building those life-changing, world-changing relationships. Starting just before today’s reading and going into verse 10, Paul asserts the on-going holy usefulness of the Ten Commandments. In his introduction to Romans, Neil Elliott notes that Jewish people would have just been allowed to return to Rome after having been expelled from the city by the emperor Claudius. Just a few years before being expelled from Rome, in a history of the city of Alexandria, Avigdor Tcherikover described there had also been anti-Jewish riots in Alexandria. Jewish people were killed. Leaders in the community were publicly tortured. Synagogues were vandalized and closed. Jewish people ended up being confined to one portion of the city.
These details of history matter because they would have shaped how Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentil followers of Jesus got along when worshiping together. According to scholars, there was already a tendency towards anti-Judaism among elite Roman citizens. That bias was trickling into Christian communities as Jews were forced to leave. Churches began to be predominantly Gentile. Once Jews began to return to Rome, there was bound to be tension. Paul, himself Jewish, needed to address this tension. He does so, in part, by affirming Jewish religious law as useful in creating a loving life while he also never requires Gentile believers to become Jewish.
Nicolet argues that for Paul, the diversity of the Roman church as evidence of God's work in the world. To see Jews and Gentiles, enslaved and free, poor and wealthy, all worshiping together, was an amazing testimony to God's hope for the world in Christ. In Christ, social distinctions that the culture understood to be tools for dividing people would be crossed, evidence of the power of the Gospel to bring people together. Paul believed that when you see a diverse community of people living and worshiping and praying and serving together, you see people who have been transformed by the Gospel. As Nicolet says this is salvation lived out socially... this is the Gospel practiced in community.
Paul said, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law." This is both an affirmation of Jewish law as a standard for behavior and a way to set the expectation of behavior in a way that accessible to Gentile believers. Remember, “one who loves another fulfills the law.” In asserting the centrality of love to a Christian life, Paul is following Jesus’ own interpretation of Jewish law. Jesus said, “Any other commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” The scholar has a particular poetic commentary on this text. I’ve shared a portion of it before, but I like it so much that I’ll share it again. Kamudzandu says “love is the grand ground on which everything grows and flourishes.” He goes on to say, “While hate and oppression dehumanize others, love, if well done and exercised, will give birth to a new world order, one in which healthy love can be nursed, grow, and flourish.”
So, what does this mean for our modern church? Well, I would argue that this particular moment is one that certainly calls for the church to truly examine our actions by this metric of love. Right now, some of the loudest voices from Christian churches are far from loving. Folks will cry Jesus in one moment and in the next, with the same mouth, scream hate. If you never met a Christian before, what would our current political arguments that target transgender people for exclusion from civil rights, our book bannings, our mistrust of non-Christian immigrants, our restrictions of access to reproductive healthcare, tell you about the followers of Christ? Would it sound like Christians are a community guided by love?
Even if those are not theological stances that this church takes up, as long as those actions get labeled “Christian,” all of us who claim the name Christian must contend with them. While we can’t only shape our lives by the things we don’t believe, with the rise of a dangerous Christian nationalism, now is the time to more fully, more loudly, more completely live out the love that we do believe. Dr. Kamudzandu says, “The church is indeed a place where persons can be organized, socialized, and mobilized to effectively love others.” I am deeply moved by the idea of church as a place where we practice love inside the walls so that we may love more fully beyond these walls. The love that we show each other here is practice for the love we are called to live out in community, especially with those who are different from us, especially in defense of those who are being attacked by Christians, in Jesus’ name. Let us take up this call to, as Dr. Kamudzandu says, have love be our lifestyle. May we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and go out to love bigger.
Exodus 3:1-15: Moses at the Burning Bush
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
The Divine Name Revealed
But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.
Moses.... have you heard of him? Born to an enslaved people? Saved by the brilliance of his midwives, mom, and older sister? Raised by the compassionate daughter of a man who was considered a God and was also deeply afraid of the power of the people he enslaved and his biological mother who was pretending to be a nursemaid? Murderer who leaves town to hide from punishment? Shepherd? Leader called by God who’s also often too nervous to talk to others so he recruits his eloquent brother to do the talking? Yes. That Moses.
I don’t know if there are many people in the whole Bible who try harder to talk God out of calling them to great things. I mean, Jonah... you know, the one ended up inside a whale’s stomach for a couple days that one time... he didn’t really want to do the work God called him to. But, that was because he didn’t want to help the people God was trying to get him to help, not because he didn’t think he could help them. Moses, who grew up the grandson of the pharaoh but somehow managed to not learn any of the pharaoh's confidence, doesn’t seem to think he can help anyone.
