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.
Mark 1:1-8 The Proclamation of John the Baptist
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Can someone remind me what the name of the church season that starts today? Advent! That’s right. So, I have another question (the manger is on the communion table). What is this? A manger! And what are these? (I hold up animals, Holy Family, minus Jesus, shepherds, Magi, and angel). Now, remember the scripture that we just heard? Did you hear anything about animals? Angels? Shepherds? Joseph? Mary? Even Baby Jesus? No. That’s right. You didn’t. Who did you hear about? John the Baptist! And, can you remember what job John the Baptist would have? He’s going tell people to repent and offer them a ritual of baptism as a sign of their repentance. He’s going wear itchy clothes and eat bugs and argue with bad kings. And, he’s going to say, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” He will be the one who tells other people that the Messiah is coming and will tell them that it is Jesus.
Just a few minutes ago, I said that the word Advent comes from a Latin phrase that means “until the coming.” The season that we are starting today, Advent, is all about doing what John did: prepare for Jesus to come into this world. We prepare our churches and ourselves in a couple different ways. What are some things that are different in the sanctuary from the last time you were here? (Wait for people to list the things they notice: paraments are a different color, Christmas tree with Chrismons, Advent wreath and candles, Advent banner, manger) When we change how things look in a space, it can remind us that something special is getting ready to happen. The purple paraments, the special ornaments and candles, and the manger scene are all signs that the season has changed, and we are now making preparations to welcome the one John was talking about into the world.
While Matthew and Luke start off by telling us about Jesus’ birth and his parents, Mark starts off with John, an adult whose birth we learn of in Luke, doing the thing he is called to do: call people to repentance and prophecy of the one who is to come. If you come expecting to hear about Mary or Joseph or even Zechariah and Elizabeth and a baby, it might be a surprise to start off the season with grown up John and no sweet baby in sight. There’s a pastor and professor named Timothy L. Adkins-Jones who said it is “like a splash of cold water on the face.” Does anyone here remember their baptism or remembering seeing a baptism where the water surprises people? Babies notoriously don’t love getting wet heads out of nowhere. And, I certainly remember baptisms I’ve done in a cooler than expected Maranacook Lake. The cold water can wake you up... make you pay attention. And, John wants us to pay attention.
In his commentary on this text, Dr. Adkins-Jones says that “Advent is a time of new beginnings for our contexts, for a reminder of the foundations of our faith, a recommitment to what defines us, and an opportunity for us to wake up and make pathways straight for Jesus to come into our communities anew.” I don’t plan on wearing scratchy shirts or eating locusts while I prepare the way for Jesus this Advent. I generally prefer cookies to bugs. But, there are some things I will do. I’ll be lighting an Advent wreath here and at home. I’ll be reading the “How Does a Weary World Rejoice” devotional. Tasha and I have been looking out for ways to help people who need financial assistance because we know that Jesus called for those who have a lot to share with those who don’t have enough. I’ll probably also be writing legislators about ceasefires and gun control, because I know that the coming Christ calls for peace and justice.
There are often many pressures in what is called the Christmas season- the pressure to buy the perfect gift, to buy any gifts if you don’t have money, the pressure to craft a picture-perfect family, the pressure to feel cheery even if you are missing someone who is no longer here. I hope that Advent can give you some space for feeling other things than the cheer that a big box store requires while you are out shopping. If you need some cheer, I hope you take it. It’s been and continues to be a hard season. But, if you need some space for more complicated feelings or for stillness or for deeper meaning, Advent is here for that. Dr. Adkins-Jones says that we can take this time for “return, repentance, and rededication.” What are the traditions and communities that we can return to in order to help us to make a path clear for Jesus into our hearts and our world? What are the behaviors that we need to give over to God that separate us from God and each other? What are the practices of love and justice that we can commit to, once again or maybe for the first time, because they give us strength for journeying alongside Christ in the world?
Today, we talked some about what has been giving us hope lately. Maybe that’s one way Advent can be of use for you as you prepare for Christ once again. What would it mean for you to intentionally name places of hope for you not just here in worship, but each day this week? I don’t want this to feel like homework in an already busy time. But, I do think 5 minutes of thinking about hope while you brush your teeth or feed the cats might be helpful right now. Maybe you decide that you don’t have the brain space to add one more thing to your plate. That’s ok. We don’t make the baby come by working ourselves into the ground. Jesus will come whether we do much of anything at all really. But the arrival will be sweeter if we have prepared for it. May you find your way through this wilderness, led by John and all who call us to turn towards the God we seek. And, may this Advent help return a little bit of hope your way.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Carolyn Brown: https://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/10/planning-for-advent-and-christmas-year.html
Timothy Adkins-Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-mark-11-8-6
Sermon for November 26, 2023: Given by Marge Kilkelly titled "Help Wanted: Shepherds" based upon Psalm 46 and Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95 KJV
95 O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms. For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth: the strength of the hills is his also. The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands formed the dry land. O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. To day if ye will hear his voice, Harden not your heart, as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work.
Forty years long was I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways: Unto whom I swear in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land;
and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
Welcome to worship today, those who are here and those who are joining us online. Thank you for this opportunity to share this time with you. My name is Marge Kilkelly, over the years I have worn lots of hats, now I am mostly a farmer and a foodie. My husband and I raise cashmere goats. I am also a member of the Board of Directors of the Maine Council of Churches and attend Christ Church Episcopal in Gardiner. I am so pleased to be joined by fellow Board Member Diane Dicranian- thank you Diane for sharing the work of the Maine Council. And thank you to all of the people of this congregation who have been so helpful and supportive today.
A friend of mine who was a supply priest in the parish I attended, always started the service by saying: Today we are governed by Rule 42. What is rule 42? Whatever happens is exactly how we planned it. Rule 42 lets us all just take a deep breath and enjoy our time together.
