Sunday, August 05, 2018

Sermon, "Parables of Jesus: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard," Matthew 20:1-16

Sermon 8/5/18
Matthew 20:1-16


Parables of Jesus: Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard


When I was little, I noticed that there were a lot of people who called my Grandpa Grandpa even though he wasn’t their grandpa. This included some of my second cousins, who were so close to us growing up that it was natural to call Grandma and Grandpa just that, and that was ok. But there were also some of my peers - other young girls at church - who called my Grandpa Grandpa. I have to admit, my heart was not very generous. He was my Grandpa. I understood why they wished he was theirs - my Grandpa was one of the best people I have ever known. But he wasn’t theirs. He was mine. I never said anything. My Grandpa certainly didn’t seem to mind. But I was resentful in my young heart that they thought they could lay claim to my Grandpa.
It was a lot later - I won’t say how much later, but I will admit that it was too much later - that I began to realize a few things. First, there were a lot of reasons why someone might want to call my Grandpa Grandpa. They might have lost their own grandpas already. Or sometimes others had grandpas who weren’t so kind and loving as mine. And sometimes people had never even known a grandpa in their life. And my Grandpa just exuded Grandpa-ness. Of course others would want to claim him as their own. The other thing that I learned, a little slowly, is that my Grandpa liking it when other people called him Grandpa didn’t lessen how much he loved me, or how special I was to him. He could love other people, other children, and think they were special, and it didn’t change how much he adored me one bit.
I’m glad I learned this lesson, because I find the same thing happening with my Mom. She’s pretty awesome, and there are a lot of people, beyond me and my siblings, who think of her as Mom. In fact, I tease her often that even complete strangers usually see her as Mom. It is not at all uncommon for people to randomly treat her like you might treat a beloved mother. The big burly cashier at the convenience store who looks really tough and intimidating will probably end up chatting with her about his life because he sees my mom and thinks, “Oh good, my Mom stopped in to see me at work!” It doesn’t bother me anymore. Instead, it inspires me. I hope to be the kind of person that she is - someone who so radiates love for others that they see her and immediately know that she is someone they can trust, they can open up to, they can share their hearts with.
I had my Mom and my Grandpa on my mind as I was studying our text for today. Our last parable in our series is from the gospel of Matthew. Before our passage begins, at the end of chapter 19, a rich young man had approached Jesus and asked about getting into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus told him to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor, and the man went away disappointed, because he had many possessions. Jesus then says to the disciples that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. The disciples wonder, then, at who can be saved, if God’s standards are so hard. But, Jesus replies that with God, anything is possible. And then he tells this parable.
It is usually known as “The Parable of the Workers (or Laborers) in the Vineyard.” Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, whose insights we’re using to guide us as we read these texts, reminds us that the titles we give to parables shape the way we read them, and this common title, she says, suggests the emphasis is on the actions of the workers in the parable.* But Levine is much more interested in the landowner. She also suggests that putting “vineyard” in the title distances us, 21st century readers, from Jesus’ parables, since most of us have no experience with such a workplace. Rather, “The Conscientious Boss,” Levine suggests, or maybe “The Parable of the Surprising Salaries.” (214-215)
A landowner - literally a householder (221) - goes out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard, Jesus says. They agree for the usual daily wage, and then the workers head to work. A little later in the day, he heads back to the marketplace, and sees more workers there. Our NRSV bibles say that they were “standing idle,” which might lead us to read some kind of laziness into the text, but the phrase literally means simply “without work.” There are workers who can’t find work, standing in the marketplace. The householder hires them too, and promises to pay them what is right. And the word there means: just. He will pay them what is just. (225) And then the householder goes again, and again, until the last workers hired have only an hour left to work before the end of the day. “Why are you standing here unemployed?” he asks. “Go to the vineyard.” The story Jesus tells would have the attention of his audience. What kind of householder doesn’t know what size workforce he needs? Has he underestimated the size of his project? Were there not enough workers available at first? Or does he have some other agenda? Levine suggests that the latter is most likely, and so we listen in extra carefully to see where this story goes. (227)