Even when God tells him that God will be with him through all of this, Moses isn’t sure he can do the job God wants him to do. In fact, he spends not just today’s reading but all the way to the end of chapter 3 and halfway through chapter 4 trying to convince God that he cannot possibly do the job. He only agrees to do it when God relents and let him take along his Hebrew brother Aaron. Only Abraham’s argument with God to save Lot from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind when I try to remember anyone else arguing with God for so long to try to convince God to do something other than what God wants to do in that moment. Importantly, Abraham was able to convince God to spare Lot and his family. Moses was not able to talk his way out of a job. He was able to get a co-worker/confidante/company for when the work of a prophet got hard and lonely. His brother Aaron would be there.
In a sermon he prepared for this Sunday before Labor Day, Mike Seavey, who you were able to hear from at the beginning of worship, argues that the dispute between the enslaved Hebrews and the Pharaoh can be understood as a labor dispute. He says, “In fact, this dispute is the ultimate of all injustices. The Egyptians have enslaved the Hebrew people, and their slave labor supercharges the Egyptian economy into the most affluent of the world.” The Hebrews were only in Egypt because of a famine back home. They had once been welcomed by a different Pharaoh.
But, there is a new Pharaoh. And, this Pharaoh began to see the descendants of climate refugees as a threat instead of people who needed a safe place to be. When they were a threat, he could justify harming them. When they were a threat, he could coerce them into making him even more rich and powerful. Too often, the way to power is over the backs of the impoverished and desperate. Work.... labor is necessary to bring life into fruition. But, not all labor is worthwhile. Not all labor brings life. The Pharaoh used forced labor and poorly compensated labor to enrich and empower himself. It is the opposite of the labor to which God called Moses.
In her book Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne, Dr. Wil Gafney has done some powerful work lifting up the labor that allowed Moses to survive the fraught life of a slave into which he was born. Laboring by the side of many Hebrews who gave birth were Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who refused to kill Hebrew children. They would risk their lives and lie to their boss to save the children. It is the labor of his mother, Jochebed, that welcomes Moses to life, and it is her labor of love to hide him for three months so that he will not be killed as the pharaoh had ordered. It is her desperate, but ingenious, plan that gets him in the arms of the Pharaoh’s daughter. And it is Jochebed’s bravery and skill that gets her the position of wet-nurse for Moses, thereby assuring that she is able raise him in his earliest years.
Dr. Gafney notes that Jochebed may have been able to nurse Moses for five years. Five years that helped him know his identity as a Hebrew... that helped him maintain his relationship with his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, both of whom would accompany him in his labor as a prophet. Miriam herself had also worked as part of the plot to save Moses as a child. It is no wonder that she, who had learned the work of outsmarting a cruel pharaoh alongside her mother as a teenager, would later sing a song of freedom for her people after God saved her people at the sea.
The princess, her servants, Jochebed, Miriam, Shiphrah, and Puah... all of their work together helped to raise up a man, Moses, who, as Dr. Gafney points out, cared enough about being Hebrew that he is willing to defend a Hebrew slave from an Egyptian overseer, killing the overseer and necessitating his move to Midian. And, even though he is not sure that he is capable enough to do the work God asks of him, it is clear that the labor of so many had loved him into adulthood and could carry him through his mission from God. Maybe some small part of him realized he could do the work he was called to if he wasn’t trying to do it alone.
It is rare that we labor alone. And, perhaps Moses has some wisdom in asking for a coworker. Workers are always stronger when they join together, right? That’s the lesson we learn from Moses’ family. And, that may be the lesson that got him to stop arguing with God and go with his brother to fight for his people’s right to no longer be coerced into harmful work that did not benefit them so much as it benefited the rich person who owned them. May the Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Shiphrah, the God of Puah, the God of Jochebed and Miriam, inspire us to work together for good, even in the midst of systems that benefit from the kind of labor that destroys life, rather than creating it. And, may we remember Moses, who felt unable to do the labor to which God called him when he thought he had to do it by himself. May we find our Aarons, and walk with them, guided by God, into freedom.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mike Seavey, Labor and Faith Liaison for the Maine AFL-CIO, shared a Labor Day sermon he'd written with me. I quote a line from it here. Mike came to church today to share some about ways faith communities and workers can work together.
Wil Gafney's chapter on Exodus in Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of Torah and the Throne (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017).
Romans 12:1-8 The New Life in Christ
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Pop quiz from last week: Who wrote the letter to the Romans? That’s right: Paul. Do you remember why he wrote them a letter? Right. He had a new mission, a trip to Spain, and knew he’d need the support of the church in Rome in order to do it. Did he know anyone at the church in Rome? Right. Probably not. He wrote the letter, in part, to introduce himself and explain what he believed about Jesus to a church that was not one he started.
Paul talks about a lot of different things in this letter. One of the things that seems particularly useful today is the way he wants to help people figure out how to be a church together when everyone is different from each other. One of my favorite ways that Paul tried to help people understand how to work together as a church was to invite them to think of each of themselves as different parts of one body. He used this metaphor in today's reading and in another letter that we call 1st Corinthians. He explains it a little more fully in 1st Corinthians, so I'd like to share a little of that letter because I think it's helpful. If you want to practice being one body:
You can tell from your answers that no one part of our body can tell the other parts that we don't need it. We need all the parts to work. And, if one part isn’t working, we need the other parts to help it. Church is like that, too. We need each other so that our body can be whole. And, when one part needs help, the other parts are there to pitch in.
When Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, he also told their church that he thought the church was like a body. He said that God wants us to find a way to serve God by working together as a body works together. He said that it's important for us to not imagine the things that we each can do are more important or better than things the other members of our body can do. We must remember that we need all the different things that each one of us can do in order to be the church. Some of us will be teachers and some of us will be compassionate hosts and some of us will preach, and some of us will teach everyone how to share (and we'll all probably do a little bit of each one of these things). We really need to appreciate all the gifts each one of us brings. We need to love each other, be excited about our service together, be hopeful and empathetic when someone suffers, and we need to pray together. All of those things make our body stronger.
Since school will be starting soon for the students and teachers and everyone who works at the school, while I don’t think public schools need to be like churches, I have been thinking that schools are kind of like bodies, too. Everyone has things they are supposed to do all together for school to work right. A few years ago, one of my friend's churches (many thanks to the Congregational Church UCC in Exeter, NH and Rev. E. Heath) shared a list of things that are important to do at school so that the school works well, like a body. I think it sounds a little like the things Paul wrote about church. Here's some things that they said that the student part of the body could do to help the whole body:
Do those things sound like good things for students to do to make sure the school body works well? Anything you'd like to add?
Remember how Paul said there were some things that we all need to do in church to work as a body? He said, we need to love each other, be excited about our service together, be hopeful, be empathetic when someone suffers, and pray for each other. I think loving each other, being hopeful and excited together, and trying hard to understand other people's feelings are probably important for school, too. Maybe we get to practice these things at both at church and at school.... maybe we can practice them anywhere where are.
I was reading a professor named Frank Crouch who said that we carry with us in our bodies our faith. That’s one of the big lessons from Paul. Our faith in Jesus is supposed to shape how we live in this world and the actions we take in this world, both inside our church and outside of it. I hope, as the new school starts, we can pray for the members of this body returning to school... may they be safe, offer safety to others, learn so many good things, have great fun together, and work hard. May the students, teachers, lunchroom workers, janitors, coaches, and office staff all feel appreciated as members of their body of learning. And, may we in this church body, support them.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Frank L. Crouch- http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3375.
The list for the kids comes from a post shared by the Congregational Church UCC in Exeter, New Hampshire, at the return of school in 2017. It was so good that I brought it back out to share once again.
Romans 1:1-8 The Letter of Paul to the Romans
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Prayer of Thanksgiving
First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.
Does anyone remember who wrote what we call the book of Romans? That’s right. Paul. Paul was not one of Jesus’ first 12 disciples or even one of Jesus’ first 100 followers, but he ended becoming one of the most important voices in the history of Christianity. We know about him from some of his own writings (letters that came to be known as books in our Bible) and from the book of Acts, which includes some his biography as gathered by that author.
There are also several letters-that-became-books that are credited to him that modern scholars think were actually written by someone who went to one of the churches Paul started. In his introduction to the New Testament, Bart Ehrman writes that six book that have been credited to Paul (Ephesians, Colossians, 2nd Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus) have enough differences in writing style, vocabulary, and theology to be understood as either probably or likely not written by Paul. Romans is one of the books undisputedly written by Paul.
Ehrman argues that “No book of the New Testament has proven to be more influential in the history of Christian thought than Paul’s letter to the Romans.” From Paul himself to St. Augustine all the way through the Protestant Reformation up to today, this letter to Christians in Rome has come to be understood as probably the clearest articulation of Paul’s particular understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Of all the letters that are indisputably his, this was probably one of the last to be written. Paul hadn’t started the church in Rome. In fact, according to Ehrman, they didn’t seem to know him at all. Or, if they had heard of him, what they heard made them suspicious.
If Paul wanted their support as he began a mission to Spain, he needed to properly introduce himself. He needed to clarify his theology. And, he wanted to offer them teaching and encouragement to help them grow in their faith. In reading Romans, we get a sense of what were key issues in the church of this era: the relationship between Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers of Jesus, the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ identity as the fulfillment of God’s promises set forth in the law, and a discussion of what it means to live a life shaped by their Christian faith that often put them at odds with the culture around them.
Did anyone here learn how to write letters in school? What are some things you learned had to go in those letters? Paul learned that you had to put some things in letters, too. If you read any of the books that are letters from Paul, you’ll notice that the beginning has a very similar pattern. There’s the sender’s name and the recipients, in this case, “all God’s beloved in Rome.” Notice that Paul doesn’t just say his name. He offers a short description of his calling, and, also, his understanding of who Jesus is and what the Gospel is.