Over the past few weeks we have all been impacted by the tragedies that have surrounded us ...local, national, and international... it hurts to walk through that pain, it causes us to question everything and can have us feeling deflated, overwhelmed, and helpless. Worshipping is our way to hold up each other, to walk together and to find the light and love of God in even the most difficult situations.
This is the last Sunday of the Liturgical year, next Sunday we celebrate Advent and the New Church Year. It is also, in old English tradition, the end and beginning of the agrarian/agricultural calendar. So today as we celebrate the Reign of Jesus, a door closes on the past year and we prepare for the next.
The beginning of the agrarian calendar for the old English farmers- provided time to prepare for the coming season. The crops were in and now it was time to reflect, review, repair, and especially plan to improve during the next season, the next crop. Agriculture, then and today, is all about creation- caring, cycles of life, and continuing to try and improve crop or livestock yields – learning from mistakes made and improving moving forward.
Our Faith is about loving God and Gods creation - and it is important for us not to ever be complacent. The liturgical calendar also provides time for us to assess our actions, to learn from our mistakes, to repair those relationships/things needing repair, to improve how we live in the world, to contemplate what we can do to make a difference, and to look to the new year with a sense of renewal.
The assigned readings for today- from Ezekiel to Matthew- which are filled with references to shepherds, sheep, goats and care made me smile. When you invite a farmer to preach and have those readings you have to believe that God has a sense of humor and it shows.
As I thought about being with you this morning, I was aware of a number of things that I had recently seen or heard that had been hanging around in my head: the shocking headlines, pictures that broke my heart, comments from friends saying “ I don’t know what to do to help!” and even posts on FB.
A week or so ago I saw a quote from Julian of Norwich “We are not created by God but made of God...” that has continued to circulate in my head for days- I love it. “We are not created by God but made of God...”
A post in response to the tragedies we have seen in Maine and around the world was “We should not ask Why God but Why we let things happen...”
Somewhere in all of that was a message I needed to hear and would not be silenced. To prepare for this morning I was forced to face them, to hear them and to attempt to make sense of them.
For me the truth is that we could spend forever asking why- but, if we believe as Julian says we are made of God the answer actually lies inside of us not outside of us. Therefore, I believe we must spend our time figuring out how we can be the change needed in the world.
Creating change is a process as old as time itself. Creation itself is change and Change is creation.
Every single one of us was created with the ability to make change. We all have some strengths and some challenges- but when we work together all of our strengths and challenges fit together like a puzzle and make the whole- strong.
We were created with all the tools we need...
By making choices to do what we can to help another person we are doing God’s work on earth. We are not just talking about Love but showing by example the Love of God for the world.
Doing God’s work can sound intimidating. What can I do?? How can I make a difference? Doing God’s work does not have to be headline worthy, the opportunity to do Gods work is folded into our everyday lives-
During October, I know you studied Mathew 25: 35-45 where Jesus honors the people who choose to help others and further shows his deep love for all of us by actually identifying himself with those that suffer and are struggling- when you cared for the least of these you cared for me.
Just as important Jesus does not shy away from criticizing those who choose not to help. He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me. … without choice the word love is meaningless.
The biblical references also show us that the choices that have been made throughout history are the same as the choices that we make today- every day. And God has chosen through the Prophets and Jesus to give us models of how we can do Gods work on earth.
Jesus as shepherd caring, leading to lush pasture, assuring water, protecting the sheep improves the lives of those sheep. But just as important are the other benefits of that care- for example sheep, and in my case cashmere goats, also provide amazing fiber.
When a shepherd cares for the flock, one of the products was wool. Wool is spun into yarn. Yarn is woven into strong fabric for clothing and blankets. When we make the choice to do Gods work on earth – to create hope, to show others the power of God’s love by how we act- we change individual lives. At the same time, we also are creating change, when we do our tiny part we are in fact spinning strong yarn, strand by strand- then that strong yarn creates the fabric of a strong community.
As shepherds we are living into God's call to us in the
Let us pray- Father-Mother God
Thank you for creating in us the tools to do your work on earth. Watch over us as we look towards the new year, be with us as we consider the ways that we can be the good shepherds to our brothers, sisters and all of your creation. Thank you for the knowledge to read, hear and understand scripture to strengthen our relationship with you and each other. Thank you for the ability to choose our actions and learn from those choices. Help us every day to grow in our faith and to do your work on earth by taking the time listen, to share, to be kind, and to be aware of the needs around us as we endeavor to share in the job of shepherd; weaving the strong fabric of our community that always reflects your Love and the model of Jesus. Amen
Resources used: Maine Council of Churches website and Facebook for folks to reference. https://mainecouncilofchurches.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/mainecouncilofchurches
18 Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
19 as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?
21 I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
“But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word "tension." I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” These are words shared by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It was a rare type of communication from Dr. King. He notes in the beginning of the letter that he hardly takes time responding to everyone who thought he was doing something wrong. He wrote, “If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work.” But, he said that he believed the colleagues who had written a particular critique were doing so in good faith, so he decided to respond to them.
His colleagues found a particular round of civil rights demonstrations in the city of Birmingham to be “disruptive.” It should be stated that all the clergy members who had written the critique to which he was responding were white men. They prized a city that was orderly and quiet. It is interesting to know that they didn’t write letters to the Klan to tell them to stop blowing up Black churches or to racist shop owners to tell them to stop humiliating Black customers. They wrote a letter to the people being humiliated and attacked and said they shouldn’t be so disruptive. They should negotiate instead.
The Black citizens of Birmingham had negotiated. A lot. And, white citizens of the city largely chose to ignore them or break promises made. It is not easy to argue in good faith with people who benefit so profoundly from the status quo. Dr. King and his civil rights coworkers knew the only way forward was to be disruptive... to push hard enough and demonstrate their power that the most powerful people in the city had to finally come to the table. Dr. King and other civil rights organizers knew that tension from disruptive protests was necessary and useful. So, they deployed it strategically. And, it brought the people who had been able to avoid real conversation to the table.