Finally, at the end of the day, the householder has his manager call all the workers in and has them paid. Everyone receives the usual daily wage. No one receives less than they were promised. But those who worked part of a day and those who worked all day receive the same amount. Those who started working first, we read, assumed that they were going to get more than they had agreed on with the householder. And when they don’t get anything extra, they get angry with the householder. “You have made them equal to us,” they complain, when we had to work all day in the sun. The householder, though, won’t hear it. “I’m doing you no wrong. You agreed with me for the usual daily wage,” which the text already told us was a just amount. “Take what belongs to you and go,” he continues. “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Oof. I don’t know about you, but it is hard not to sympathize with the workers who worked all day long. It is so unfair, isn’t it? We’ve all heard that life isn’t fair, but we value fairness nonetheless, and this scripture - oof. It is just so not fair. And that’s exactly the point. The parable shows us how God acts, and how we are called to act - like God would act. The laborers, Levine writes, “are interested in receiving their own payment, not in whether the other workers have enough food.” But whenever we’re ignoring whether or not others have enough, we’re on the wrong track, out of step with God’s picture of justice. (229) “The first hired do not want to be treated equally to the last;” says Levine. “They want to be treated better.” (231) But, “What God wants is not necessarily what ‘we’ think is appropriate … The workers seek what they perceive to be ‘fair’; the householder teaches them a lesson by showing them what is ‘right,’” what is just. (230) And God is always more interested in justice than fairness. The workers all receive the usual daily wage - plenty to live on, enough to meet their needs. And so, despite their grumbling, “the only point that the workers could make about [the householder] was that he was generous to others. And in making that point, the workers [learn] their own economic lesson: the point is not that those who have ‘get more,’ but that those who have not ‘get enough.’ One does the work - in the labor force, in the kingdom - not for more reward, but for the benefit of all.” (235-236)
We know that the greatest commandments are first to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and then, to love our neighbors. The householder shows that love by making sure that as far as he can, he has provided enough for all. He’s worked for the benefit of everyone in his employ. Are we interested in working for the benefit of all? Or are we more caught up in what is fair rather than just?
The householder’s questions to the disgruntled workers really tug at me. “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” That second question literally reads, “Or is your eye evil because I am good?” (231) It’s kind of like our phrase “green with jealousy.” Our vision is distorted. We’re not seeing like God sees. Is our “eye evil” because God is good? Are we envious because God is generous? Yes and yes. We must confess, we are envious. We’re not seeing clearly. Somehow, we are like my little-girl-self who doesn’t like it when someone else is calling my Grandpa theirs. Over and over we get the message that we don’t have enough, that what we have is never enough, and that what we should seek is not what is enough, but what is more than what others have - whether it is more money, or more facebook friends, or more likes on our posts, or more square footage in our houses, or more vacation time, or more friends, or more of God’s love and affection. We’re not satisfied if everyone has enough. We want more. Need more. We’ve worked harder, after all. Worked longer. And we want our fair share, and maybe a little extra too.
My Grandpa being Grandpa for lots of other people too - eventually my vision cleared, and I looked on that fact with joy, because it was a sign of my Grandpa’s goodness. He was overflowing with love, and he always had enough for whoever needed some. My mom is that way too. I hope I am growing into someone who is that way too. Certainly, it is the nature of God. Remember, we talked about how parables are Jesus’s way of telling us what God’s reign among us, right here and right now, is like. It’s like this: God is a God of abundance. God has blessed us with abundance, both spiritual and literal. There is enough - more than enough for all of us - both spiritually and literally. More than enough food for all. More than enough resources. And more than enough, more than enough of God’s love and grace and affection. God’s goodness and grace means God is always seeking to make sure we all have more than enough of what we need to thrive. When we act to prevent God’s work of abundance, when we try to undo what God does because we don’t think it is fair? Well, God says to us, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” God will call us out on the jealousy and hard-heartedness. God will always choose what is right, what is just, which is not, as it turns out, always the same as what we think is fair. But what God chooses is always good, and always loving.
If we’re people who seek to follow Jesus, who want to nurture in ourselves a heart like God’s, then we need to seek out those who need a share of God’s abundance, who need a share of our food and shelter, who need a stand-in Grandpa or Mom, who need a measure of love that sustains and renews them. I promise, we’ll find that in God’s economy of plenty, there is more than enough for all of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.   


