OT 27 – 19th Sunday After Pentecost

October 8, 2023

Lectionary Texts

Exodus 20.1-20 — The Ten Commandments.

Psalm 19 All creation celebrates God’s glory. God’s Way gives life, and we seek to follow it. In

Philippians 3.4-14 — All is trash compared to the value of knowing Christ. I want to know Christ, his resurrection, and his suffering. I press on toward the goal….

Matthew 21.33-46 — The parable of the rebellious workers in the vineyard.

Preaching Thoughts

[October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. See resources here.]

       The Ten Commandments, are not a set of universal rules, but a way of living that signifies Israel’s faithfulness to God’s Covenant. It’s like wedding vows. This is how we live out our faithfulness to God. The vows don’t apply to others. They don’t belong in public courthouses any more than your wedding vows do. The Church needs to stop imposing them on others and practice them ourselves.
       And we need to remind ourselves that merely following the rules doesn’t necessarily make you good or faithful. After all, you can follow all the commandments strictly and never love anybody, never serve God, never do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. When the rich man tells Jesus “I’ve followed all these rules,” Jesus says, “That’s not all.” In the Sermon on the Mount he says “You’ve heard it said…” He drills down into the real heart of the commandments, which is not to obey rules or avoid misdeed, but to live with love. I’ve heard people say what it means to be Christian is to follow the Ten Commandments, but technically that’s what it means to be Jewish. Christians actually only have one commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
       “I brought you up out of Egypt., out of slavery. You shall have no other gods.” I think this is not so much a prohibition against practicing a different religion but, regardless of our religion, paying attention to who we think God is. Do we worship the God who sets us free and gives us life… or a different “god”? It’s tempting to worship a God who takes care of us as the expense of others, or who comforts us but doesn’t challenge us, or forces us to fit into religious strictures but doesn’t truly set us free…. Do we worship the true God? How do we know?
       “No idols.” Well, we have plenty of them, don’t we? Money, power, winning, reputation, security, White privilege, male dominance, able-bodiedness, even good health. All things we think of as images of God. And even if we turn from those other idols and look to God alone, still we have to attend to who we think God is. Our “graven images of God include images (idols, let’s call them) of God as male, white, old, American, human…. All of these are proscribed. Ultimately this commandment is an invitation to allow God to be Mystery, beyond our capacity to picture or imagine.
      “No using God’s name in vain.” The old version was “don’t swear.” Ok. But think of the ways we use God’s “name,” the sense of authority our faith gives us. Think of the evil we do in the name of, or for the sake of, our faith, or our religion, or who we think God is. Think of the hurts we cause in defense of our ideas of God. Think of the privilege or priority or latitude we assign ourselves when we’re doing something because it’s the “Christian” thing to do, even when it hurts people or primarily serves ourselves. Maybe it this commandment even extends to our images of God, as in the previous commandment. The church haas discriminated against women, for example, “in the name of” patriarchy. That we derive from our belief in a male God, male Jesus and exclusively male disciples.
       “Observe Sabbath.” Technically that’s the seventh, day— Saturday. Jesus was raised “on the first Day of the week”—more like Monday than our Sunday. But early followers of Jesus met on Resurrection Day — a Monday night meeting—which we the day after the Sabbath, Sunday. So over time Sunday got morphed into our understanding of “sabbath.” Anyway. The point of Sabbath is not going to church, but rest. We may have grown up thinking of Sabbath is the day there’s all sorts of things you can’t do. But it’s really a day in which there’s nothing you have to do! This commandment is the only one with a rationale. Two of them actually. The version in Deuteronomy says “Because you were slaves in Egypt.” You know what it’s like to be slaves. Don’t do that. Be free. Take a day off. What a radical idea: a sit-down strike by slaves! The version here in Exodus says “Because God rested on the seventh day.” God, the Creator and sustainer of the world, God, whose love never ceases—takes a break! Rests! Lets go! Wow. Both versions see Sabbath as a time to cease striving, to stop trying to earn our keep or prove our worth, and simply be, under the grace and in the presence of God. Sabbath invites us to let go of our desire to control, trying to make things turn out the way we want, and above all let go of trying to be good enough. Sabbath is the time when we just are, and that is good enough.
      “Honor parents; no murder, adultery, stealing, lying, or coveting.” These are pretty straightforward—but remember how Jesus takes them to a higher level: Don’t just avoid murder, avoid anger. Don’t just avoid sleeping with the wrong person, be deeply faithful to your spouse. Keep going: Don’t just avoid lying, be deeply truthful. Don’t just covet or steal, actually share.

