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Is the Lord Present Among Us?

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost,
Proper 26, Year A

Is the Lord Present Among Us?

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

The parable in today’s gospel reminds me of a saying that goes something like this. Some people change when they see the light. Others change when they feel the heat. It is a parable about two brothers. It follows a debate between Jesus and some of the elders. Jesus’ consternation comes through as he relates the story.

A man had two sons. He went to the first and asked him to work in the vineyard. The son said that he had better things to do, but later he changed his mind and went and did as his father had asked. The father went to the second son and asked him the same thing. He told his father that he would go and work in the vineyard. But he didn’t show up. Jesus goes on to tell the elders that the very people they look down on, the tax collectors and prostitutes are living out their faith better than they. What counts is not making the promise; it is following through on it. It is a story that I suspect resonates in us.

Perhaps we find ourselves rather like the first son. We have better things to do than to waste our time reading the Bible and saying prayers. Church is boring, and we have no intention of going. There are simply too many rules to follow. We live our lives for ourselves. And yet somewhere along the line we realize that it is not working for us. We find our way back. We ask God for forgiveness for the kind of life we have led. We allow God’s forgiveness to transform our lives.

Or perhaps we are more like the second son. We are familiar with the faith. We go to church. We bring our children to be baptised. But somehow or other we never really let it touch us. It is something reserved for Sundays. The rest of the week we live as if God does not exist. We don’t let it inform our attitudes and actions. We talk the talk, but never walk the walk.

I want to opt for a third option, a third child. Let’s face it! Most of us are somewhere in between. We would like our faith to make a difference, but not too much. We may go away on a renewal weekend and truly get something out of it. It may be one of those mountain top experiences that lift us for a time from our dry, everyday existence. We begin to see God in a new and exciting way. But we get back to the cares and frenzied pace of our daily lives, and over time the experience fades. We think about God once in a while. We may even remember the excitement of that experience, but it fades over time. We go to church. But we want it on our own terms. We begin to wonder, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

The Israelites are like my hypothetical third child. They are not happy with their nomadic existence in the wilderness. They are complaining. In fact, they never seem to do anything else. Don’t you feel sorry for Moses in his hapless leadership role? It is especially puzzling when one considers how much God has done for them. They have had the ultimate mountain top experience. God led them out of slavery, parted the Red Sea, gave them food to eat when they were hungry and made water gush out of a rock in a veritable fountain when they were thirsty. Yet still they question, “Is the Lord present among us?” Where is this question coming from? Their fears lie, not in the lack of food or water but in their lack of faith. Even the most astounding miracles have failed to transform them. They are still not ready to be the people that God intends them to be.

Paul is forever challenging the people to whom he writes about letting God make a difference in their lives. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling,” he says to the Philippians. He is speaking to a community for whom he has a great deal of admiration. However, he suspects that some of their motives are self-serving. There are rumblings that make him consider that there might be some conflict in the community. He reminds them that their relationship with Christ should encourage them. It should be an incentive in their lives. It is through seeking Christ in others, through allowing the love of God to work through them, that they will experience God with them. It is by reaching out to one another, by walking the walk, by living every moment in God’s love, that they will experience that close relationship with God. It is that sense of commitment to the gospel that will enable them to access God’s grace. Otherwise they will just be asking as the Israelites did, “Is the Lord among us?”

So what about us! Do we see ourselves in these stories? We have experienced the miracle of salvation through God’s grace. Have we allowed it to transform our lives? Do we really trust God’s word? Is the Lord present among us or not? How do we go about living it out in our lives? If God is not providing you with compassion and love, then you need to discover why not. Otherwise your faith will simply dry up and disappear.

In our worship we offer up not only words, but ourselves. As we sing and pray, in our creed and confession, we proclaim love and loyalty to God. Promises are important, but we can so easily fail to keep them. We can find all sorts of excuses for not getting out to church or spending time in prayer. We can tell ourselves that it is not even all that important. God will understand that I need family time. God will understand that my life is busy. I am going through a rough patch in my life. I need to deal with this myself. God will understand.

Jesus must be so fed up with church folk who say, “I go, sir!” and then never do what Jesus tells them to do. Yet even when we fail to keep our promises, Jesus never stops reaching out to us, seeking to restore us to a loving and obedient relationship with God.

And what is it that we are to do? The great commandment is to love one another as God loves us. It is to look to each others interests and not merely our own. It is to reach out to those in need. It is to know that the Lord is surely present among us. More to the point, it is to know that we are with the Lord.
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