Have you ever heard of an elevator pitch? It’s a short description of a project idea that you might give someone if you only had a short elevator ride to convince them to support you. If you weren’t able to read any of the rest of Romans, Paul’s introduction here is his elevator pitch. He is an apostle, which here is not used to indicate the first 12 of Jesus’ followers, but instead to indicate a special role, similar to that of a prophet in the Hebrew Bible.
We should take care to note that Paul isn’t bragging here when calling himself an apostle. He doesn’t linger on descriptions of his particular holiness or giftedness that made him worthy of such a calling. Instead, he quickly shifts to the work of God in the world. As Jennifer Vija Pietz notes in her commentary on this text, Paul immediately emphasizes how God is at work, not just in calling him, but in laying the foundation through the covenant, for Jesus’ eventual ministry, and for the salvation of all. And, she says, “It is this life-giving gift of God’s Son to a world often turned against God that constitutes the grace that transformed Paul and his co-workers into apostles—ones sent by God to bring this gift to others.” And, according to Pietz, Paul is clearly saying, “This life I have is not my own. It’s God’s. Here’s what I’m called to do with it. Are you called to do this with me?”
If this was a regular letter, Paul might not have needed to say all that. He might have just said, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ.... To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s how these letters usually go. But, remember, this isn’t just a letter to his friends helping them through a thorny church issue like most of his other letters are. He has realized what the next part of his mission for the Gospel is and he knows he will not be able to do it alone. In fact, he’s never done faith alone. He’s long known that the Gospel is done alongside others. So, he starts this letter right from the beginning with a statement of his great faith and an acknowledgement that God can and will call others to do the Gospel as well.
In fact, he seems to know that there is great potential among the faithful in Rome. He’s already heard about them. He thanks God for them. “I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” And, that’s where our reading stops, but, obviously not where Paul stops. For this week though, I hope you’ll consider how you might describe your faith if you only had a few moments to do so. What’s your elevator pitch for the Gospel? If you were gonna invite someone to be a part of the mission you’re called to, what would you say? And, if you were sent a letter, or a text message, or a dm from a potential co-worker in Christ, how would you discern if their mission is one to which you are also called? Because there is some powerful work we can do together, when called and equipped by God. May we remain open to all the possibilities that God has already been creating. And, when our letter comes, may we be willing to follow the call.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Jennifer Vija Pietz: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent/commentary-on-romans-11-7-6
Bart Ehrman's chapter on Paul in The New Testament: A Historical Introduction of The Early Christian Writings, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).
Neil Elliot's notes on Romans in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Scripture Matthew 5:43-48 Love for Enemies
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Ok, Jesus, but what if I really don’t want to love my enemies?” That’s what I imagine at least some of the folks who were listening to the Sermon on the Mount thought when they heard this particular bit of teaching. My enemies are my enemies for a reason. They are not very nice. I really only want to love people who are not my enemies. Be reasonable, Jesus.
This whole “love your enemies” thing doesn’t come from out of the blue. Today’s reading is still in that part of the Sermon where Jesus is expounding on how a person might actually live a life that follows the Ten Commandments and other important Jewish religious law. Last week, we learned about addressing destructive anger so that it doesn’t rise to level of doing physical harm to another. That’s how he instructs his disciples and the crowds to follow the “do not murder” commandment: deal with the anger first, so you don’t get to the murder.
Between last week’s reading and today’s, he also addresses issues in marriages, like adultery and divorce, and the breaking of oaths, other issues covered by the Commandments. And then he gets to other important teachings that we would find in Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. These are teachings about how to respond to violence that is directed at you. Today’s reading is connected to that. First, he talks about dealing with violence, and then he talks about how to deal with the people who enact the violence.
The scholars I read this week took great pains to remind readers that the people gathered to listen to Jesus were living under a kind of systemic threat that comes with being a nation conquered by Rome. While there was always the risk of individual conflicts leading into interpersonal violence, the people Jesus was preaching to were also at risk of official violence sanctioned by Rome. In her commentary on this text, Carla Works reminds us that the folks in the crowd listening were largely living at a subsistence level- just barely having what they need- and their everyday interactions with agents of Rome, particularly soldiers and tax collectors, were rife with the possibility for violence. It is a deeply pastoral impulse to talk with people who live under the threat of violence about how to deal with that violence in a faithful way.
I’ve preached before on the work of Walter Wink, who offers up an interpretation of Jesus’ teaching about retaliating against violence that I find very useful (go find my sermon from February 19th, 2017 if you want a more full exploration of Matthew 5: 38-42). I won’t go through all of what he said, but the short version is that turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and giving someone more than they are suing for are all ways to disrupt how someone intends to use power. The three types of harm mentioned- slapping a cheek, suing a poor person to take the last clothes they have left, and forcing a civilian to carry a soldier’s stuff- are all examples of using power to humiliate someone. Disrupting their tactics can surprise them and make them look shameful for degrading someone who has less power.
