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Sermon for September 24, 2023 – Proper 20

Program Transcript


Speaking of Life 5044 | God’s Generosity
Greg Williams

I grew up in apple country. My grandparents and my parents owned apple orchards, and each year we would hire laborers during harvest time to pick and pack apples. We paid a fair wage, and we rarely had trouble finding laborers. Sometimes a worker had to leave early or start late for some unforeseen reason, and I sometimes saw my dad or my grandfather pay them a full day’s wage anyway. Still, I’m not sure I ever saw them do the practice we read about in the book of Matthew.

In chapter 20, Jesus tells an interesting parable to illuminate the kingdom of God. He spoke about a landowner who sought to hire workers to labor in his vineyard. Similar to when I was young, day laborers at that time would gather at a central location and wait to be hired. The landowner hired his first batch of apple-pickers early in the morning, around 6:00, and agreed to pay them a denarius, which was the typical daily wage for work like this. He went out and hired workers at 9:00, 12:00, 3:00, and 5:00. When evening came, the landowner decided to pay all of the workers, starting with the last hired. Seeing that the landowner paid those hired at 5:00 a denarius, those hired first expected to be paid more. When they also received a denarius, they began to complain. Those hired at 5:00 only worked one hour yet were paid the same wage as those who worked for 12 hours in the hot sun. In Matthew 20, we read the interesting response of the landowner in Jesus’ story: 

But he answered one of them, “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Matthew 20:13-16

A lot is going on in this story. The one central lesson is that God, the landowner is good, gracious, and generous to all of his servants. This is the triune God’s nature, all the time.

The concept of human fairness is brought into question. How can a laborer who worked just one hour get the same pay as a laborer who worked 12 hours? The story is not really about labor laws and fair wages. It is about a personal God who offers grace and salvation to all.

Let me ask a strange question – “Are grace and salvation better for me than they are for you?” There are no degrees of separation, and Jesus’ teachings always deflate the notion of a competition or contest.

The landowner has space and rewards for all. As Jesus assured his followers, “In my house are many mansions.”

I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.

Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 • Exodus 16:2-15 • Philippians 1:21-30 • Matthew 20:1-16

As we continue in Ordinary Time, a time of focusing on how we can participate in the work Jesus is doing in the world, it is important for believers to acknowledge that we can do nothing apart from Christ himself. This week’s theme is Jesus is life. The psalmist reminds us to be grateful to God by recounting the ways in which he kept Israel alive in the desert. Similarly, the Exodus passage tells the story of how God gave miraculous manna and quails to the Israelites for food. In Philippians, Paul expressed his preference to give up his life if it meant being completely with Christ. Finally, in Matthew, Jesus told a parable to illustrate how believers should gratefully receive the salvation we have in Christ.

Jesus is Life

Philippians 1:21-30

When college professor, Morrie Schwartz, was terminally diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), he decided that he would not fade away quietly. Rather, he decided to use his experience of dying to ponder the meaning of life. Upon hearing of Schwartz’ diagnosis, former student and author and journalist, Mitch Albom, rushed to see his favorite professor. What started as a one-time visit turned into a weekly conversation until Schwartz’ passing in 1995. The fruit of those discussions became a best-selling book titled, Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson. In the book, Albom recalls a conversation he had with Schwartz:

“The truth is, Mitch,” he said, “once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.”

I nodded.

“I’m going to say it again,” he said. “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” He smiled, and I realized what he was doing. He was making sure I absorbed this point, without embarrassing me by asking. It was part of what made him a good teacher.

Did you think much about death before you got sick? I asked.

“No.” Morrie smiled…

But everyone knows someone who has died,” I said. “Why is it so hard to think about dying?

“Because,” Morrie continued, “most of us all walk around as if we’re sleepwalking. We really don’t experience the world fully, because we’re half-asleep, doing things we automatically think we have to do.”

And facing death changes all that?

“Oh, yes. You strip away all the stuff and you focus on the essentials. When you realize you are going to die, you see everything much differently.”

He sighed. “Learn how to die, and you learn how to live.”[1]

These are wise words. Death is an uncomfortable topic for most of us. None of us enjoys contemplating our own mortality. Conversations about death can painfully remind us of loved ones we have lost. However, facing the reality that we are finite can give us perspective. Knowing that we are going to die can give us insight on how we should be living.

Paul seemed to have this in mind when he wrote this section of his letter to the church in Philippi:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved — and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have. (Philippians 1:21-30 NIV)

Paul was not suicidal. Perhaps he was a bit world weary, but another emotion drove his words. More than anything else he was in awe of the love of Christ and loved Jesus in return. He desired deeper and deeper communion with Christ and realized he was limited in his relationship with Jesus in this life. He was hindered by his own natural orientation away from God and longed for the day when he would be freed from his sinful human nature. Paul reasoned that if dying meant complete and unhindered oneness with Jesus, then it would be better to die.