* All quotations/references in this sermon are from Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sermon, "Parables of Jesus: Parable of the Shrewd Manger," Luke 16:1-13

Sermon 7/29/18
Luke 16:1-13

Parables of Jesus: Parable of the Shrewd Manager


I think there are two categories of scriptures that I would call really difficult. The first category is where I think most of them fall. It isn’t so much that the text is hard to understand, but that I find it hard to put into practice. When Jesus talks about loving your enemies, I understand what he’s saying, but I find it difficult to do. When he talks about taking care that we don’t love our possessions and our money too much, I know exactly what he means, but I find that I have to remind myself of his teaching again and again. The other category of difficult texts is the group of passages where I honestly don’t understand what a passage is supposed to mean. Thankfully, even though I believe I can never fully understand a passage without a sit down with God explaining all the nuances to me, there aren’t many passages that seem totally confusing. Unfortunately, today’s text is one of them. And today, we’re diving right into the confusion of meaning. It’s my fault, of course. I chose which parables we would look at for this series. Amy-Jill Levine, whose book Short Stories by Jesus inspirited this series, doesn’t actually write about this parable, but I also have The Jewish Annotated New Testament, which she edited, and for which she worked on the gospel of Luke, so I figured I’d just use her thoughts from that resource instead. So, when I was getting ready to work on this week’s service, I looked up what she had to say about this crazy parable. She writes, “The parable defies any fully satisfactory explanation.”(1) Uh-oh. I started to panic a little. I’d preached on this text before, nearly a decade ago, but I read my old sermon, and it was nothing inspiring. It’s about this time in my sermon-writing process panic that my mother suggests I should see if we just want to have a hymn sing instead! Fortunately, Levine has a new book on the gospel of Luke, released literally just this week, that helped me wrestle through this passage. (2)
The parable we’re looking at today is called The Parable of the Shrewd Manager or The Parable of the Dishonest Manager. Again, how we name it shapes how we hear it: shrewd sounds better than dishonest, doesn’t it? Levine calls it “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager and the Trapped Master.” (3) In Luke’s gospel, this parable follows immediately after the parables of lost things that we talked about last week. Only, this parable, Luke tells us, Jesus directs to the disciples. He no longer seems to be speaking to the religious leaders. So these words are for the disciples, about discipleship, and for the crowds who have been following along with them.  
There is a rich man, Jesus says, who had a manager. And the rich man has charges brought to him that the manager is squandering the rich man’s property. We don’t know the details. The rich man summons the manager and makes three statements in succession: What is this I hear about you? Give me an account. You’re fired. (4) Whatever he’s heard, he believes it, and even though he asks for an accounting, he’s really already decided to fire the manager. In response, we hear the internal monologue of the manager. It’s a pretty rare literary feature in the gospels, and Levine writes, “We don’t know whether to feel sorry for the manager, or condemn him, but the speaking “to oneself” trope in Bible usually indicates conniving, not thoughtful planning.” (5) In other words, the manager is scheming, strategizing. He reflects that he can’t do physical labor, and he won’t beg. So he decides to try to ingratiate himself with the folks who owe money to his master. He summons them one by one, and drastically reduces their bills. Various biblical scholars have suggested that the rich man was charging excessive interest, a sinful practice in Mosaic law, and that the manager was just getting rid of the unlawfully inflated price, or that the manager was forgiving whatever commission he was owed on the transactions. Or, perhaps the manager was reducing the payments to better encourage the debtors to pay his master. Those theories are possible, but the evidence is just not there in the text. (6) Even if it makes us uncomfortable, the reason the manager slashes the debt is directly stated, in his own words: He’s hoping to secure himself a place to work now that he’s been fired, a household he can serve, or maybe even a just a place to stay.
Self-centered though his actions may be, though, the results are good for everyone. We read, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Levine writes, “The rich man appears … to be a dope but, eventually, a lucky one.” (7) The manager “engaged in dishonest business practices, and yet everyone benefits from his machinations. We are hard-pressed to determine whether we should celebrate his cleverness, laugh at his solution to his problem, or feel guilty for enjoying an account of cheating.” “The rich man finds his economic capital depleted, and his social capital intact given his generosity.” (8)
After Jesus tells the parable, he adds some reflections, which don’t immediately shed a lot of light for us on the text. He says, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” He says we should make friends for ourselves from dishonest wealth. He says if we can’t even manage the dishonest wealth we have, how can we manage true riches with eternal value? We can’t, he concludes, serve both God and wealth. What a strange parable! How can we make sense of it?
A few facts can help us out: The word shrewd means prudent, wise, sensible, practical, pragmatic. The shrewd manager takes on a role that is fairly common in literature, and more common in the Bible than we might think at first. He’s a trickster. A trickster, who often seems to be at a disadvantage, uses savvy cleverness that proves to more valuable than other assets, helping them triumph over the person who seemed the sure-win. Think of David and Goliath. David beats giant Goliath because David cleverly figures out how to use his resources to his advantage. Esther is a trickster who uses her position as Queen to save her people. Jacob and Rebecca are tricksters who deceive Isaac and snag Esau’s birthright from him. Tamar uses a disguise to trick her father-in-law to giving her a child. Naomi cleverly helps Ruth position herself to get Boaz as a husband. In all of these stories, the hero is one who is clever, and uses that cleverness to grab ahold of blessings, ensure a good future, and wrest away some power from those who seem to be in charge. They aren’t all paragons of what we think of moral behavior. But clearly, the scriptures have a place for these figures, and Jesus says we have something to learn.
