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Proper 20 – 9/20/2020 – St. Paul’s

Now that we’ve been going through this mess for almost six months, certain areas have surfaced where – if this is all a big life test – we aren’t exactly getting an “A”. For those who follow Christ, there is one area in particular that deserves attention. It is giving into the temptation to turn inward, to give ourselves over to our emotions and felt needs in ways that aren’t spiritually healthy.

The apostle Paul is a helpful corrective here. If anyone knew what it meant to endure hardship, it was Paul. This is how he once described his life circumstances:

“I have… been in prison… been flogged… been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received… the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen… in danger in the country, in danger at sea… I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” (II Cor. 11:23-27, NIV)

Yet when, once again, Paul was suffering – this time imprisoned in chains in Rome – he wrote these words in his letter to the Philippians just prior to today’s passage:

“And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear.” (Philippians 1:12-14, NLT)

Paul was under military guard, which meant he was not simply imprisoned, but actually chained to a soldier. The guards selected to be chained to prisoners were the worst of the worst. Ignatius, a Christian of the 2nd century who wrote of his own imprisonment while on the way to execution, said he was chained night and day to men he could only call wild beasts… [who] become worse [even] when treated well.

So what did Paul post on his 1st-century Facebook page? How good what was happening to him was because it was helping advance the cause of Christ.

That was what he was thinking about.

You won’t find a single word about how awful prison was, how heavy and painful the chains were, whether he was cold, hungry or had been mistreated. He wrote nothing to elicit personal sympathy; nothing that would reflect a preoccupation with self.

This raises something few people ever think about. That during this Pandemic….maybe instead of asking, Why is this happening to me? Why aren’t things going the way I want them to go? Why am I stuck with kids working from home, having to wear a face mask, can’t go to the movies?, maybe the real question should be, What can all of this hold for my love for others, and my love for God?

In other words, we make it all about us. Paul’s attitude was, It’s not about me. He felt that what was happening was more about what God wanted to do through him than what was happening to him.

During this pandemic, all of us have lost something. We’ve all lost a certain amount of our personal freedom and had our lifestyles impacted in ways that frustrate and debilitate. Some of us have lost income or even a job. Some of us have even lost a loved one to death itself.

Our chains are real. But no matter how real our chains are – and they were real for Paul – our choice to turn inward or turn outward is just as real. And it was impossible to be with Paul for five minutes and not know which choice he had made.

What would five minutes with you reflect?

If someone were to go on your Facebook page, read your thread of tweets, scroll through your Instagram posts, would they find an inward or outward focus? If they spent time with you in a Zoom meeting or a Facetime call, what would they say about your mindset and spirit? Would they walk away being confronted in new and fresh ways with the power and presence of Christ? After seeing you and listening to you, would they want to lead bolder lives for Christ? Or would they be encouraged to whine and complain and critique more? Do they find joy where they couldn’t find joy, see the good where they couldn’t see the good, see Christ where they didn’t see Christ, because of time with you?

If such a spirit seems almost incomprehensible, perhaps it is because we have a distorted view of the nature of our life in, and with, Christ. As Paul tried to explain to the Philippians in our Epistle for today:

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 joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. (Philippians 1:21-26, NIV)

To live is Christ and to die is gain. Is that our life motto? Not usually. Left unchecked, a more accurate rendering would be To live is me and to die just sucks. And right now, that living for me, turned inward engagement of life is the spiritual pandemic we’ve allowed the virus pandemic to spread.

This then brings me to the gospel for today and two distinctive Southwestern native American cultures and lifestyles: Pueblos and Navajos. The Pueblo’s were settled cliff-dwellers. The Navajo were essentially nomadic. Yet both tribes, both cultures, became known for their intricate and beautiful weaving traditions.

The Navajo weavers had long borrowed the designs and patterns from their Pueblo neighbors. But then the T’aa dine or The People as they called themselves, discovered that they did not need to pass the weft (horizontal threads) through all of the warps (vertical threads) each and every time. By stopping the horizontal (weft) thread, some Navajo weavers discovered they could create other patterns, not just horizontal bands of color. These pauses or lazy lines enabled Navajo weavers to create terraced lines, diagonal lines, and their own unique patterns. With this discovery, the Navajo weavers ceased to be textile manufacturers and became world-class artists.

The truth is weaving had always been a spiritual exercise. Weaving the blankets that kept their people warm, dry, and protected was a sacred skill.

As Navajo weavers perfected their art and artistry, they developed the tradition of the Spirit trail or the weaver’s path. The Spirit-trail is created by the weaver deliberately forming a break in the line of their pattern. This break could be as simple as a secretly slipped in piece of grass, or bit of feather. It could be a single contrasting color thread, blazing its way at the weaver’s directive across the otherwise orderly pattern.

The Spirit trail was the artist’s way of letting the weaving breath to take on a life of its own. The Spirit trail enabled the weaving to open up its own rigid rules of design and prefabrication, allowing freedom, the unpredictable, and even chaos, to enter into the tapestry.

