I’ll Be There

(sermon 9/27/20)

Photo by Samad Deldar, used with permission – pexels.com

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

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Last week, the primary First Lectionary Text of the day was from Exodus 16, detailing God’s provision of quail and manna for the Israelites to eat as they were led by Moses through the Wilderness. It’s a great reading, but it’s a bit long, and trying to be mindful of the length of the service, I opted for the shorter alternative text from Jonah. That Exodus reading was a lead-in to today’s First Reading where, although the Israelites now have food, while they’re en route to the place God had said to go, Moses had chosen a place to encamp that had no water – the most essential of requirements for life.

The story is full of tension and drama. For us English speakers, the drama is even more amplified by a coincidental play on words between the Hebrew and English – they’re in “the Wilderness of Sin;” I mean come on, you know something noteworthy is going to happen in this story.

And what happens is that as a group the Israelites, who have had problems with Moses’ leadership in the past, confront Moses about his choice of campsites. In fact, the Hebrew term here is “rib”, which is often used to denote filing a complaint, often in a legal or a judicial sense. In short, the people lodged a vote of no confidence in Moses, citing his incompetence and ineffectiveness.

Moses’ response was interesting, and completely human. First, his defenses up, he complains about the complaints and the complainers; that the charges are baseless and unfair. And then – importantly – he equates the people’s complaining about him with their complaining about God; equating his own leadership decisions with God’s. It’s unthinkable to test or challenge God, so now it’s unthinkable to challenge Moses. To do so would call into question the complainers’ goodness or loyalty as Israelites. This was Moses’ response to the mass of people challenging his leadership, even though in the passage, we never hear that God had picked this particular campsite, and we never hear the people actually challenging God at all, only Moses.

This story comes down to us in the Book of Exodus along with the author’s intended gloss, telling us at the tail end, in the last verse, what we’re supposed to think about it – that it’s an illustration of the Israelites being troublesome complainers, disloyal, even at times anti-God; a “stubborn and stiff-necked people” as it says elsewhere in the scriptures. But if I just read the actual words here, without that gloss, I don’t see faithlessness. I don’t see any challenge to God. I see a group of people who are dying of thirst, who are suffering, who are rightly upset and angry at Moses and his leadership – which, honestly, the scriptural record shows to be pretty spotty and even at times unacceptable to God.

And just looking at the words, it’s almost impossible, especially after this most difficult and newsworthy week here in Louisville, to not see parallels between the Israelites’ complaints against Moses, and Moses’ response to their complaints; and the anti-racism protestors’ complaints lodged against the city’s leadership, and their response to that challenge; that those complaining are just a bunch of complaining, disloyal troublemakers.

If the story stopped there, it could end up being just another depressing reminder of all the chaos and problems we’re all living through right now, especially in the wake of the grand jury decision regarding the killing of Breonna Taylor, but also in so many other ways beyond even that. But thanks be to God, this story doesn’t end there. In fact, out of all that trouble, two important, over-arching, hope-filled moments of grace and gospel, both for the ancient Israelites and for us, comes through in the end.

The first of these is that the Israelites’ complaints, and their discomforting of Moses, were actually heard. Simply put, the Israelites standing up and making themselves heard by the power over them got actual results. This fact, that people’s voices, working together, can work change, real change, great change, in the leadership over us, was hope-filled good news to those Israelites, and it’s every bit as good to us as well, whether we’re talking about seeking an anti-racist city and society, or we’re thinking more generally about the incredibly important election coming up in just over a month. There’s great hope in the fact that the Israelites were heard. If you’ve seen any video of protests coming out of downtown, or other cities, whether on the evening news, or online, maybe watching one of the “502livestreamers”, you might have heard an often used chant that makes this very same point, that ”There ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people won’t stop!”

Of course, we aren’t naïve. We’ve all been around the block more than a few times, and we all know that massed “people power” can be a force used for good or bad, and that actually brings me to the second, and most important, most hope-filled, most gospel, good news in this story. Moses goes to God for help, and interestingly, he ups the ante to God claiming that he was afraid that the people were about to stone him; he was afraid they were going to resort to violence – even though the people never said anything like that in the story. In God’s wisdom, God just sluffs off that comment, but then tells Moses “I’ll be there.” God commits to being present, and to bringing a solution to the people’s suffering. God says “Moses, you still have a part in this too; you’ve got to get your rear end out here to this rock, but I’ll be there, ready to make things happen. You go ahead and strike the rock with your staff, and I’ll make the waters flow. In this story, Moses was just an agent in God, the real power, the real authority, solving the people’s problem. It was God’s presence, and God’s ability, and God’s desire, that caused the life-giving water to flow from the rock – bringing forth water where there seemed to be no water; bringing forth hope where there seemed to be no hope; bringing forth goodness and life where there appeared to be none.

