You are welcome to use these liturgies in weekly worship at your local church. These liturgies were created, and are copyrighted, by the Rev. Martha K. Spong, (NL 2014, RCL 2011). You are also free to adapt them to your circumstances (using multiple or single readers, for instance). Please leave a comment to let me know where they will be used. You are also welcome to share the blog links.
This does not constitute permission to publish the readings as a set or to claim credit for them online or in print.
When I was in seminary, I had a bumper sticker on my car that read “QUESTION AUTHORITY.”
Considering it was on the late model, wood-paneled minivan belonging to a mother of three, it may have seemed incongruous. I was a poor excuse for a radical, actually a pretty tame little character, a devoted mom and a good student. Wasn’t I studying for the ministry? Well, sure, and I held God in high authority. It was human authority that worried me.
This week we’ll be hearing a story from the gospel about people who tested Jesus’ authority. The tension is rising. The setting is Jerusalem, in what we have come to call Holy Week. Jesus has been to the Temple and turned over the tables, so of course the religious leaders see him as a troublemaker who disrespects familiar ways. He’s a guy who set himself up as the expert on matters they considered to be their bailiwick. Since he has questioned their authority, they question his.
I still have questions, and a lot of them are directed to God. Why do hard things happen? How can we sort out where the Church is going? What’s next for each of us? Why can’t it all be simpler?
Sometimes the answers are clear, but other times they are as opaque as the parable of the Vineyard Owner’s sons.
In the gospel lesson for this week (Matthew 21:23-32), Jesus is parrying a rhetorical attack by the chief priests and elders of the Temple. Since we saw him last week, he has entered Jerusalem, and over the next eight Sundays, we’ll be hearing the stories that happened in the first Holy Week, the things he taught in the days before his arrest and crucifixion. It is still early in the week. In this chapter he turns over the tables of the moneychangers and sellers of sacrificial animals, and then he curses a fig tree that fails to give him fruit, and in the midst of that display of the most human emotion we see from him in Matthew’s gospel, the leaders challenge him. Who said you can do these things? He is upsetting the status quo, and they want to hear the reason why from his own mouth.
He answers a question with a question, which they don’t dare answer, and then he tells them a story about two brothers. Both are sent by their father to work in the vineyard. One says no, but later thinks better of it and goes to work. The other says yes, but doesn’t go. Which one obeyed his father? This time they answer, and it’s the right answer. It’s the one who went to do the work who did the will of his father, not the one who gave the right answer without any actions to back it up.
I preached these texts on the day my youngest child was confirmed. Now, I want to be clear. It’s possible to live a life of faith without ever saying the words she said in affirming her Baptism. It’s also possible to make the promises very sweetly and never live into them. That was Jesus’ indictment of the religious leaders. They knew the right words to say; they just didn’t bother to work in the vineyard. But there are more choices than just those two! We can say the words and strive to live them.
It’s important to remember that whether we’re being baptized or confirmed or becoming members of a local church or simply conversing with God about where we are in our lives, we make the promises about how we will live with the understanding that doing so requires God’s help. The qualities we are urged to express in Paul’s letter to the Philippians do not come easily. He tells us clearly, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12b, NRSV). I put my emphasis on the trembling. The work of faith shakes us. Even Jesus, who took on our form and lived a human life, lost his temper, and while his indignation in the Temple was surely righteous, his anger at a fig tree proves his humanity.
If it could happen to Jesus, surely we all need help to live a life that pleases God.
I was just out of college when a boy I knew growing up was killed during a robbery at the Radio Shack where he worked. I had not seen him for many years. He was not a part of my daily life. I have to admit that as young teenagers, we did not get along. But Al was part of the fabric of my early years. His older sister babysat my little brother and me, and their father worked with our father, and I spent a lot of time at their house. Al’s death left a shocking hole in the tapestry of the life I knew, threatening my sense of who was safe and who was not. And so despite the distance in time and relationship I had to take more than a moment, to remember Al, to pray for his family, and to consider my own life.