       This Psalm celebrates Creation’s wordless communication of God’s glory. We practice a pretty wordy religion, in a pretty wordy society, so it’s good to turn to a more contemplative message in which “there is no speech, nor are there words,” but the message of the glory of God is clear. Let the Psalm draw you into more contemplative awareness, to listen to the Word beyond all words. The “law“ of God is perfect, reviving the soul. It’s not a “rule,” but more like the law of gravity. It’s the way things are. And there’s God in it, if you listen.

       We may not have the collection of religious brownie points Paul has, but we do have a sense of being “better” or “worse” at our faith. Paul dismisses them all. There are no grades or levels of disciples. We’re all beginning anew each moment. There is no such thing as deserving. Everything is a gift.
       What matters to Paul is “knowing Christ”—not just being pals, but experiencing resurrection, which also means “sharing his suffering.” Resurrection doesn’t mean bright victories. It means serious losses. Resurrection is the mystery that when we surrender our lives in love God gives us new ones. Going on this journey we walk with Jesus, we suffer with Jesus, we carry the cross with Jesus. And—wow— we are raised with Jesus.
       By “forgetting what lies behind” I don’t think Paul means not remembering, but letting go. What won’t you let go of to get closer to Jesus? (It may be material things, or bits of reputation or self-image or even religious assumptions…)
      “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Does this mean at the end of the heavenly call is am prize, or does it mean the prize is the heavenly call? Maybe the prize is not the destination but the journey.

       This is one of those parables that resists an allegorical “this equals that” interpretation, or even maybe a “moral” at all. It’s too complicated, nuanced, and laced with political and economic implications peculiar to contemporary 1st century Palestine. For example Jesus’ hearers assume the owner will retaliate with violence, continuing the tragic spiral. Jesus isn’t necessarily advocating a certain economic or political strategy; maybe he’s simply noting what we humans are like. I wonder in what form and what context Jesus actually told this story.
       A popular interpretation is that God is the landowner, the vineyard is maybe religion, or maybe the gospel or the church, or maybe heaven, and the son who is killed is Jesus. It’s a slam against people who reject Jesus. Well, maybe. It’s also clearly a slam against the chief priests and pharisees, religious authorities who control an oppressive system. It’s a slam against leaders who are in charge of the “vine” of Israel…. Maybe. But to what end? How does that get us closer to God? And what then? God (the landowner) will come and “put those wretches to a miserable death?” Oof. That doesn’t sound like Jesus’ Abba God to me.
       Further complicating things: Jesus’ description of the landowner planting the vine sounds like God planting the vine of Israel in Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5. However, it might ring a different bell for his hearers. In Jesus’ time creditors would foreclose on poor farmers, and wealthy people would buy up the land and plant vineyards, which the former owners would then have to work as hired hands. Vineyards were not for crops that would feed the people but for export, for profit exclusively for the landowner. It was a system that pretty heavily favored the rich and exploited the poor—not a system that either Jesus or his hearers would approve of. So Jesus’ audience might be resentful of the landowner even as the story begins. Is God like the good gardener of Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5… or the greedy landowners Jesus’ hearers knew? Hm. Be careful about allegorizing this tale.
       I’m not exactly sure what Jesus meant to get at with this story. But but I’m aware it raises some good questions. Are we good stewards of God’s grace? Do we take for ourselves the gifts God gives us to share with others? How do we rebel against God’s love, commandeer the gospel and re-shape our religion to fit our own desires and attachments? Are we working in the vineyard of our faith for God’s sake or for our own? Are we faithfully “producing the fruits of the kingdom” or just propping up our sense of being deserving? What is the “stone the builders rejected that has become the cornerstone” (quoting Psalm 118.22)?        An unavoidable aspect of this story as Matthew gives it to us is the violence. This might be a good opportunity to address our dalliance with violence, how it s our golden calf. It’s embedded in our own scripture texts and religious imagination. Christianity has not done a good job of repudiating the myth of redemptive violence—that some form of violence is needed to make peace with God or neighbors. Jesus gave his life in opposition to that myth, yet in the old idea of substitutionary atonement—that God sent Jesus to die to save us—we’ve turned his death into a validation of the need for blood. That’s not necessarily where this story is going, but Matthew casually refers to wanton violence as a natural consequence of things—and in his telling Jesus seems to be OK with that. I don’t think that should slip by unquestioned.