I talk about this letter because when Dr. King was talking about the power of disruption to get the attention of powerful people, he names some specific figures from the Bible. One of them was the prophet Amos. In fact, he quoted part of today’s reading: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." The biblical prophets were often interested in disruption, usually because they saw a nation failing in its obligations to God. And, Amos was certain that the Northern Kingdom of Israel, also called Samaria, was failing in its obligations to God. So, he showed up to try and disrupt it.
The prophecies that you and I know as the book of Amos likely would have been shared sometime between 760 and 750 BCE. These prophecies were before those of Micah, which we read a few weeks ago. Amos was a shepherd called by God to prophesy from the Southern Kingdom, called Judah. Jerusalem, David’s royal city and the home of the Temple, were in the Southern Kingdom. The ancient holy site of Bethel -- where Abram built an altar to God, where Jacob dreamt of a ladder to heaven, where Deborah issued rulings, and where Rebecca was buried – they were all in the Northern Kingdom. Amos would eventually confront the priest at Bethel, Amaziah. Importantly, while Assyria was still a looming threat, the Northern Kingdom had not yet been taken over. But, Amos thought they might at any time, and if they did attack, the attack should be considered vengeance from God.
Amos, like the books Hosea, Micah, and Isaiah, did not just address the threat of Assyria. Amos also offered up a critique of the culture that had developed in a way the prophet believed angered God. According to Amos, what had so angered God was the increasing wealth of the elite of both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. That wealth was being built on systems of mistreatment of poor people. Amos, like Isaiah, understood that faith in God was not just about an individual person’s religious commitment, but about an entire community’s ethical behavior. Gregory Mobley, in his introduction to Amos in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, argues that the nation, as a whole, was required to live up to an ethical standard of justice and righteousness. In her commentary on a different passage of Amos, Elaine James says, “God’s love demands righteousness, and breaches of God’s call to justice and love cause God grief.”
I looked back over my notes and read some more this week, but I’m still not exactly sure what systems the elite and wealthy people of the Northern Kingdom put in place to cheat poorer people. Dr. Mobley indicated that it had something to do with how wealthier people would manipulate the smallest amount of debt held by poorer people, forcing them out of farms held in their families for generations and forcing some people into slavery. While I wasn’t able to find a lot of specifics on the systems, I was able to find some clear descriptions of the impact of these systems.
In his commentary on Amos, Walter Brueggemann outlined the impacts. Some people would lose land, homes, and family. The wealthy might end up with two homes. Some people could not find enough to eat, and would starve, all the while the wealthy would through fancy parties for their friends where there was more than enough food. Amos, and other prophets, argued strongly that this is not how people living according to the covenant with God should be behaving in the world. A nation that was aligned with God would not have these disparities.
So, what kind of tension did Amos want to incite in order to push Israel to change? Amos concentrated on the tension that comes when some make sure to observe religious rituals but don’t opt to live out the love and justice that is the foundation of those rituals. Starting in verse 18, Amos warns people that God’s intervention in the world will be more dramatic and disruptive than they imagine. The ones who have gathered up wealth at the expense of their neighbors will not be greeted with sweetness. And, the rituals they uphold and gatherings they attend will not save them because, without justice, the rituals are simply noise and play-acting.
We shouldn’t read Amos saying that ritual, as a concept, is bad. What Amos is saying is that we should never believe our call to worship is greater than our call to care for one another. Ritual without love meaningless motions. Songs without justice are merely sounds. What God wants most and first is justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. All of our worship and sacrifice should flow from this, the source of our covenant with God.
Assyria may not be at our door, but we certainly have far too many systems in place that continue to benefit the wealthy while taking from the poor. Pretty regularly, I get calls here at church from people who are looking for a place to stay and can’t find one. They sometimes even have some funding, but no landlords will take it because it involves extra paperwork. Corporations are hiding price gouging under the cover of inflation, making it ever harder for people to pay for food. Lay-offs abound across multiple industries, often because laying off workers is the quickest way to make it look like you’ve either saved or made a bunch of extra money. Amos reminds us that systems where people are pushed out of homes and can’t afford food go against God. May we feel the tension of these times, and be moved by it. May we be called to disrupt systems that harm our neighbors. And, may we, inspired by the righteous waters of our baptisms, be refreshed by streams of justice we work with God let loose in this time and this place.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Elaine James: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-15-2/commentary-on-amos-77-15-4
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003)
Gregory Mobley’s introduction to Amos in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocrypha, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Letter from a Birmingham Jail: https://fee.org/articles/letter-from-a-birmingham-jail/
Matthew 23:1-12 Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
Who here has ever heard the phrase “practice what you preach?” Can you tell me what it means? It means that the actions you do in the world should match the things that you say are important. If you talk about doing something, you actually have to do it. If you say it’s important to be generous and you persistently act stingy in your daily life, you’re not practicing what you preach. While this advice is directed to everyone, it can be particularly hard when leaders say one thing and then do another. Jesus is using the example of his community’s leaders that he is frustrated to instruct his disciples on how to do better. Because, at this point in the story, Jesus knows his time is short, and the disciples are going to need to step up and lead. And, it will be vital that they practice what they preach.
Sharon Ringe opens her commentary on this scripture with these words: “As a resident of Washington, DC, I recognize political rhetoric, caricatures, and trash-talk when I hear them, and I hear them loud and clear in Matthew 23:1-12.” It is wise too when in his life he preached this particular sermon. This story takes place after the celebrations of Palm Sunday, but before Jesus’ trial. It is a time that would have been tense. And, Jesus has some particular frustrations with leaders of his religious community.