It also helps us if we remember that parables are not allegories. In an allegories, each part of the story represents something specific. This equals that. Parables aren’t like that. We get mixed up if we try to figure out which character in the parable is supposed to be God, and which is supposed to be us. It isn’t so straightforward. Jesus usually tells parables to tell us something about what God’s reign is like. Often he includes the very phrase, “The kingdom of heaven” or “The kingdom of God is like” when he starts a parable. They tell us something about how things are or will be when we do things on earth the way God means for us to.
So, even as we might understand what is happening in this parable more clearly, the real matter at hand is: what does this tell us about how we should live? First, it tells us that we need to be as wise, as shrewd in our discipleship as others with their money. “Children of light” is a term used in the New Testament that refers to disciples of Jesus. And Jesus says that we are good at handling business, the things of this world, but disciples aren’t good at handling what they have been given responsibility over. Think about it: there area a lot of tools that encourage us in managing our financial resources carefully so we can plan wisely for our futures. Some of us have more to manage than others, and some of us are better managers of our resources than others, but most of us would agree it is important to do our best with what we’ve been given. I don’t consider myself a skilled financial manager, but even I will periodically login to my pension plan account website and run the calculator they have to make sure I’m on track to be able to support myself in retirement, even though that still seems a long way away. Or there’s the finance chair at one of my former churches. He’s about a decade younger than me, and he’s a whiz with money. He’s constantly aware of which credit card he has that has the best rewards for that particular month, even putting little Post-it notes on his wife’s credit cards each month so she knows which ones she should use, and he figures it all out so those cards are earning money for him. He’s been a saver since he started working as a teen. He haggles with businesses for the best price. And he was able to put a significant down payment on a home when he was 21 or so because he’d been managing his money so carefully. Most of us think in some way about how to be careful and thoughtful with our money, in our present, for our future.
Do we take as much care with our resources when it comes to wisely investing in and for our relationship with God? Are we, children of light, followers of Jesus, good stewards, good long-term investors, when it comes to discipleship? Disciples are managers – all that we have responsibility for is not our own, but is what is put into our care by God. Have we, like the manager, have been caught in the act of misusing, squandering what God has given to us. Now what will we do to rectify the situation? Can we act shrewdly? John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, wrote in his sermon, “The Use of Money,” that this parable means for us “"Render unto God," not a tenth, not a third, not half, but all that is God's, be it more or less; by employing all on yourself, your household, the household of faith, and all [humankind], in such a manner, that you may give a good account of your stewardship when ye can be no longer stewards . . . Employ whatever God has entrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree to the household of faith, to all [people]!” (9) Are we doing all the possible good we can with everything that God has put in our lives? Now is the time to take action to change things where we haven’t been as savvy as the shrewd manager.
This strange parable also tells us that we need to be smarter when it comes to confronting the powers that be. Jesus’ audience of mostly lower-class folks would have paid careful attention to parables that started with “There was a rich man…” Sometimes, when we feel that we’re without power to speak out against injustice in the world, we feel helpless, and helplessness can immobilize us. But Jesus’s parable, and indeed the whole witness of the scriptures with tricksters who shrewdly fine ways to turn the table even on those who seem to hold all the cards in a situation are models for us, reminders that if we are shrewd, if even children of the light can learn to be smart with the tools God gives us, there is no power greater than God, and no power that can keep us from seeking to love and serve God and neighbor. Luke’s gospel contains several parables where an individual has to confront a crisis of some kind, and in particularly, where a person of higher status has to resolve a crisis they face. In each of those parables, it is someone with a lower social status who helps, who provides a path forward. (10) In this case, the manager, in trouble because of the rich man, is helped by debtors. Another mark of the parables in Luke’s gospel is reversals. The shrewd manager doesn’t repent, and he’s not a virtuous character for us to model our behavior after. But he does do something the reverses the expected order of things. He takes some of the rich man’s wealth, and he relieves the debt of some of those who owe significant sums. Jesus frequently talks about reversals as signs of God’s reign, God’s kin-dom. What happens when God’s reign unfolds right here and right now? God’s reign interrupts the normal way of things. The first are last and the last are first. The humbled are exalted and the exalted are humbled. A manager who is shrewd might be commended instead of punished, and someone who is rich might be happy to have their wealth slashed to make it easier on those in debt. “Old hierarchies are overturned and new friendships are established.” We may find that it is those who we thought of as below us are the ones with power to welcome us into God’s home in this life and eternity.
This parable may never be one of your favorites. Levine noted in her book that there are no beautiful paintings of this parable like there are of the emotionally moving Prodigal Son. But we should pay more attention, I think, to the shrewd manager. How clever are we being when it comes to working for God’s reign in the world? How smart are we with all that God has given us? How often are we embracing the flipped-upside-down ways of God’s kin-dom that has us making friends in unexpected ways? As it turns out, if you’re a bit of trickster, you might be right at home in God’s reign on earth, where Jesus is always surprising and challenging us. Amen.