Jesus withdrew to do the same thing, feeling depleted and shocked, bound to be considering his own mortality. John, who prepared the way for him, had been murdered as part of a palace plot, beheaded as the prize requested by a young girl at her mother’s instigation. King Herod let it happen because he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his life and the truth John told him about it.
Jesus heard this terrible news about a barbaric death, and he needed to get away. Perhaps he felt he had nothing to give, but the people followed and somehow he found what they needed, although his own tank needed filling.
In my usually safe neighborhood, we woke one summer morning to find someone had tried to siphon gas from our cars. The latch on a neighbor’s fuel hatch was broken, and although mine is electronic, the digital message I saw when I got in the car let me know someone had been fooling with it. I asked the neighbor how much gas they could have gotten, and he told me, “Not much, I was running on empty.”
I wonder how many people who followed Jesus that day felt the same way: empty, a little desperate, willing to trust a guy who was popular with crowds but had come out of nowhere to attract so much attention.
And I wonder about Jesus, emptied out by shock and sadness, yet moved by compassion to help those who needed what he could give. I think of him, moving through grief to heal others. I think of him, touching people who needed filling, not just with fish and bread, but with hope. It is the hope we receive when we share the broken bread and the outpoured cup. That tank is never on empty.
When we go to church we hope maybe, just maybe, God will have something to say to us, that God will put something we need to hear into words we can understand. Psalm 29 tells us God speaks in things we can see and hear and feel, but does not promise words. The Gospel gives us a God who speaks, but it’s not clear if anyone but Jesus hears the Voice.
John is there, baptizing him, perhaps a little warily. He knows the relationship ought to be the other way around, that Jesus has something to give him that he cannot give back in equal measure. So even though it’s not clear whether John saw the heavens open up around Jesus or heard the voice of God proclaiming Jesus as a beloved child, John’s hesitation tells us he knew this wasn’t some ordinary guy coming out to the River Jordan for a cleansing dose of repentance.
It’s a funny little conversation they have, an awkward acknowledgement that they stand at the edge of more than a river. They stand at the edge of incarnation, of God’s knowing habitation in human flesh.
When you put it into words, it’s pretty amazing. And I wonder, did Jesus know what he was getting into when he went to John? If he was God, surely he knew, we might say. But he was human, too, and maybe he had a sense that something was up, and maybe he didn’t really know it all the way for sure until he heard the Voice put it into words.
You are dearly loved, said the Voice, on his baptism day.
We may not remember the details of the event.
Perhaps we were babies, gently held while a kind hand cupped full of water touched our sweet heads. Perhaps we were older, guided by a strong arm as the water rushed over us. Each baptized Christian has been acknowledged as a member of the same loving family in which Jesus is a dearly loved son. Promises were made, whether for us or by us, to renounce evil and oppression and to follow in the way he laid out for us.
At baptism, we put it into words. We name each baptized person as a child of God. As members of God’s family, we have work to do in this life we live. It is a work of faith, a belief in the Christ who came among us and lived a human life, in the Spirit that lights the way we are to follow, and that even in the darkest times, there is a God—there IS a God!—whose Voice calls out that we are dearly loved, too.
I don’t always listen well. Ever since I got to Pennsylvania – almost nine months ago – I’ve been going around in circles about my vocation. I make declarations, and then I double back on them. My identity and security have been wrapped up in serving as a local church pastor. Who am I without that? Lesbian Stepford Wife, Writer, Director of RevGalBlogPals – some of these sound better than others. I’m called to all of them, maybe without the Stepford part. But scratch the surface of the circling, and you’ll find one concern: who am I if I don’t have a regular paycheck?
This is where the UCC employment listings become like crack.
Thankfully, the lectionary steps in to kick my – ahem.
It’s that great story of Lazarus (not the brother of Mary and Martha) and the rich man who ignored him even as the dogs licked his sores, bleh. Lazarus gets his reward in heaven, rocked in the bosom of Abraham. Even in hell, looking across the great chasm between them, the rich man expects the poor man to serve him, to pop back to earth and warn his brothers to behave better and avoid hell.
