The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

So, last Sunday on the way home I stopped at Ski-Hi Fruit Farm just off Highway 12 south of Baraboo. A gallon of unpasteurized apple cider, an apple pie, and four bags of different varieties of apples later, I continued home. I love October: so many things are ready for harvesting: apples, broccoli, cabbage, plums, pumpkins, squash, sweet potatoes, watermelon. I wasn’t planning on getting a jump start on participating in the joy of our first reading and psalm, but I’ll take it. As the psalm puts it:

12 You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.

So let us rejoice now—even though we postpone a good chunk of that to Thanksgiving in late November!

For today’s lessons let’s focus on the psalm, drawing in the other readings as appropriate.

The components of our psalm, Psalm 65, sit on the border between a hymn and a community thanksgiving, maybe at harvest. The references to Zion and the temple encourage us to use it as a lens to think about what we’re doing in worship.

2 To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, *
because of their transgressions.
3 Our sins are stronger than we are, *
but you will blot them out.

Our transgressions, our sins: always an issue. We come to worship not because we’ve got them under control, but because we don’t. That’s one of the things the tax collector in Jesus’ parable gets right. “Our sins are stronger than we are.” You might recall that scene from Uncle Remus’ Br’er Rabbit fighting the Tar-Baby. “I’m gonna kick the stuffin’ out of you,’ Brer Rabbit said and pounced on the Tar Baby with both feet. They sank deep into the Tar Baby. Brer Rabbit was so furious he head-butted the cute little creature until he was completely covered with tar and unable to move.”[1] Sound familiar? Some of us have a collection of Tar-Babies, so we keep coming back to the One who can do something about it. And having acknowledged all that, the psalm moves on!

4 Happy are they whom you choose
and draw to your courts to dwell there! *
they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
5 Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness,
O God of our salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the seas that are far away.

We gather for beauty. The beauty of the building and its surroundings, the beauty the altar guild works to preserve and enhance, the beauty of the music, certainly. Equally, the beauty of the language, as we strive to use language that’s not simply ugly. The Baptist preacher Tony Campolo describes our world as a market where all the price tags have been jumbled. So at least in the sanctuary “we praise you for your glory” is directed to God, not the latest political/entertainment idol. And the beauty of what God is working in each of us—despite the tar! And the beauty of the Eucharist’s preview of the coming feast: there is enough for everyone; there is room for everyone; everyone is welcome.

“Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness.” God’s righteousness (Hebrew tsedeq): we may hear that as threat, but usually in the psalms and prophets and Paul (!) it’s about God’s faithfulness, God’s willingness to do whatever it takes. So here the NRSV translates “deliverance.” We see that particularly in the Eucharist. Jesus, God incarnate, gives us his Flesh, his Blood, doing whatever it takes. There is such hope woven into the Eucharist.

“Awesome things”—yet God does not leave us as passive recipients. In our Eucharistic Prayer: “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice.” Pray that, and in one form or another we’re with Paul as he speaks in our second reading “I am already being poured out as a libation,” what Paul elsewhere describes as sharing in Christ’s sufferings (Phil 3:10). This is one reason why, by the way, there’s that rubric in the bulletin “All baptized are welcome to share in our Communion.” It’s good to have some idea what you’re getting into, which is what the preparation for Baptism addresses.

The following verses in our psalm, vv.6-12, celebrate God’s ongoing creative and saving work, crowned by that harvest:

12 You crown the year with your goodness, *
and your paths overflow with plenty.

Whether the roaring of the primordial waves at creation, or the clamor of the peoples, this God can deal with it.

This very brief look at the psalm as a lens for what worship is about also sets us up to hear Jesus’ parable. If this is what worship, coming into the temple, is about, bringing our sin before God, drinking in God’s beauty, holiness, righteousness, consenting again to be united to God’s ongoing work, then the Pharisee’s “God, I thank you that I am not like other people” is simply a non-starter. Non-starter? The Pharisee’s right there with Br’er Rabbit: “completely covered with tar and unable to move.” And some Sundays—God help us—we’re right there with them.

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Here we need a brief sidebar on those tricky words ‘humble’ and ’humility’. It’s bad enough that ‘humble’ gets understood as ‘prone to grovel’ (Monty Python repeatedly nails this one), but then there’s the patriarchal overlay. As the Benedictine Joan Chittister observes[2] “Pride and self-esteem became marks of mental health for men. Humility became a trait of the well-developed female.” Drawing on the Benedictine tradition, Chittister writes:

“Humility in the Rule of Benedict is not subservience. It is openness to the totality of life, both within the soul and within the human community. From a Benedictine perspective, humility does not diminish a person; it provides a basis for realistic evaluation, for accepting who and what I am, for being willing to grow beyond my demanding self, and so for allowing other people to be who and what they are. This kind of humility requires a new kind of self-acceptance.… Pride drives a wedge between us and reality; humility is its glue.”

OK, finally, what happens if we bring our first reading from the prophet Joel into conversation with the psalm? Well, two things at least.

First, we’re reminded that “You crown the year with your goodness, / and your paths overflow with plenty” is often not our experience. The folk in the Ukraine need no reminder: they’re in the middle of “the swarming locust…the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter” part. Nor the folk in Bangladesh: the effects of global warming keep putting an increasing number of fields underwater. So our reading of these texts is—should be—a praying with, a hoping with. These texts lay out what God desires, what God will restore. Neither the Russian military nor the corporate greed that hobbles our response to global warming will get the last word.

Second, midway through Joel’s words there’s a gear shift: “Then afterward / I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” God’s after restoration, but not stopping there. Paul captures it in the letter to the Romans:

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom. 8:19-25).

So, in the spirit of today’s psalm, stop by places like Ski-Hi Fruit Farm to celebrate and enjoy this year’s harvest. And let that feed your hope and patience for that harvest Paul describes, “creation itself… set free from its bondage to decay and… obtain[ing] the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”


[2] This and the following citations from her Heart of Flesh: A Feminist Spirituality for Women and Men.

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