Now, I’m not sure that this always works. Plenty of people in power have no shame and relish humiliating others. At the same time, I remember actions like the 1990 Capitol Crawl protest and know that disruptions can work. In that protest, more than a thousand people marched from the White House to the US Capitol to demand that Congress pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. Once they got to the Capitol, 60 of the protestors who used some kind of mobility aid, from crutches to wheelchairs, set their aids aside and crawled up the steps. It was a powerful demonstration of how inaccessible supposedly public buildings are. Seeing all the disabled activists, including a six-year-old child who wanted to participate, shamed the people in power into voting for the Americans with Disabilities Act. That act has been, and continues to need to be updated, but, even as imperfect as it is, it makes people’s lives more livable and our country more just. Shaming the Devil works, at least sometimes.
According to Jesus, then, after you’ve disrupted the hatefulness directed at you, you need to go one step farther, which, is too bad, because I really like the “shaming the oppressors” part. That feels just to me. Jesus said we can’t stop there, though. We can’t just disrupt our enemies. We also need to love them. Jesus said, “even those traitorous tax collectors can love the people who love them. That’s not very hard.” If you are only kind to the people who think and act just like you, Jesus says, “what more are you doing than others?”
This is one of the places where it is good to be reminded that, as Carl Works says, “God’s kingdom is bigger than Roman rule.” We enact the kindom of God when we live out our faith in this world. And, Jesus says, living out this faith means acting differently than the ones who hate us. It even means that we should pray for them. It even means that we should love them. We practice offering the kind of perfect love God offers. Even when we think that kind of perfection is overrated.
I will freely admit that I don’t always know how to love my enemies. Some neo-Nazis rallied at the state capitol here in Maine yesterday and I feel very little love towards them. On the other hand, I saw some love in action recently from someone who isn’t a Christian, that might serve as an example to me when I struggle to figure out how to love so radically as a Christian. Poet, speaker, author, and comedian Alok Vaid-Menon is trans and gender-non-conforming. They dress in ways that many of us would think of as feminine, use they/them pronouns, and often have a short beard. This mix of clothes, pronouns, and body hair can be really challenging for people who have narrow ideas about what kinds of clothes people with certain kinds of bodies can wear. Given that their work is so often public, people make rude and hurtful comments to them in very public places. Their responses offer a great lesson in loving your enemies.
Recently they shared a comment someone left on one of their pictures. The commenter said, “be yourself, no problem with that, really; but I find this disgusting, sorry.” The thing the person found disgusting was Vaid-Menon existence as a person with beard wearing bright, feminine dresses and heels. Rather than ignoring that person, Vaid-Menon responded. It’s a long response that I’ll share a link to in when I share the whole sermon, but here’s part of it:
“I am a human being: born with a heart, two lungs, and no shame. I’m sorry right back at you. Sorry that you have such a narrow worldview. I can see it’s hurting you. It must be exhausting to feel as if your worth comes from winnowing yourself down to other people’s opinions of who you should be. Shame is interrupted joy. And I believe you are worth joy.”
I am grateful for this example from someone with whom I don’t share a faith who nevertheless has shown me a way to love someone who is unkind to them and do so with great integrity. It is no small sacrifice to expend this energy on someone who might rightly be called an enemy. And, yet, Vaid-Menon has the spiritual strength to find the right moment to do so. My prayer this week is that we can find a way to pray for the ones who cause harm, whether it’s us or our enemies. Maybe our first prayer for them is that they will have a change of heart. That prayer is a good enough place to start. It’s not perfect. But it gets us one step closer to the love and justice Jesus’ hopes for us.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-538-48-2
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-538-48-3
An article about the Capitol Crawl: https://www.history.com/news/americans-with-disabilities-act-1990-capitol-crawl
Alok Vaid-Menon's post where they respond to a hateful comment: https://www.instagram.com/p/Ct9Oc0uu7x_/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link&igshid=MzRlODBiNWFlZA==
Walter Wink, Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium (New York: Galillee Doubleday, 1998)
Matthew 5:21-26 Concerning Anger
‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Today’s reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount. The first part is the Beatitudes... that list of “Blessed are(s)…" where the meek, the mourners, and the peacemakers are lifted up and called blessed. After that, there is a section about how a disciple is to act in the world. “You are the salt of the earth... You are the light of the world.” Then, there’s a section on how Jesus has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, so the religious commandments were still useful and necessary ways to orient your life towards God. Today’s reading is in that part of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus is talking about the Law.
Beginning with verse 21 and continuing well past what we heard today, clear to the end of chapter 5, Jesus offers up some specific teaching on what it means to follow his interpretation of Jewish religious laws and practice. In his notes on the text, Andrew Overman notes that Jesus singles out the Ten Commandments, as well as some other religious laws from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, in his teaching. He explains the law and how one should adapt their behavior in order to follow that religious law. In his commentary on this text, Eric Barreto says that Jesus is helping his followers cultivate a relationship with God through “a faithful recalling of and reinvestment in ancient, trustworthy tradition.” Remember, he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.
