Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 4, 2020
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4-14, Matthew 21:33-46
While there are many entry points for this Sunday’s readings, I will focus on Philippians 3:4-14 as the primary lens for interpreting the other passages. Looking toward the far horizons, running the race with imperfection and hope, enables us to follow divine guidance (The Ten Commandments) as well as respond to the serious consequences of our responses to God. (Matthew 21:33-46)
Good teachers and spiritual guides are known by their solidarity with their students and congregants. They see their oneness in joy and sorrow and don’t hold themselves apart, despite their expertise and experience. As the saying goes, they don’t care about what you know until they know that you care. And caring comes from recognizing that we are all in the same boat, doing our best to faithful, sometimes succeeding, other times failing, but taking everything good and bad to God in prayer.
One noted spiritual guide, a person of deep faith but also plagued by serious personal challenges, asserted that the spiritual life is a constant process of falling down and getting back up again, trusting God’s amazing grace and love to bring us all home. That’s true for all of us, our relationship with God vacillates. We are close and then we feel abandoned or abandon the One who loves us. Pastoral leadership has unique characteristics and expertise and requires the highest morality. These characteristics and moral necessities are guided by our recognition of our full humanity, our personal limitations and unique gifts.
Paul is just such a teacher and spiritual. He could have lorded it over the Philippians, cited his resume as a sign of unquestioned authority, noted how far they would have to go to achieve his spiritual stature. Instead, he tells them the unvarnished truth of his life – he was at the top of his class, he was a noted speaker and teacher, he was faithful and true, and his persecution of the first followers of Jesus was based on his belief that he was doing the right thing to preserve the purity of his faith tradition. But, then he met Jesus, a blinding light on the road to Damascus, a challenge to everything he once held dear and began a new path, not as sage, but a beginner again, weighed down by guilt but buoyed up by grace. Now he is looking forward, remembering the past, appreciating its gifts but going beyond it.
Despite the past persecution of the Christian community, he received a new name and a vocation. He could begin again, salvaging the best of his past, while jettisoning what was unhelpful. He could now experience first hand the words God spoke to Jeremiah, “I have plans for you. For good and not for evil. For a future with hope.”
Paul sees his life in terms of what God has done for him and where God is leading him. Like a runner, he is sprinting toward the goal not looking back any longer, but aiming at one thing alone – eyes on the prize of God’s call in his life and God’s faithfulness unto eternity.
Paul has a lot to live down, and so do most of us. We have fallen short, sometimes hurt others, broken promises, been complicit in injustice, knew what was right and chose otherwise. Sometimes, as I’ve discovered, trying to do the right thing can cause as much pain and alienation as being a selfish cad who throws all caution to the wind. We do the right thing, as President Kennedy said, not because it is easy – and guaranteed – but because it is hard and we might fail.
But, Paul says, remember the prize. God is not out to get you, God is out to love you. God is not interested in your failures or your sins but in how you can grow beyond them, making amends, saying you’re sorry, and then living faithfully once day at a time.
The Ten Commandments are part of nation-building. They are intended to guide personal and communal behavior and are basic guideposts for any healthy community, family or nation. Yet, they are grounded in grace. Remember what God has done for you. Let that inspire your behavior and commitment today. Allegiance to God is grounded in God’s amazing grace. But grace leads us to spiritual stature. There is no “cheap grace” in these Commandments. They are intended to show us how to live out the grace we have received as citizens of a covenantal community.
Jesus’ parable in Matthew 21 is harsh. There is judgment, especially of the religious leaders who turn from God’s way. The crucifixion is at the heart of Jesus’ parable. Prophets and messengers are eliminated by the powers that be as they seek to maintain their privilege and power. This was true then and it is true now. Ibram X. Kendi notes that racist activity increases in relationship to achievements in racial equality. The powerful and the privileged, even if it is just the privilege of whiteness (and even if you are being manipulated by the power brokers), push back with greater vehemence when persons of color advance in our society. While not singling out white persons, or white supremacists and Christian nationalists, there is a reckoning for those who turn away from God’s moral and spiritual arc of history. The arc aims for justice and equality for all and those who stand in the way will eventually suffer the consequences. The consequences may not be physical destruction, as the parable suggest, but loss of integrity, loss of soul, and loss of divine inspiration. There is a cost to turning away from God’s way and we are seeing it acted out daily in our nation.
This is a time of repentance. Our nation is deep trouble and much of it is our doing. We know where we’ve gone astray – and are going astray – if we make regular moral inventories. We have focused on rights and not responsibilities, freedom without compassion, individuality without community, we have defined some people as lesser humans, and turned our backs on the vulnerable. We have perpetuated white privilege and accepted injustice and poverty as normal. But, things can change, we can be healed, our nation can be transformed and renewed, if we keep our eyes on the prize and let’s guiding vision lure us forward one day at a time.
Keep your eyes on the prize. Keep your eyes on Jesus. Keep asking what is God’s will in this situation? How can I can be more faithful and loving? How can help my nation find justice, equality, and healing? With eyes on the prize each day is a holy adventure filled with excitement, possibility, and growth for you are now being your true self -doing what only you can do and what only this church can do, being God’s hands, feet, and voice – in healing the world.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over fifty books, including PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S
CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; HOPE BEYOND PANDEMIC; and GOD ONLINE: A MYSTIC’S GUIDE TO THE INTERNET.