It was as Paul contemplated which he preferred, living or dying, that he urged the believers in Philippi to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” In other words, Paul was saying, “Since we are alive, we should live for Christ to the fullest extent.” To the apostle, “life” and “Christ” were synonyms and to follow Christ was to truly live (Colossians 3:4). I believe Paul would have agreed with Morrie Schwartz’ observation that most people do not fully experience life. To Paul, if Christ was not the reason behind one’s thoughts and actions, then a person would experience something inferior to true life. Even Christians, if we are not careful, can find ourselves living a kind of half-life. So, Paul was allowing the reality of death to teach him how to live, and he passed on this wisdom to the Philippian church and to us.

Before you get concerned, I am not encouraging some kind of morbid fascination with death. On the contrary, I am advocating for us to do a lot more thinking about how we live. Think for a moment. If you were told a coworker was going to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus in two years, how would you start treating that coworker? Contrast that to being told you only had one full day left to live. How would you spend the day? With family and friends? Doing something you love doing, or always wanted to do. I am sure many of us would spend some time talking to God, thanking him for the gift of life. Whatever things warranted our attention on our most precious day should be what gets the priority every day. The most important things should get our attention and we should not give our focus to things that will fade away.

Morrie Schwartz said, “Learn how to die, and you learn how to live.” When Paul thought about his death all he saw was Jesus. He reasoned by the Spirit that if Jesus was his eternity, then Jesus should also be his focus in this life. In fact, Jesus is life. Paul argued that the persecution the Philippians suffered should not prevent them from orienting their lives around Christ. It would have been understandable for the believers in Philippi to try to fade into the crowd. Their belief in Christ brought them a lot of trouble, so why not just worship Jesus secretly? Why not just go along with everyone else? The temptation must have been so strong to hide their relationship with Jesus or maybe even try to forget about it altogether. This is why Paul encouraged his audience to “stand firm in the one Spirit.” One way or another, persecution will come to an end. But Jesus is life, and he is forever.

Unlike the believers in Philippi, most of us are not facing persecution. Let’s never forget that many of our brothers and sisters around the world are facing persecution. Our Western culture disrupts our relationship with God in other ways. We live in a fast-moving, distraction-filled society. I can have almost anything delivered to my home within two days. Nearly all accumulated human knowledge is literally at my fingertips. All I need is a computer hooked up to the internet and I can know almost anything instantly. I have thousands of TV shows and movies I can watch, or I can listen to a podcast on any topic of my choosing. In our culture, it almost seems shameful to not be overwhelmingly busy and over-informed.

This way of being is at odds with the ways of God. The Lord invites his followers to slow down and appreciate the small miracles that fill every day. We are encouraged to sit and ponder the things that Jesus said and did, giving preference to his wisdom over earthly knowledge. Jesus expects his followers to prioritize people over productivity and make time every day for relationships. Jesus is life and following him will cause us to live differently.

I have to admit that there was a time in my life when I feared living differently. I did not want to stand out. When I read this passage in Philippians, it felt extreme. I did not want to suffer for Christ. I knew that Christ was my life, but I was content to live a half-life. I only wanted to resemble Jesus when I was around other Christians. In time, I realized that I was seeing things in the wrong way. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul teaches that “standing firm” is not something we do individually. We do not “conduct [our]selves in a manner worthy of the gospel” by ourselves. It is the life of the Christian faith community, not any individual Christian, that testifies to our worthiness. Of course, our individual conduct matters. However, it is by living in a loving Christ-centered community that we best experience life in Jesus.

Jesus is life, and the life he brings is enjoyable. Following Christ does not mean that we will not have hard times. In fact, Jesus promises that we will face life challenges. However, Jesus is enjoyable. We follow Christ by eating in each other’s homes and helping those in need. We follow Christ by using the gifts and talents given to us by the Spirit to make our world better. We follow Christ by singing praises and worshiping God with our very lives. We follow Christ by loving our family and friends and being a good neighbor. We follow Christ by meditating on his life-giving word in times of restful and refreshing silence. We follow Christ by making new friends and sharing the love of God with them. We follow Christ in so many ways; all of them give us things we deeply want and need. Things like love, joy, peace, and all the other fruits of the Spirit. This is the life that Paul saw, and he invited his Christian audience to embrace it. The apostle was not being morbid in his contemplation of death. Rather, he was calling his audience’s attention to the most important things — the riches that can only be found in Jesus.

