United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds September 22 2019

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20)

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Worship resources for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20) are at Worship Ways

Lectionary citations:
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 with Psalm 79:1-9 or
Amos 8:4-7 with Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Additional reflection on 1 Timothy 2:1-7 by Lizette Merchán Pinilla

Focus Theme:
Prayerful Living

Reflection:
by Kathryn M. Matthews

If this letter to Timothy was written in Paul's name late in the first century, a generation or two of early Christians had passed from the scene. Jesus had not returned as expected before the apostles themselves died, and persecutions and trials and resistance, including expulsion from the synagogues, had been part of the Christian experience for many years.

Even when the emperors weren't actively persecuting and executing Christians as Nero and others did, they were nevertheless pagans, and the Roman Empire itself was thoroughly pagan. It was clear, too, who was in charge of earthly affairs, with troops, money, and power of every kind in the hands of those pagans.

Just the right moment

This is an opportune moment, then, for the author of the letter to remind young Timothy, who has been working hard to strengthen the new church in Ephesus, that it's really God who is at work in all things, which means that neither Timothy nor the emperor himself is actually in charge or in control of what happens. In such an age, not unlike our own, earthly rulers might have been awed by their own power and might, and their subjects might have cowered, too, and wondered where to place their trust.

"Paul," then, writes to his beloved colleague, Timothy, clarifying things: there is only one God, not a bunch of competing ones, and there is such a thing as truth, and you can count on it because we have received it from the One true mediator, Jesus Christ.

A need for breathing space

At first reading, this passage (like so many others) may seem to mean something different from what was intended by its author. Many see in its beginning a kind of blessing on our governmental leaders. While we might pray for our leaders because they carry great responsibilities and stand in need always of God's wisdom and guidance, this passage seems to be referring more to the need of those early, besieged Christians for some breathing space, some peace and quiet in which to go about their business.

As Gary E. Peluso-Verdend explains, "The author does call Christians to pray for rulers for a specific reason that has nothing to do with divine support of the empire. The author commends the practice of praying for rulers in order that Christians can go about God's work in peace" (New Proclamation Year C 2007).

Praying doesn't necessarily mean obeying

Indeed, the author doesn't say that the believers should blindly obey the rulers: "Being prayerful for political leaders is one thing," Carl R. Holladay writes; "being blindly submissive is quite another" (Preaching through the Christian Year C). This reminds me of something I saw on social media this week, basically saying that sometimes, in those days, being a good Christian meant being a "bad Roman," that is, a "bad citizen/resident of the Empire." Well, those "empires," like false gods, still exist today, don't they? And they rule over us in troubling ways, claiming our allegiance and even our hearts.

But we're not talking about selling out to the powers that be, in fact, such a peace facilitates the conversion of the surrounding culture, for the author, writes Robert W. Wall, intends that "the congregation should pray for the conversion of their pagan leaders as the means of social reform….The public prayers of the Christian community hardly reflect a program of social domestication…but a Christian mission that boldly evangelizes the surrounding pagan culture from top to bottom" (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).

Being leaven in any age

Perhaps leading a prayerful life is a way of being leaven in any age, no matter how small and seemingly powerless you may be in the midst of a large and intimidating culture. We imagine, then, the tiny little Christian churches long ago as leaven in the oppressive culture of imperialism and brute power that surrounded them. Many of our best traditions and examples from that time tell the story of the power of leaven to change everything.

How does that speak to us today, especially when the church feels so much smaller, so much more powerless in the face of larger forces at work in our own time? How would you name those larger forces, and are we always aware of them as oppressive, or would we more accurately call them seductive, as in materialism, militarism, and privilege of any kind?

Pray for everyone

Not just the rulers deserve our prayers, the author says, but everyone does. And that's not all, just in case you weren't feeling challenged enough already: God desires that every single person will be saved. No one is worthless, no one is beyond God's thoughts or the reach of God's mercy. It isn't my God against your God, but our one God who loves everyone.

The extravagant hospitality witness of the United Church of Christ could use this passage as one of its foundational texts, because religious wars throughout the centuries and in our own time and even within our churches have been waged over the question of who is included in the plans and hopes and heart of God. Paul himself had to make the case over and over that his mission to the Gentiles was legitimate and ordained by God, in spite of opposition and condemnation by those who felt they were simply being faithful.

What is truth?

The hope of God that all will be saved is paired with the hope that all will "come to the knowledge of the truth," that is, the truth of the gospel. Perhaps this is where we get into trouble as religious people, and it may be at the root of the resistance of so many people today who say they are "spiritual, but not religious." If "religion" refers to what binds us together, isn't it "the truth" that does that binding?