When we modern Christians read about what would have been arguments between Jesus and the Pharisees, it is important to remember that Jesus wasn’t arguing with people that were a different community than him. This argument is between people who serve the same God and follow the same religious laws. For too long too much hatred has been directed towards Jewish people by Christians who read Jesus as saying Jewish people were particularly bad or dangerous. He wasn’t. Cheryl Lindsay, in her commentary on this text, reminds us that Jesus’ argument isn’t with Jewish people, but with leaders within their shared community who are preaching one thing and living another.
Sharon Ringe notes in her commentary that the Pharisees were a group of lay people with a particular interest in studying religious law and offering interpretations on how to follow it. When Rome destroys the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE, the foundation of interpretation of the law that the Pharisees laid would grow into the practice of Jewish communities having rabbis as leaders. So, this is a group of people who took religious obligations seriously, as Jesus did. But, the Pharisees and Jesus had disagreements. And, he grew frustrated when he saw influential lay people who were Pharisees not living into the faith they taught. Have any of you ever gotten angry at someone who said they were a Christian and then turned around and did the opposite of what they taught? I know I have. Ringe called the argument between Jesus and these particular Pharisees “a family fight, and the name-calling and harsh rhetoric flourished.”
Cheryl Lindsay’s commentary on this text reminds us that Jesus continued to find Jewish religious law to be a useful and good guidance for living in covenant with God. He never told his followers that he came to “abolish the law.” In fact, as Lindsay says, “Faithful adherence to these guidelines for right living in relationship to God, neighbor, and self is not the problem but is commendable when done with humility and devotion.” What Jesus does think they are doing wrong is using their authority as trusted interpreters of the law to gain an unfairly special place in the community. And, they demand that some people sacrifice more and work harder than they do. Jesus is suspicious of anyone who’s faith is simply another way to brag or to gain praise and attention for themselves.
Ultimately, Jesus tells his disciples that what will be most important for them won’t be getting fancy titles, or special privileges, or an easy life. What will be most important is that they fully live into the promises they made to God and trust that God will fulfill the promises made to the people. To live out that promise is to commit to what Lindsay calls the “road of love, service, and humility.” Does anyone here have a good definition of humility? Yes. Those are good definitions.
Humility means something like not thinking you’re better than someone else. Not trying hard to be thought of as the most powerful or strongest. It doesn’t mean you are ashamed, or anything like that. It does mean being connected to others, and not above them. For Jesus, following the example of Moses and of the Bible means not putting yourself above others or striving to make other people suffer. It means being willing to make sacrifices to care for those who need it and offer love as Jesus did. Humility also means knowing that you will make mistakes sometimes and being willing to hear people when they say you have. Acting with humility also means that you might need to make amends for things you have done wrong.
It is not always easy to live with humility. If it was, Jesus wouldn’t have had to keep telling his disciples how to do it. They really needed to be reminded. If we want to follow Jesus, we don’t need to be the best or the fanciest or the most powerful. It does mean we should work to be loving and work together for justice. If we’re going to practice what we preach, that means we can’t be concerned about being the first or the fanciest or the most well-known. It does mean that we’ll try hard to love as Jesus did. So, this week, as you look for ways to live out your faith, know that you don’t have to do it in ways that gets everyone’s attention and everyone’s praise. You can start small, offer a kind word, write a letter to your congressperson, call someone who you know is having a hard time. These might seem like humble, small acts of faith. But, Jesus tells us that this is what our faith is all about.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Elizabeth J.A. Siwo-Okundi, "Proper 26," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Cheryl A. Lindsay: https://www.ucc.org/sermon-seeds/sermon-seeds-greatness/
Sharon A. Ringe: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31/commentary-on-matthew-231-12-2
Carolyn Brown: https://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/10/year-proper-26-31st-sunday-in-ordinary.html
God Challenges Israel
Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
‘O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.’
What God Requires
‘With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
It is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
The prophet Micah was called to serve God in a turbulent era. In his commentary on Micah, Gregory Mobley said that Micah offers theological interpretations of three significant events. One, is the takeover of the kingdom of Samaria, the northern kingdom of what had once been a unified Israel. It was roughly in the area that we call today the northern part of the West Bank. Another significant event was the movement of migrants out of the war-torn area into the city of Jerusalem, expanding the size of the city by quite a bit. And, given that folks from the North and the South had some big arguments about how to follow their shared religious traditions, I imagine that there was tension that accompanied this immigration.
And, the third event was the general instability of the region due to the aggressive behavior of Assyria. Assyria hadn’t only gone after Samaria. I’ve read that Assyria would become the largest empire in the world up to that time. And, they did not amass so much land and money through peaceful negotiation. They got it through war. Every nation around them would have likely felt at risk. Micah was called by God to address the horrors of war, changes in an important city, and the volatility of a powerful and dangerous neighbor. I am not a prophet, but, I am a preacher. And, we’ve observed a hellish two weeks in Gaza from afar and a nightmarish five days in Lewiston right up close. And, last week, homeless camps were swept in Portland. Maybe Micah has a prophecy that can help us out in our own volatile times.
Just a heads up: I’m not going to share everything Micah said. Like most prophets in the Hebrew Bible, Micah shared a fairly cranky message from God. The prophecies move from punishment to salvation, as is common in many prophetic messages. As Sarah Sarchet Butter notes in her commentary on this text, the first part of Micah 6 is even a trial. I have no urge to put the people who are suffering right now on trial, in large part because the bulk of the suffering I am witnessing right now is not the fault of the people who are hurt. Failures of policy and governance have put people in danger. The people who are in pain right now don’t need me or anyone else telling them what they did wrong to deserve to be harmed. They were simply existing in public when someone chose to do them harm. So, I would argue that not all of Micah will be helpful for us right now because it might make it seem like God wanted the destruction to happen and I am a firm believer that God did not.