Notes:
  1.   Levine, Amy-Jill, and Mark Zvi Brettler, ed., The Jewish Annotated New Testament, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. 134. 
  2.   Levine, Amy-Jill and Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 
  3.   Ibid., 435.
  4.   Ibid., 437. 
  5.   Ibid., 438. 
  6.   Ibid., 440-441. 
  7.   Ibid., 438. 
  8.   Ibid., 442. 
  9.   Wesley, John, “The Use of Money,” https://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-50-The-Use-of-Money. 
  10.   Carey, Greg “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13, Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=675. 
  11.   Lois Malcolm, “Commentary on Luke 16:1-13,” Working Preacher, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1783. 



Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sermon, "Parables of Jesus: Parables of Lost Things," Luke 15

Sermon 7/22/18
Luke 15


Parables of Jesus: Parables of Lost Things


Have you ever been lost? Sure, I think all of us have made wrong turns before when we’re traveling somewhere, and undoubtedly, some of us make more wrong turns than others. My mother, honestly, I’m not sure how she made it anywhere before the advent of GPS. Usually, when we’ve made a wrong turn, even if we don’t know where we are, we know how to get back to something we recognize. Have you ever felt the panic of being truly lost? The closest thing that comes to my mind didn’t involve me moving from where I was at all, and yet feeling totally panicked and lost. My oldest cousin is 9 years older than me, and she used to come and stay with us for a couple of weeks every summer. I adored her. One summer, when I was about 6, and Heather was 15, we went to the mall. I think my parents were somewhere else in the building shopping, and Heather took me to have lunch at my favorite pizza place in the food court. Part way through our meal, Heather needed to use the restroom, and she gave me the option of coming with her or sitting by myself at our lunch table. I was very mature, so I decided to wait on my own. After what seemed to me to be an eternity though, Heather still wasn’t back. She had probably been gone for 5 minutes. But I was convinced she had forgotten about me. I started crying. I was very scared. I knew where I was, but I was also feeling quite lost. I waited as long as I could, but finally I went up to the guys at the pizza counter and told them what happened. They walked me to the mall security desk, and they began paging my cousin. Imagine my parents’ astonishment to be hearing my name over the loudspeaker system! They, along with my cousin, rushed to find me, and quickly, the drama was over. My parents were very unhappy with Heather. I wasn’t old enough to know that I shouldn’t have been left alone, but she was old enough to know. The relief I felt at being found was incredible.
Today, we’re beginning a short sermon series on the Parables of Jesus. I’ll be drawing each week on some of the work of Dr. Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is a Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville. She is a Jewish woman, a scholar, and one of her missions as a seminary professor, teaching Christian students, is to help students stop reading the Bible in an inadvertently anti-Jewish way. She seeks to help us avoid what she calls “common moves to make Jesus look good by making Judaism look bad.” (44) I find her work brilliant, and last year I read her book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, in which she examines many of Jesus’ parables from her unique perspective.* Her book has now been made into a small group study curriculum, so you may see it show up here in the coming year. When I read Levine’s interpretation of the parables, her insights on the scripture are so transformative that I find myself wanting to dig through my sermon archives and delete anything I’ve previously written on the same topic.
Today, we’re starting with Parables of Lost Things: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Prodigal Son, which make up Luke chapter 15. Luke give us the briefest of intros, offering an explanation for why Jesus tells these parables. Tax-collectors and sinners of a non-descript variety are coming to hear Jesus, and Jesus doesn’t just welcome them to the crowds - he sits and eats with them. Sharing meals implies relationship. We generally eat with friends, not strangers. The religious leaders grumble - perhaps interpreting Jesus’s actions as approval of the practices of folks like tax-collectors, who many saw as collaborators with the Roman government, or perhaps preferring to maintain their religiosity by clinging to a too-good-to-eat-with-you approach. In response, Jesus tells three parables, tied together in theme.
Which of you, Jesus asks, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? In his telling, the owner who finds the lost sheep tenderly cares for it, returns it to home, and then invites friends and neighbors to rejoice with him over his finding the lost sheep. The next scenario is similar. A woman has ten silver coins. She loses one. What woman in this scenario, Jesus asks, would not light a lamp, search carefully for it until it is found, and then call together neighbor and friends to rejoice with her: she has found the coin she lost!
And finally, Jesus tells the story we know as the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus describes a father with two sons. The younger wants his share of his inheritance now, and the father gives it to him. Shortly after receiving his portion, he heads off to a distant country, and squanders what he’s received. Then a famine hits, and he gets pretty desperate. He goes to work as a hired hand, feeding pigs, and when he realizes he’s looking longingly at the pig’s foods, he decides to go home, remembering how well even the workers eat at his father’s home. He rehearses a speech to tell his father - and we can’t tell if he’s really repentant, or if he just thinks his speech will have the most impact on his father. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, because his father embraces him with joy, relief, and compassion before the son even says a word. His father dismisses the reciting of the speech quickly, calling for a huge celebration at the return of his younger son. But when the older son realize what has happened, he gets very angry and refuses to join the party. When his father comes to him, pleading for him to relent, the older son responds, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” But his father responds, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” We don’t know what happens next - if the older brother joins the party, if the younger brother changes his ways, if reconciliation between these three family members happens or not. And Jesus moves on from here to other parables.
