Sunday, November 2, 2008

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Pentecost or All Saints Sunday
Micah 3:5-12
Psalm 43
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 23:1-12
Revelation 7:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are.

Door-to-door salesmen have a job to do, but it is very frustrating to deal with them. They will say whatever they think will convince you to buy their product. Of course they need to make sales, but I will not buy a product from someone if I can’t believe what they say. A few years ago a young many came to my door selling a special vacuum cleaner. We were having some financial difficulties at the time and I could not commit to even a small monthly payment on a large purchase. We had some debts from buying our house and had even borrowed money from our kids’ college funds to pay our bills.

I told the young man that I had no money and that there was no way I would buy a vacuum cleaner. He told me that he got points toward a prize for just demonstrating the machine and asked if I would let him show me the cleaner. He insisted that there was no obligation to buy and asked if I wouldn’t enjoy having someone else clean my floor for me. I repeated that I had no money to purchase the cleaner, but allowed him in because who doesn’t want to have someone else vacuum their floor?

From the moment he entered my house, he was a man on a mission. He was determined to convince me not only that I could afford his product, but that I couldn’t afford not to buy it. He began by saying things he thought I wanted to hear. He told me he was a Christian, although his next rambling conversation did not match that confession. He rattled on about what a great deal he could get for me, just a few dollars a month. Through the demonstration, I repeated over and over again that I could not afford the machine, no matter how cheap it would be. He told me it didn’t matter. He changed his tactic often, constantly trying to find the ‘button’ to push to make me want to buy his product. He moved from compliments to insults as fast as a race car driver turns a corner. He even pointed out all the dirt in my carpet and asked, “What would your husband say if he saw how dirty this floor has been?”

He didn’t like my answers. I kept saying “No.” He eventually called in his boss, who could make me an even better deal. This was to be the deal that I couldn’t refuse. Again and again I told these guys I could not afford to buy the vacuum, standing firm on my original statement when he came to the door. Even when they left that day, they didn’t give up. A woman came to my door a few days later wanting to sell me the same vacuum. She came with a gift, if only I would let her demonstrate. She lied straight to my face, insisting that she worked for a different distributor, but I saw her get into the same vehicle that had brought the original salesperson to my house. They were all determined to sell me that machine, no matter what they had to do to convince me.

In Micah’s day the prophets spoke for profit. In other words, they said what they thought the king, or those willing to pay, wanted to hear. Everyone likes to hear a message of peace. No one wants to hear that they have wronged God and that God will allow their world to be destroyed. But the prophets were not speaking God’s word. Sometimes we have to face difficult times. Sometimes we have to face the consequences of our actions and those times are not pleasant or peaceful. The prophets were given their gift to help God’s people walk a straight line and live as God had ordained them to live. But the kings were never willing to pay for the truth. They wanted to hear the things that made them feel and look good, so they supported the prophets that gave them what they wanted.

To many, the ends justify the means. It doesn’t matter if they tell a lie or two as long as they sell you their product in the end. They might even believe that you need what they have to sell. Some prophets may just speak about peace because they know dwelling on the negative message will only make the hearer afraid or moved to wrong action. They have good and right motive, but a lie is still a lie. And is it really good to have the world turned upside down because there was not call to change? Prophets are not given messages of warning to make them afraid. It is a call to repentance. God has been known to ‘change His mind.” Take Nineveh, for example. When Jonah got around to preaching the message to the Ninevites, they repented and God had mercy on them. Might the destruction of Jerusalem have been averted if only the prophets told the truth? The blessings would have been far greater if the people had heard the right word and done what God called them to do.

When I was single, I worked as a retail manager. During my short-lived career, I saw many people who would do anything for the job. They were willing to step on employees to get ahead. One assistant manager abused his power and freedom by stealing from his store. He would get to work early and unload boxes of merchandise out the back door. Other managers took advantage of people with no power. They put on façades for visiting district managers so that they might get ahead. They took credit for the work others accomplished and blamed them for their own mistakes. The end was all that mattered, and to them the end was power, authority and title. I wasn’t interested in playing the games necessary to get ahead, especially since it would keep me from a better calling.

