Reflectionary

Reflectionary

Current Situation: Gospel-Worthy

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing.

Philippians 1:27-28, NRSV

Writing to the church at Philippi, Paul assesses the value of discipleship by calling on the young church to be worthy of the gospel. They are engaged in some strife that is never specifically identified, doing the hard work of committing to a faith that is new to them and not acceptable to everyone around them. Paul offers affirmation of their commitment, but he doesn’t sugarcoat it. They have the privilege of believing in Christ, but also of suffering for him. Will they have the endurance required?

Do we? 

It’s been said that when you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression. As preachers, if we serve comfortable or privileged or even just majority white congregations, we may be eager to communicate this idea to the people we serve but also worried that a prophetic sermon will shut people down, not open them up. The current polarizing political discourse in the U.S. exacerbates our concerns. We wonder how to explore a difficult truth without causing a reaction that prevents the hearer from understanding it. This week’s gospel lesson offers a way. 

In the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Jesus tells a story intended to give insight into God’s economy of grace. For God, it doesn’t matter who got to work first, and that sounds wrong to us. We rely on hierarchies. We rely on them in education, in social interactions, in business and professions, any endeavor in which anyone might hope to succeed. We label ourselves and one another, we track success and ability, we assess background and prior activity. We look for the ways we are better than someone else: taller, thinner, faster, smarter, stronger, whiter. It shouldn’t surprise us; we’re all trying to survive in a system that relies on power to run.

But that is not the system Jesus describes, and those are not the values of the heavenly kingdom. Those are earthly kingdom values. 

Through the voice of the landowner, Jesus explains the values of the heavenly kingdom: 

“’Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 

Matthew 20:13b-16

Jesus turns our worldly values system upside down, the one in which we pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and winning is everything. Earthly assessments prevail even in the church, as we give preferred status to the biggest givers, or the largest congregations, or the shiniest production values. 

How can the church be gospel-worthy? 

The laborers hired late in the day had not been offered the opportunity to work. In our current situation, we can look around in our own communities to see who needs work, who is hungry or hungry or without medical care, who may lack the necessary devices or access to WiFi for virtual schooling. We can look at our wider community and world to see who is waiting for the possibilities we take for granted, and who is suffering because our hierarchies do not make their lives, their hopes, and their stories a priority. We can investigate our personal and collective values. Where do we spend our money? What do we consider worth our time? When have we grumbled like the workers who started the day early?

“I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.”

Matthew 20:14b

We will be gospel-worthy when we choose to do the same.  


For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you, and I hope you will share this post with colleagues who might be interested.

Liturgy, Reflectionary, The People Pray

Liturgy for September 20

Call to Worship (based on Psalm 145)

One: I will sing the praises of my God; 
Many: We will bless God’s name forever and ever.

One: Every day we will bless God
Many: And praise the name of God forever and ever.

One: God is great, and our praise must be great, too.
Many: God’s greatness is hard for us to understand fully.

One: Our ancestors told our elders, and our elders told us.
Many: We will tell the coming generation about the mighty works of God.

One: God’s abundant and overwhelming goodness is famous.
Many: We will share it with all people. 
All: Let us sing our praise out loud!


Call to Confession

We come to worship carrying both our ordinary burdens and the extraordinary stresses of this difficult time. We add up what others have and subtract what is missing in our lives. We compare and contrast and compete and calculate. Let’s stop doing the math of envy and give it to God.

Prayer of Confession 

Gracious God, sometimes other people seem to get more than we do. They always seem to have the advantage. How will we ever have enough? We bring you our stress and our worries. We bring you our frustration and annoyance. We bring you our resentment and our anger. These are all things that can separate us from you. In this moment, as we come to you in silence, help us to be honest with ourselves and with you. Have mercy on us.

(Allow a time of silence.)

Assurance of Pardon 

One: God does have mercy on us.
Many: We are grateful, because we need it.
One: Beloved Children of God, we are forgiven. This is the Good News that brings new life.
Many: We thank God for it.


You’re welcome to use or adapt the liturgy above and share the image below in whatever way is useful this week. 

If I Were Preaching, Reflectionary, Sermon Series

Current Situation: When We Disagree

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.

(Romans 14:1, NRSV)

As students return to school, we are accustomed to gearing up church life for the program year. People who have been traveling return home. Study groups and classes begin again. This year we may be starting things in hybrid fashion, like the kids in my local school system, with some mélange of outdoor and online worship, or allowing only small groups to gather in person. Whatever our plans, there is a different kind of pressure to come back together than we may have felt over the summer, and a diminishing of the distractions that occupied people who may disagree with our decisions to return, or not, to more familiar ways of gathering. 

No matter what pastors or church leaders have discerned, or how thoughtfully, it’s likely some in the community will disagree. For those who have worked hard on plans and protocols, the complaints can sting, particularly when they take the form of a veiled threat to stop giving, or a detailed report on how other churches are doing it differently, or a blistering all-caps email. 

How can we be the church when we disagree?

If we look to Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find a warning about “quarreling over opinions.” Whatever you do or eat or observe, he says, do it in honor of and with thanksgiving to God. Among the quarrelsome Romans, some judged their siblings in Christ, and some even despised them. In this contentious season, particularly for those of us in the U.S., where it’s almost too easy to draw a connection between church policies and presumed political stances, we may relate. It’s not just pastors on the receiving end of complaints, and it’s only human to feel disappointed, misunderstood, even betrayed by the mistrust of people we thought we knew well.

It’s important to remember that we are not the first or the only communities of faith to struggle with differences in belief and understanding. We cannot control the opinions of church members and friends, but we can control how we treat them. Paul reminds us that we are all going to be accountable to God. How do we want to be judged in the end? 

When we turn to the gospel, Jesus offers a vivid caution in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness. He offers a parable about debt and a “king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.” (Matthew 18:23) The familiar and uncomfortable story shows the figure with great power behaving with generosity while the figure with little power seizes as much as he can hold onto, causing harm to one of his fellows. The forgiven person cannot see the irony of his action, or does not care. He is looking out only for his own good.

When children are baptized at my wife’s church, she asks the other children if they will show love to the newly baptized, putting it in terms they understand. “Will you show them where to find the snack table? If you see them fall down in the hallway, will you help them get up again?” These basic principles of care for one another ought to be unforgettable to all of us. We don’t knock each other down to get to the snack table first!

How can we be the church when we disagree – particularly in this current situation? 

I believe we start by trying to see one another’s point of view, then by taking the time to explain why we hold ours. It’s not easy. It’s much easier to dehumanize the person who disagrees with us, to devalue their perspective, or denigrate their intelligence. We have examples of such behavior non-stop on social media, sometimes from people we know well. (Maybe even from ourselves.) We’re called to do better, to show some regard for the humanity of the person who disagrees with us. 

We’re called to remember God’s mercy to us and extend that mercy to others. 


For the Sundays from September 13 through November 1, I will be offering prompts for a sermon series called Current Situation, focused on the gospel and epistle texts and how we might read them in this contentious time, with an emphasis on strengthening our identities as followers of Jesus, our relationships within the church, and our witness to the world. Preachers, you’re welcome to use whatever is helpful to you, and I hope you will share this post with colleagues who might be interested.