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Men At Work Building Faith

Preached at St. George’s, 160 U Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20001 on September 25, 2011 (for Men’s Day).

15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 21, Year A (RCL): Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth.  Amen.

       Good morning, St. George’s.  Welcome all family, friends and guests who gather here today.  It is a thrill to be home!  I missed you all this past summer, and while I at served St. Mark’s, Alexandria, I remembered each of you in my prayers.  Chrissie and I are so glad to be back, and it is indeed my honor and privilege to speak today as we celebrate Men’s Day. 

       When Grafton contacted me with today’s theme, Men at Work Building Faith, I wondered where God might lead me for a word or two. 

       First, I viewed the mission statement of the Men of St. George’s: To provide a platform for spiritual growth and Christian fellowship for the adult male membership of this parish.  “The Men” strive to uphold the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the mission of this Episcopal Diocese, and of St. George’s Church.  Their aim is accomplished this mission through stewardship, charity and service.

       Then I spent time focusing on the word “Men,” and how it spoke to me about community, camaraderie, and the strength in numbers found in brotherhood.  Men at Work Building Faith are steeped in scripture, the living Word of God.  They are men bound up in prayer which begins in worship, with adoration, praise and honor to God.  Men at Work Building Faith seek to grow spiritually in the Word of God to challenge themselves, and encourage one another, to be leaders and servants in the church, our homes, and the greater community.  They know, as do we all, that to be leaders in the church, it is imperative that we “individually” surrender and submit to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in all areas of our lives.  We Men are called to be sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, godfathers, employees, and leaders that God Almighty wants us all to be. 

       Mulling further the theme as I began reflecting on today’s lessons, what emerged for me were the different instruments of God who came from humble, if not questionable, beginnings; each individual demonstrated courageous calls to righteousness while performing good works in the eyes of the Lord. 

       MOSES, the preeminent figure in the Old Testament, was a shy, humble man who sought obscurity.  When the Lord encouraged him into leading the Israelites out of Egypt, this reluctant leader showed courage, tenacity, and moral fervor while God forged a new people from those who had forgotten their patriarchal past and lacked any sense of shared community.  Although he would demonstrate his own flawed humanity more than once, Moses was the great spiritual leader who received from God on Mount Sinai the Law that guided Israel throughout the centuries.

       Today’s account from Exodus shows the steadfastness of Moses even as the faith of the Hebrews wavers and their complaints begin.  As the people argued they should have stayed in Egypt where food was plentiful and delicious, Moses announced God’s promise of provision so that quail flocked to them and heavenly manna descended upon them.  Now the scarcity of water has parched their lips, dried up their resolve, and prompted even more grumblings.  God intervenes again, commanding Moses to strike the rock at Horeb with his rod in the presence of the elders, so sweet water could flow to satisfy the thirsty Israelites.

       For Christians, Moses is often held up as a symbol of contrast between traditional Judaism and the teachings of Jesus.  He is shown as the precursor of Jesus in the seamless, unified story of God’s relationship to and interaction with humankind throughout the ages.  Jesus is portrayed as the long-awaited fulfillment of the divine promise made to Moses in the covenant on Mount Sinai.  

       Count Moses as one of those Men at Work Building Faith.

       Although he was the leading persecutor of followers of The Way, the early Christians in the first years of the new faith, PAUL became a believer in Christ Jesus and the most influential voice - after Jesus himself - in the history of the Church.  Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus placed him on the borderline between two worlds.  He had been raised in a strict Jewish home which led Paul to devote his life to Mosaic Law.  He railed against a ‘sect’ that not only questioned that Law and worship in the temple, but also claimed a crucified Galilean teacher was their Messiah.  

       Paul’s transformation convinced him the crucified Galilean was this Messiah foretold to come, the Son of God, and that the Messiah’s message was not only for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles.  This experience could not have been more traumatic or ultimately more joyful for Paul.  Although he continued his devotion to the same God he had always worshiped, Paul came to see God’s will pointing in another direction.

       In his letter to the Church of Philippi, Paul makes an appeal for unity in the face of opposition and unity in their common life together.  It is here that Paul inserts the well-known “Hymn to Christ” or “kenotic hymn” (for kenosis which means “self-emptying”).  This hymn was probably well known to the epistle’s hearers.  Its description of Christ as one who “emptied himself,” who took on “the form of a slave,” who “was obedient to the point of death,” who was “exalted” by God, and who is now to be confessed as Lord is doubtless the most famous passage from the letter to the Philippians. There is much scholarly debate about this passage, which is a different sermon altogether.  We did not read it today, but Paul continues in verses 14-15 to exhort the people to live in unity as children of God in the midst of a “crooked and perverse generation.”  That phrase, “crooked and perverse generation,” comes from Deuteronomy 32:5, and serves as one indicator among others in this section that Paul, while in prison, saw his situation as being not unlike that of Moses at his farewell charge to those he lead out of bondage.

