The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost October 15, 2023. Sermon preached by Rev. Suzanne Roberts.

Rev. Suzanne G. Roberts, MD

Sermon for October 15, 2023, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick, Maine

Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Thank you for inviting me.


Do you ever wonder, in the moments between when the Deacon finishes reading the Gospel and the Preacher begins to speak, which one of the lesson the Preacher is going latch on to, on which one is she going to preach?  I know I wonder. I have to confess that for a hot minute earlier this week I considered preaching on our first lesson from the Book of Exodus.  I mean, what could be more perfect?  The minister for transition and deployment for the diocese visits a parish newly in transition and the first lesson is a cautionary tale about the actions of an anxious religious community during the absence of their spiritual leader. It’s kind of a slam dunk really, and, although I’ll admit that before our service began I was checking to see if enough of us are wearing gold earrings, what I quickly realized is that preaching on that lesson is actually a slam dunk for a really boring sermon. And discussions about Scripture should never be boring. The Bible is not dull.

One day about 15 or 16 years ago I was right here at St. Paul’s, sitting in a classroom upstairs and speaking with my former Spiritual Director.  This was a couple of years before I was ordained, and we were discussing what I felt at the time was one of the most difficult aspects for me of being a priest: I was really intimidated by preaching.  It scared me to death; I mean, who am I to stand in a pulpit and tell people what our Scripture lessons mean? I will always be grateful to her for the words that she said after I admitted my fear, she said “Suzanne, no one expects you to have the final word on Scripture, they only expect to hear your offering. When you preach you offer to them what you have learned about the lesson, that’s it.”

Her words allowed me to expect a little less of myself and freed me from my early paralysis around writing sermons.  It was later when I realized how naive my early question had been because I learned another truth about Scripture: I was never going to “understand” Scripture, I was never going to be able to “figure out what it means”, because I am not meant to understand Scripture, at least not in the way that I think I understand so many other things in my world. I am a child of the 20th century, I studied science in college, I had never come up against a concept or an idea that, with enough study, I couldn’t understand. To some degree all of us modern day humans buy into this fiction that eventually, with enough study, with enough theorizing, with enough theology and enough words, we humans will understand Scripture. Well this fiction will never be true, because (and I am quoting the Catechism of the Episcopal Church here) “God still speaks to us through the Bible”.  Scripture isn’t meant to be fully understood.  It isn’t meant to be easily explainable; the Gospel isn’t meant to be tamed, domesticated, or fit neatly inside a box. God’s words, spoken to us through Scripture, aren’t meant to be predictable, and they often aren’t meant to be easy either.

Scripture should be approached reverently, with an open mind, with humility, and with trepidation: because we are not always going to like what we read. Sometimes the Bible will surprise us with its violence.  A good example is the end of Exodus chapter 32, the part that follows the excerpt that we read today.  I’m not going to spoil for you the ending of the story of the Golden Calf, but let me tell you that, in spite of the promise that Moses extracts from God, the story doesn’t end well for many of the Israelites, and reading it changed my opinion of Moses just a bit. Sometimes the Bible will puzzle us; this often happens when we encounter the parables.  Sometimes the Bible will challenge us.  You might not know this yet, because you might still be in the puzzled stage, but one way in which today’s parable from Matthew can be understood is as a challenge to all Christians.  With the parable of the wedding banquet and the unprepared guest Jesus might be reminding today’s Christians that although we are all invited to the wedding banquet, we are all called, the chosen are the ones who realize that just showing up is not enough. To state this challenge bluntly: don’t think that just because you show up at church that you have done enough; you also need to do the work that Jesus taught you to do in order to be a true follower of Christ.

American theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas wrote this about the way in which many modern Christians have misunderstood Scripture: “Christians in modernity thought their task was to make the Gospel intelligible to the world rather than to help the world understand why it could not be intelligible without the Gospel.” We 21st century Christians are mistaken if we think is possible to somehow make the world understand Scripture, and, caught up in the futility of that quest, we have forgotten that our true job is to help the world realize that it cannot understand itself without the Gospel. It is only through the ever changing and often frankly puzzling lens of Scripture that we can catch a glimpse of God’s saving work in God’s creation. “God still speaks to us through the Bible.”

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not speak from the pulpit today about the violence that is occurring in the Holy Land.  I’m sure I am not alone when I tell you that I spent too much time this week staring, with tears in my eyes, at images of horrific suffering in Israel and Gaza.  I am aware that the scars that have burst open to cause this eruption of violence are from wounds that are decades, even generations old, and that there are many longstanding injustices that are crying out to be resolved. But at this very minute Lord, the children of the Holy Land are crying, and the innocent are frightened, and hungry, and grieving. In this sermon I reminded us that Scripture can be violent, it can be puzzling, and it can be challenging, but none of us should forget that Scripture can also be comforting. So, because we Christians cannot hope to understand the world without viewing it through the lens of Scripture, we are going to finish this sermon together using the words of the Psalms to pray for the people of Gaza and Israel. Please grab a Book of Common Prayer and open it to page 610, where you will find Psalm 22.  Psalm 22 is one of the psalms of lament.  You might remember that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 as he was dying on the cross.  Let’s read together in unison the first 11 verses of Psalm 22, which will end at the bottom of page 610. We will then have a few moments of silence.