The first word of chapter six is the Hebrew word “shem’a.” It means listen or hear, or, as Megan Fullerton Stollo argues in her commentary, “heed.” She says that implicit in this word is not just listening, but hearing that will be followed up with action. What are the hearers in this text being invited to heed? First, there is a recitation of what God has done for the people... a remembrance of salvation that, as Kenyatta Gilbert notes in her commentary, speaks of an intimate relationship between God and humanity. Hearing the stories of past salvation, the people respond then with a question about what is the appropriate way to honor God’s promise to care for them? The people’s initial response is to think of what sacrifices can be made in thanksgiving. There is talk of rams and calves and burnt offerings and river of oil. There is an offer of a firstborn child (it is not clear if this is serious or sarcastic). God says something different is required.
“God has told you, O mortal what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In his notes on this text, Peter B. Machinist says, “In this single sentence the prophet sums up a century of brilliant prophesy.” Do justice. Love Kindness. Walk humbly with your God. Shem’a... heed.... listen and act. Live in a way that brings justice alive. Root your actions in loving kindness. Move about this world as though you are confident God is with you. Move about this world following God’s direction with a measure of humility that allows you to make amends and change course when necessary, but is also confident that your relationship with God will continue to carry you forward.
Notice that everything God requires from the hearer in this scripture is relational. Justice, love, and humility do not exist in isolation. These are instructions that guide how we interact with each other as a reflection of our covenant with God. We can’t give God mountains of cash while treating our neighbors poorly. No amount of rams or calves or oil will make up for relationships that do not reflect justice and kindness. Our relationships with each other need to be stewarded just as faithfully as our relationship with God. The sacrifice we make for God, that is our acts for justice and our loving kindness, is given to the people that surround us. This community is the altar at which we place our love and from which we fight for justice.
Where will you share your love in the coming days and weeks? Because our neighbors here and abroad will surely need it. How will you fight for justice in the coming days and weeks? Because the world is seeming short of it. The author Cole Arthur Riley, who actually visited Lewiston and Auburn in the last couple years to give a talk, shared these words on her Instagram account blackliturgies: “If your hope is waning, find those who can sustain it. And when the time comes, you will carry someone else’s hope for them. No individual can resist despair on their own. We steady each other. We can’t afford despair.” Doing justice and offering loving kindness is how we will sustain each other’s hope in this tragic time. It is how we will walk humbly with God and with our neighbor. This is what is required of us. Let us finish with this prayer offered by Riley:
Inhale with me: This is too much to hold.
Exhale: So, we hold it together.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mobley's introduction to 1 Peter in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Mich Gregory ael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Peter B. Machinist's entry on Assyria in the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Paul Achetemeier, ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1996)
Megan Fullerton Strollo: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-micah-61-8-5
Kenyatta Gilbert, "Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, Ronald J. Allen, Dale P. Andrews, and Dawn Ottoni- Wilhelm, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011).
Cole Arthur Riley: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cy8pd_sOjRV/?igshid=bmFjcGRtMW5xYXBq
Matthew 25:31-46 The Judgement of the Nations
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
I think goats are delightful. I like how bossy they are and how they hop around, especially when they are babies. I like how they play queen of the mountain and practice their headbutts. Because I have opted for a lifestyle where I don’t have any goats under my direct care, I get to laugh about their mischievous ability to get out of fences and into trouble. I think goats are great and I have yet to find a good explanation for why Jesus doesn’t seem to have a very high opinion of them. Because Jesus really doesn’t want us to be goats. Ok, that’s not actually the lesson. The lesson is actually about how we know who has followed Jesus’ commandment. It is some of the clearest call to faithful action in the whole of Christian Scripture.
The first metaphor here is of a Shepherd King, looking over a gathering of the nations. Courtney Buggs, in her commentary on this text, describes the first part of the reading as “a fantastical scene – a gathering of epic proportions of many nations, many peoples, many languages [before] the enthroned King.” The gathering of nations is compared to a gathering of herds of animals. Buggs notes that plenty of people in this era kept mixed flocks of sheep and goats together, so when Jesus talked about the nations as a mixed flock, that would not have seemed unusual to them. And, it would not have been unusual for a shepherd to eventually need to separate out the sheep from the goats. This very common action would become an image for how Jesus will judge people when he returns. He will separate people into the sheep and the goats. Again, we should remember: you don’t want to be a goat.
In this parable, the sheep represent the people and nations who most fully live out divine blessedness. The shepherd king will look over the sheep and goats and thank the sheep for having helped him. Notice that the sheep have no idea how they helped him. Buggs points that out in her commentary. They have no idea and ask him to explain. He says that when they saw him hungry, they fed him. When they saw him thirsty, they gave him a drink. When he encountered them as a stranger, rather than run him off or lock him out, they welcomed him. When he had nothing, not even clothes, they made sure he had enough. They cared for him when he was sick and visited him in prison.
The sheep have no memory of doing any of that. They ask him, at the risk of sounding foolish, "um, king... Would you mind reminding us when, precisely, we were able to do such kind things for you?" The shepherd king seems happy to explain. You see, this king was not the kind of king they were used to. They were accustomed to king... emperors... who put themselves above all of their subjects, who often understood themselves to be nearly gods. This king, this stand-in for Jesus, would be very different. This king is not separate from his subjects. He is radically connected to them.
The shepherd king looked at the work of the sheep... the times they welcomed strangers and visited the imprisoned, fed the hungry and clothed the naked and visited those who had been imprisoned... and said that the loving justice expressed in those acts had made its way to him. In fact, offering this loving justice to those considered to be the least of society was the same as offering it to him. The shepherd king also claims the “least of these” as family, an incredible statement for a king to make. He said the sheep met him everyday, in the face of their neighbors, his family, whom they served.
Much to the dismay of goat enthusiasts, Jesus says that the goats did the opposite of the sheep. The king tells the goat people and nations that they refused to help him when he needed it. Like the sheep, they have no idea when they refused to help a king. He reminds them that not helping those in need was just like not helping him. And, there would be consequences for their short-sightedness. "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me."
