Monday, October 28, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 26, Ordinary 31, Year C)

Readings for 24th Sunday after Pentecost, 11/3/13:
Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 119:137-44, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4:
  • I can relate to Habakkuk's words here from the oracle: a great sense of frustration at what is going on in the world, and a desire that God would somehow just swoop in and make things right. When I look around at the injustices today, the oppression, the evil, even evil perpetrated in God's name, I can cry, "How long?"
  • "Justice never prevails . .. judgment comes forth perverted." Again, I can't help but reflect on the timeliness of this reading. The feeling that everything has somehow been skewed.
  • And God's comforting response: "there is still a vision for the appointed time . . . if it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay." Ok, God, I'll wait.
Psalm 119:137-44:
  • A short little segment from a very long psalm...
  • In this section: righteousness, righteousness, and more righteousness.
  • The servant of God delights in God's words and commandments, unlike 'foes' who forget or reject God's word. Fairly straight-forward.
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12:
  • This selection is in encouragement of the church at Thessalonia - a little pep talk, of sorts, giving them praise for their faithfulness and no doubt encouraging continuing faithfulness in the process.
  • "the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing." Is this true of you? How do you increase your love of others?
Luke 19:1-10:
  • Ok - I cannot read this passage about Zacchaeus without, in my head, singing the catchy, though language-problematic Sunday School song, "Zacchaeus was a wee little man..." Now, I wince at the potentially hurtful language, but I have to admit that I know the story by heart...
  • grumble, grumble. Didn't anyone get it? How many meals did Jesus have to share with unlovables and sinners, how many times did he have to directly say that he was intentional about the company he kept for people to get what he was talking about and why it was important?
  • But it is Zacchaeus who is most affected by Jesus' show of love: "Half of my possessions, Lord, i will give to the poor . . . I will pay back four times as much." Even on our most 'righteous' days, do we commit as much?
  • "The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost." There, Jesus saying straight out again, clearly and concisely, his purpose.

Lectionary Notes for Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25, Ordinary 30, Year C)

Readings for 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 10/27/13:
Joel 2:23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18, Luke 18:9-14

Joel 2:23-32:
  • What struck me in this passage is the connection between the people and God and their planet. Obviously, this passage connects to the specific devastation of the earth that the people have felt and are now recovering from, but still, I can't help but think that today we have a much different sense - a disconnectedness - from the planet on which we live. Instead of the devastation that does still happen on our earth making us feel separate from God and worried, we seem to have very little interest in the care of our earth, or what it means for our relationship with God...
  • "I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit." A beautiful and inspiring verse, and I'm struck by how inclusive it is in describing who will be dreaming and giving prophecy and visioning for God - old, young, men, women, free, slaves. How can we overlook verses like this to say that there are only some who are of certain categories of people that God will call to speak and preach and lead??
  • "And my people shall never again be put to shame." Shame - where is the shame in your life? What causes you shame before God? Sometimes I think we've got our sense of shame all messed up - we have shame about things that don't even matter, and no shame in areas where we ought to be ashamed of ourselves as a human race!
Psalm 65:
  • As in Joel, here again there is a strong sense of the tie between God, people, and planet. Here, instead of recovering from devastation in nature, the people (or at least the psalmist) are rejoicing in nature, showing nature, even, as joining in the praise of God.
  • And, again, as in Joel, there is forgiveness/repentance involved. "When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions." "overwhelm us" - this is a particularly good way of phrasing our human condition, in my mind. We actually do get overwhelmed by our own sinfulness, don't we? By our own actions? We don't even like ourselves, usually.
  • Note the comparison between the "roaring of the seas" and the "tumult of the peoples" - a great image.
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18:
  • "poured out as a libation" - we are poured out as an offering - we can live or not live our lives in a way that pours our self out to others and to God. But if we don't pour ourselves out, we deny ourselves being filled even more, filled to overflowing, by God's blessings!
  • "fought the good fight . . . finished the race." This is a popular funeral text, and with good reason. There is a sense of fatigue, here, in some ways, tiredness at the journey of life, but also accomplishment - a life well-lived in God's hands. I think we all hope for such a sense of 'finish'.
  • "all who have longed for his appearing." My views about Jesus' second coming are pretty non-traditional at best, so verses like this initially turn me off, or, at least, just don't impact me. But this struck me, because just the other night, I was thinking how awesome it would have been to live in Jesus' time, to see Jesus when he was ministering on earth, to hear him teaching. In that way, I can relate easily to longing for Jesus to appear to us so fully again - who would not want to experience Jesus "face to face" like this?
Luke 18:9-14:
  • The Pharisee and tax collector both come to God to pray - one thanking God that he is not like the other, like the others, who he deems inferior, but the tax collector simply praying for God's mercy. It is easy for us to say that we would never be like the Pharisee, and look down on him. But actually, we are just like him - only maybe not how we think. Before we judge the Pharisee too much, maybe we can look at him a little differently. I think he is actually trying to prove himself before God - thinking he must earn God's love. At first, I see him as arrogant and haughty, but at second read, I see him as many of us - trying hard to do what's right, but never really trusting that God's grace can be so free and easy as promised. We think eventually we will have to 'pay up' with our good deeds to get a share in God's grace. Where the tax collector gets it right is this: he knows he needs God's mercy, and he asks for it. And God gives it. Ah, amazing grace.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sermon, "Kingdom Stories: Woes," Matthew 23:1-15, 23-24