Sometimes, when we think about being lost, we assume that the one who is lost is the one that is responsible for being lost. There’s an impulse to assign some blame, and perhaps also to set the responsibility for getting found squarely on the one who is lost. If you’re lost from God, you better get yourself found, get back on track, find your way back to God, back to faith, back to the church, back to the right track. But often, being lost is more like my trip to the mall with my cousin. I was alone and afraid, and I was the one who got up from the table where I was supposed to wait for her, but my cousin was the one who was supposed to stay with me, and she was the one who had to seek me out. Jesus’s parables about lost things don’t follow the pattern calling the lost to find themselves. Someone else has to intervene to get the one who is lost headed back in the right direction. A sheep can’t be expected to find its way back to the flock without some help. It is the shepherd who was in charge of knowing where the sheep were. Certainly a lost coin can’t find itself. The woman must search and search for it. And maybe the younger son in the parable gets “lost” and “found” on his own steam. But Levine suggests that the titles we give to parables - something added later, not in the original writing - keep us from focusing on different ways of looking at what we’re reading. A better title than The Prodigal Son is ““The Lost Son,” which is how the parable is known in Egyptian Christian sources; this title,” Levine says, “has the added value of opening the question: “Which son is lost?”” (31) The father, with only two sons, not ten coins or one hundred sheep, “was unable to count correctly,” she concludes. (49) “The father did not know until [the] moment [his son confronts him] that the elder was the son who is truly “lost” to him. Once the recognition comes, he does with the shepherd and the woman do: realizing his loss, his lost son, the son whom he loves, he seeks to make his family whole.” (68)
I want us to ask ourselves: Who are we responsible for? Who are we responsible for that we have lost? Levine, talking about the man with one hundred sheep, writes, “If he can notice the missing one and diligently seek to find it, he reminds listeners that perhaps they have lost something, or someone, as well, but have not noticed it. Before the search can begin, we need to notice what, or who, is not there.” (38) “The missing sheep, whether it is one of a hundred or a million, makes the flock incomplete. He engages in an exaggerated search, and when he has found the sheep, he engages in an equally exaggerated sense of rejoicing, first by himself and then with his friends and neighbors …. If he can realize that one of his hundred has gone missing, do we know what or whom we have lost? When was the last time we took stock or counted up who was present rather than simply counted on their presence? Will we take responsibility for the losing, and what effort will we make to find it - or him or her - again?” (45) “We can celebrate when what we have lost is found, but can we also admit our responsibility in the losing?” (47)
So, I ask again: Who have we lost that we bear responsibility for? I think about our congregation, and the sacrament of baptism, the rite that celebrates a person’s place in God’s family and in the community of the congregation. In some churches I’ve served, I’ve had folks occasionally grumble over the baptism of someone who then never showed up to worship again. Some have even suggested putting more limits on who we will baptize. And I have gently reminded folks that when we celebrate a baptism, we make a covenant - not just the person or family of the person being baptized with God - but us too, the congregation. Our baptismal liturgy includes this exchange. I ask” “Will you [the congregation] nurture one another in the Christian life and faith and includes these persons now before you in your care?” And the congregation responds - and you can read this with me - “With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ. We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 35). We take responsibility. We commit to surrounding those who are baptized with love and forgiveness and prayer. And it is hard for people who we truly surround with all that love and forgiveness and prayer to get lost.   
This month, our Council of Stewards and Council on Ministries watched a video at their meetings from Rev. Dr. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. He talked about how people become part of congregations. He said, “Ask who is missing [from your congregation]? When you look around your church does the makeup look like the people that you might see at the park or shopping? In other words, when your community looks at you, do they see themselves?” (https://www.facebook.com/lewisleadership/videos/10156249576043618/) We spent some time thinking about who isn’t in our congregation that is in our community. We noticed that our community is more economically diverse than our congregation. There are more low-income families in the community than in our congregation. There are far more young adults in our town by percentage than in our church family. We give thanks for the strong women in our congregation, but note that there are not as many men active in the life of the church as there are in the larger community. Aside from these groups of people, we might make note of individuals as well. Have we noticed who we’ve lost? Who is missing? Who had an active faith life that has not joined a new faith community, but rather is simply not engaging anywhere? And rather than wondering how they got so lost, I wonder how much time we’ve been working to find those who are missing? I’m asking myself these questions. As much as I want to help all of you who are here grow in your faith, I wonder how much time I’m really spending searching for those who aren’t here.
I think Jesus’s parables strike even closer to home too. Where, in our personal relationships, can we be seeking after those we have lost? I suspect that we all have people in our lives who are in over the heads, separated from their support systems, making choices that are hurting themselves and others, cutting off ties with people who love them - God, and us. Lost. Can we find them? Levine writes, “Recognize that the one you have lost may be right in your own household. Do whatever it takes to find the lost and then celebrate with others, both so that you can share the joy and so that the others will help prevent the recovered from ever being lost again. Don’t wait until you receive an apology; you may never get one. Don’t wait until you can muster the ability to forgive; you may never find it. Don’t stew in your sense of being ignored, for there is nothing that can be done to retrieve the past. Instead, go have lunch. Go celebrate, and invite others to join you. If the repenting and the forgiving come later, so much the better. And if not, you will still have done what is necessary. You will have begun a process that might lead to reconciliation. You will have opened a second chance for wholeness. Take advantage of resurrection - it is unlikely to happen twice.” (75) I love her words here. Levine does not promise, as the parables don’t either, that those who are lost are seeking us out to be found, finding themselves, repenting and begging for our forgiveness. Finding someone who is lost, I think, will often take shape in ways we weren’t anticipating. Relationships often aren’t the same as they were. Repentance, reconciliation, and resurrection change us deeply. Still, we are asked to consider our role: Who is missing from your life? What can you do to find them? Jesus, as usual, is our model, and we know what he does. He operates from a place of deep compassion. He searches everywhere. He opens his arms to embrace us. He makes friends with us, no matter our story. He invites us to the party, and insists it won’t be the same without us. Let us go and do likewise. Amen.


