Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost – October 8, 2023
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. Looking toward the far horizons, running the race with imperfection and hope (Philippians 3:4-14), enables us to follow divine guidance (The Ten Commandments) as well as respond to the serious consequences related to our negative responses to God, our refusal to follow God’s anointed one and God’s way in the world. (Matthew 21:33-46) Yet, still there is grace for the journey. We may turn from God’s way, and diminish God’s presence in our lives, but God never turns away from us.
One could spend weeks on the Ten Commandments, but the focus is that the commandments are a response to God’s liberating activity. They are about relationships with God and one another. The commandments challenge us to a God-centered life. To a life in which we realize that God is God and we aren’t. A life in which we don’t use God to advance our aims, politically or otherwise, but listen to God’s vision. Sadly, the most idolatrous use of God’s name is found in the words of those who claim to represent God today, identifying small and antagonistic ethical and political positions with God’s way.
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 in which the needs of others, especially the vulnerable, are as important as our own. There is no rugged individualism in the Ten Commandments, but the call to community as the source of our personal fulfillment.
The Psalm connects God’s grandeur in the universe with our own personal integrity. The moral arc of the universe flows through the heavens and also humankind, directing us toward just and healthy relationships and politics. Our politics needs to be seen as reflecting cosmic order and not our personal, economic, or political advantage.
Without focusing on the violence found in Jesus’ parable, there is a consequence in turning from God’s way and rejecting God’s vision of reality. We can gain the world and lose our souls. There is only one world – not a separate political world, or a city of God and city of earth – and our calling is to be companions in the coming of God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven.
Now to Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. 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 feel close to God 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. Yet our commitment to ministry does not separate us from our congregants – we are not higher or better than they are and have many of the same struggles in relationships, priorities, temptations, and citizenship.
Paul is just such a teacher and spiritual leader. His approach to the Philippians is pastoral as well as theological. 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. In the wake of his mystical experience, now he is looking forward, remembering the past, appreciating its gifts but going beyond it.
Despite his past persecution of the Christian community, God did not give up on Paul, but used his past as the basis of a radically different future: 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. Often our sins are ever before us, but still we need to claim the grace that embraces and empowers.
But, despite our imperfections, 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.
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 and succesess 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. The same is true in relationship to the gains in the LGBTQ+ rights, and the rise of homophobia and senseless attacks on drag queens and claims of grooming by conservative Christians. While not singling out white persons, or white supremacists and Christian conservatives and 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 in 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. Keep asking: 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 pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including JESUS – MYSTIC, HEALER, AND PROPHET; THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION, and THE PROPHET AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA. His most recent books are PROCESS THEOLOGY AND THE REVIVAL WE NEED and TAKING A WALK WITH WHITEHEAD: MEDITATIONS WITH PROCESS-RELATIONAL THEOLOGY. He is currently serving as Bridge Minister at Westmoreland Congregational United Church of Christ in Bethesda, MD, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.