       Though highly controversial throughout his life, Paul was recognized as a genuine hero of the faith in the generation after his death, when, for example, the Acts of the Apostles was written.  Throughout the history of Christianity, Paul’s powerful formulation of the gospel - his emphasis on salvation by the grace of God through faith in Jesus - and his focus on love as the central value of Christian life - has served as a beacon for the church’s greatest theologians and religious leaders.  Men such as Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, or, in modern times, Martin Luther King Jr, have seen their own theological work as an attempt to recapture the insight and spirit of Paul the apostle, a man who truly kept the faith.

       Paul, also, was another of the Men at Work Building Faith.

       The four New Testament lists of the twelve disciples in the synoptic Gospels and Acts of the Apostles all include the name MATTHEW.  His call is described in the Gospel of Matthew: “As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’  And he got up and followed him” (Mt 9:9).  

       Understandably, tax collectors were widely despised, not only because they served the oppressors of the Jews, the Romans, but also because they profited by adding their own charges to the established levies.  They were classified as unclean individuals with whom pious Jews could not associate.  So when Jesus ate at Matthew’s home in a company of “tax collectors and sinners,” he scandalized the Pharisees.  Yet to Jesus, this action was a symbol that his kingdom included all people no matter how the world came to view them, “for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:10, 13).      

       From Matthew’s Gospel today, the temple leaders challenged Jesus’ authority. This begins a series of parables and discourses of our Lord with his enemies which express his anger at their hypocrisy.  Today we hear the parable of the Two Sons which says that those who have said ‘No‘ can change their minds to do the will of God, while those who say ‘Yes‘ but do not obey God’s will have missed the meaning of the Kingdom.  Anyone who hears Jesus and follows as his disciple, regardless of their past failures, will share in the Kingdom of God.  This is one of ten parables which shows God’s mercy for sinners.          

       In an extremely difficult situation of pressure from other Jews, Matthew has taken the various stories known in his church about Jesus, and fashioned a powerful resource for his beleaguered community.  In the process, he has given the Church Universal a gospel not without problems, but one that has been teaching Christians ever since it was written. 

       Matthew, too, is to be counted among the Men at Work Building Faith

       Moses, Paul and Matthew are all brave examples of men of faith who worked in faith to build faith within and around the world.  

       I hope all of us have personal examples of men who were instrumental in our education and formation as Christians.  My father Derrill is one of mine.  He was a Navy aviator, who deployed to sea for long tours of duty during my youngest days when we were stationed in California and Rhode Island.  My father has always been my hero - he has always been “captain” of our family - and I have never doubted his love for all of us.  

       Returning home from sea in 1965, my father suddenly began taking me, my sister and brother to church; I was baptized at age seven at St. Luke’s Episcopal in East Greenwich, RI.  I seem to recall my Dad saying how hard it had been to write condolences to families after he lost men to war or accident while at sea because he was not actively grounded in prayer and practicing his faith in community.  

       When we moved to Northern Virginia, we found a church home at St. Christopher’s, Springfield.  Thankfully, for my adolescent and teenager years, we remained in one place, and my father was no longer out at sea, flying off aircraft carriers.  He was very much involved in my life: helping me with early morning newspaper deliveries until I could drive myself, coaching or supporting soccer teams I played for, and always encouraging me in school.  In 1974, he retired from the Navy, began attending Virginia Theological Seminary, and graduated in 1977. 

       As proud as I am of my father’s military service to our country, I saw his ministry as an Episcopal priest touch many lives in special and wonderful ways, including mine.  I thank God daily for the gift he is to me and everyone else.  He is my very best mentor as I live and continue to grow into my own call to ordained ministry.  

       I count my father first among MY Men at Work Building Faith.

       Men at Work Building Faith.  You worship here at St. George’s.  You are fed by Scripture that is proclaimed, and through sacraments offered at this table, in this house of God, as part of this loving community.  You are empowered to carry the Gospel out into the world to preach the Good News wherever you go, to whomever you meet, at all times.  May God always be with us to guide us and direct us, and guard us and protect us, just as God did for Moses, Paul, Matthew and my father.  For there is much work to be done ... + in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.