Sunday, September 25, 2005

Nineteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-8
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Unto thee, O Jehovah, do I lift up my soul. O my God, in thee have I trusted…

In today's Old Testament lesson, God speaking through Ezekiel says, "Yet ye say, the way of the Lord is not equal. Hear now, O house of Israel: Is not my way equal? Are not your ways unequal?" This is a question of fairness. It is easy to get caught up in the thoughts of justice and fairness in our world, particularly when we face difficult times. Things have certainly not been easy for me this week. I've spent most of the week in Houston at the bedside of my dying father. I had to leave to get out of the way of the incoming hurricane and I'm concerned about my family that is still in the path of the storm.

Much of the discussion around last week's scriptures had to do with suffering, based on the passage from Paul. What does it mean to suffer? If I compare my situation to those from the hurricane ravaged areas, I know that I am blessed. Yet, that does not diminish the difficulties in my life. Every person has to deal with their suffering with the strength that comes from God. Yet, are the challenges we face daily, or even the bigger burdens we bare, really the sort of suffering Paul describes?

It would be very easy for me to take my list of difficulties and say, "It just isn't fair. Why do I have to deal with all this?" We looked at fairness from a slightly different perspective last week as we considered the story of the workers in the vineyard. For many, the idea of the vineyard keeper giving the same wage to the workers who put in an hour as those who put in a whole day is terribly unfair. Everyone should receive their due. If a denarius was the value of an hour, then the full time workers should have gotten twelve.

Did the full time worker really need to have twelve denarius for one day's work? The wage of one denarius was a fair wage according the story, enough for one day of living. If that hour long worker had only been given one twelfth of a denarius, his family could have starved or been cast out of their home. To the landowner, fairness and justice was a matter of ensuring the life of the worker; he was unconcerned with the world's opinion of fairness.

Abundance often leads to sin, not necessary in terms of specific things we do wrong for there are many right living wealthy folk. We can see their names on buildings such as hospitals and colleges, the work done in those places often sustained by their gifts. No, the sin that comes from abundance is the sin that goes back to the days of Adam and Eve, the sin that separates us from God, the sin of making oneself a god.

We make ourselves a god when we take justice and fairness into our own hands, thinking that we can make things just by our own power and gifts. The workers argued with the landowner last week about fairness, taking the landowner's assets into their own hands and assuming responsibility for fairness. They expected the landowner to do for them what they wanted, trying to take control of the situation to their own good. They tried to make themselves like gods, above their master.

In this week's Gospel lesson, the Pharisees questioned Jesus about His authority. A day or so had passed since Jesus told the parable of the workers and Jesus had set His sights on Jerusalem. He was on His way to the cross, but there was still work to do. Earlier in this chapter, Jesus threw the moneychangers out of the temple courts and accused the leaders of ruling a den of robbers. When He returned, they were ready to accuse Him.

"By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?" Jesus answered with a question. "The baptism of John, whence was it? from heaven or from men?" They could not answer this question. If they answered that John's baptism came from heaven, the people would wonder why they did not believe. If they answered from man, then the people who believed John was from God would rebel against them. They answered, "we do not know." Since they could not answer, Jesus refused to answer their question.

Instead He answered with a parable. He told the story of two sons, one who refused to obey his father and the other that said he would do so. If the story ended there, you would think the second son would be the son that did the will of the father. However, Jesus takes the story to the next step. The one that refused actually went to do it, the one that said he would never did. He asked the leaders, "Which son did what his father wanted?" "The first son," they answered.

The point Jesus was making is that many people appear to have faith in God and they say that they will do God's will, and yet they do not do what God would have them do. For the Pharisees, they were doing all that the law required of them. They prayed the right way, gave the right amount, acted according to all the rules. However, they did not believe God's word, the Word in flesh that had come to give them the kingdom of heaven. They said "Yes" to God the Father but did not do what they were supposed to do. Their righteousness was their god.