Quite frankly, I could have easily risen to the top of the company quickly. I was the token woman in my management trainee class. I was good at my job and I was committed to the company. When I decided to get married and move away, I was offered a position in California. I turned them down because I was not willing to work seventy hours a week an hour away when I should be focused on building a marriage and a new home. I found a part time job as a cashier in a local retail outlet. I didn’t need, or want, the power and authority of a management position. The people around me didn’t understand. The manager in my department was sure I was going to undermine her and steal her job. Others thought I would be excellent in management for that company. I was happy with my job. In the end, I quit because my boss was so jealous and afraid that she made it impossible for me to do my work.

Those managers who were willing to do anything to move up in the company did not care very much for the company or the people. They were like the scribes and the Pharisees who were more interested in their power and position than they were in the God they claimed to worship. They had authority in both religious and secular life in Matthew’s world, and they liked it. They did not want anything to destroy the good life they had achieved. They taught the scriptures. They preached what was right and good. But they knew that God’s way called for humility and service and they did not live accordingly. The humble servant doesn’t get anywhere in their world or in ours.

For the past few weeks, we have heard Jesus tell stories about how not to act if one is a disciple of Christ. In His parables He has pointed out the worst of human nature and has pointed his finger at the religious leaders of His day. All too often in the past few weeks, we could hear His condemnation for our own practices and policies. We've seen that our sense of justice and mercy differs greatly than that which Jesus preached.

All this time, Jesus has been walking toward the cross where He would finish the work His Father sent for Him to do. His glory would never be found in the seats at the head of the table or in fine clothes. He was not sent to be popular or famous. He was not sent to gain a huge following or build a great church. He came to reform the religious understanding of His people, to bring mercy and grace. Most of all, He came to die for the sake of those who believe in Him, to take the burden of their sin and banish it forever.

As He drew nearer to the cross, His message became more urgent and more direct. In today's Gospel lesson Jesus speaks to the crowds about the insincerity of the teachers of the Law. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say, and do not.” The teachers do not practice what they preach. They do everything for the sake of appearances. “But all their works they do to be seen of men: for they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the chief place at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the salutations in the marketplaces, and to be called of men, Rabbi.” For them it was about power, and they held a great deal of power over the people.

Jesus came to bring a different message. He came to be a model of humility, to call His people into a life of service and mercy. He showed the ultimate obedience by dying on the cross and by His grace we see the real glory of God. We aren’t called to die on a cross, but we are called to live according to the word God has given, as humble servants going forth in faith to share God’s love and mercy with the world. Sometimes that means taking the hard road. Sometimes that means facing tough times. Sometimes that means getting your hands dirty, wallowing in the muck and mire of life.

The Greek point of view was that manual labor was despised and fit only for slaves and servants. An educated man would not lift a finger in the Hellenistic world in which Paul lived. They would not have a job like Paul’s. There were preachers in Paul’s day that expected the new Christians to support their ministry, to give them food and a place to stay as well as offerings that would meet their every need. Paul supported his own ministry by being a tentmaker. He did not mind getting his hands dirty if it meant he could take the Gospel further into the world to glorify God.

In today’s epistle lesson, Paul encourages the Christians at Thessalonica to live a life worthy of God. Some might think that means avoiding dirt and sweat, keeping oneself clean and perfect before God. But Paul understood that worthiness had nothing to do with the outer appearance of a person, but with the heart willing to glorify God in all circumstances. We do not need to rely on the hard work of others just to keep a façade of cleanliness and perfection. We stand as a model to others who will hear God’s word and believe.

Paul gave a model of self-sufficiency and pride in a job well-done. Someone once said, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” Any vocation is sacred if you’re called to it by God. Could Paul have done more if he’d let others pay the bill? I don’t think so, because in modeling a life of hard work as well as ministry, Paul showed the world that the message of Christ was for all men, not just the religious and intellectual. Jesus’ grace is for the maid and the monk, the janitor and the priest. All who have faith have been called to the same place: to be children of God.