Sermon 10/27/13
Matthew 23:1-15, 23-24

Kingdom Stories: Woes

Yesterday I had the pleasure of spending time with my brother Todd’s girlfriend, who was home visiting from Indiana. Todd and Andrea moved to Indiana this summer so Todd could pursue his Master of Fine Arts in Acting at Purdue. Todd’s first production is coming up in a few weeks – he’s playing Santiago, a Cuban man, in Anna in the Tropics, which means he has to sport this lovely mustache for the next couple of months. I told Andrea at least she doesn’t have to worry about other women flirting with Todd – not with that mustache! Todd and I have long teased each other about our respective career paths. When I was in college, my major was pre-theology, a seminary prep curriculum. Todd always teased me about me majoring in-pre-the-study-of-God, theology’s literal translation. What’s pre-God, Todd would ask? But as an acting major, I told Todd he was just studying pretending and dress-up at the college level. Since Todd specializes in Shakespeare, you’re more likely to see him in tights than me in tights! We have an agreement though, since I’ve done some theatre and Todd’s done a little preaching – if Todd ever leaves acting to become a pastor, I have to leave ministry to become an actress, and vice versa – to keep things balanced.  
The word hypocrite is from two Greek words that mean “under” and “decide or judge” – so a hypocrite was a person who was subpar, below the radar, so to speak, when they were talking. In other words, someone who was presenting themselves falsely. Actually, the word hypocrite in Ancient Greece referred to stage actors! Stage actors were supposed to be hypocrites. The people who can dress up and play let’s pretend in order, actually, to reflect the sometimes unspoken truths of a society. Hypocrites in the best way. The word hypocrite gained a negative connotation when it was applied to people who weren’t stage actors, but who were behaving like actors, that is, presenting themselves falsely, pretending to be something they weren’t. Claiming to be one thing, and doing another. Hypocrisy.
About five years ago, a book called unChristian hit the circuits, being read and discussed by many pastors and churches. Unchristian shared the results of a study of perceptions held by 16-29 year olds of the church. The results were not flattering. A broad spectrum of young people described their encounter with Christianity as judgmental, only interested in converting people, homophobic, out of touch with reality, sheltered, boring, and, number one, hypocritical. Young people tolerate a lot – they’re so much more comfortable with diversity of all kinds than adults are – their world is and has always been multicultural and multiracial and multi-religious. But one thing that young people really grate against is hypocrisy. Lack of authenticity. I try to share this with people who want to work with youth ministries, or with people who assume that young people only respond to and connect with young adults, young leaders, young pastors. Young people aren’t looking for faith leaders who are cool, although kudos to you if you happen to be cool. They’re looking for real. Aren’t we all? Last week I attended the Drew Alumni Lecture Series, where one of my colleagues, Drew Dyson, said that in his research he’s found that it isn’t that young people find church so repulsive or distasteful. It’s that they just don’t find it to be anything at all. A declining institution that still doesn’t want to let just anyone be part of the community, young people find the church too hypocritical to even get stressed about.
Today, in our last week of our theme, Kingdom Stories, we read a selection from Matthew that is usually referred to as the Seven Woes. This passage from Matthew comes fairly close to the end of Jesus’ teachings. His parables have been increasingly pointed, and his interaction with the Pharisees have been frequent. In the chapter before this one, we read that the Pharisees are trying to trap Jesus, and they, along with other religious leaders keep trying to tangle him up with questions they think he can’t answer. After a series of these interactions, Jesus unleashes on the Pharisees. He warns the crowds and his disciples against them. He tells them, “the scribes and Pharisees are in the line of Moses, and they know the commandments, so listen to them, and follow as they teach, but don’t do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Jesus then continues on to accuse the scribes and Pharisees of several hypocritical behaviors in his words to the crowds. He accuses them of not practicing their own teachings. He accuses them of laying burdens onto others that are hard to bear, without offering to “lift a finger” to help ease the load. He accuses them of making a show of their faith. He says that they “make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” Phylacteries were boxes that were tied to the arm and forehead that contained words of scripture in them, and fringes were part of a garment worn by Jewish men. The long fringes and phylacteries would be worn not by common people, but by the Pharisees, as a show of their devotion, and some of them made sure to have the largest phylacteries and the longest fringes, as if that made them more devout. Jesus insisted that it was actually a show of pride in their own piety, rather than an act of devotion to God’s word. And Jesus accuses the Pharisees of being obsessed with titles and positions and places of honor. Jesus warns the crowds and disciples that they need only one father and instructor and rabbi – Jesus. That’s just the beginning.  