However, the sinners and tax collectors, the ones called last, said, "No" and lived their lives according to their own desires, but when Christ came they heard His message and repented, turning to God. They were like the first son who initially refused God's grace, but turned and did God's will. They were also like the workers hired at the last moment, receiving the same grace as the workers called at the first hour.

When we think of suffering, we tend to think of the things we experience in this life – hurricanes and aging parents – and consider them the crosses we have to bear. Yet Paul was not concerned with the daily troubles of this world. He was considering the even greater cross, the cross of willful obedience to God's Word. Jesus Christ healed the sick and fed the hungry, but His greatest concern was restoring the relationship between God and His people. His suffering was not meant to overcome illness and difficult times, but rather to overcome sin and death – our own, not those of others.

In the Old Testament lesson, Ezekiel touches upon a proverb the people in Israel often quoted, "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?" This idea comes from the Commandments. Exodus 20:5 says, "…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children." So, the Israelites were complaining that their troubles were caused by the sins of their forefathers and they thought it was unfair. There are pastors even today who still teach this, calling the phenomenon "generational curses." Poverty, health problems, addictions are blamed on the generational curse; the sins of the parents brings the wrath of God on the children.

"As I live, saith the Lord Jehovah, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel." God puts a halt to the blame game. Each one receives justice for their own sin; each person pays the price for their own unwillingness to obey God's Word. Though we can talk in terms of each sinful action and the consequences we suffer from our wrong living, the sin of greater concern is that which separates us from God. This is our natural inclination to be our own god, to take control of our own life and to seek justice and fairness according to our own ideology. This is the sin that sets us against God and His will. While some of our burdens can be blamed on the sins of our forefathers, we should be more concerned about our relationship with God.

Paul writes, "Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ…" Then he goes on to describe that attitude. It is one of humble submission to God's Will. As we look at the life of Jesus Christ, and more particularly His death, it is hard to imagine why anyone would die for the sake of sinners. If we consider justice according to the ways of the world, it was completely unfair for Jesus to die for my sins – for my lies, my cheating, my lusts. Yet, Jesus did not simply die because I can't control my tongue, He died because I am separated from my Creator. He died for forgiveness, not for each individual sin but because I am incapable of willfully obeying God's Word. He died to reconcile God and His people. Whatever has happened in history is no concern. Christ made it possible for all men to live in relationship with God the Father and to receive his blessings.

The temple leaders ignored John and they accused Jesus. John came with a message of repentance, "Turn to God!" Jesus came with the same message, but He came with the realization that it was impossible for man to do the will of the Father without His suffering. Paul took on that same attitude, knowing that he could not save anyone by his own power, but that sharing the truth of Christ would bring faith to all who hear and believe. It is by faith we are saved.

We too are called to live that life of suffering – not necessarily bearing crosses of ill health and earthly troubles, but rather bearing the cross of Christ as He bore our cross to death. We aren't called to survive the world and accept all that we experience as the burdens we have to bear. Instead, we are called to live in faith, humbly understanding that it is not our strength that carries the burdens of life, but rather God's strength through faith. As we live in trust we begin to see that that the suffering we experience is not about justice or fairness, but rather about our witness of trust in God to the world.

It is by God's grace that we live in faith. Thanks to Christ Jesus our relationship with God has been restored and we have been called to trust in Him. In faith we can sing praise to God even in the midst of our troubles. We can turn to the Psalms to seek comfort and peace when the world around us seems to be falling apart. David sang, "Unto thee, O Jehovah, do I lift up my soul." In the midst of our troubles we need not have the strength to bear up under the burdens. Instead, we are called to believe God's Word, humble ourselves as Christ and seek our strength through the power of God's Spirit. In such trust we can and will get through any storm no matter how difficult it may seem.

This is what it means to be like the first brother. We, by our own power and strength, can not be obedient. However, through faith in Christ Jesus we will go forth and do what the Father has called us to do, to live in His grace and mercy, knowing the peace that comes from a life trusting in God's strength to get us through our circumstances whatever they may be. Thanks be to God.

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