What the Navajo artists intended in the Spirit trail is the positive version of a tradition found among such diverse artisans as the Amish and the Islamic. For these traditions, the flaw is placed there in order to demonstrate that only God is perfect, that human creations are never up to divine standards. The Navajo Spirit trail, however, is a positive flaw. It celebrates something else: what the human mind tells us is a mistake may actually be the openings, the portals, for the divine to enter our lives and mix things up.

For the Navajo, as for Jesus, hell will be a well-ordered, hyper-organized, dusted and tidy place. Heaven, on the other hand, will be gloriously messy. In whatever form, these Amish, Islamic, and Navajo artists are trying to shake things up a bit. To shake off the customary and the expected; to shake off the sedentary and sedate; to perforate the perfect.

The vineyard owner in today’s gospel text is an artist at heart.The hands-on vineyard owner runs a large agricultural enterprise. In Jesus’ parable the business owner suddenly breaks all the rules. First, there are his bizarre hiring schedules. Either this vineyard owner is so clueless to his land’s needs that he completely fails to hire the correct amount of workers. Or he has some other agenda in mind.

Jesus’ ultimate message will be that this vineyard owner is  establishing a Spirit trail.Not only does the keeper of this vineyard return again and again to hire workers. He reveals the hand of grace and mercy that he is playing at the close of the workday. 

Instead of paying a pittance to those who worked for only one hour, he paid them a full day’s wages. The same holds true for those hired at three, and at noon, and at nine. All those who labored in this landowner’s vineyard on that day, no matter for how long or how little, received the full daily wage of a denarius. What was generous at the get-go was outrageous for one hour’s work.

What if everyone turning inward began to expect more? More faith? More hope? More latitude? More forgiveness? More justice? More mercy? More acceptance? More love? More grace?

Let’s be honest: Jesus can be extremely annoying. Jesus’ message can be extremely disturbing. What is this: the last will be first; the first will be last? In the first-century, and in the twenty-first century, that message messes with our expectations.

It messes with the expectations of those who battle in the corporate trenches all day —knowing it is a dog eat dog world, and that to get ahead you must walk over many backs. It messes with those who live careful, obedient, 

loving, faithful lives. What good is it to do good if it doesn’t get you a leg up? It messes with the notion that good is rewarded and evil is punished. It messes with the notion of whose a loser and who is a winner.

The kingdom of God messes up ALL our expectations! Good thing.

For here’s the truth: ALL of us are those last hour hires.The fallacy practiced by all artists who feel they need to intentionally introduce a flaw into their work in order to honor God is this: NOTHING we can do, or say, or think, or dream, can come even remotely close to the perfection that is God and the perfection that God might well require of us.

We are all receivers. Not givers, first. But receivers. And all we receive is grace. All we receive is mercy. All we give we have first received. All we can hope for is the Jesus-inspired sacrifice of a Spirit-trail that offers us a way out—-that extends a saving hand in to pull us towards the kindom for which we long.

In Latin the word “textus” means “weave.” So “text” means “weave.” “Text” describes the weaving of language, whether spoken or written, into a patterned composition significant to particular communities. Each one of our lives is a living gospel, a fifth gospel, a living “text” that “weaves” Paul’s life & our life’s story of God’s saving grace.

Looking outward…..We should ALL be weaving Spirit-trails . . . . emergency exits for ourselves and all those we love, as we trust in the grace of a God who like to “cheat” what is just in favor of what is merciful.

We should ALL be weaving Spirit-trails . . . nonlinear spaces in which the Spirit can work to bring random acts of kindness in our world, sensesless acts of beauty into our lives.

We should ALL be weaving Spirit-trails . . . patterns of contrasting colors that allow the weaving of our souls to breathe and not bind our spirits in birth-boxes or mind-cages.

We should ALL be weaving Spirit-trails . . . . that extend and expand our horizons of possibility.

We should ALL be weaving Spirit-trails . . . life-stories of God’s presence and power that don’t peter out in a trail of dot-dot-dots, but stories that crescendo into tall tales of beauty, truth and goodness.

We should ALL be weaving Spirit-trails . . . for we are all designed by God to be artists of grace and beauty. AMEN+


May you be with those forgotten by the world.

And share God’s constant love with everyone.

May you be generous with those around you

as well as those far away.

And share Jesus’ justice and hope 

with all who need it.

May you live as faithful people.

As you join the Spirit in standing side by side

with those who are lonely and afraid.

And the blessing of God Almighty.….

Invitation to the Offering

Whatever our struggles, whatever our miracles,

whatever our burdens, whatever our fruitful labor,

we are thankful for the blessings from God 

and from God’s good creation.

As signs of that gratitude, 

let us offer now our tithes and gifts.

Dedication Prayer

O God, you have called your laborers to give their gifts.

Bless these offerings so that they reflect 

the work of the kingdom of heaven.

With Christ, our servant, we pray. Amen.