Courtney Buggs argues that the main difference between the sheep and the goats is a question of orientation. She puts it this way: “the group on the right possessed an orientation toward meeting the needs of those at risk of marginalization, while the group on the left did not.” In orienting yourself towards those most a risk of marginalization, you are orienting yourself towards Jesus. It really is incredible to hear Jesus so completely identifying with humanity that to serve other people is to serve him. Jesus, who had been born among the poor and colonized, knew what it was to suffer under a tyrant. In following his own mission, he wouldn’t reproduce those harmful ways of being a leader. Instead, he would orient himself to those most in need. And, he would insist that his own followers do the same. While the empire would not tend to the least of these, Jesus would. And, while waiting for his return, Jesus insisted that his followers do the same.
I spent the last two days among people in the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ who have been trying very hard to be sheep. I heard one story in particular that reminded me of today’s reading. A member of Williston-Immanuel, a dually aligned UCC/American Baptist church in Portland that is currently housing 34 asylum-seekers in their building, shared a moment when she felt clearly that Jesus had shown up on her doorstep asking for help. A couple, new to the country and with few resources, had been directed to the church for help as they were getting ready to lose their housing. Initially, the church covered a night in a hotel for this husband and wife, who was also pregnant. But, three days later, they were back and shared that they’d had no luck finding more permanent housing.
She said “We have a spare room. I thought we could let them move in.” So, they welcomed these strangers into their home. It was not always easy, for reasons you might guess if you know what it’s like to move in with new people, and also reasons you might not. The citizens learned that the refugee family became unable to access some valuable resources because technically they weren’t homeless anymore. In fact, eventually, the citizen couple and the asylee couple learned that the citizens would need to write them an eviction letter to take to some of the programs in order for the programs to accept them back into care.
Inviting people into their home was not easy thing, but for this faithful woman who shared her story, the “sheeply” act was worth all the difficulty and hardship. Fortunately, and importantly, the two families could partner together, each trusting each other, and each trying hard not to take advantage of what had been entrusted to them. Not every houseguest is so trustworthy. Thank God these two couples found each other and worked so well together. Their experience shows us something important about the Reign of God, with all its messy and beautiful glory.
I don’t know if you’re going to have a refugee family show up at your door. But there will surely be an opportunity for you and for this church to act like sheep in the coming weeks and months. I pray that we will act like sheep when Jesus shows up at our door. And, that we will find ourselves in the flock on the right side, next to Jesus’ family, the ones who may be known as the “Least of These”.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Courtney Buggs’ commentary “A Generous Spirit to the Most Vulnerable,” in the “Because of You” Stewardship Material
Matthew 25:14-30 The Parable of the Talents
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.
After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.”
But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
Today’s scripture is a story about fear. It is the middle parable in a series of three, beginning last week with the story of the bridesmaids who were stingy with their oil, and continuing with next week’s scripture about the sheep and the goats. We go from a story about staying awake and tending to your calling to a story about being afraid and how that can impact what you do with something that has been entrusted to you. And, both last week’s parable and this week’s parable are put into the context of waiting... waiting for the groom to arrive or waiting for person who loaned the money to return. It is wise to consider how fear, particularly fear of angering someone powerful, can shape how you wait.
A talent is a lot of money. In her commentary on this text, Carla Works notes that one talent is worth 6,000 days wages for an average worker. That is 20 years of income. I can’t imagine anyone walking up to me and handing me twenty years of my salary, especially with few instructions on what to do with it. Just “I’m leaving. I’m entrusting you with this.” That’s it. I wouldn’t blame you if you were tempted to hide it away so nothing happened to it. Especially if, as we learn later, the person who has entrusted you with this life-changing amount of money is known to be harsh in judgement. What if you do the wrong thing? What if, God forbid, you lose some of what has been entrusted to you?
I think it matters that we pay attention to the power dynamics in this story. In his commentary on the text, Larry Morris III notes that the translation of the Greek work “doulos” is complex. It can be used for a servant, which would be an employee, or a slave, who is owned, often against their will. Morris argues that it can mean “bond-servant” here, that an indication that the person has entered servitude willingly. He also notes that often in Christian writings, it is used with a positive connotation to describe one who believes and “willingly submits under the authority of Christ.” I’m not totally sure that the willingness cancels out the slavery part, but I will buy that this word is consistently used to describe people who are faithful to Christ and shape their lives around his teaching. But, I can’t help but remember that with servitude comes a lack of control.
Morris also notes that the Greek word Kyrios that is translated here as “master,” can also be translated as “sir” or “lord,” like the aristocratic title, or “Lord,” with a capital “L.” This is what we might call God or Jesus. There is power inherent in this title. Morris notes that this title implies that one is able to exercise “absolute ownership” and “exercise full rights.” But, this master wields power in a surprising way. He entrusts an extraordinary amount of money to people over whom he has absolute control. Susan Bonds calls it a “sacrificial gift of epic proportions” in her commentary on this text. Twenty, forty, and one hundred years of funds. Bonds says that the word for property likely means not just money or material possessions but something more like “one’s entire substance and life.” The rich person is trusting these three with so very much.
When reading this text, we should avoid interpretations that reinforce behaviors that reproduce inequality. Just because the master in this story gives people money based on their capability to manage that money, that doesn’t mean that the differences in the amount of money we observe people having in our everyday life is somehow ordained by God. As Morris says, “money has to pass through numerous unjust systems in our world before it reaches many of us.” If you have more money, that doesn’t mean God gave you more money. If you have less money, that doesn’t mean that God wants you to have less. That kind of theology is death-dealing and dangerous.