Interestingly, he doesn’t begin this reinvestment by simplifying the manner by which one can follow any given commandment. He’s not watering down their shared religious traditions. Barreto notes that he’s actually intensifying them... adding additional layers of practice on top of the behaviors usually accepted as evidence that a person is trying to follow a commandment. Jesus isn’t asking for a bare minimum of adherence for the law. He is asking for a rigorous, life-changing commitment. Jesus believes that a relationship with God is transformative. And, also, that each of our relationships with God will shape how we interact with other people. Our faith shouldn’t isolate us but connect us with other people and shape how we interact with other people. As Karoline Lewis notes in her commentary on this text, “ [w]ho you choose to be in the world is not only a revelation of yourself, but also a manifestation of those with whom you are in relationship or claim connection.” How you are in this world says something about the God you believe in and the church you are a part of.
So, how are we to be in this world? Jesus says that we are to be invested enough in our relationship with God that we actively tend to the relationships with other people that shape our daily lives. In a couple different sermons I’ve preached, I’ve talked about how Jesus lumps the Ten Commandments into two sections: one is about loving God and the other is about loving other people. For Jesus, then, when engaging with the commandments, he calls on his followers to really get to the heart of each commandment. There we will find guidance on how to love God through loving our neighbors.
I won’t try to go through all of Jesus’ interpretations of the Ten Commandments today, mostly because our reading for the day just covers one. But, it’s a big one! He starts this discourse with what can seem like a no-brainer: don’t murder people. Perhaps I’m being naïve here, but I think it is remarkably easy nearly all the time to not murder someone. Jesus says that this commandment isn’t just about the act of killing someone. It is about dealing with the anger that can, if unchecked, drive you to harm another person. While it might be pretty easy not to murder someone, it is often very hard not to be angry. And, as Eric Barreto notes in his commentary, some kinds of anger are death-dealing and destructive. Jesus sees destructive anger as the issue to be addressed if one does not want to be tempted to harm another. And, this is what he believes his followers must first address.
It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t put the onus of reconciliation only on the person who has been angered. Instead, it is the responsibility of the one who has angered someone else to go to that person and attempt to be reconciled. We must be aware of the effect that we have on other people. That is what it means to be a disciple. We are a people who seek to repair what we have broken. This section of the Sermon on the Mount is often called the Antitheses. That is a reference to the way Jesus says “you have heard that...., but I say to you....” Barreto invites us to read this portion of the sermon as “you have heard that to follow God, you must not kill, but I say to you, to follow God, you must seek repaired relationship through reconciliation.”
The kinds of wrongs Jesus is talking about here are the kind that might be settled in court. That’s why there is this talk of “favorable terms.” Sometimes reconciliation is hard, and a third party is necessary to help people treat each other fairly. Jesus encourages his followers to try to not let the disagreement go that far if possible. If you have wronged someone, make yourself accountable to them, and work to make amends. This is a significant demand for humility from Jesus. It is not often easy to admit when you have wronged someone else. But, it is necessary if we are to be in relationships with each other that reflects God’s love in the world.
In his commentary on this text, Charles Campbell describes Jesus as “build[ing] up a distinctive community grounded not simply in external actions but in relationships that value and seek the good of others.” These kinds of relationships don’t usually just happen out of nowhere. They must be cultivated over time and with great care. Jesus tells us that the work is worth it. Because, through this work, we grow closer to God. May we be guided by the Holy Spirit as we tend our relationships, making amends, and offering care. For this, as the scholar Carl Works notes in her commentary, is how God’s Kindom will come.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
J. Andrew Overman's notes on Matthew in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)n The New Oxford Annotated Bible
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-521-37-4
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sixth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-matthew-521-37-2
Charles L. Campbell, "Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Matthew 20:1-16 The Laborers in the Vineyard
‘For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; and he said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.”
So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You also go into the vineyard.”
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 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.’
Have many of you seen the list of UCC Firsts? Those of you who have joined the church since I became the pastor definitely saw it in your new members’ class. And, the confirmation classes have seen it, too. For those who haven’t seen it or didn’t memorize everything in their new member class, the list of UCC Firsts is a list of historical events where Christians from one of the denominations that would eventually form the United Church of Christ where among the first folks to do something. The list includes affirmation of the leadership of people from historically marginalized groups, acts of civil disobedience, the creation of schools and mission societies, support of civil rights movements, and comparatively early steps of acceptance of LGBTQ people.
The UCC Firsts list is certainly not an exhaustive list of important events in the history of our denomination. But, it’s a list that some people decided was important. It is one of the things that people new to the denomination see when they want to learn more. It’s a list that can help long timers learn something about a part of our history that they might not know. Also, importantly, by listing these firsts- firsts that have a lot to do with justice and equality- demonstrate both who we are theologically and who we want to be going forward. Some people will act like a Christian push for social justice is some brand-new behavior dictated by the politics of this era. In pointing to historical firsts going back to the 1600’s, we are showing that a Christian commitment to justice has been around for a long time.
