FIRST READING: Joshua (3:7-17)
The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, ‘When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.’” Joshua then said to the Israelites, “Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God.” Joshua said, “By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. So now select twelve men from the tribes of Israel, one from each tribe. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap.” When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37
1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, *
and his mercy endures for ever.
2 Let all those whom the Lord has redeemed proclaim *
that he redeemed them from the hand of the foe.
3 He gathered them out of the lands; *
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.
4 Some wandered in desert wastes; *
they found no way to a city where they might dwell.
5 They were hungry and thirsty; *
their spirits languished within them.
6 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, *
and he delivered them from their distress.
7 He put their feet on a straight path *
to go to a city where they might dwell.
33 The Lord changed rivers into deserts, *
and water-springs into thirsty ground,
34 A fruitful land into salt flats, *
because of the wickedness of those who dwell there.
35 He changed deserts into pools of water *
and dry land into water-springs.
36 He settled the hungry there, *
and they founded a city to dwell in.
37 They sowed fields, and planted vineyards, *
and brought in a fruitful harvest.
SECOND READING: 1 Thessalonians (2:9-13)
You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew (23:1-12)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Israel’s journey through the wilderness had taken more than 40 years. It had been a time of trial and rebellion and frustration and hope. Moses, their great leader, had died just east of the Jordan River, as we heard in last Sunday’s first reading. In fact all those who had left Egypt so long ago had died, except for Joshua and Caleb: two leaders who had remained faithful to God. And now, in the dramatic scene that we heard this morning, their long trek had reached its culmination as the people finally crossed over into the Promised Land.
At God’s command, Joshua, their new leader, had given instructions to everyone on how that crossing would take place. The priests would take up the Ark of the Covenant and would walk ahead into the Jordan River. They would stop in the middle, as the people gathered on the banks behind them. The waters then would dry up, and the entire people of Israel would cross over on dry land, just as the previous generation had done at the Red Sea.
And so it happened. At long last, their desert ordeal was complete, and they stood in the land that had been at the center of their dreams since the day that they had heard of the promise that the Lord had made to their ancestors so long ago.
As they stood there in the Promised Land, trying to take in all that had happened and to allow the realization of where they were to sink in, they must have been hit by one new question: “We have finally reached the Promised Land: the goal toward which we have worked all our lives. Now what?” All their lives up to that point had been dominated by the journey and by the vision of what lay ahead. God had promised, and God had delivered. Since their destination had finally been reached, what were they supposed to do now? That question might not even have occurred to many of them until that day.
Does it ever occur to us? We, too, live our lives on a journey, at least in a figurative sense. We have received many blessings on that journey and have tried to trust God to care for us. God has been faithful and has blessed each of us abundantly. In many ways, we, too, have come to stand on the promised side of the Jordan. So what are we supposed to do now?
In the last part of the book of Deuteronomy, the Israelites were given an answer. Maybe we were, too. In the 26th chapter (5-10), Moses instructs the people what they are to do when they have finally entered the land. They are to stand before God and affirm out loud the many blessings that they have received: how God has cared for them on their journey and has fulfilled God’s promises to them. Then the people come to that “so now” part. In response to all of God’s blessings, they shall set before the Lord the first of all they have, declaring, “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” And they shall set it down before the Lord. And, Deuteronomy goes on to say, that offering shall be given to the Levites, and “to the resident aliens, the orphans and the widows.” That is the “so now” part. That is the response that the people are to give to God for God’s many blessings: they are to give the first of all they have so that it will be used to do the work of God and to serve those who are in need.
Each year about this time, we — and just about every other church that I know of – hold our Fall Stewardship program. We ask our members to consider God’s many blessings to them throughout the year and to consider their lived response to those blessings, including a financial response. And each year, our Stewardship Committee asks me to speak on one Sunday about this important component of a life of faith. This is that Sunday.
I am glad to do so, because Stewardship of our time, talents and treasure is not primarily about funding a budget. It is primarily about a genuine response to God for the countless blessings that we have received from God. Without such a lived response, our faith is merely a matter of words.
Like the Israelites in our first reading, we have been blessed by God in many ways. Like them, we need to reflect on and perhaps affirm out loud those many blessings. And like them, we need to come to a “so now” moment. That is the moment when we determine along with them to give of the first fruits of all that we have received in order to do the work of God and to help to support those who are in need.
So often in life, we tend to dwell on what we don’t have and what we can’t do. I suspect that that is a defense mechanism: an attempt to get ourselves off the hook, an attempt to say: “The church really needs tens of thousands of dollars, but I can’t afford that; so somebody else will have to do it. Those who are in need in our community need somebody who can work with them many hours each week to make a difference, but I don’t have that kind of free time; so somebody else will have to do it. Doing the work of God in this time requires specialized talents and training, and I don’t have them; so somebody else will have to do it.” We are good at coming up with excuses for not doing the work of God and serving those in need, excuses based on what we supposedly don’t have.
But what if we were to turn that around and ask ourselves instead what we do have? What if we were to say to God, “True, I don’t have any great resources of money, of time and of abilities; but I do have this little bit of money that I could give, this little bit of time that I could free up, and these modest talents that I could use. They don’t seem like much; but you, God have always shown the willingness and the ability of doing much with little. How can I give freely of what you have given me in order to do your work this week and this year?”
What kinds of gifts have you received in your lifetime, gifts that are only dreams for most of our fellow human beings around the world? What are the gifts that sustain you now? How has God been with you in your journey, caring for you and giving you life?
Like the Israelites, standing there for the first time in the Promised Land, we have been through a lot on our life-journeys. But, like them, we have been blessed abundantly by God’s care. And, like them, we are invited to respond to those many blessings by declaring our own “So now.” “So now, I acknowledge all that you, God have given me; and, in response, I bring to you the first fruits of my labor, and I give them back to you to do your work in the world and to care for those in need.” That is true faith and gratitude. That is faith and gratitude in action.