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Sermon for 25 Sep 11

First Reading                   Ezekiel 18:1–4, 25–32

1 The word of the LORD came to me:  2 What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”?   3 As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.  4 Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.

25 Yet you say, “The way of the LORD is unfair.”   Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair?  Is it not your ways that are unfair?  26 When the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity, they shall die for it; for the iniquity that they have committed they shall die.  27 Again, when the wicked turn away from the wickedness they have committed and do what is lawful and right, they shall save their life.  28 Because
they considered and turned away from all the transgressions that they had committed, they shall surely live; they shall not die.  29 Yet the house of Israel says, “The way of the LORD is unfair.”  O house of Israel, are my ways unfair?  Is it not your ways that are unfair? 30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord GOD.  Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin.  31 Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel?  32 For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord GOD.   Turn, then, and live.

Psalm                                                      Psalm 25:1–9

1To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.   2My God, I put my trust in you; let me not be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me.  3Let none who look to you be put to shame; rather let those be put to shame who are treacherous.  4Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths.  5Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my
salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long.  6Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting.  7Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your steadfast love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD.  8You are gracious and upright, O LORD; therefore you teach sinners in your way.  9You lead the lowly in justice and teach the lowly your way.

Second Reading                    Philippians 2:1–13

1 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in
the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete:  be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.  3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  4 Let each
of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard
equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, 8 he humbled
himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.  9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at
the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the
earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  12 Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and
trembling; 13 for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Gospel                                       Matthew 21:23–32

23 When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him
as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”  24 Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things.  25 Did the
baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”  And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’  26
But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.”  27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.”  And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.  28 What do you think?  A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’   29 He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.  30 The father
went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did
not go.  31 Which of the two did the will of his father?”  They said, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.  32 For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.


Jesus made Enemies

Isn’t it funny how we seem to rank a person’s occupation from undesirable or unacceptable, to what might be considered the ultimate or dream job.  This is, of course, to a certain extent subjective, depending on who you ask.  But I bet, given the time, we could agree on something we all consider the worst possible job and on the other side of the
spectrum, a highly desirable occupation.  Bearing in mind that honest work is something we should all hold in high regard, no matter what it is, there are still those jobs that don’t seem to appeal to everyone.  For example, something I consider undesirable is servicing septic systems.

While serving in the Middle East, our latrines and showers were free standing, independent units, and therefore had tanks that held the waste water.  Because of this limitation, they had to be emptied on a daily basis in order for them to remain functional.  Depending on your location, these tanks were either emptied by a local contractor or by one of the military members who was unlucky enough to get assigned the duty.  I was fortunate enough to not draw this assignment, but was around when the tanks were being drained.  Needless to say, between the smell, the inherent leaks that occurred and handling the equipment, it wasn’t a job I desired.  And I would bet that a good
number of people would agree with me.   However, I’m very happy there are people who take care of our septic systems and are willing to accept the drawbacks with little or no complaints.

Mike Rowe, the host of the Discovery Channel series “Dirty Jobs”, has made a career
out of doing disgusting stuff.  For anyone who has seen the show, we’ve watched as Mike has mucked-out, dug under, flushed, slogged, and slid through some of the filthiest and foulest places on the planet.  But whether he has been hanging from rafters or slipping through sewers, Rowe has consistently shown his viewers how even the most grungy, grimy, gross job still has its own dirty dignity.  Rowe always offers respect to those who are “showing him the ropes,” whether they’re demonstrating how to scrape up penguin poop from bell towers or harvesting worms.  The underlying message of “Dirty Jobs” is that
no matter how nasty, a job is a job, and doing it well gives a sense of well-being and worth to humanity.  Work conditions aside, another consideration we use to determine a job’s desirability, has to do with the pay.

The amount one makes for the services rendered is another consideration we use to rank
a job’s attractiveness.  A more desirable job usually pays better, which of course naturally increases its allure.  Who wouldn’t want to trade places with Bill Gates for example.  It’s tremendous pressure to be sure running a billion dollar corporation, but a big paycheck
goes with it.  However, the bottom line is that money isn’t always the deciding factor; there are some occupations that, despite the per hour wage, are simply not a job we would consider.  There are some occupations that no matter how much we might make, the demands of the job go against our moral values.

Interestingly, there are some jobs that have always been just too “dirty” to redeem.  We see an example of this in our gospel lesson for today.  Jesus honed in on the performers of what many considered to be the most despicable jobs throughout His ministry.  Jesus spoke with, and reached out to, exactly those who were supposed to be shunned out and shoved aside for their unredeemable “dirty jobs.”  Jesus on many occasions touched and healed the untouchable and unhealable — lepers, Gentiles, crazies.