Jesus next says “Woe to you” with seven statements, seven reasons, to the scribes and Pharisees – one of which we read in our text today – but one gives the sense of all of them – because each of the seven woes Jesus pronounces relates to hypocrisy:
1) The scribes and Pharisees taught about God, but didn’t love God, evidenced by their keeping others from entering the kingdom.
2) They preached about God, but converted people to a dead religion, making people “twice as fit for hell as they themselves were.”
3) They taught that oaths were binding if they were made on special, lavish, expensive parts of the temple, not the temple itself.
4) They neglected the most important parts of the law – practices of mercy, faithfulness, and justice, but obeyed – and insisted on everyone else obeying – minute details of the law – like tithing spices, but not being so concerned about poverty, health, welfare of women, children, orphan, foreigner, widow, etc.
5) They presented themselves as clean on the outside, but were dirty and corrupt inside.
6) They presented themselves as holy, but were full of wickedness and unholy thoughts, like beautiful tombs that cover decaying bodies.
7) They claimed regard for the prophets, insisting they would have received the messages and teachings of the prophets, and yet, they have murderous intents toward Jesus. (1)
Jesus says “woe” to you when you’re pretending to be something before God and one another that you’re not. Woe to you, hypocrites and blind guides. Notice, Jesus doesn’t say “woe to you” if you are “sinful” – if you’re a tax collector or prostitute or woman caught in adultery or Zacchaeus or a Roman centurion or a woman with many husbands or diseased person or a possessed person – all of the things that society would have named as woeful situations. No, Jesus reserves his scathing “woes” for the Pharisees and scribes – the most ostensibly religious people of the day – because their pretending to be holy while still failing to seek after God with their hearts is much more offensive to Jesus than never claiming to be holy to begin with.
What can we take from this? The easiest take-away is to think: Man, those Pharisees were really ba-ad. Jesus really told them! But as I’ve said before, one of our best strategies for reading the scripture is to remember that when Jesus is talking, he is talking to you, to me, about you, about me. What if you replaced “scribes and Pharisees” with your own name in this passage? Or filled in Jesus’ comments with words about your own life? Woe to you, Beth, you hypocrite, for you say this, but you actually do this. What woes would Jesus call out in your life?
The worst behavior, in Jesus’ mind, is when, by your actions, and not just your actions but your actions done in the name of God, you actually push others away from knowing God, make it harder for them to get to know God. It is one thing to choose for yourself to put distance between you and God, to put on a show for others and to pretend with God that you’re holier than you really are – as if God will buy that – but it is another thing entirely when our behaviors, our actions, don’t just fail to live up to Jesus’ description of discipleship but rather masquerade as discipleship that never touches our hearts or changes our lives - all while proclaiming to be Jesus-followers – it is another thing entirely when our putting on a good show of Christianity causes others to miss hearing the good news.
We’ve been talking about justice, about righteousness and getting “set right” with God, lining up our lives, our actions, our behaviors, our values, with those of God, so that others can see in us God-in-our-midst. We’ve talked about the good news that God’s kingdom, God’s reign is right here, right now, for us to live into with God. Our mission is to announce this good news and to help work for the continual unfolding of God’s realm in our midst. I think another way we can think of that good news – the coming of the kingdom – is that we experience God’s righteousness when we are real with God, and so in turn we are able to experience the reality of God. The kingdom of God is experiencing God’s reality for us right now. But you can’t experience God’s reality by being fake. Being sinful, Jesus can work with. Making mistakes, messing up, getting it wrong – God can transform that mess. But if you won’t stop pretending you’ve already got it all right all on your own, if you won’t stop faking having it together, if you won’t stop pretending, well: Woe to us, hypocrites. How can God show us the real thing if we insist our fake stuff is the real thing already?
Just following these “woes,” Jesus laments over Jerusalem with words of longing: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem – how often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gather her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus is longing, like a mother hen, scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites though we may be, to gather us in, gather us up. Jesus is longing to be real with us. That’s what Jesus wants – the real us. The real you. The real me. Because that’s the way we can experience the real living God, the real life Jesus promises, the real reign of God in our midst. Let’s stop pretending. Jesus already knows who you really are. And he’ll take you anyway! Thanks be to God. Amen.        

