FIRST READING: Exodus (17:1-7)
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
Psalm 78:1-1, 12-16
1 Hear my teaching, O my people; *
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
2 I will open my mouth in a parable; *
I will declare the mysteries of ancient times.
3 That which we have heard and known,
and what our forefathers have told us, *
we will not hide from their children.
4 We will recount to generations to come
the praiseworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, *
and the wonderful works he has done.
12 He worked marvels in the sight of their forefathers, *
in the land of Egypt, in the field of Zoan.
13 He split open the sea and let them pass through; *
he made the waters stand up like walls.
14 He led them with a cloud by day, *
and all the night through with a glow of fire.
15 He split the hard rocks in the wilderness *
and gave them drink as from the great deep.
16 He brought streams out of the cliff, *
and the waters gushed out like rivers.
SECOND READING: Philippians (2:1-13)
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (21:23-32)
When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Last Sunday, we began a series of second readings taken from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. This is the most joyful and positive of all his letters. It was obviously written to a church for which he had great affection. It was the first church that he had founded in Europe, and its members had shared with him in his suffering for the faith. Unlike some of Paul’s other letters, this one was not written to correct any deviations from or neglect of the teaching that he had given them, but to affirm old friends who were faithful to their call and committed to the mission entrusted to them. He praised them for what they were doing and urged them to keep up the good work.
In the letter’s second chapter, the one from which our selection is taken, he encouraged them to enter even more fully into the spirit and the life of Jesus: to live in the reign of God itself. For Paul as for Jesus, that reign was not just something to look forward to after death, in another life, but right here and now. Jesus’ teaching described for his hearers the way to experience genuine joy and happiness and fulfillment in this life, as well as in the next: that “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” about which Paul speaks later in this same letter.
Jesus described this “way” using many images, yet each of them came down to the same basic message: to find yourself, lose yourself. St. Paul reiterated that same message in the passage that we heard this morning. He calls on his hearers to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Living not for ourselves, but for others is the way that Jesus offers as the way to fullness of life.
Paul then goes on to offer, as the perfect example of one who did just that, Jesus himself. In doing so, he incorporates the words of an early Christian hymn, one that we will be singing in another form at the close of today’s service. It speaks of Jesus who was, as the hymn puts it, “in the form of God,” but who refused to exploit that position, who refused to take advantage of all that he could have had. Instead, he completely humbled himself, emptying himself even to the point of giving up his own life.
It is at that point that the direction of the hymn reverses. It was precisely because of Jesus’ complete emptying of himself that God “highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.” It was in humbling himself, in looking to the needs of others rather than to his own, that Jesus chose and showed us the way to genuine happiness and fullness of life. Ultimately, it was and is the way to live the very life of God.
Humility is a virtue that is not much in vogue in our society. We seem to prefer those who are completely self-assured and self-promoting — even if they actually have no idea what they’re talking about. Unfortunately, we’ll be seeing a lot of that over this coming year as some political candidates arrogantly claim to have the simple answers for all the complicated problems that we face, refusing to compromise and refusing to acknowledge other perspectives as worthy of consideration. No matter how far off-the-mark they are, they claim absolute certainty. But I suppose that that is nothing new. As H. L. Mencken once observed, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”
That same quest for absolute certainty sometimes affects churches and church-goers as well. If you have paid attention to the trends in American religion over the past couple of decades and to recently released studies on those trends, you already know that the two fastest growing types of churches are (1) those that effectively choose to ignore the gospel and instead offer entertainment and what is essentially a weekly dose of self-help advice, and (2) those that profess to offer absolute certainty as to what things participants have to believe along with completely clear-cut, absolute and unchangeable judgments on how people have to live.
Such people and churches insist that their uncompromising attitude is evidence of their strong and unshakable faith. In reality, as American writer Eric Hoffer pointed out years ago, “The uncompromising attitude is more indicative of an inner uncertainty than of deep conviction. The implacable stand is directed more against the doubt within than the assailant without.”
It does no good to cling to the illusion that we have all the ultimate and immutable answers. None of us does. It is a denial of the role of our one Lord, an attempt to take his place as the definitive interpreter, speaking on behalf of God. He is the Teacher; we are all learners. We are called to be imitators of Christ, not impersonators of Christ.
Our church tradition, one in which we seek to live and one that we hope to deepen and share with one another during this new program year, seeks a humbler, less self-assured approach. We try to use our God-given intelligence to the best of our ability, but recognize at the same time how much we don’t know, how much we don’t understand, and how dependent we are on God and on one another for ever-deepening insights into our life in Christ.
Living in genuine humility, accepting our uncertainties and the limits of what we know can be a very freeing and life-giving act. After all, as Sir John Templeton pointed out, “If we become increasingly humble about how little we know, we may be more eager to search.” And searching is what our life in Christ is ultimately about.
Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are always searching; we are always on a journey. Like them, we can sometimes find ourselves looking for something dependable to hold onto: but we can all too easily fool ourselves into looking toward particular ways of thinking, believing and acting to give us that security that we want, convincing ourselves that they can fulfill our thirst. But like them, we eventually find that all these things fail, and that the only thing on which we can ultimately depend is the love and faithfulness of God.
That same God, who led and cared for the people of Israel during their years of wandering in the wilderness, is with us still: leading us, guiding us, providing us with the water that truly sustains us. It comes to us and to all people freely. In the words of the book of Revelation (22:17):
“Let everyone who is thirsty come.
Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.”
That water flows to all from God, the rock of our salvation. That water is God’s gift to give life to the world.