Jesus comforted a Roman centurion grieving for his daughter.  He extended his hand to those out of their minds, “possessed” by demons.  But perhaps the most wretched outcasts Jesus consoled and companioned, were the tax collectors and prostitutes.  Neither
disease, nor demons, nor DNA made these people outcasts.  They had professions that they knew, would make them exiles among their own people and were despised by the people they served.  These people chose or were forced into an occupation that placed them at odds with the mainstream of Jewish society.

In Jesus’ day both tax collectors and prostitutes were viewed as “collaborators.” They profited from the despised existence and detested ruling authority of the Roman Empire.  We complain about the taxes here in North Carolina, and I insist we have every right to do so by the way, but at least we don’t have to face the IRS at every turn as did the Hebrew people in the first century.  Tax collectors could be found in every city, in the market places sitting at their booths, a constant reminder of everything that troubled the Hebrew people.

Their presence and occupation brought the reality of Roman rule into the pocket of
every Jewish citizen.  Every action taken, every aspect of life, was scrutinized and taxed by the Roman authorities.  Every shekel paid was a cruel reminder of Israel’s defeat, of the loss of identity and the fear of no future that haunted the “chosen people” of God.  Every time the tax collector dumped coins into Rome’s coffers, Israel’s hopes became emptier.  But this wasn’t the only problem; tax collectors weren’t managed by the Roman government, so they were free to embellish the tax amount at any time.  And many of them did.

Many tax collectors became rich at the expense of their fellow Hebrew citizens and
thus their occupation became synonymous with treason, greed and extortion.  By their own actions, they separated themselves from the Jewish mainstream of society.
And they weren’t the only ones at the edges of society.  Many of the same crimes charged against the tax collectors were also associated with another despised occupation, that of

In addition to being accused of being thieves and extortionists, the common prostitutes also violated their own sexual purity.  But this wasn’t the real tragedy that most saw
associated with this group of people.   The biggest problem that prostitution posed was the threat to the purity of Israel itself.  According to Mosaic Law, any child born of a Jewish mother was considered Jewish.  What does this mean for the offspring of the “chosen people” that are being created by Roman soldiers?  The tax collectors were instruments used against Israel’s political identity.   The prostitutes were instruments used against
Israel’s genetic identity.  Furthermore, it was the prostitutes that were a constant reminder of Israel’s troubled past, of their turning away from God and of their sin of idolatry.

The prostitutes were a constant reminder of Israel’s exile, of how they had repeatedly
turned their backs on God and of a covenant with God that they had time and time again broke.  In so many ways, the sins of the prostitutes were a constant reminder of their own sin.  It was for these reasons that these two groups of people were seen as the epitome of what was wrong with society and were therefore constantly shunned and ostracized by their own people.   Yet it is precisely these two groups, one the most dangerous and the other the most despicable, that Jesus singled out and elevated above “the chief priests and
elders of the people.”  And for the religious leaders, it was the ultimate insult.  But the fact that His comments bothered them was of little concern.

Jesus didn’t care about the offense He was giving.  He cared about the defense He was building.  Jesus sided with the tax collectors and prostitutes, not because of what they were — but because of what they had become.  These were the people who had received John the Baptist.  These were the people who had heard his call to repentance.  These were the people who had responded to his invitation to baptism.  These were the people who had recognized and revered the divine hand guiding John’s mission and message.

What those tax collectors and prostitutes had done in the past was overwritten and
overcome by what they had done in John’s presence.  Faith and repentance bumped them up from the bottom of the heap to the first in line.   This was not a message that went down well with those who were “large and in charge.”  But Jesus didn’t tone down this turn off.  Jesus stood in the temple courtyard and confronted with holy boldness, the temple chief priests and Sanhedrin leaders on their home turf.  What’s more, Jesus dared to inform  them that they needed to get to the back of the line.  The tax collectors and prostitutes were getting into the kingdom of God before they were.

This was an “in your face,” “pull no punches,” “no-holds-bared” bare-knuckled assault on someone’s reputation and authority.  And it was a method and message guaranteed to
make enemies.  And when we consider this event from history, we find ourselves a bit shocked.  We always remember that Jesus admonished us to “love” our enemies.  But we need to consider for a moment what wasn’t said in this command; Jesus never said that
doing His will won’t create enemies.  In fact Jesus’ directive to “love” your enemy, assumes, that our work for the Kingdom of God will unfortunately ensure that enemies will abound!  Satan doesn’t like and indeed fights against the good of this world.  The adage holds true, if you stand for something, someone else will stand against you.

If this weren’t the case, we could all lie down and relax.  But we know the realities of working for the kingdom; the devil is alive and well and working hard to destroy God’s work, so this isn’t a time to relax.  Jesus made enemies by revealing an unflattering truth to people in power, to people who were perfectly poised to cause Him great harm. Jesus offered the priests and elders an alternative world view, a view outside their tight circle of what was “acceptable” and “righteous.”  Jesus showed them that God could not be contained within their small orbits of ritual observance and obedience.