Indeed, Beverly R. Gaventa has written insightfully about the tension between the "narrowness that has sometimes plagued theological debates" and the need for "an important warning," provided by this text: "Not every assertion that claims to be the gospel does so rightly" (Texts for Preaching Year C). And yet that's often the sticking point, because we find it so difficult to discern what it is that holds us together, the "non-negotiables," if you will.

Re-examine everything

The challenge in the church today is to re-examine what we have been taught, wrestle with it, and prayerfully discern the heart of the gospel message that is true in every age and every setting. I've found Brian McLaren's excellent book, A New Kind of Christianity, as well as Marcus Borg's fine book, The Heart of Christianity, to be particularly helpful in a long, careful process of reflection on the core (the "heart") of Christian belief and practice.

These two scholars come from very different starting points, which makes them all the more valuable, for they illustrate how we can find that common ground that will support a richly diverse Christian community. But then we add the the voices and insights of writers like Barbara Brown Taylor (Holy Envy, An Altar in the World, among others) and the late and much-missed Rachel Held Evans (Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again), not to mention Anne Lamott, the poet Mary Oliver, and many other women who bring voices long unheard in the life of the church.

How will we find the way?

How, then, are we to make our way and to live faithfully in a country where we are, for the most part, free from the persecution suffered by these early Christians, in fact, where the "powers that be" actually and proudly call themselves Christian?

The letter provides important and helpful instructions: remember that there is one God ("God is God, and you're not") and that God loves every single person and doesn't want to lose a single one (last week's reading about lost coins and sheep is helpful here), and, in every case, pray always. Eugene Peterson's version begins beautifully with the simple words, "The first thing I want you to do is pray" (The Message).

Pray first, last, and at all times, and pray not just for yourself and your own, but for all of God's children. If we pray in all things and in all times, perhaps it won't be so hard to get along with one another, and with our rulers and kings, as we make our way toward the truth.

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 20th century
"Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I'd look up into the sky--up--up--up--into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer."

Corrie ten Boom, 20th century
"Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?"

Thérèse de Lisieux, 19th century
"For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy."

Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet, 20th century
"You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance."

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 19th century
"Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education."

Sören Kierkegaard, 19th century
"Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays."

Satchel Paige, 20th century
"Don't pray when it rains if you don't pray when the sun shines."

Frederick Douglass, 19th century
"I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs."

Henry Ward Beecher, 19th century
"It is not well for a man to pray cream and live skim milk."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Prayer is the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening."

Additional Reflection on 1 Timothy 2:1-7:
by Lizette Merchán Pinilla

As a bilingual minister (translating from English to Spanish and Spanish to English, and speaking with the accents unique to "Okie" English and Colombian Spanish), I find it interesting how my faith has been doubly enhanced, challenged and reshaped--in two languages. All of this occurs at the same time, and shows up in the many new ways in which I learn, teach, preach and relate to the world and words around me. Especially in regard to the world and the words of the Bible and its historical presentation of scripture to be read, studied, read again, then finally interpreted to today’s reality.

In my theological studies at seminary, I learned more about what my faith required of me, and what is meant by offering an "inclusive invitation" and an "all-included extravagant welcome." I learned of a renewed approach that included a welcoming and still-speaking, extravagant God for all. This welcome is especially relevant today because of the context which surrounds us and how it is portrayed to us by our environment, customs, and views at that particular time and place. This is an analogy of what 1 Timothy 2:1-7 dealt with, and how the reality of that scripture’s context still relates to our present-day lives in the 21st century.

Threats and challenges

All of this personal background informs and facilitates today's interpretation which helps us to relate on some level to those who, like Timothy, experienced God as "living faith" (James D.G. Dunn, "The First and Second Letters to Timothy and The Letter to Titus," The New Interpreter's Bible). Paul reminded Timothy of the living faith shared by all Christians, and urged him to spread the good news.

This could be accomplished by peeling off all the layers of how a community is to interpret and enliven a faith from the personal to the collective in a society that was already polluted, suspicious, and predominantly non-Christian. Christianity was, at the time, under persecution as a minority faith group among other foreign religions and was also threatened by the potential influence of false teachers and teachers with ulterior motives.

A living faith in the shape of prayer--including prayers for rulers, although "perhaps we should note," Fred Craddock writes, "that the passage only calls for supplications to be made on behalf of ruling authorities," and does not impose "submission" to them (Preaching through the Christian Year C).

The need of prayer for those in leadership positions represents the hopes for freedom of expression of individuals' own faith beliefs regardless of their socioeconomic status, color, race, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity, as well as the hope of gaining the respect which is innate to each one of us.