Call to Worship

Leader: It is you, God, who have created us and set us free from all that oppresses.
All: We sing your praise!
It is you, gentle Christ, who have transformed our lives with God’s love.
We declare our thanks!
It is you, Holy Spirit, who give us a new way to live.
We give to you our whole being.
May we worship you in all we do!

Leader: God of all Creation, the heavens are yours; they are not ours.
All: The earth does not belong to us, nor do any living things.
Our lives are not our own; they are yours.
And yet we wish to take over the vineyard of life, and have it for ourselves.

Calm our rebellious hearts. Bring us once again under your command.
May your grace rule over us, and your love be our law.
Re-shape us by your Word, O God. We worship you. Amen.

Leader: Eternal God, we praise you!
All: Your Word creates and contains all things.
Your Truth gives us life.
May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts
add to your delight, O God, our earth and our heaven.

Leader: Gracious God, you love us perfectly, though our love is imperfect.
All: Fill us with your love, that we may love others as you have loved us.
May your grace command our living.
Let your love be the law in our hearts.
Alleluia! Come, Holy Spirit, and transform us by your grace. Alleluia!

Collect / Prayer of the Day

God of mercy, God of Steadfast Love, our faithful One, you create us and make covenant with us to be our God, and you call us to be your people. Speak your Word to us, and by your Spirit in us shape us into the name and image of Christ, your living Word. Amen.

God of truth, on Sinai you gave your commandments and they shaped your people. Speak to us now, and order our lives according to your delight. Amen.

Gracious God, all of Creation is your Word, all that Is, is your law. The heavens are telling of your truth, and the human heart proclaims your love. Help us, now in our worship and throughout our lives, to listen to your Word and to follow your Way, so that all our living might proclaim your good news. Amen.

God of love, we give thanks that we are not alone; we are all members of the Body of Christ, members of one another, united with your beloved people around the world. You extend your compassion to all people. Give us hearts of gratitude for our oneness in Christ; give us delight in the variety of people who are one with us; and give us compassion for all, especially those who are different from us. We pray in the name of Christ. Amen.

Listening Prayer

(suitable as a Collect, preparation for hearing scriptures, or invitation to prayer)

O God,
you are Love,
and your love has brought us up out of slavery.
It is the law of the land of our hearts.
We listen,
that we may hear, and obey.

Prayer of Confession

God, we confess we have tried to make this world our own.
We have lived under the command of our own will.
Without realizing, we have submitted to the rule
of our fears and desires.
Forgive our willfulness
and return us to the guidance of your grace,
the law of your love,
Christ’s one commandment,
that we love as we have been loved.

Response / Creed / Affirmation

We are not alone,
     we live in God’s world.
 We believe in God:
     who has created and is creating,
     who has come in Jesus,
          the Word made flesh,
          to reconcile and make new,
     who works in us and others
           by the Spirit.
We are called to be the Church:
     to celebrate God’s presence,
     to live with respect in Creation,
     to love and serve others,
     to seek justice and resist evil,
     to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,
          our judge and our hope.
We are not alone.
     In life, in death, in life beyond death,
     God is with us.
We trust in God. 
     Thanks be to God.

Prayer of Dedication / Sending / after Communion

[Adapt as needed.]
Gracious God, we thank you for (the mystery that you give yourself to us / this mystery in which you have given yourself to us.) We give you our lives, symbolized in our gifts. Receive them with love, bless them with grace and use them according to your will. Uphold us by your Spirit in your Covenant of Grace, that we may be your faithful people, formed by your Word and given in steadfast love for the sake of the healing of the world, in the name of Christ. Amen.

Suggested Songs

(Click on titles to view, and hear an audio clip, on the Music page)

When Fear Lives Close     
(Tune: Tallis’ Canon or Gift of Love / “The Water Is Wide”)

We pray for those who live in fear,
where secret hurt and shame live near,
that they may know your loving grace,
and find their way to freedom’s space.

And God of love, we pray for those
whose inner darkness overflows,
that those who wound, control or use
may be healed, too, their demons lose.

We pray, O God, that we may be
your gentle ones who set them free,
with deep respect, with love and prayer,
create a world of gentle care.

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