What is useful to us, especially as we consider what it means to be stewards of God’s church, is a closer look at how the people who received the generous sums of money stewarded it. After a long time, the wealthy person returned and spoke to the three to whom he entrusted his livelihood. The two who had received larger sums had taken risks with it, trading it, and doubled what had been given to them. The one who had trusted them rewarded them and praised them for trustworthiness. Morris points out that the word that is translated as “trustworthiness” can also mean “faithfulness” or “belief.” They believed they could and should do something with that money, so they did. And, they found themselves having acted wisely, increasing what they had been given, and doing exactly what the master had tasked them to do while he was away.
The fearful servant... his was a different story. His fear kept him from putting what he was given to use. Morris makes an insightful point in his commentary. He says that there is a difference between fear and reverence. What this person felt was dread. He dreaded falling short of what was expected of him. He dreaded doing the wrong thing. He dreaded making any choice really, beyond hide away and hope for the best. His fear narrowed down his vision so much that he didn’t even think to put the money in the bank where it would have gained a meager interest. Those of us who’ve spent time not having enough know what it’s like to feel like you have to hide away what you have so it doesn’t get taken away. It may be easy to empathize with this fearful slave. But, in the end, we can see that his fear made him a poor steward and kept him from living out the faithful actions to which he had been called.
If Jesus was trying to help prepare his disciples for the trials that were to come (remember this story is happening after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate on Palm Sunday but before Jesus’ trial and execution), why would he tell them this story? Carla Works argues that he is instructing his followers to be like the servants who emulated their master’s actions... who took risks and gained from it, just as he had. In the face of tribulations and oppression, in the time of waiting for Jesus’ return, then, to be trustworthy, to be faithful, is to risk modeling our behavior on the ministry of Jesus. We can’t let our fear make us hide away and try to protect what little we have. While fear can be useful, in this case, it turns us away from our calling. We have been given much. May we be faithful enough to make use of it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Carla Works: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33/commentary-on-matthew-2514-30-3
L. Susan Bond, “Proper 28,” Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year A Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, and Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013)
Larry Morris III, “Faithfully or Fearfully Generous,” From the “Because of You, Our Church Changes Lives” stewardship materials
Matthew 25:1-13 The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids
‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.
As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”
And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
I have never been to a wedding that was a weeklong. Even my sister’s wedding, which I attended as a bridesmaid and therefore had extra bridesmaid things to do, didn’t take a whole week. Eric Jackson, in his commentary on this text, reminds us that the wedding we are reading about in today’s scripture was a wedding that was about a weeklong. In my experience, anything that lasts for a whole week involves some waiting. And, according to Jackson, the grooms were often late. Not only could the wedding itself not start if both parties weren’t there, but in these weddings, which had a bride and a groom, the bride and her party and family couldn’t even leave the house and go to the place where the service would be held until the groom and his party and family showed up to walk with them to the place with the ceremony would be. It turns out, that no one knew when anything was going to start and lots of people ended up waiting.
If a scholar 2000 years later knew that people had to wait a lot at these weddings, you’d think that the people who actually went to this kind of wedding all the time would have known to prepare for a late start. And, yet, about half of the bridesmaids are caught without enough oil. You see, given the likelihood of a late start to the wedding, everyone would have to have a lamp to light the way while they walked to the wedding venue. If you don’t have enough oil, you can’t see your way to the wedding venue. The oil is necessary because things start late! And, everyone knows that things will start late. So, why didn’t they bring more oil?
And, you know what else strikes me as strange? Jesus seems to tell the disciples that the meaning of this parable is to "Stay Awake therefore for you know neither the day nor the hour." The thing is, everybody in this story fell asleep. Greg Carey points that out in his commentary on this text. All ten of the bridesmaids, the five who are called foolish and the five who are called wise, fall asleep. And yet, the five who have too much oil still get into the party even though they fell asleep. If I read this story, minus the Jesus explanation at the end, I would think he was telling people to prepare better... to store up more than you think you would need. And, don't share with the people who don't work as hard as you. I would read this parable like it was that old Aesop's fable, the one with the ant and the grasshopper. Or maybe a bootstraps politician who doesn’t want to create social safety nets for people who “run out of oil.”
The moral of that Aesop’s fable is definitely "Be prepared." But, Jesus didn't tell his disciples to be prepared. He told them to "Keep Awake." Some might argue that preparedness and wakefulness are usually pretty closely linked. Usually, the people who are most prepared for every contingency are the ones who are also awake and paying attention to what is going on. Jesus seemed to draw a distinction. He specifically called for wakefulness, not preparedness. Alertness, not hoarding of stuff.
Now, both sets of bridesmaids do a terribly poor job at wakefulness. Everybody falls asleep. Why wouldn't they? The groom was taking forever. When he actually showed up, all of the women were startled awake. They seem to panic. The supposedly wise ones have such a scarcity mentality that they can't share with the supposedly foolish ones. And, the supposedly foolish ones are so distracted by the things they lack, that is oil, that they forget what their primary role is... that is to greet the bridegroom with great joy. They end up going to buy more oil instead of actually doing the things they were supposed to do in the first place, greet the groom.
The first time I ever preached on this scripture, I wondered how the story might be different if everyone had stayed awake. Nine years later, I still wonder. What might have happened had the bridesmaids started to swap stories and share about their preparation? What if one of the ones who gets called wise says, “Oh, I knew he’d be late, so I brought extra oil.” The other four who get called wise note that they’ve done the same thing.
And, what if all the ones who get called foolish are inspired by their compatriots’ planning and realize they need more oil, too. They might have decided to put out their lamps until they hear that the groom is in sight. Or, maybe they send out one to go buy some more with others ready to run get her if he shows up. Or, maybe the wise tell them about the 24-hour market around the corner that always has oil and say they can get there quick if they hurry.