Sermon, "Kingdom Stories: Laborers in the Vineyard," Matthew 20:1-18

Sermon 10/20/13
Matthew 20:1-18

Kingdom Stories: Laborers in the Vineyard

I’ve been blessed to always have enough of the essentials – food, shelter, clothing: My mother, working as a nurse, always had a job, if not two, and by the time I was say, in high school, my family had a fairly stable middle class financial situation. But it took us a long time to get there. My early years were spent in the small village of Westernville, north of Rome, and my father was out of work off and on from the time I was two until I was in close to junior high age. That is another story to tell, but the point is, we were a poor family. We used food stamps, we received help from my grandparents, and we received one of the food baskets we helped put together at church. Westernville was too small for its own schools – we were bused to Rome for school, and as geography would have it, relatively poor Westernville kids went to school with kids from some of the wealthier parts of Rome.
            Somehow, it doesn’t take many years of life to learn the difference between rich and poor and to assign value judgments – and poor is definitely not cool. The most popular girl in school, Kelly, child of a former professional baseball player and one of the teachers at school, who lived in a house that had more floors than I could count – well, she made my life pretty miserable sometimes. I remember most vividly that for my sixth grade birthday, my brother Jim took me to the mall and let me spend $100 of his hard earned money. It was a huge gift to me. In addition to Mariah Carey and Wilson Phillips single cassette tapes, my major purchase was a new outfit – a Skidz brand t-shirt and shorts. Anyone remember those? They were all the rage, and I knew, for once, I would be at school with the right clothes. When I arrived at school the next day, Kelly immediately made fun of me – because even though I had the right brand, I had purchased them from JCPenney, and not Tops N Bottoms, the cool store. I just couldn’t seem to win. I was trying to be something I wasn’t, and Kelly was sure to point it out to everyone.
            The worst thing though, was that I was a kid who attended church every week, and I read my bible, and knew it pretty well, and I knew about this parable, and I had a bad feeling I pretty much knew what it meant. I knew this parable meant that Kelly, as mean as she was, as bad as she made me and other people feel – I knew Kelly was just as loved by God as I was, and that Kelly could live her life as she was and still get God's grace and all the benefits of our generous God if she wanted them. I actually thought about that a lot. And I knew that it was just. not. fair.
This parable, sometimes known as the Parable of the Laborers or the Workers in the Vineyard, is taught by Jesus following another familiar scene. 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. Jesus then said to the disciples that it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But, Jesus said, with God, anything is possible. Then Peter says, in reply, the scriptures tell us, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?’ Peter wants to know what exactly the disciples are in for. Jesus tells them they will receive eternal life, but that the first are last and the last are first. And then he tells this parable.
A landowner goes out in the morning to hire laborers for the vineyard. He offers them “whatever is right” for a day of labor. He goes out again at noon and at 3 and at 5, and hires more and more laborers. At the end of the day, the landowner pays them all a day’s wage. All of them. That means that the workers who have worked 10 hours, 8 hours, 5 hours, and 2 hours all get the same paycheck at the end of the day. Naturally, this upsets some of the workers. The workers who worked all day were suddenly less happy with the wage they had received, because those who worked only one hour also received the same salary. But the landowner won’t hear it: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; 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?” Jesus concludes, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” And it is just. not. fair. Is it?
            Of course, we all know the adage: Life isn’t fair. No one ever said life was fair. But I think we believe that God is fair right. Isn’t God supposed to be fair? Doesn’t God want fairness? Here’s the bad news that’s really good news. God isn’t fair, and doesn’t value fairness. And we should be thankful for that! We’ve been talking for the last couple weeks about our mission and justice – what it means to be people seeking after getting set right with God’s values. Fairness isn’t really one of God’s values. I find it fascinating to figure out how frequently words occur in the scriptures. The sheer number of times a word is – or isn’t – mentioned gives us a clue about how important something in. The word just or justice occurs at least 1000 times in the scriptures in some variation. But fair and fairness? Less than 100 times, and most of them are talking about fair-faced men and women, not about equality. God is interested in justice, not fairness.
So what’s the difference? I saw a picture being posted a lot on facebook at one point that shows these two images, pointing out the difference between “equality” and “equity.” If every person receives one box to stand on, things are “equal.” But since one person doesn’t really need the box, and one person really needs two, for everyone to see the field, equal isn’t very helpful. They need things to be equitable – two boxes for one person, no boxes for another, means everyone can see. We could re-label this picture fair and just. Fair is when everyone gets the same number of boxes. Just is when everyone can watch the game, even if someone got two boxes and another person got none. God isn’t into fair. God is into just. “I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you,” we hear in the parable. Again and again in the scriptures, God chooses justice, not fairness, inviting us into a kingdom where everyone gets to play, even if it means God has to show preference for the most marginalized, outcast, on the fringes, un-included, everyone-else-deemed-not-worth-saving types. Not fairness, but justice.
But we should be thankful, not irritated, that God doesn’t play fair. Instead, we labor for a God of justice and grace. I think we would say that we know what grace is. Goodness knows I talk about it enough, and talk about what it is, and our hymns are about grace, and our liturgies and our prayers and our sacraments – all about grace. In our baptism liturgies today we talk about grace being God’s gift “offered to us without price.” Grace is God's gift to us, it is free, without price, God's unconditional – that is without conditions!  – love, which is poured out on everyone. That is grace. I hope that sounds familiar! We believe in grace as a concept, a theory. But in practice? I am not convinced we really believe in grace. We are really trying, still, to earn grace, to make sure we are doing what is good enough to be loved by God. When we hear about laboring in the vineyard, we imagine working hard enough to get God’s blessings. Still, we know from our own human experience that love is inexplicable – who can explain why we love who we love? Can it be that God truly offers love to all of us? Do we believe in grace?
Not when our first reaction to this parable is still: It’s not fair! We’re still not getting it. If we are finally convinced, at last, that God is gonna give the made-elementary-school-rotten-for-everyone-Kellys of the world as much love and grace as the awesomely well-behaved, life-long, faithful, didn’t even have delinquent college years Beths of the world, which, as we have established, is so unfair, then I think we start to have this second question that show we still don’t “get” grace: Why do we bother trying so hard to be good and to live a good life? Why do we struggle so much to follow God's plans for us, God's commands for us, when other people seem to do what they want, and end up with the same reward as we do? If we get God's grace either way, why not live a little? Party a little? Go a little crazy? Why this struggle for following God, if God will ultimately find us and lavish us with grace anyway?
Again, our response reveals what we really believe: that we see grace as a reward for good behavior and not an outright gift. Grace is not a prize that we get, but sometimes it seems that the only reason we are following God is because of the reward! But there’s a big difference between reward and gift. Grace is a gift, not a reward. When Jesus talks about abundant life, living water, bread of life, all that he offers, he is talking about what we can claim, the life we can live not in some distant future, but right now if we will walk with God who loves us. But don’t we sometimes treat these offers like chores we must complete to get to the end of the game and win the prize? We’ve got the order all wrong. We aren’t laborers in the vineyard because grace is the payment, the prize that we receive at the end. Because of grace, because we have received and can trust in, can count on God’s grace and unconditional love, we are freed up to labor in God’s vineyard, to work in God’s fields, to help bring God’s reign, God’s kingdom to others! Laboring longer in God's vineyard is not a punishment, but in itself a blessing, being part of God's kingdom now, right here, today, on this earth, in this time. Laboring in the vineyard is the reward, not the work. We aren’t supposed to work hard enough so that God will love us. Instead, we’re supposed to be inspired by our trust in God’s love and grace to work for the kingdom – so that others will know and experience the kingdom too. The payment is just the icing on the cake, and God wants everyone to get all the icing the want!      
            What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like a field of workers, all of whom have accepted the gift of grace, and who keep working to make the field more and more like master intends – getting the field to be just like the master imagines and dreams it to be. In fact, more and more people are invited to come and work in the field – we’re all working together. And thank goodness it isn’t fair. Instead, it is full of love, and grace, and justice, because we’re all invited, and God will do whatever it takes to get us there. And God continues to bless us, and bless us, and bless us. No, God is not at all interested in being fair. God is interested in justice. God is interested in mercy and compassion. God is interested in our abundant lives. God is interested in loving each and every single precious person in creation. But God definitely does not play fair. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24, Ordinary 29, Year C)