Prayerful, not submissive

This is not to assume that Christians will always be submissive to those who rule, but rather that they will join sincere and perhaps challenging efforts (those which speak truth to power) with those in leadership positions. Perhaps they will also join forces with those who have different beliefs from their own. "Being prayerful for political leaders is one thing," Craddock writes; "being blindly submissive to them is quite another" (Preaching through the Christian Year C).

We hear a call, then, to welcome all to a place where all of God's people have struggled at some point in their lives: those who are still there, or will return, or have come back out, to worship "a God who is more than a tribal deity," Luke Timothy Johnson writes, "a God who must be one for all humans; and if God is to be fair, then there must be some principle by which all humans can respond to God: faith" (The First and Second Letters to Timothy, The Anchor Bible).

This living faith is one in which God's beloved community experiences God through the ways in which justice and human dignity were fought for: to the point of death for what was just and dignifying for all.

Made in God's image

We see ourselves as made in God's image: tall or short, standing or in wheelchairs, with or without personal and family satisfaction, at home or homebound, with internal hurts, speaking one or multiple languages, realizing small or huge accomplishments. Not all of these characteristics are on the magnitude of "life–changing," but they give importance to the One who truly is present with us and who gives us a living faith that claims us for who we are.

God provides a living and breathing faith, one in which Christ mediates with God, and God acts with us through Christ: as a rescuer/empowerer from whatever troubles we go through, a rescuer who is distinguishable from any other god, emperor, government, or other entity. We see God's image in ourselves and one another, with our personal and communal sorrows. Some of our sorrows are public; many more are private, and we yearn for God's answers to meet all of our requests, needs and challenges.

The invitation before us

Let us pray: Look at us, oh God, and reflect yourself in our happiness, our needs, our challenges, and our joys, to make us a trustworthy reflection of your existence within us, God. Look at us and mediate yourself through us, to serve as Christ's example on Earth in each one of our needs and our celebrations, to make us in the likeness of your own reflection. We are here, present before you, as witnesses to our mutual commitment: that in which you and we help one another, as well as help others. Amen.

The invitation is set before us--as natives or foreigners, lay persons or clergy, students or nonstudents, hurt or healed, believers or doubters--to be the living and breathing faith that champions justice for all, and the dignity of all. Be the living and breathing faith that God asks you to be – the one who is yet to be shared or the one who has already discovered the originality and compassion of your existence on Earth. May this be so, through your living and breathing faith and testimony to life. Amen.

The Reverend Lizette Merchán Pinilla, M.Div., is a Colombian minister in the Kansas-Oklahoma Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC), a member of the UCAN UCC–HIV/AIDS Network, Proyecto Bienvenida UCC, the convener of the Tulsa Hispanic Resource Association (social-services organization).


Lectionary texts

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
   my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
   from far and wide in the land:
"Is the Lord not in Zion?
   Is her King not in her?"
("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
   with their foreign idols?")
"The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
   and we are not saved."
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
   I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

Is there no balm in Gilead?
   Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
   not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water,
   and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
   for the slain of my poor people!

with

Psalm 79:1-9

O God, the nations have come
   into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
   they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.

They have given the bodies
   of your servants
to the birds of the air
   for food,
the flesh of your faithful
   to the wild animals
of the earth.

They have poured out their blood
   like water
all around Jerusalem,
   and there was no one
to bury them.

We have become a taunt
   to our neighbors,
mocked and derided
   by those around us.

How long, O God?
   Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealous wrath burn
   like fire?

Pour out your anger
   on the nations
that do not know you,
   and on the nations
that do not call
   on your name.

For they have devoured Jacob
   and laid waste his habitation.

Do not remember against us
   the iniquities of our ancestors;
let your compassion come speedily
   to meet us,
for we are brought very low.

Help us,
   O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
   deliver us,
and forgive our sins,
   for your name's sake.

or

Amos 8:4-7

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
   and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying,
"When will the new moon be over
   so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath,
   so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
   and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
   and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat."

The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
   Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Psalm 113

Praise be to God!
Praise, O servants of God;
   praise the name of God.

Blessed be the name of God
   from this time on
and forevermore.
From the rising of the sun
   to its setting
the name of God
   is to be praised.

God is high
   above all nations,
and God's glory
   above the heavens.

Who is like God our God,
   who is seated on high,
who looks far down on the heavens
   and the earth?

God raises the poor
   from the dust,
and lifts the needy
   from the ash heap,
to make them sit with nobles,
   with the leaders of God's people.

God gives the childless woman
   a home,
making her the joyous mother
   of children.
Praise be to God!

1 Timothy 2:1-7

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all—this was attested at the right time. For this I was appointed a herald and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, "There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, 'What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.' Then the manager said to himself, 'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.' So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?' He answered, 'A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, 'And how much do you owe?' He replied, 'A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, 'Take your bill and make it eighty.' And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.

Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday" — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

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