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    Oct 21, 2017

    Pentecost 20; Year A, Proper 24, 2017-10-21/22

    Series: Guest Preachers

    Category: Weekly Sermon


    2017-10-21/22 – Sermon for Christ Church, Toms River

    Pentecost 20; Year A, Proper 24, 2017-10-21/22

    Lately I’ve found myself drawn to readings, whether scripture or otherwise, that speak to me about what it means to be people of God.  Maybe that’s part of my reaction to finding myself in a world that bears increasingly less and less resemblance to the dream God imagined.  Maybe it’s because I find myself needing more and more support to stay focused on Kingdom values – compassion, inclusion, love, grace, advocacy for the poor and marginalized and against the forms of violence so prevalent in our society.  Values that are more counter cultural than I ever realized.  I think about the disciples huddled in that boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee with the storm and the waves crashing all around them.  Anybody in that boat with me? Whatever the reason, I find a lot of help in today’s scriptures that I’d like to share with you.

    “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

    Exodus 33:15-16

    “In this way, we shall be distinct…”

    “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…”

    1 Thessalonians 1:4-5

    “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you…” 

    Distinct.  Chosen.  I imagine that the Pharisees in today’s gospel thought of themselves in these terms, but hardly as God intended them.  Terms that they used to project privilege, power and exclusion rather than evoking images of mutual love, service, commitment and inclusion. Terms they had hijacked and bent to their own purposes.  Terms they had used to gradually, over hundreds of years, pervert Israel from a tight-knit community coming out of the Sinai wilderness in direct covenant relationship with a loving God to a dispersed community in bondage to a legalistic temple religion.  A religion over which the Pharisees presided and one which only allowed access to God through them.

    In Bishop Andy Doyle’s book, “The Jesus Heist”, they stand as part of the church throughout the ages accused of having “read the Old Testament as a story about the dispensation of the law, and the keeping of the law as an appropriate response to God’s freeing act in Egypt...”  He argues compellingly that the temple religion’s (i.e. Pharisees’) insistence that “…God’s grace comes only in response to faithfulness by God’s people” effectively subverted the truth that, even in the Old Testament, God’s grace came first.  More than once.

    As someone who has spent a lot of time viewing the Old Testament in exactly the way Doyle describes, I find this fascinating.  Could it be possible that God’s ways with us in the Old Testament were just as much about His grace and love with His people as in the New Testament?  That it wasn’t all about a bunch of impossible rules and regulations that made relating to God look pretty bleak and hopeless until Jesus came along?  What is this “Sinai covenant” we seem to have been led to overlook, if not ignore?

    We see hints of it in today’s Exodus reading, where God responds to Moses’ demand that they not move without God’s presence going before them by promising: “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 

    A little later on, in Exodus 34:6-8, God gets even more specific: “And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped.  Moses then said, ‘If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us.  Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.’  He said, “I hereby make a covenant.  Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and the people among whom you live shall see the work of the LORD; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.’”

    Jesus not only would’ve read and understood this Old Testament covenant of love and grace; He quite literally embodied it.  Fulfilled it.  Or as Doyle puts it: “Jesus is the inheritor of a Sinai tradition where the central relationship with God is love.”….not law.  “Jesus calls us back to Mount Sinai and our covenant response to God alone rather than into renewed bondage to human systems of power and authority.”

    Which brings us back to our Pharisees.  How quickly Jesus uses a simple symbol of human power and authority – a denarius – to cut through their flattery and attempted entrapment, revealing to them their own bondage.  I love how He renders them speechless in the face of His call back to a covenant response to God alone.  “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  How clearly He exposes their hypocrisy through the false choice they present, affirming our call to be both good citizens of the world and builders of God’s Kingdom – with all our gifts.

    I’m deeply grateful for the invitation to join you today as you enter into your season of reflection on stewardship, culminating with your ingathering on November 18 and 19.  Coming as it did after having the chance to work recently with both your finance team and your vestry, it offers me the chance to convey to you how profound an impact their faithfulness and commitment to Jesus Christ and to the community of Christ Church has had on me.  I can testify that the message of the gospel is alive and well among your leadership, not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction!

    And I can think of no better words to describe the regard we on diocesan staff have for your congregation than those of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy; “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” 

    My own involvement with the coalition team supporting Father Ramon leaves me inspired by your commitment to reaching out to your latino community – especially those marginalized and living in growing fear – and fully including them in your parish life. 

    I’ll never forget the night, not long after Hurricane Sandy, when we all worked together on incredibly short notice with one of my dear friends, Chuck Inman (God rest his soul), to make it possible to receive and store a huge shipment of critically needed cleaning and mold remediation supplies that would otherwise have been lost to us.  The pictures that Chuck and Carlos sent back of the “bucket brigade” line from the trucks into the parish hall spoke volumes about the heart and character of this congregation.

    And just this morning, Facebook reminded me with one of its wonderful “anniversary” collages of pictures just where I was two years ago today.  Anybody want to take a guess?  (Hint, hint – it was with a group of you all…)  (Another hint – I wasn’t in the US…)  That’s right – I was in the Dominican Republic with Charlie Nakash, Bishop Stokes and a mission team from this congregation on one of the most meaningful, transformational mission experiences I’ve ever had.

    Your sense of being sent in response to God’s love from this place of worship to the many, many places where you become the hands and feet of Jesus in the world is remarkable. The visibility and palpable presence of the Holy Spirit that brings along with it is, I believe, a huge reason why you attract so many visitors and new members in a time and culture when doing so is becoming increasingly challenging. 

    So as I leave you today and send you forth on your stewardship journey, I’m especially reminded of a particular passage from Joshua that I shared with your vestry during our time together.  Israel has responded to God’s preparation to enter into the promised land; their wilderness-wandering days are coming to an end.  Moses has died, and Joshua is now God’s appointed leader of the nation.  They’ve come to the edge of the Jordan.  But rather than cross right away, they pause.  They camp for three days before crossing, and are instructed to sanctify themselves in order to meet the challenges in this new land ahead.

    The land ahead of you is new, as it is for all of us, and it holds many challenges.  Pause now.  Camp for a while.  Take some time to sanctify yourselves.  Appreciate how precious you are in God’s eyes.  As you listen to stories and testimonies over the next few weeks, ask what it means to re-consecrate yourselves as a tight-knit community navigating this world’s wilderness in direct covenant relationship with a loving, liberating, life-giving God.  And when the time comes, prayerfully consider how you can best respond by generously offering of your gifts out of your own covenant relationship with God and with this beloved community we call Christ Church, Toms River.