Readings for 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, 10/20/13:
Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

Jeremiah 31:27-34:
  • "I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up . . . so I will watch over them to build and to plant . . ." This verse reminds me of one of my favorites, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Magician's Nephew (book 6 in the good old way of numbering) - In TMN, the children watch as Aslan, the Christ figure, has creatures and plants springing from the ground in the newly created Narnia, even as they had earlier watched a world dying, a world devastated and torn down by human (person-driven) evil. The contrast of life and death, hope and despair.
  • "In those days, they shall no longer say: 'The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.'" I remember my Intro to Old Testament professor, (now-retired) Dr. Morgan Phillips, at Ohio Wesleyan, emphasizing the important of this verse again and again, as far as the significance in the perceived change in the nature of God. A God who does not punish to the third and fourth generation, but who is forgiving and rebuilding and creating hope and covenant. This passage is showing a God who is all about a new start.
  • "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." Again, this is God wanting a real relationship with people, for God to be the one to whom the people belong. Imagine, if God's law is on our hearts, within us, perhaps we can learn better to live by its spirit and not by its letter.
Psalm 119:97-104:
  • "Oh, how I love your law!" How many times have you heard someone say this? Usually, we are complaining that God makes too many, too difficult demands of us.
  • This psalm could be a "teacher's pet" psalm, so in love with the law and God's word and learning and wisdom is this psalmist!
  • "How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" These could be said about a lover's words - but here, of course, they mean God's words. But the intensity the psalmist feels is comparable.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
  • Again, here, as in Jeremiah and the Psalm, wisdom, law, scripture, God's word - these are key themes, 'buzz' words, so to speak.
  • "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." Perhaps one of the most misused verses in the Bible? When Timothy's mentor wrote these words to him, he of course was not referring to the Bible we read today. Personally, I can agree that scripture may be God-inspired - but that doesn't by necessity carry bound-up meanings of literalness or certain ways of translating and interpreting passages. 
  • "Sound doctrine" - what does the author mean by this? What makes a doctrine 'sound' or 'unsound'? 
  • "proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable." I do like this part of this passage. Are we persistent with God's message? Persistent with living the gospel? Are we always waiting for the favorable time? If we do that, won't we just be waiting forever?
Luke 18:1-8:
  • Speaking of persistence...
  • Justice - we can read this passage perhaps two ways - we, who need God's justice because we have been oppressed or down-trodden, or we, who need God's justice because we have been oppressing and treading on others. The closing verse of the passage perhaps suggests the latter reading, but the rest of the passage leans more toward the former.
  • "[God's] chosen ones" - What does Jesus mean here by 'chosen ones'? Is he talking about Israel? Or a broader idea of chosen? Are we chosen? 
  • The point? If even an unjust just can make just decisions because of being annoyed into action, God, who loves us, can certainly be trusted to act justly too.