And, we are calling out these justice firsts as exemplars of our historical behavior... we are naming them as some of the best things we’ve ever done as a religious community. And, we are claiming them to be behaviors we should repeat in our present time and the future, based on both our historical commitments to justice and to the demands of justice relevant to the present day. If Rev. Samuel Sewell wrote an early pamphlet about the sinfulness of slavery in 1700, we can and should speak to the racism rooted in the practices of chattel slavery that still exists in our time. Sometimes we need to look towards the examples of the firsts to inspire us in the now and push us towards the next. The first we lift up show us who we hope to be.
It can be challenging, though, to only pay attention to the firsts. It may be tempting to feel that because we or a member of our denomination took a stance first, we did it best. Or, we may concentrate too much on our past firsts without tending to the demands of the present. And, when we do something wrong, or someone points out that, though portions of our history are shaped by an old faith commitment to justice, we still have systemic problems with sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia within our denomination, we might get defensive, and point to our firsts as evidence that we couldn’t possibly be in the wrong. Being first does not make us best or perfect.
Just after Jesus told a wealthy man that his wealth was preventing him from being closer to God and confirmed that being willing to make sacrifices is part of following Christ, Jesus tells another story, this time about a landowner and some day laborers he hired. The surprising element of this story has to do with how he chooses to pay them. He hires his first set of laborers at 6 am and goes back at 9 am, hiring a second crew. He goes back at noon, at 3 pm and at 5 pm, hiring more workers each time. In her commentary on the text, Kimberly Wagner notes that the 6 am folks are promised a day’s wage. The 9 am group is promised “whatever is right,” as were the noon and three pm folks. At five, he asks “why have you been standing around all day?” When they reply that it’s because no one hired them, he said they could go to his vineyard, too.
Now, if you have had employees or been in charge of payroll, you might expect the ones who came later and worked fewer hours to be paid less. The workers certainly did. But, that’s not what happened. The landowner told his manager to start paying the last hired first and to proceed to those first hired. Group by group, regardless of how long they’d worked, each worker was paid a full day’s wage. Those who had only been there a little while were overjoyed. Those who’d worked a full day grumbled. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” We got here first. We’ve worked the longest. We deserve the most. My, doesn't that complaint sound familiar?
In her commentary, Wagner notes that this parable isn’t supposed to be read as “Jesus’ advise to business owners,” though generosity towards employees is probably a good and just thing. And, she and another scholar named Emerson Powery argue that this parable is supposed to show us how Jesus thought God was supposed to be. Wagner says that the story shows us that God’s ways of generosity are not bound by human ideas of a “just reward.” In this case, those who were first were not more moral or good or worthy than those who came later. If arriving first in order to get more stuff- more money, more power, better seats at the free Melissa Etheridge concert- is an important part of many human systems, Jesus is clear God is not bound by that system.
The incredible, impractical, improbably generous actions of the landowner in this story, according to Wagner, point us to a future reign of God that is more generous and gracious and abundant than we can likely imagine. After all, most of us are just trying to get paid fairly for the work we do. This story asks us to imagine a world that is incomprehensibly better than our basic hope for just pay.... we will have not just what we can work for, but what we need. Because every worker needed a day’s pay and the landowner made sure everybody got one, even the people who hadn’t had the opportunity to work as long. We shouldn’t follow Jesus for special privileges. This story shows us that perhaps our calling is not simply to keep track who is first, second, or last, but instead, like those 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, and 5 o’clock workers, to follow when we are called up to the vineyard, to do the work we are called to do, and to give thanks for a holy promise that we will be given what is right. And, what is right... what is just... what we deserve, is more grace and care than we can currently imagine.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
The list of UCC Firsts: https://www.ucc.org/ucc-firsts/
Kimberly Wagner: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/laborers-in-the-vineyard-2/commentary-on-matthew-201-16-8
Emerson Powery: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25/commentary-on-matthew-201-16-6
Matthew 19:16-30 The Rich Young Man
Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’
Then Peter said in reply, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
The average dromedary camel is around 6 feet tall at their shoulder and around 7 feet tall at the top of their hump. They usually weigh between 660 and 1320 pounds. Camels are really big. There are many sizes of needles for many kinds of sewing tasks. I checked my biggest darning needles. The longest one in the packet is 2 and 5/8ths inches long. The eye is about one quarter of an inch long. I’m pretty sure that a camel can’t fit through an eye of that needle. The camel is 336 times taller than the eye of the biggest needle in all of my embroidery gear.