Staying awake would have given them the opportunity to talk with each other, to build community. Now, it’s possible they might not have had any of the conversations I imagine that they could have. Staying awake doesn’t automatically mean that they would have talked with each other or helped each other or even liked each other. But, they sure couldn’t do any community building while they were asleep. Maybe that’s why Jesus told them to stay awake. When you’re awake... paying attention... you can see the opportunities that are all around you to build relationships that reflect the Gospel. You can’t see them if you’re asleep.
Had these women been able to stay awake, maybe they could have made the waiting easier for each other. In his commentary on this text, David Lose points out that, in this story, we can see Jesus identifying what will become a central aspect of Christianity.... waiting and how to deal with it. We are a people who so often live in a sense of expectation. We may dedicate our time to worship, prayer, and service. But, we are always waiting. From the time of the first followers of Christ, we have been waiting. We could spend our time preparing, storing up things to make sure that we get into the party. We could show up with just what we have and hope that we won't have to wait too long. The thing is, we're probably going to be waiting longer than we expected. We don't know how or when the fullness of the empire of heaven will arise. Even as we contribute to it, work to build it up with God, we do not know when reign of God will be complete. And, we will grow weary as we wait. We're probably going to fall asleep. But, if we pay attention to the people around us, we may find some unsuspected partners who can make the waiting easier. We may find compatriots in our journey, others who are waiting, watching, and serving, too. If we can stay awake, our actions may shift from stingily hoarding the excess we have gathered or striking out in a panic, distracted from our first callings.
I don't think Jesus is calling us to be stingy bridesmaids. I do think Jesus is calling us to be partners for each other as we wait. If we stay awake, we might even see that there is a celebration happening all around us. There’s work to be done, to be sure. But there is also a new chapter of life happening, and we get to be a part of it. May we stay awake for each other. And, in our wakefulness, not miss out on our turn to welcome Christ, whenever and through whomever he walks up to our door.
Resources consulted while preparing this sermon:
Eric Jackson’s commentary “Involved Waiting” from the UCC “Because of You” stewardship materials
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/
Greg Carey: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2207
Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. The Sower III (version 2), from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58327 [retrieved October 3, 2023]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_van_Gogh_-_The_sower_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.
Mark 4:1-9 The Parable of the Sower
Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
This year was one of the toughest gardening seasons I’ve had since we moved to Maine. When it was time to clear and plant, I had only been walking on both feet, without a boot, for a little more than a month and I was still going to physical therapy twice, sometimes three times, a week. I had also planted a lemon balm plant right in the middle of my favorite vegetable plot the year before. I didn’t realize that lemon balm will grow wildly and abundantly, like mint, and take over a whole plot. There was an oregano plant there, too, that was enormous. I have zero memories of planting it the year before, but it was there, nevertheless. I’d have to remove lots of both of them if I wanted to plant there at all.
I opted for just a few cucumber plants and some tomatoes that Sarah, our former intern, had started for me. So, I cleaned took out the oregano and a bunch of the lemon balm, and planted a small garden. And, then it rained for 40 days and 40 nights. I have the leggiest, least productive tomatoes that I have ever seen. One of the cucumber plants produced kind of normal looking cucumbers, just not many of them. Another other one grew these little blunt, stubby ones that taste ok but are not very big at all. Even though I’ve worked to enrich the soil in this spot, the over-abundance of rain, the lack of sun, and the competition with some freewheeling, fast-growing herbs were challenges my garden just couldn’t overcome. Sometimes there are things that get in the way of a rich harvest.
Even though it rained a lot here this summer, I never was tempted to preach from a boat the way that Jesus is portrayed as doing in today’s reading. It says that the crowd was so big that he had to get on a boat for enough space to be seen and heard by the people gathered. In her commentary on this text, Deb Krause notes that, in the book of Mark, Jesus is only shown delivering two long sermons. One is here, in chapter 4 in Galilee. The other is in chapter 13 in Jerusalem, just before he is crucified. Krause argues that each sermon is a good summary of the Gospel as Jesus taught it in each place. Today’s reading is the first of three parables about seeds and soil. This parable, according to Krause, is more about the quality of the soil than how the sower spreads the seed.
This is a sermon Jesus preached at the beginning of his time in Galilee. Throughout their time in Galilee, Krause notes, the disciples will worry that they won’t have enough. In Mark 6 and Mark 8, there are two different stories where there are a whole bunch of people who need to be fed and the disciples don’t think they have enough to feed them. Jesus takes what looks like just a little food and makes sure everyone has enough to eat and that there are enough leftovers to take home. There’ll also be a time when they are alone in a boat with Jesus and worry that they don’t have enough food. Krause reminds us that Jesus’ response to their concern is “Have your hearts hardened?” Which can be read: have you forgotten? Remember the crowds. There will be plenty.
When beginning a new season, it is wise to examine the resources you have as you make your plans. It can be tempting to concentrate on what you lack. We only have a few loaves. We only have two fish. The path is hard as a rock. Look at all of these thorns. We will never feed all these people. We will never have a decent harvest. Krause invites us to assess what we have a different way... more like the sower or like Jesus with the bread. She states the lesson of this parable this way: “take that which we have, bless it to God’s purposes, break it open to make it shareable, and to share it.” When we share what we have... when we plant all the seeds in the packet... we make room for the Spirit to provide more than we can imagine.
It is true. Some of the seeds don’t grow. There’s too many rocks or not enough soil or it’s just rained too much. If all we look at are the rocky paths and thorny thickets, we might never plant at all. We must remember that not every seed we plant will grow. But, because of the soil, the good soil, some of the seeds will grow. May we be surprised by God’s abundance that is thirty, sixty, and hundredfold times greater than we might first imagine. Oh, and does anyone need any lemon balm? I have plenty.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
The Sermon Exegesis titled “Resisting Fear with Trust in God’s Abundant Provision,” by Rev. Dr. Deborah Krause, From the “Because of You, Our Church Changes Lives” stewardship materials
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
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.