Sermon, "Kingdom Stories: The Unforgiving Servant," Matthew 18:21-35

Sermon 10/13/13
Matthew 18:21-35

Kingdom Stories: The Unforgiving Servant

            As I continue to work on my Doctor of Ministry research and project, I have to admit that I’ve been doing a lot of checking on the exact requirements the school has for every step of the project. For example, I recently had to submit my project proposal and portfolio, and before I sent in my work, I read the student handbook carefully to make sure that my work complied to every standard. There was a required length – my proposal had to be a certain number of pages long. There were required sections that the proposal had to have. Each section had to answer certain required questions. I was required to have an annotated bibliography with a certain number of sources. My footnotes had to be formatted in a certain required way. I want my research project to be compelling, interesting, worth my time. I’m not required to complete this degree program – I’m doing it because I want to learn more, not because I’m required to learn more. But there are parts of it that I will tell you bluntly that I’m only doing because I’m required to do them. I could have gotten the point of my proposal across in a lot fewer pages, but because a certain length was required, I made sure I kept writing until I had enough content to get my work approved. We all have to deal with that, don’t we? Times and situations when there are things that we are doing only because we are required to do them. Sometimes there are laws that we follow only because we’ll get in trouble otherwise. There are rules or procedures in our workplaces that we must follow because someone else has told us we must – someone who has some form of power in our lives. Sometimes, of course, rules and laws tell us to do or not do things we’d want to do or not do anyway. We might want to support our public schools, most of us want to live peacefully with one another – it’s more than a law that keeps us from stealing or lying or hurting each other. But often, the law tells us what is required, and we do no more than that. Not many people elect to pay more income tax than they have to, for example.
            This month we’re focusing on kingdom stories in the gospel of Matthew – Jesus’ teaching that tells us about what the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven is like. And usually, what Jesus says has some surprising element to it. Often, when Jesus tells a parable, he tells it in response to some situation we encounter in the gospels, and in particular, he often tells them in response to a question someone has asked him. The funny thing about the questions that people ask Jesus is that most of them have a common theme running through them, even though that theme might not be obvious at first. The theme of many of the questions, besides that basic, “Huh? What do you mean? I don’t get it” question is: What’s required? What do I have to do to still be ok, “in,” doing “enough” to please God? Which commandment is most important? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Is it right to pay taxes? Who is my neighbor? What reasons are ok for a man to give to divorce his wife? Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Why don’t you and your disciples follow the rules? How often do I have to forgive – is this enough? And Jesus’ answers to these questions comes to us in parables about the kingdom.
Before our text for today, the disciples have asked Jesus some questions, and he has responded, teaching about not being stumbling blocks for one another, talking about it being better to enter God's kingdom without a foot or hand rather than to stumble and stray because of it. He speaks about conflict in the community, recommending a course of action if someone has sinned against you. And then, perhaps in response to this teaching, Peter asks Jesus: ╩║Lord, if another member of the faith community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?╩║ Now, the way Peter asks his question gives you an idea that he thinks he is being pretty broad in his suggested response. As many as seven times? Peter asks and lets Jesus know he thinks seven times is a lot. See, Peter is learning, even though he stumbles. He is learning from Jesus and has learned that Jesus is pretty extravagant sometimes – not when it comes to having things and possessions and money. But extravagant about his relationships with others. Jesus is pretty extravagant with his compassion, justice, and mercy. Always going farther than anyone else was prepared to go. Peter, I suspect, thinks he will impress Jesus, by saying he suspects you might need to forgive someone up to seven times if they sin against you! Seven times!
             Jesus replies, “Nice try, Peter. Try seventy seven times. Seventy seven.” Not because Jesus actually wants us to count up to 77 in the number of times we forgive. But because Jesus wants us to stop counting. Because we’re asking the wrong question. Jesus tells a parable, about the kingdom of heaven, saying, “It’s like this. A king wanted to settle his debts. He called forward a slave who owed him 10,000 talents. The slave could not pay, so the king prepared to sell the slave, his family, and his possessions to make the payment. But the slave begged for mercy and patience, promising to pay. The king had mercy and cancelled the entire debt and released the slave, beyond what the slave asked for. But later, the same slave encounters a peer who owes him a small sum of money, a hundred denarii. He violently demands payment, and when his peer can’t pay, and begs for mercy, the slave denies him mercy, and has him thrown in prison. When the king finds out about it, he calls the slave before him. ‘How could you not show mercy to your fellow slave, as I showed you mercy?’ Finally, the king hands the slave over and requires payment for the debt.” Jesus concludes, saying that this is how it will be with us if we do not forgive one another.
            I have a small group of people working with me as research participants for my project, and we’re spending a lot of time talking about mission, charity, and justice. In our Bible Study last week, I talked about justice and righteousness – they’re almost use synonymously in the Bible, and I understand their meaning when I think about how you can justify text on word document on a computer. You can make the margins all line up evenly – that’s justified text – or you can let the lines end in a jagged sort of way, all out of line – that’s unjustified. I always like both of my margins justified. When we talk about justice and righteousness, we’re talking about getting things set right, set in line with God’s vision for us. Justice is when God’s will is fully carried out here on earth.
We talked in our study about how charity is optional – we can choose to give or not give to others as we will. But justice is what God requires. Sure, we can fail to achieve it, fail to participate in it, but justice is God’s aim and intention for our world. Justice is a requirement of God’s world when it is set right. We talked about Micah 6:8, where God answers the question of what is required of us. God says what is required is to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” So, justice is a requirement. But God doesn’t stop there. It is justice, accompanied by love and humility. Justice isn’t when we seek out the minimum we can do and still get by. It is when, with humility, and full of love for God and one another, we seek after justice as a way to have the world, and our hearts, set right in line with God.
This parable focuses on forgiving debts. And when the gospels talk about forgiving debts, the financial kind, we find the same words in Greek that are frequently used for forgiving sins – released from debt, released from sin – the language of forgiveness is the same in both contexts. In the United Methodist tradition, we say “trespasses and trespassers” in the Lord’s prayer, but in other traditions, people pray, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” With our financial debts – when you borrow, you owe the money until you repay it – or, rarely, until someone else decides to cancel your debt! So it is with sin. Sin is when you find yourself in debt to God, neighbor, or self, because of the harm you’ve caused. You are in someone’s debt when you’ve sinned against them. Their forgiveness releases you. 
To experience justice when it comes to debt or sin and forgiveness, what needs to get “set right,” in line with God is as much, maybe more about the hearts of those who feel that forgiveness is theirs to extend or withhold as it is about those who feel they have debt that needs cancelling, forgiving. Do you want to know how much to forgive? Tell me at what point you’d like God to stop forgiving you, loving you, offering grace to you – and you’ll touch on the answer. If God ever stopped forgiving us, no matter how high the count of our sins, if God ever stopped loving us, or extending grace to us, we are beyond lost. And when we stop forgiving each other, when we stop releasing each other from real or perceived debts we are owed, when we cannot stop counting the wrongs others have done – then we have lost each other and tried our best to lose God. How much should we forgive? How much should we let go? How high should we count when it comes to forgiveness? God says we’re just asking all the wrong questions. Instead, how much can we love? How transformed by grace can our lives be? What miracles will forgiveness work in the world? The possibilities are limitless.
How much should we forgive? Who is our neighbor? What’s required? We’re already asking the wrong questions! As soon as we wonder first about the requirement instead of the love and grace that motivates forgiveness, that motives our relationships, that motivates our following Jesus, we’re asking the wrong question, and we’ll never find the answer that satisfies. What is the kingdom of God like? What would it be like to experience the kingdom of heaven on earth? Those are the questions that will keep our lives in an endlessly unfolding conversation with Jesus, as we experience the kingdom that is already at hand. Amen.