* I will be referring to this text throughout this sermon. Published New York: HarperOne, 2014.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sermon, "Voices from Prison: Paul and Silas," Acts 16:16-40

Sermon 7/15/18
Acts 16:16-40


Voices from Prison: Paul and Silas

Of the many folks we hear about who end up in prison in the Bible, the apostle Paul probably spends the most time there. As I mentioned last week, some of the epistles in the Bible, the letters, are letters that were written by Paul while in prison. Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians were all written by Paul while he was in prison, although we’re not always sure which of Paul’s multiple times in prison is the setting for each letter. It’s not surprising that he ends up in jail so frequently. He’s a Jewish man, preaching about this person Jesus Christ, and wherever he goes, he’s sharing a message that is in stark contrast to those who hear him. Many of his fellow Jewish leaders don’t appreciate his understanding of Judaism and how he speaks about Jesus as someone who both fulfills and transcends the law, and the Gentiles - the non-Jews to whom Paul preached most often don’t understand his or appreciate his Jewish identity or why because of Jesus they should become a part of this faith tradition. Everywhere, people find Paul’s words or practices upsetting, and so everywhere, he’s getting into trouble with the authorities in town, sometimes beaten, sometimes being called on to defend himself, sometimes ending up in prison. Eventually, although we don’t know Paul’s fate specifically, it is believed Paul was beheaded by the Emperor of Rome, Nero, famous for his persecution of religious minorities, including Christians. 

I knew, then, that I wanted to include Paul in this series on Voices from Prison, since I believe his experiences in prison shape his faith and his understanding of the freedom we experience in Christ significantly. His letters are littered with the language of captive, imprisoned, and freedom, and he both calls himself a prisoner of Jesus Christ, and speaks about how Christ sets us free. So what does Paul experience in prison that shapes his understanding of faith? Today we turn to a reading from the Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke, the gospel-writer, to delve into one of Paul’s trips to prison.  

The beginning of chapter 16 of Acts tells us that Paul and Silas and a group of other disciples in the early church are visiting Philippi to share the gospel there. Philippi is the community to whom Paul writes the letter that we know in our Bible as Philippians. At the beginning of the chapter, they meet a woman named Lydia, a business woman, a cloth dealer, and she and her whole household are baptized after learning about Jesus. Lydia urges the missionaries to stay at her home - she’s a woman of some wealth and can provide for everyone - and she persuades them. When our text for today begins, the apostles are using her house as a home-base, and from there each day heading out to preach and share the gospel with others. As they’re doing this each day, they encounter a girl who is a slave who brings her owners a lot of money by telling people’s fortunes, because, we read, she has a “spirit of divination.” When she sees Paul and the others, she starts to follow them and yell out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She does this every day. Like many who have what the scriptures call “unclean spirit” or are in some way “possessed by spirits,” she’s not saying anything that’s not true. But her following Paul and the gang around also doesn’t seem to be helping them find the nice introduction to talking about Jesus that they’re hoping for. Paul, Acts tells us, is “very much annoyed.” And so prompted apparently by his annoyance rather than a desire to heal the girl, Paul orders the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. And it does. 
And suddenly, this slave girl has lost her money-making capacity for her owners. It doesn’t sit well with them. They seize Paul and Silas, drag them to the local magistrates, and accuse them: “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowds join in with the accusations, and the local authorities have them stripped, beaten and flogged, and thrown in prison. The prison guard puts them in the innermost cell and fastens their feet in stocks. Prisons in biblical times were not nice places at all. “Prison time” wasn’t a typical sentence - prison was merely a holding place for those awaiting trial, and sometimes release, but often another punishment, or execution. Prisons were overcrowded. They were dark, and the inner cells, which Acts is careful to note to us is where Paul and Silas are held, would usually be entirely dark. Chains to bind prisoners were heavy, iron chains, which were particularly painful to bodies that had just been beaten and flogged. Hygiene was pretty lacking. Food was minimal - most prisoners had to rely on visitors to sustain them with food and drink of any substance. Many prisoners would be kept together in one cell. It’s a dreadful situation.* 

          Somehow, though, Paul and Silas find the strength to spend their time in prison praying and singing hymns. It’s midnight, and the text says that other prisoners are listening to them. Imagine them all in the stifling darkness, but Paul and Silas are lifting up words of hope. Suddenly, there’s an earthquake. The quaking causes the doors of the prison to be opened, and the chains of all the prisoners to fall off. The jailer wakes, sees the chaos, and gets ready to take his own life, despairing at the complete failure of his job. But Paul and Silas have not escaped - and neither have any other prisoners, for whatever reasons they might have been there. Paul speaks to prevent the jailer from hurting himself, and the jailer rushes in with lights, falls down before Paul and Silas, and asks what he must do to be saved. Apparently, he knows enough about what Paul and Silas have been arrested for to know they seem to have some compelling message to share. 

           Paul and Silas tell the jailer about Jesus. They share the good news of God’s grace not just with him, but with the whole household. And the jailer and his family decide to be baptized and to become Jesus-followers without delay. They feed Paul and Silas, and care for their wounds, and keep them in the house instead of the prison. When morning comes, the authorities send word to release Paul and Silas, and send them away. You’d think they’d rejoice at this news, but Paul instead responds: “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” He wants some accountability for the way they’ve been treated, for what we might call the lack of due process they’ve endured. Paul’s status as a Roman citizen gives him special rights, and his words grab the attention of the authorities, who indeed come and apologize. Still, they want Paul and Silas out of town now. So Paul and Silas are officially freed. They say their farewells to Lydia and the other Christians there, and leave town. 