This week, with several strikes either on-going or on the horizon, I’ve seen a lot of talk about how much CEOs of various companies make. Their salaries are really big. Berkeley professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich shared a list of the salaries of CEOs of 8 Hollywood studios. The highest salary of the eight he listed was $51 million dollars a year. The lowest was $22 million. This doesn’t apparently count all of their compensation, like stocks and other benefits, though. Journalist Mo Ryan reported that in 2021, one of CEOs pay was more like $246 million a year... which, parceled out in a day over a year, would be about $675,000 per day. That same year, an entry level support staff position in one part of the studio he ran would have been paid about $185 a day. According to Ryan, when you combine all his compensation, this CEO makes 3600 times more per day than an entry level position in the company he runs.
You may have noticed this on your own, but it bears repeating. The four Gospels, while all sharing a telling of Jesus’ life and ministry, don’t each tell it the same way and don’t always share the same stories. Some stories make it into three or four of them. There is a version of today’s reading in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It is often known as The Rich Young Ruler. It’s about someone who wants to know how he might achieve eternal life. He ends up being asked to make a significant sacrifice. Money ends up being an impediment to his spiritual growth. Jesus thinks he’d do better with a lot less of it. The wealthy man left the conversation with Jesus in grief, because he had a really big fortune. It seems like giving it up was a nearly impossible task for this man.
In high school, I read a story by Leo Tolstoy called “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” In that story, a man, who begins the story as a peasant working on someone else’s land, works to purchase more and more, assuming that lots of land would insulate him from anxiety and scarcity. He claims that if he had plenty of land, he “wouldn’t fear the Devil himself.” When he purchases his first piece of land, he comes in conflict with his neighbors. When he hears that there is rich farmland in another region, he sells all of his land and possessions and moves there with his wife. The story says he’s “ten times better off than he had been.” And, yet he grows discontent.
He was going to purchase a big plot of land from someone who was struggling to pay for it, so they were going to sell it to him at a loss. But then he found out that if he moved to yet another region, he might even be able to buy a bigger piece of land for the same amount of money. When he arrives, the locals give him a bizarre offer: he can have as much land as he can mark out while walking, beginning at sun up and ending at sun down. He must start and begin at the same place. If he succeeds, he’ll only pay $1000 rubles for what marked. If he fails, he will lose the money and the land.
Though he has a dream where all the men who tempted him to buy more land in different places turn out to be the devil, he still decides to go for the locals’ offer. He marks a huge parcel of land, but the physical stress of the ordeal, along with his fear that he won’t make it, take their toll. He dies just as leader of the local people says he’s gained much land. In the end, all the land he really needed was the six-foot-tall plot of land in which his servant buried him.
In her commentary on this text, Wil Gafney cautions readers not to assume that the Gospel requires some people to live in poverty. This has been a mistake Christians have made in the past and likely continue to make. She argues that individuals and societies that approve of the hoarding of resources too readily “sanctify the poverty of others,” saying that God must intend them to be poor and requiring that they be grateful recipients of wealthier people’s grace. Any reading of this story that justifies impoverishing people because “God’s obviously wants them poor,” is a misreading of the Gospel. Jesus is not justifying the wealthy class impoverishing the poorer classes. He is telling a wealthy man that his wealth, and all that he does to gain more of it and all that he does to protect it, is a really big problem. And, it is a problem big enough to overshadow all that he does to try to live by his religious laws.
I know that some scholars have posited that the “eye of the needle” referenced here is actually the name of a skinny gate in the wall around the city that a person could fit through but a camel couldn’t. I think Jesus actually means the eye of a sewing needle. Like our reading from last week where Jesus tells a parable where a person is forgiven an impossible sum of money, the impossibility of this image is the point. Wealth, which is used to solve so many problems in this world, cannot ultimately solve the problem of eternal life. You can’t buy your way into God’s grace.
In fact, Jesus seems to be saying wealth, and the power and influence that go along with it, may actually ultimately prevent you from growing closer to the divine. Or, at least prevent this one man from coming closer to God. But, if amassing and protecting wealth was a barrier to his spiritual growth, it is hard not to imagine that it would be for ours either. I keep wanting to hold this man’s story up alongside the parable of the slave who had his debt forgiven but chose not to offer that same mercy up to someone who owed him money. And, what I think they are saying together is that mercy is at the core of our faith. This isn’t to justify suffering, but it is to call us to generosity and to warn us away from hoarding. May we never be so attached to what we have gathered up that we walk away from an opportunity to lay it down so we can walk closer with Jesus. Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to amass really big fortunes. He told them love God and love their neighbors, and to trust that God could do impossible things. May we never see sharing with our neighbors as an impossible thing.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Where I found information about camels: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camel
Robert Reich: https://twitter.com/RBReich/status/1679865074943500289?t=28NPwWxLg6lNj7tPfQ23_Q&s=19
Mo Ryan: https://twitter.com/moryan/status/1679599813958967296?t=T0YFLR_MaxTu2abS-T5rHw&s=19
You can read "How Much Land Does a Man Need" here: https://www.online-literature.com/tolstoy/2738/
Wil Gafney, Proper 10 (closest to July 13) in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.