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lectionary Notes for Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23, Ordinary 28, Year C)

Readings for 21st Sunday after Pentecost, 10/13/13:
Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 66:1-12, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7:
  • Even though the people are in exile, God tells them to live their lives anyway - to get in with building and planting and marrying and giving birth. On the one hand, the passage suggests, this is so the people can remain strong and even increase even though they are in exile. But on the other hand, I see this as God saying - "hey, this is life, right now, and it is still rich and abundant even in the midst of chaos. Get on with it!" Do you ever use your bad situations/circumstances to put God and your spiritual life on hold? 
  • God tells the people to pray for the city where they are in exile. Pray for those who have separated them from their homeland. Pray for those probably thought of not-too-fondly...
  • "for in its welfare you will find your welfare." I think this is hands down the best sentence in this passage. We're interrelated. We're a global community. We're all God's children. We share a home. Our welfare is tied up in their welfare and vise versa. If we could get this in our heads, and get "us" vs. "them" out of our heads...
Psalm 66:1-12:
  • Mostly a praise psalm here, but with some specific perspectives. This psalm directly addresses God's hand in leading the Israelites out of Egypt into "a spacious place."
  • God "rules by his might forever." I guess we do say that God is mighty, but something about this wording turns me off - I don't want God to rule by might - sounds too much like rule by force. Ruling by force is not a powerful act, in my mind, but a cowardly act. I'd rather God rule by moving us, luring us to want relationship with God.
  • vs. 10-12 speak of all the 'testing' sort of tasks the people have endured at God's hands - the net, the burdens, through fire and water. Do you feel your trials have been laid out to you by God? That God has set you up to be tested? This idea has never set right with me, not quite.
2 Timothy 2:8-15:
  • "The word of God is not chained." Thanks to God for that! Do we hear this? Live this? I think it is a miracle that the word of God is not chained, because we are constantly trying to do just that - confine it, constrict it, contain it, use it for our very specific purposes. We abuse God's word and use it to chain people, hurt people, keep people out of the church. But God's word is not chained!!
  • "if we deny [Christ], Christ will also deny us." Is that true? Do the gospels even support such a statement? I don't think so. The follow up, "if we are faithless, he remains faithful," rings more true to me.
  • "wrangling over words." I love this phrase - church is such a place for wrangling over words. But, we are warned, it "does no good but only ruins those who are listening." We should read this passage at General Conference!
Luke 17:11-19:
  • "your faith has made you well." Ten are healed, but only one is "made well" or "saved" as the Greek seso^ken suggests. How is this man who returned going to be different then the others, who also were cleansed from their disease? What does it mean to be made whole or well as opposed to being cured from a sickness.
  • When the ten leave at first to show themselves to the priest, as Jesus commanded, this would have been part of the Mosaic law. When someone was healed, or claimed to be healed, going to the priests was a way of 'officiating' the results, so to speak. So the one man returns after his healing is 'confirmed' by the religious leaders.
  • Just a note of interest - the word for "master" that the lepers use here is in this instance a Greek word epistata, which literally means 'the one set/placed over [others].'
  • Note the importance of the man's identity as an outsider - Luke points it out - "and he was a Samaritan." And so does Jesus, saying, "this stranger/foreigner/one of another race."

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Sermon, "Kingdom Stories: Wheat and Weeds," Matthew