Learn how to die, and you learn how to live. When compared to what our society considers life, our life in Christ is far superior. We lose nothing by following his way. Rather, we gain our true purpose and identity in him. So, let us do all we can to live for Christ. Let us set aside the things that distract and dissipate to make more room for Jesus to live in and through us. Making room for Christ is not something we only do by ourselves. Rather, we make room for God by doing the enjoyable, life-giving, and meaningful practices God asks us to do in a loving community of faith. Jesus is life, and it is a life worth living.

[1] Albom, Mitch. Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Lifes Greatest Lesson. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1997. (pp 82-83)

The Art of Neighboring w/ Geordie Ziegler W4

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September 24 — Proper 20 of Ordinary Time
Philippians 1:21-30, “Live Worthy of the Gospel”

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Program Transcript


The Art of Neighboring w/ Geordie Ziegler W4

Anthony: So, we move on to our final passage of the month. It is Philippians 1:21-30 Philippians, of course, is known as the Epistle of Joy. You mentioned joy earlier. It is a Revised Common Lectionary passage for Proper 20 in Ordinary Time, which falls on September 24.

Geordie, read it for us, please.

Geordie: Sure.

22Because for me, living serves Christ and dying is even better. 22 If I continue to live in this world, I get results from my work. 23 But I don’t know what I prefer. I’m torn between the two because I want to leave this life and be with Christ, which is far better. 24 However, it’s more important for me to stay in this world for your sake. 25 I’m sure of this: I will stay alive and remain with all of you to help your progress and the joy of your faith, 26 and to increase your pride in Christ Jesus through my presence when I visit you again. 27 Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel. Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you. Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel. 28 That way, you won’t be afraid of anything your enemies do. Your faithfulness and courage are a sign of their coming destruction and your salvation, which is from God. 29 God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. 30 You are having the same struggle that you saw me face and now hear that I’m still facing.

Anthony: So, Paul challenges us to live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel, verse 27. And I see this as a challenge because many Christians have an individualistic moralism. It goes to something like this.

Be a good person. Stay in your lane. Have a nice house and an enclave, right? That’s the goal. And by the way, we know none of those things are inherently wrong, but I wonder if the apostle is pointing to Christian community that is far more robust and other-centered than we often think about. What’s say you?

Geordie: Yes. Yeah, it’s interesting that phrase about worthy of the gospel. It’s basically the same kind of language that he used in Ephesians where he where the transition takes place in Ephesians from the first three chapters to the last three.

And it’s this word axios or—I can’t quite say it—axios. And we translate it “worthily, but it’s this image of an axis with kind of weight on one side and weight on the other. And the idea is that everything in the gospel, everything of who Christ is and what he’s done, this kingdom that he has created and that we are invited into—all of that is to be lived out, is to be worked out.

And that’s the challenge. That’s the journey of the Christian life is that everything gets to be lived. I remember asking Eugene Peterson this question in class once about experience. Because Eugene grew up kind of Pentecostal and then he became Presbyterian, which seems like two extremes from the Holy Rollers to the frozen chosen. But I remember I asked him, so how do we, or are we to experience every part of the Bible or every part of our theology? Or is there some of it that’s just in our head? And he said everything is to be experienced.

And sometimes, yes, thinking is a kind of experience. But it’s not meant to be abstract. It’s meant to be integrated. And Paul wants them to live the way that he has lived and he’s showing them his priority of the gospel over everything else and inviting them to follow his example. So, his example is other-centered love, which he got from Christ himself, which then leads to where he heads when he starts talking about suffering.

Anthony: Speaking of that, God has generously granted you the privilege of suffering for Christ’s sake. Come on, Geordie. If the average person made a list of privileges in their life, you’re not going to find suffering on that list.

But how have you experienced in your own personal journey that suffering can be viewed as grace? And what encouragement would you give to someone listening who is suffering at this very hour?

Geordie: This is this is such a huge topic, but I think there are some angles on it that can really help us and redeem this for us.

One interesting thing is there’s an early Christian text called the Epistle of Barnabas and in that he describes the human being as earth that suffers. And there’s something just basically true about that. And part of suffering means that there is a neediness that we have when we suffer.

There’s a dependency. Suffering creates a dependency for God, a dependency for God’s people, a need for others to come alongside us, a need for mercy and grace. Suffering, in a way, becomes almost an open space where grace can rush in. And if we don’t have any kind of suffering in our lives, I think, we don’t grow. Growth and suffering really are hand in hand realities.

Spring only comes because winter happened. (I guess, unless you live in Florida. And then I don’t know what to say about that.) But there’s something about our human nature where there’s a kind of suffering that is part of our design, a part of our neediness.

Now he’s talking about suffering for Christ’s sake. And that’s the life that Paul has lived; it’s had lots of suffering. It’s had suffering of rejection, suffering of abuse from others. There’re traumas that he’s experienced because of that.