A wise woman once told me, “Know your calling better than your own name. Your Mama and Daddy gave you the name Peggy, but your calling is what God has named you. It is written on your heart and is the name that matters.” We are called to be children of God.

Our scriptures for this week have talked about those who try to speak for God but have lost touch (or never had) a good understanding of what God intended for His people. They speak as if they are speaking for God, but they lead the people astray. They turn the grace of God upside down and insist that they have the authority to say what is good and right and true, while perverting justice and burdening the people. They were willing to do anything to get, and keep, their positions of power and authority. The ends justified the means.

Jesus reminds us that it is not for us to seek after titles and authority, but to do what He has called us to do—live humbly and serve others. In doing so, we will find the greater blessing. Whatever it is we are called to do at this moment, let us do it with praise and thanksgiving on our lips as a witness to God’s mercy and grace to the world. Instead of working hard to become powerful to earn a place as the greatest among men, God calls us to be humble, like children, relying on Him for all we need.

Sunday is All Saints Sunday, the day we were remember all the saints who have passed from the saints of old to the saints of today. All Saints Sunday is not just a day to mourn our dead and to remember them, but it is a day to remember that we are children of God and that some day we will join those who have come before us to dwell in God’s presence forever. We celebrate our future at the Lord’s table, feasting forever on God’s grace without the muck of life in our earthly flesh. We will remember the great cloud of witness that have passed before, but we will also look forward to the day when we will be with them again. We will receive the bread and wine of communion, knowing that it is only a foretaste of the feast which our loved ones already enjoy.

In the Gospel lesson for All Saints, Jesus tells us “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We are comforted by the Word of God that tells us this life is only a momentary journey on our way to an eternity in heaven. We believe and we are blessed. We find comfort in the promise that our mourning will one day come to an end forever as God Himself wipes away our tears.

In our life of humble service we are given the greatest blessing which is that the kingdom of heaven is not just a future hope. It is hard for us to see the blessing in the Beaitutdes. Where is the blessedness in poverty, mourning, meekness or hunger? In a world that seeks wealth, fame and power it is hard to understand mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking. These are not seen as strengths, but weaknesses. Finally, it is impossible to rejoice in persecution. Yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are they…” They are the blessed ones, the ones who are receiving the mercy and grace of God.

The hope of faith is framed in this passage by the assurance of God's presence. In verse three, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In verse ten He says, “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice that in these two verses, the gift is present: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is not a promise for just the future. The kingdom of heaven IS theirs.

That does not mean that what we have today is the best it can be. There is more promised in the future. A time will come when all our suffering will cease and we will be with God for eternity. Jesus tell us that the blessed will be comforted, will inherit the earth, will be filled, will receive mercy, will see God, will be called sons of God. One day we will experience the glory of God fully and completely and for eternity.

For now, we live with just a glimmer of what will be. People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on anyone to get ahead in this world. We will suffer. We would like to think that the promises found in the beatitudes will be fulfilled in this life. Sometimes they are. I have found great comfort in the love of my family and friends. I have experienced mercy. Though I have not seen the face of God, I've known His presence and seen His face in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've shared in the waters of life and God has indeed wiped away my tears. Yet, I know that I will hunger, thirst and cry again before I pass into life eternal.

All Saints Day isn't about just counting the martyrs who have died in faith. It is about looking forward to the day that we will join that great cloud of witnesses who have shared the Gospel with us. It is about experiencing the feast of victory with all the saints, both living and dead. It is about spending a moment in heaven, believing everything God has promised and trusting that it will be ours one day. It is about being a child of God, fully and completely, knowing that He has called us to a life that glorifies Him.

How often do we wonder where God has gone when we face suffering and pain? We cry out to God much like the psalmist, promising to return to His temple when we see God’s hand in our life again. But should we really wait? Has not God promised to be with us, even in our failure? We do not see the world through the eyes of the Old Covenant, the promise that comes with conditions. We see it now through the eyes of grace, through the cross of Christ and the forgiveness He won for us. Instead of waiting to see God’s light to lead us to the temple, we are called to believe the light is already there, walking forth in faith knowing that God has not abandoned us. The answers to our prayers may not come as we expect, but God is faithful.

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