There are so many layers of imprisonment and freedom in this passage. It’s about more than just Paul and Silas. First, there’s the slave girl. She is not free - she is a slave, and she’s bound up by this spirit that has especially made her a pawn of her masters. Something makes her call out to Paul and Silas day after day, shouting for anyone who will listen that these people have a message of salvation. Notice that we don’t hear anything else about her after Paul releases her from the spirit. We only know that Paul’s actions in her left her owners very, very angry. Paul didn’t seem to be motivated in healing her by a desire to help her, did he? He just wanted her to be quiet, I think! But Paul’s actions, though they free her from a spirit that apparently consumed her life, did nothing to free her from her slavery. Instead, they make her worthless to her owners. I’ve heard people use the phrase “freedom isn’t free.” We talk about this when we’re weighing the costs of “freedom,” and noting that rarely does what we name freedom come without some kind of price. Freedom has consequences. Paul acts on this girl’s life and bestows on her one kind of freedom. It is not for her benefit, unfortunately. Sometimes, when we’re “freeing” others with whatever actions we think are best, we’re not thinking about the consequences. When it comes to working to fight against injustice, against harm to others, against oppression, against wrongdoing, how can we make sure that what we think of as a gift of freedom to others is actually setting them free? I hope Paul had a chance to think of that slave girl, and wonder how her life unfolded after his actions. 

There is, of course, the imprisonment and freedom of Paul and Silas. They’re beaten and bound and in prison, and yet they possess within themselves a well of faith that they draw on that leaves them seeming free, even though they are in physical chains. Their trust in God leaves them with a deep contentment. They seem free from worry about their fate. I don’t mean to say that they don’t care if they live or die. I believe Paul had many plans about all the people with whom he wanted to share the gospel. I mean that he’s not anxious for the future. He’s with God when he’s in prison or out of prison. He’s a disciple of Jesus in prison or out of prison. There’s no external forces that seem to shake Paul and Silas’s faith. They’re singing and praying in prison. Even when the doors are unlocked for them by the earthquake, and their chains are loosened, they don’t rush to escape. This, I think, is the freedom in Christ that Paul talks about. His faith makes him secure in whatever he experiences. I just finished reading Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown last week, and she returns in her book again and again to a statement from Dr. Maya Angelou from a 1973 TV interview. Angelou said, “You are only free when you realize that you belong no place - you belong every place - no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.” (5) I love that. I think Paul and Silas embody that. They belong to Christ - to no place, and every place. The cost of their freedom in Christ is high. Eventually, Paul pays with his life. But the reward is great. Paul wouldn’t trade his experiences for anything, after experiencing new life in Christ, after accepting God’s unwavering, unconditional love and grace. 

And then there is the jailer. He’s the one that seems to have the most freedom in this story. He’s no slave girl, and he’s not locked up like Paul and Silas. And yet, when the earthquake happens, we immediately see how bound this man is. He exists in a system that makes it seem like taking his own life is the only possible solution. He exists in a system that would apparently punish him for the escape of prisoners even though it would have been due to circumstances completely beyond his control. He seems free, but he’s bound, chained to this punitive system that means his life can come crashing down around him with one unexpected earthquake. He has power, but he knows his power is tenuous and can be snatched away at any second. He should be calm and in control, but it is Paul and Silas who have to comfort him. Power and status, wealth and position - these things give us the illusion of freedom. But the hidden costs are deeply soul-crushing, meaning this man, this jailer feels his life is worthless without his position. How easily we can become chained by these external things that promise to give us value, promise us freedom, and leave us feeling more bound than ever! 

         When we talk about freedom, I want us to ask ourselves two questions: Free from what and free for what? Christ offers us new life, and sets us free. But I want us to know what we’re being set free from. What is binding you up? What has you chained? What has your soul imprisoned? What are you so reliant on that if it came crashing down you’d think your life was no longer of value? Christ sets us free from sin, free from the power of that which seeks to separate us from God, free from the endless quest to earn the love that God has already offered us. How does your faith make it so external chains can’t prevent you from singing hymns and witnessing to your faith, because you know who you are, who you serve, who loves you? How can Jesus set you free? 

         And what will Jesus set you free for? In our traditional United Methodist communion liturgy, there’s a prayer of confession that precedes the sharing of communion, one that you’ll find adaptations of in many Christian traditions. I invite you to share in it with me (UMH page 12): “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” I am so struck by this phrase: Free us for joyful obedience. Paul and Silas were free to serve God with their whole hearts and their whole lives. We are too. We’re free to joyfully follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We’re free to do God’s will, follow God’s way, embrace God’s love, love our neighbors, and hear - with compassion, not annoyance - the cries of the needy. We’re free in a way that gives life - true, abundant life.  The price is high. The reward is great. In Christ Jesus, we have been set free. Let’s live like people who know it. Amen. 


*Insights and information on first-century prisons found here: Derrick G. Jeter, 
https://www.insight.org/resources/article-library/individual/doing-time-in-a-first-century-prison, and here in these class note: Simón Apablazam, https://www.scribd.com/doc/14354155/Life-in-Prison-in-1ad