Some of those because of his faith, some of those because of just life, I’m sure. And I think when we remember first that in all of those, grace can rush in, in those, that can be the thing that calls us to just—makes us aware of our neediness more.

When I went through a really difficult time about four years back and I was talking to Baxter Krueger about it. And his response to me was funny because he [says,] “Geordie, this is probably the best thing that ever happened to you because now your theology has to actually make a difference. If it doesn’t, then you need a new theology.” (I can’t do a southern accent. Sorry about that.)

But the reality is God is self-giving. This is Brad Jersak’s description, which I love, self-giving, co-suffering, radically forgiving love. And there’s a sense in which to be love means you will suffer. There is no love that does not also include suffering. And sometimes people just decide, okay, I’m not going to love.

I was talking to somebody whose dog was going to be dying probably soon, and they just said I don’t think we want another dog because the pain of losing them is too much. And I get that. Sometimes we have to make those choices, but any kind of love is always going to involve suffering because there’s going to be loss and there’s going to be hurt. But what it also means is suffering is not necessarily bad. It’s not automatically bad. Suffering can actually be a way that love gets deepened, where intimacy grows to a place that it never could have otherwise.

And so, I think Paul is not just saying stupid things when he says God has generously granted you the privilege of suffering for Christ’s sake. That is genuine for him. Now, all the hearers may have had to struggle with that a little bit, but for Paul, I think, it’s his suffering that made the love and intimacy that he knows in Christ so much deeper.

And he knows that, and he wants that for his people.

Anthony: Yeah. It reminds me just thinking of my own journey, Geordie, that in my walk with Christ, I have grown and matured in him mostly when I’m going through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s in times of suffering and heartache; it’s not in the fluff of life.

And I would rather hang out in the fluff of life. But I can look back and go, thank you, Lord. Thank you. I learned something of your goodness. And I trust you more today than I did then as a result of it. Hallelujah. Praise God.

Geordie: I just say that so much of the work of a spiritual director is helping somebody to just press into the suffering in prayer and to learn how to receive God’s grace and mercy in the midst of it, whatever it is.

Because often our initial response to suffering is not happy or pretty. And so sometimes we do need somebody to help us to know how to turn and face God in the midst of it. Instead of turning away or spiraling in. And so that’s part of the work that I love doing with Imago Christi, with leaders.

And I love that I have some people that do that for me, which I need.

Anthony: Amen and amen. And I appreciate the work of spiritual direction and formation because it gives a holistic picture of things. Like one of the things I’ve noticed recently, and maybe I’ve just started paying attention, sometimes in Christian circles, there’s this toxic positivity that God loves me, so everything’s got to be happy, happy, joy, joy, rainbows, and ponies.

But the Bible has a book called Lamentations. And I read the book of Psalms and it’s like a yo-yo. Go God, one Psalm, the next Psalm, where are you, God, and when are you going to rescue me? And so, I just want to remind folks, especially if you find yourself in the midst of suffering now, that lament gives voice to what hurts, but hope gives voice to what heals. And the hope of God never disappoints us, never abandons us, never leaves us at the altar. Hallelujah. Praise God.

Thank you so much Geordie, for being with us staying up after a long shift of chaplaincy work. We so appreciate you. You’re a beloved child of the living God.

And I want to thank the people that make this happen, Reuel Enerio, our producer, my wife, Elizabeth Mullins, who transcribes these podcasts. So you can find verbatim what Geordie said, because I know you want to go back and re-listen to what he had to offer here today.

But thank you so much for being with us and let me remind everyone that Jesus Christ is the inerrant and infallible word of God. Keep leaning into him and watch what will happen.

Geordie, as is our tradition with Gospel Reverb, we pray to close out the conversation and we’d love for you to pray for and with us.

Geordie: I would love to. Yes.

Lord, we give you thanks and praise, for you are love. You are other-centered co-suffering, radically forgiving mercy and love and grace.

And Lord we know we don’t have the strength in us to be that or do that. And that’s part of the good news is that you are all those things. And so, we thank you, God, that you don’t tell us to do something that you aren’t. But that all that you call us to be clothed in is just the clothes that you already wear.

And Father, Jesus, would you share with us your clothing share with us, your relationship with the Father through the Spirit. Help us to see what you see when you look into the Father’s eyes, and to know what you know, and to feel what you feel, and to love what you love, so that we can be your people living as children in the Father’s Kingdom in this world.

In Jesus name we pray. Amen.


Small Group Discussion Questions

From Speaking of Life

  • Why do you think we often compare ourselves to others, even in the church?
  • Why do you think it is so tempting to try to earn salvation?

From the sermon

  • If you only had one more day to live, what are some things you would do?
  • Do you find your life with Christ enjoyable? Why or why not?
  • What are some things you can do to make more room for God in your life?

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