01 October 2023
The Lectionary changes tack a little this week – at least from the perspective of the Gospel. While the continuous Old Testament readings continue to follow the Israelites in the desert (with a similar story to last week’s, but focussed on water and thirst, rather than food and hunger), Matthew describes a moment of confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders, in which two questions are raised – where Jesus’ authority originates, and who is finding their way into God’s Kingdom. The water image becomes a captivating one for this week’s worship – because like water that flows into any crack it can find, and that is not easily controlled or contained, God’s reign appears in surprising places, and flows into the lives of those that we might prefer to keep out of God’s kingdom.
May we be challenged and inspired by the radical, offensive inclusivity of God’s reign this week.
Exodus 17:1-7: The Israelites complain that they have no water, and Moses takes their complaint to God. God instructs Moses to strike the rock at Horeb with his staff and water flows out for the people to drink.
OR Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32: Though the people of Israel complain about God’s ways, God indicates that it is their ways that cause them trouble and death. Yet, God claims all people as God’s own, and exhorts the people to turn from their wicked ways to God’s righteous ways so that they may live.
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16: A teaching psalm reminding God’s people of all that God has done, bringing God’s people out of Egypt, leading with a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, and splitting open the rock to give them water to drink.
OR Psalm 25:1-9: A plea for God to ensure that righteous people are not put to shame, and for God to teach God’s people the ways of God.
Philippians 2:1-13: The apostle encourages the Philippian Christians to be united and to be like Christ in their humility, service and self-sacrifice, quoting the ancient hymn of the Church. He reminds them that they are to live out their salvation, trusting God who gives them the will and the power to do it.
Matthew 21:23-32: The religious leaders question Jesus’ authority, but Jesus refuses to answer them because they can’t answer his question about John’s authority. Then he tells them a parable about two sons whose father asks them to work in the vineyard. One says no, but then does, and the other says yes, but doesn’t. Jesus explains that like this, religious people are missing out on the kingdom, while outcasts are finding their way in.
REFLECTIONS ON THEME:
The image of water can be a helpful way into the theme for this week. Although it is only mentioned in the Moses reading in Exodus and in the related Psalm, it is reminiscent of Jesus’ words in John that he offers living water. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ response to the question of authority and his parable both indicate that, like the water from the rock, God’s living water cannot be contained or controlled. Though the religious leaders would like to be the gatekeepers for God’s reign, Jesus indicates that in the very act of doing this, they exclude themselves, while those who would seem to be excluded find their way in. This openness, inclusivity and welcome is characteristic of Jesus and his ministry, as described by Paul in his letter to the Philippians. This ancient hymn which describes Jesus’ servanthood and self-sacrifice is Paul’s call to treat one another with love and welcome. Finally, in the Ezekiel reading, and its related Psalm (25) God’s ways are offered as the doorway to God’s abundant, irrepressible life. Like water that finds the smallest of cracks to flow through, and that bursts out in even the most surprising places (a rock in the wilderness), so God’s life – God’s living water – flows into any life that has even the smallest crack open to it, and brings life and refreshing and welcome and inclusion.
CONNECTING WITH LIFE:
GLOBAL APPLICATION: Who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ is the essential question of political and economic systems. Who gets to decide how things like debt and immigration and war get decided? On a global scale the question of who gets to share in processes and resources become even more difficult and important. As we face real issues with thirst through contamination of water sources, real issues of hunger, disease, displacement and hatred, the need for greater levels of inclusivity and transparency, and greater participation by ordinary citizens becomes increasingly important. In the Moses story the challenge is that water is provided freely for all, in spite of their grumbling, doubt and complaining. In the Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that God’s grace is available to all, and that even those who are least likely to find a place belong, in spite of the attempts of the elite to keep them out. Ultimately, the world and its resources belong to all people. The challenge this week is how to live out of this truth in real and practical ways. Perhaps it begins by simply recognising that all people are our neighbours and are as deserving as we are to have their needs met and provided for. Then, this realisation must find its way into our conversation, our civil participation and our routines of spending, consuming and discarding the things we use each day. It must also find its way into a life of radical hospitality in which we welcome all in Christ’s name in whatever small, practical ways we can, while celebrating our differences and sharing God’s grace. Ultimately, we have learned that the system of control by the few doesn’t work – it inevitably gets undermined by ordinary citizens. We’ve seen this in music, publishing, dissemination of information and places of tyranny. So, the more we can open the doors – both of faith and of distribution of the world’s resources – the closer we get to experiencing God’s reign, and the closer we get to a peaceful, hospitable planet.
LOCAL APPLICATION: The radical inclusivity of Christ, and the constant, consistent merciful care of God for the fickle Israelite people, can be tough for us to swallow. We wrestle with the uniqueness of Christ, and the challenging message he preached, on one side, and the seemingly indiscriminate welcome he offered on the other. We like to feel like we are ‘chosen’, that we are ‘in’, and that we have the ‘right way’, but we need to be careful of becoming like the religious leaders who tried to be gatekeepers for God’s reign and ended up excluding only themselves. We need to be careful of judging others by their doubts or complaints, and trying to keep God’s blessing for ourselves, only to find the living water flowing out to them in the most unexpected ways. We may think we find life by “protecting” ourselves and our faith, by keeping out those whom we consider “unsavoury”, but in fact these are our ways, not God’s (as Ezekiel describes) and they do not lead us to life. Rather, it is in radical grace (like God in the wilderness and like Christ) and radical hospitality that life is found. These are God’s ways, and they always lead us into the abundant life God’s promised. So, the questions the Scriptures raise for us this week are these: Who would we prefer to keep out? Who do we allow to have authority and from whom do we withhold grace and authority? Who might be finding their way into God’s reign in spite of us, and how can we change to become helpers rather than hinderers? And, finally, how can a greater openness to the unpredictable flow of God’s living water, of God’s grace, lead us deeper into God’s life (in spite of our fears that it might somehow ‘compromise’ God’s life)? God’s authority, it is clear, does not need the recognition of the powers that be – thank God. But, this means, we had better be careful of becoming too friendly with any system or community that centralises power, authority or resources too much.
RESOURCES FOR WORSHIP:
Love So Easy And So Hard
All Are Welcome (Link to YouTube video)
All Who Are Thirsty (Link to YouTube video)
As The Deer (Link to YouTube video)
Your Grace Is Enough (Link to YouTube video)
A Liturgy For The Breaking Of Bread