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:29-31, NRSV)
Mmm-hmmm. People are stubborn, and let the signs go by, and even the sense of rightness, because they have their eyes on the wrong things. I indict myself. If I don’t learn anything else from this gospel lesson it should be this: God’s priorities do not equate to the world’s priorities.
My story with its circular details –
both health and sense of call lead me away from parish ministry, other opportunities feel rich with possibility, I panic over LP’s tuition, I smoke UCC job listings crack, repeat ad infinitum
– yes, those – may not be universal in its details, but I suspect its common in its circular themes. A person feels led by the Spirit to do something meaningful, then backs off in favor of a more practical decision. Where is God in the middle of the practical concerns?
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria. Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away. (Amos 6:1a, 4-7, NRSV)
The revelry of the loungers shall pass away. Amen.
I have a well-documented fear of being a lounger, with or without the revelry. It’s doubtful anyone who observed my activity on the average day would accuse me of lounging, and in fact I probably don’t rest enough for a person with Rheumatoid Arthritis. I work hard at whatever I do to shake off the memory of being enervated by depression and to prove to my small f father who is in heaven that his then-true statement, “Martha has never really applied herself to anything,” is no longer remotely true. I don’t want to spend my spouse’s money on a new book even if she says it’s ours. (Well, I want to, because I want the book, but I don’t, generally.)
Money. You know what’s coming if you’ve read all the lectionary passages.
The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Some have wandered away from the faith and have impaled themselves with a lot of pain because they made money their goal. But as for you, (wo)man of God, run away from all these things. Instead, pursue righteousness, holy living, faithfulness, love, endurance, and gentleness. (1 Tim 6:10-11, CEB)
It’s not that I love money. It’s just that I worry I won’t be loved if I can’t provide it when other people need it.
Yesterday, a friend and colleague called to talk about her own life, and in the midst of the conversation about some serious financial strains, she said, “There are many times it looked like things would not be okay. But God has been faithful. God has been faithful.” She may even have said something about money dropping into her lap, but I am not confident enough to hold onto that one too tightly. “You can’t put the money first,” she said, and if we had been face-to-face rather than on the phone, she would have seen me nodding.
“You called for my support,” I told her, “but you are saying things I needed to hear today.”
So thank you, God, for messengers who are alive. I’ll try to listen more closely to the one who rose from the dead.
It was chilly this morning, but The Boy got dressed as he has every morning this school year, in those long athletic shorts and a t-shirt. At about ten minutes to Leave for the Bus O’Clock, I suggested a jacket might be appropriate. He stuck his head out the front door, recoiled from the cool air, and turned around to get one, but first he offered this.
“What if no one else at the bus stop is wearing a jacket?”
“I doubt that will be the case,” I answered firmly.
“I’ll bet you — ” he said.
We went through a swift list of potential scenarios in which I would pay him this, and he would pay me that, astounding in their complexity. (This was before coffee, you see.)
Finally, I said, “I’ll tell you what. I will give you a quarter if no one else at the bus stop is wearing a jacket.”
He considered the offer, eyes lit up, taking in that there was no risk on his part since we weren’t actually engaging in a bet he could lose, exactly. He agreed and left for the bus stop with the other parent on the premises.
No sooner had they turned the corner than he saw a child in a jacket.
Ever hopeful, he declared, “I guess that means I only get 20 cents.”
With each child spied in a jacket, the amount decreased in the mind of this amazingly shrewd third grader, prepared to cut a deal with me later despite the solid nature of my proffer.
When he reached Negative 10 cents, there was a moment of despair, but as soon as he saw one child without a jacket, he bounced back and said, “That’s 5 cents for me.”
His mother may have shaken her head, but she knew as well as he did that a shrewd third grader could probably have gotten me to pay the 5 cents, if only the child in question hadn’t been shivering, his arms drawn inside his insufficient shirt.
I’m not preaching this week, but if I were, I imagine this little tale would be weaving itself around the Parable of the Dishonest or Shrewd Manager, Luke 16:1-13.