Jesus used John the Baptist’s “break-out” mission and message to introduce His
listeners — both those hospitable and those hostile — to God’s on-going plan for the salvation of the world and for human redemption and return to the garden.  Jesus’ message was not a condemnation.  We know this because John tells us in the 3rd chapter of his gospel, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).   Jesus came to save the world and call us to repentance and prayer.  Jesus proves that going on the offensive will, more often than not, give offense.

Ironically, for someone who never had any use for God in his life, Norman Mailer’s last
book is a conversation with God entitled On God:  An Uncommon Conversation.  Looking back on the 20th century and on his life, Mailer says that the best metaphor he can come up with for how the universe operates is a gridiron.  Creation, he said, is like AstroTurf, on which God and the Devil duke it out for victory.  The Devil’s work, according to Mailer, is
left-brained stuff.  The Devil’s strengths are systematic, actuarial, technological, consumer-driven stuff.  God’s “plays” are however, more imaginative and creative, but the Devil is on the offensive for a variety of reasons.   Both God and the Devil, for Mailer, have limited powers, and on that basis Mailer says the outcome of this battle between good and evil is uncertain.  But the points on the board right now are in the Devil’s favor, because the forces of evil are on the offense, partly because evil right now is more willing to take risks and be creative, and good is stuck in a defensive, play-it-safe posture.  It’s a pessimistic but interesting view of the world, but one that begs us to ask the question, what does this say about the success the devil has and what does this say about our work for the Kingdom?

Are we as Children of God and workers of His kingdom reaching out and doing God’s
will even at the expense of offending others?   Do we stand up and speak to the evil in this world?  Are we willing to risk embarrassment and possibly being ostracized when calling others to accountability for their self-serving actions?  Possibly even our friends and
families when they espouse behaviors and beliefs counter to God’s word?

To go on the offensive means to give offense.  Jesus offended, not with a
“holier-than-thou” righteousness, but with an offensive defense of the marginalized whose humanity was being minimalized.  He was defending those who had heard John’s call to repentance and had responded.  Jesus was pointing to these marginalized groups and was saying, these are the ones who humbled themselves before God and cried out for forgiveness.  These are the ones who realized that no matter how righteous we think we are, our righteousness can’t earn salvation.  It was a message that wasn’t getting through
to the religious establishment who practiced and taught that it was by following the rules that we get to heaven.  Sometimes we can “love our enemies” the best, by lovingly and without fear, showing them how wrong they are.

I like the story of the 100th birthday party where a man was interviewed by a reporter with the silly question, “What one thing are you most proud of after having lived such a long life?”  The old man replied, “Well, here I am, 100 years old and I don’t have a single enemy in the world.”  The impressed reporter responded, “That truly is remarkable, sir.  What made it possible for you to be able to say such a thing?”  “Well,” said the 100 year old man, “I’ve outlived every one of them.”  This of course wasn’t completely accurate; there was one “enemy” the centenarian didn’t outlive, himself.

God is more than faithful to His friends.  God is also faithful to His enemies.  The
Bible tells us that Abraham was both God’s friend and God’s enemy.  This same reality applies to each of us. The very best in us and the very worst in us is only a thin membrane apart.  We need to be thankful every day that God’s faithfulness endures forever . . . . and offers forgiveness to all; both friends and enemies.  And let us not be afraid to “love our enemies,” especially while we’re making them.

The most famous Winston Churchill address is supposed to consist of three words
repeated over and over again:  “Never give in.  Never give in.  Never give in.”  This graduation address is the only speech most of us have ever memorized.  But this
isn’t the whole speech.  This isn’t even the whole point, although it may be the whole of life.  Churchill said these words on 29 October 1941, when he visited Harrow School.  It
was after the Blitz and things were looking up a bit for Britain.  Here is the relevant part of the speech:  But for everyone, surely, what we have gone through in this period ‑‑ I am addressing myself to the School ‑‑ surely from this period of ten months, this is the lesson:  Never give in.  Never give in.  Never, never, never, never ‑‑ in nothing, great or small, large or petty ‑‑ never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force.  Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.  Love your enemies, but don’t be afraid to make them or stand up to them.

Words are powerful things.  They can be weighty, inflammatory, even misleading, but the truth is the truth and it needs to be spoken in love.  Speaking the gospel on Christ’s behalf is an awesome responsibility.  Jesus showed us that at times we need to stand up, not only for the truth, but to our enemies as well.  This doesn’t mean we don’t love or pray for them, but we mustn’t be afraid of making them either.  Making enemies is not our goal, but it is a
reality.  Anytime we stand in love for the truth, there will be those who will stand against us.  We must never allow the fear of making enemies temper our call nor our convictions.
And the promise stands true.   Jesus said I will be with you always, even to the end.  This includes the good times and the bad.  It’s a promise that can give us strength, even when the message of the gospel causes us to have enemies.   Amen

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