SERMONS THAT WORK
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST, YEAR A
Sermon for that Day
Micah 3:5-12; Psalm 43; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, 17-20; Matthew 23:1-12
by Lisa Mayntz-Ridley
One of the best-selling verses in the Bible these days is the following:
And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, "Oh, that you would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain." So God granted him what he requested. (1Chronicles 4:10 NKJV)
You may have heard this prayer before. It is the central prayer of the best-selling book The Prayer of Jabez. A different translation of this verse from the New Revised Standard Version is:
One day he prayed to Israel's God, "Please bless me and give me a lot of land. Be with me so I will be safe from harm." And God did just what Jabez asked.
Certainly the second is a condensed version of a prayer for wealth and security and righteousness. In both translations, this is a good prayer. They rely on God for abundance, and we have a generous God. However, this prayer, that provided a title for a best seller (some nine million copies sold to date) by a man named Bruce Wilkinson, is only half of the story of our generous God and our relationship to that being who miraculously rains manna down from heaven.
Sometimes the question is not what can God do for us, but what can we do for God? And, then what can God do for us as we work for God?
Let us summarize quickly what we have heard in the texts today. We hear of some people who are working for God and seeking truth without earthly reward and some who work for God and only want earthly reward. First, we hear of the Psalmist who wants refuge in God while doing right. Second, we hear Micah warn that building Jerusalem without justice or equity will lead to destruction. Third, we hear a story of Paul working for the Gospel and working for the Thessalonians, trying to make sure that they lead a "life worthy of God." And finally, fourth, we hear from Matthew that it is not enough to work for God. We should not expect respect and esteem! The good and the true and God might not even lead to a better life, fame, and fortune -- and possibly not even safety from harm.
If you want a better life, fame and fortune, and safety, the church really might not be the place to get it! But if you want a safe haven (different from safety), toil and trouble, the good, the true, a relationship with God, and hope in the everlasting -- welcome brothers and sisters. Welcome to a world where we eventually hope to say to God, for better for worse, "Here I am, Lord. Here I am."
In the Bible answering the call of God with, "Here I am, Lord. Here I am," can mean many different things. At best, it means an entirely new social circle. At worst, it means eating a scroll and lying on your left side for 390 days as Ezekiel did. Fortunately, today when we talk about the call of God and the work of God we are talking about something a little different.
As we talk about doing the work of God, it would be wise to look at the difference between the work the Pharisees do and the work Paul does on behalf of God. Second, consider a possible reward for that work, and what we think we are entitled to merely by being Christian. And third, it would be good to briefly talk about responding to the call of God.
First, how do we fit into the story and the work of God?
In Matthew and Micah, work in God's name is performed. Jerusalem is a holy city, or so they say. The Pharisees are teaching and they understand the Word of God, or so they say. In Psalm 43 the Psalmist is struggling to do right in spite of those who surround him or her. And, in Thessalonians Paul is toiling in God's name for those to whom he has preached.
We say that we do the work of God. We can only hope to do the work of God the way Paul does the work of God. Paul works for God. He works night and day. And, he does not burden anyone. He only asks the Thessalonians to lead a life worthy of God.
This is in direct contrast to the way the Pharisees do the work of God. They burden those they work for. They teach the Word of God, but do not do it themselves. Also, their expectation is that since they do the work of God, since they are working with the holy, they should be treated as if they are holy. The example of Paul and the example of the Pharisees are in stark contrast to one another. Paul attempts to practice what he preaches while the Pharisees preach but do not practice.
They not only work differently, but they expect different things for their work. This brings us to our next question:
What do we hope to gain by working for and on behalf of our God of truth and good?
We have all heard that no good deed goes unpunished. And with God, and the good, and the true this maxim might just be right. Our New Testament is full of more examples where those working on behalf of God go to prison than examples of esteem and abundance accorded to the disciples for their work. Now, that does not mean that we should all expect to go to prison next week for the Gospel, because times have changed to some degree.
However, if we wear a cross we should not expect people to be nice to us because they recognize us as Christians. Instead, we should care for them and serve them. We should not overburden one another, or anyone else, in the name of God. Because there is church maintenance to be done does not give us the right to say that there are "Marys" and there are "Marthas" and I will only be one of them. We are called to be both of them. When we attend meetings we are not more special or know more about God than the one who did not attend. And, when we are in mission, truly in mission, we are not any holier than the one who is at a different point in their journey. We are simply obedient. And loved in a particular way -- the way all God's children are loved. And when we are doing the work of God we are growing into our triune God. And, that is somehow miraculously and transformationally part of the reward.
Third, and finally, truly understanding how we are to work, and what the reward is, leads us closer to responding to God's call to each of us again and again.
Knowing that it is not for wealth, knowing that it is not for respect or esteem, knowing that it is not for ourselves alone. We toil for others. We ease their burdens. We serve them when common sense and the world tell us we should be served. And, we do all this with the trust that God will be a safe haven for us and for others. We trust that God will provide us and others with what we need. And, we especially hope that at the end of the day we will see our reward, those we have served, face to face. And, at the very end of the day, we trust that our joy, our hope, and crown of boasting is the one we loved in Christ, and not just an enlarged territory and a life simply safe from harm.
Lisa Mayntz-Ridley graduated in 2000 from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University with a Master of Divinity. Since December 2001 she has been working as the Executive Assistant of Congregational Development at the Episcopal Church Center in New York. E-mail: email@example.com.
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