Sermon 10/6/13
Matthew 13:24-30

Kingdom Stories: Wheat and Weeds

            This month we’re starting a new focus in worship, as we look at some of Jesus’ teachings in the gospel of Matthew that focus on the Kingdom of God. When Jesus teaches in parables, they often begin with him saying, “The kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven is like.” The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. It’s like a woman who lost a coin. It’s like a king who decided to settle accounts. It’s like a pearl of great value. It’s like a field where a someone sowed good wheat, but then someone else sowed weed in that same field. Jesus spends so much time describing what that kingdom is like because announcing the immediate presence of God’s kingdom is the very good news Jesus came to share. “The kingdom of God is at hand” is the short summary of Jesus’ preaching and teaching. Repent, change the direction of your life, because the realm of God is right in our midst, not far off and inaccessible.
            If Jesus’ primary message is about the presence of the kingdom of God, and if he spends all this time teaching about this kingdom of God that operates in a way that surprises us, flips our expectations upside down, values the very opposite of what the world tells us is valuable, then our mission, as the church, is to keep announcing that good news too, and to be a place where people – individually and together – can start bringing their lives into line with this upside-down transformed set of values that Jesus offers as an alternative to the values of power, money, and position that the world claims as true. Jesus announces that God’s kingdom is here and God’s kingdom has a different set of values than we’ve been sold on all our lives. And our mission is to keep making the announcement, keep changing our lives so that our values are God’s values. What would it look like, then, if when we talked about “mission” in the church, we were talking about the work we do to invite others to come alongside us and reorder our lives so that what’s most important to God is also most important to us?
            If we want to repent, to redirect our lives so that our values are the same as God’s values, we have to be sure we are clear about what those values are. And that’s what the parables of Jesus are all about. And often, what we find there is surprising. Take today’s lesson: The Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. This is a parable we have to try to listen to with fresh attention, listening for things that our 21st century ears might miss. With a simple reading of this text, we might say that this is the message for us: there are good people in the world, represented by the good seed. And then there are the not-so-good people - they are the weeds in the world. We are instructed not to put them in their places ourselves, but to wait for the harvest - the Judgment Day. Then we, the wheat, will be taken to heaven, and they, the weeds, will be thrown into the fire. That’s the surface reading, what we get if we only take away our first impressions.
        But looking more carefully at the text, we can find several questions to ask, actually, and find several things that might surprise us. First, we hear that the owner has sown the wheat and the ‘enemy’ has sown the weeds. Why didn’t the owner have his slaves sow the seed, a normal duty they would usually perform? Why does an enemy need to plant weeds? Anyone with gardening experience knows that weeds grow quite easily without being intentionally planted. What other kind of seed would a gardener sow besides “good” seed? The adjective seems unnecessary, unless it bears some greater significance. And why shouldn’t the slaves tear up the weeds right away? Normally, gardens are weeded not just once, but several times during a season, with a variety of techniques. A few good plants might be pulled up accidentally, but in the end the seeds produce stronger and healthier plants after a good weeding. Not only that, but Jesus’ Jewish audience would know that a field with two kinds of plants intentionally sown in it, including a combination of wheat and weeds, would make the field ritually unclean. The householder, though, implies that the wheat and weeds are too similar, growing too closely together, too intertwined to be separated without mistaking wheat for weed and weed for wheat.             Over the summer, a group of us studied the life and teachings of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement. Class participants had the option of reading through some of the sermons of John Wesley, a challenging assignment, since his sermons were lengthy and in language that sounds very formal and outdated to our 21st century ears. One of the sermons assigned was Wesley’s sermon called the Almost Christian. Wesley starts by describing the “almost Christian” as a person who adopts the basic human behavior of decency that most everyone subscribes to: Not stealing, not lying, helping those in need when possible. He says an almost Christian “does nothing which the gospel forbids” and has the outer form of godliness, the outer attitude of a Christian. The almost Christian does good, too, and not just easy acts of goodwill, but works hard so that by all means, some might be helped. The almost Christian attends church regularly, prays regularly, and has a real desire to serve God. This, Wesley says, is the almost Christian.
            After hearing this description, Wesley rightly guesses that his audience will wonder: how can such a person be only an almost Christian rather than an altogether Christian? Well, Wesley also describes the altogether Christian. The altogether Christian first loves God. This love of God “engrosses the whole heart … rakes up all the affections … fills the entire capacity of the soul.” I love that description. Do you love God like that? Second, the altogether Christian loves the neighbor. And who is our neighbor? Every [one] in the world, Wesley says, even our enemies, even enemies of God, even enemies of one’s soul. And this love of our neighbors is to be the kind of love that Christ shows for us, the kind of love that the apostle Paul describes to the Corinthians, love that bears and endures all things. And the altogether Christian is grounded in faith in God. “Do good designs and good desires make a Christian?” asked Wesley. “By no means, unless they are brought to good effect.”
            The almost Christian and the altogether Christian might appear to be quite similar at first glance. Almost like wheat and weeds in a field. Jesus’ parables frequently have surprises – we’re surprised by who is praised and who is chided in Jesus’ teachings. We’re so sure that we are wheat! But Jesus says sometimes wheat and weeds look so similar you can’t tell them apart. What does that say about our lives as Christ-follower? Jesus says his disciples will be known by their love, but clearly, Jesus knows that sometimes we get tangled up in this world and Christ-followers are more distinguishable for being judgmental and hurtful than loving. We’re so sure that we are wheat, and we’re so sure, like the slaves, that we should pull out the weeds. So maybe we think we’re the slaves too, ready to claim the title of servant to God as master. But another surprise: whichever role we think is “ours” in this story – whether we’re wheat, weed, or slaves to the householder, there is no role we can play where we are given the responsibility of distinguishing wheat from weed and tearing the weed up. Nowhere are we given the task of identifying and pulling weeds. Whoever we are, once sown, wheat and weeds must grow together until the harvest, or in uprooting the weeds, the wheat will be torn up too. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools.” We don’t get to separate ourselves from each other quite so easily.
            What is the kingdom of God like? It’s like a place where even when weeds are sown where we intended to plant only wheat, where sometimes we’re more almost Christians than altogether Christians, where sometimes we’re intent on rooting out the bad only to find that we look an awful lot like a weed to pulled, even when all that happens, God wants to wait for the harvest, when what is gathered in will be and abundance beyond our imagining. Our mission, as Jesus-followers, is to make sure others know, just as we remind ourselves of this, that no one is getting weeded out. We’re in this field together, and thankfully, God and God’s kingdoms, God’s surprising-upside-down-values are right in our midst.

Today we celebrate World Communion Sunday. We celebrate Jesus taking bread and wine and making them holy, consecrating them, into a gift of his body, his life poured out for us. Jesus takes bread and wine and makes them and us into the Body of Christ. As we celebrate this gift, this transformation of ordinary into holy, of one thing into something completely new, I believe that we follow a God who can transform weeds into wheat. If Jesus can change water into wine, if Jesus can transform bread and juice into a meal where we meet God’s grace in the flesh, so then can God transform our outer-shells of a life into the real deal that makes for a plentiful harvest. Thanks be to God. Amen.