Right now, in any number of ways, it might seem like there’s little if any hope at all, whether we’re looking at larger social issues, or we’re just at our wit’s end about when our kids can get back to school in person. Or we can go back to work in person. Or back to church in person. Or when we’ll be able to see our relatives again in person. Or maybe it’s a lack of hope due to concerns about our health. Or our finances. Our a strained or broken relationship, among family or friends. Or something else; whatever it is that might be sapping our hope right now, know that God is just as present with you, with us, as was the case in this text. Know that through Christ, God was present, and is present, and remains present; as is able and willing to cause living waters to flow for us, too. God can, and will. We might not know how, or when, but God will. God will hear our voices. God will hear our prayers. God will hear our cries, see our tears; embrace our worries and know our fears; and will bring us out of our wilderness just as the Israelites were brought out of theirs. This is our great hope. This is our great joy. Because while the protestors are right about the power of the people, it’s even more true that there ain’t no power like the power of God, ‘cause the power of God won’t stop.

So hold on to the hope in this story. And don’t be afraid, don’t worry, if you never actually hear God say “I’ll be there;” it’s only because God already is.

Thanks be to God.

All in a Day’s Work

(sermon 9/20/20)

Photo used with permission – Wikimedia Commons

Matthew 20:1-16  

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘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?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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In an odd twist, I was going to be dealing with today’s gospel text one way or another. As you probably know, our Adult Learn & Serve class is currently in the middle of a short series about Jesus’ parables. And by the way, our Learn & Serve classes are open to anyone, including any of you who have just found us online in recent months – in fact, we’d love to have you join us; all you have to do is send me your email and we’ll forward you the weekly Zoom login. In any case, I’d originally picked this particular parable, the Parable of the Laborers in the Field, as the topic for today’s class, before I noticed it was also the gospel Lectionary Text for today, so I quickly picked another parable for the class. So if you’re going to take part in the class, you’re going to get a parable “twofer” today.

Jesus’ parables are prickly things. They can be hard to understand. They usually don’t have nice, tidy, happy endings that all work out by the top of the hour like a network TV show, and if we don’t come away from hearing one of Jesus’ parables without feeling at least a little uneasy, or challenged, or discomforted, the odds are we aren’t paying attention or understanding them correctly. That’s just the kind of storyteller Jesus was.

This particular parable is one that many of us especially love to hate, because let’s face it, it rubs us the wrong way to think that the workers who had worked all day were paid the same as the workers who’d only worked an hour. It just seems so unfair. It seems, let’s go ahead and say it, just downright socialist. What is this parable all about?

Well for starters, it really doesn’t appear to be at all about “the last being first, and the first being last,” as Matthew attributes Jesus as saying is the point or the moral of the story. While that might have been an original teaching of Jesus in some other setting, it appears to have been tacked on to this story and doesn’t really fit well. Think about it: the workers first hired weren’t angry because the last workers hired got paid first; they were angry because the landowner who’d hired them had made them equal to the others.

So as we try to understand Jesus’ original point in the story, we can – as many scholars have done – see the parable as an allegory, where each character or element in the story represents some other person or group of people or thing. Following this model, it’s traditionally been assumed that the landowner represented God, doling out divine rewards; the vineyard represents the kingdom of heaven and God’s covenant; And the first hired have been thought to be the Jewish people, and the last ones hired were considered Gentile Christians who’d come late to God’s covenant but who get the same kind of reward from God as the first hired. This way of understanding the parable has some serious problems, actually. It can be used to depict Jews as being unhappy, unsatisfied, jealous, petty, and overly concerned with money – and in fact, the parable has been used by people to try to make precisely those wrong-headed anti-Jewish messages.

On the other hand, there are some good points to thinking about the parable like this. It would speak to the idea that God’s grace is abundant, and God’s acceptance is equal for all who receive it. And if the first hired did represent the Jewish people, the parable would then show that, unlike what some Christians mistakenly claim, the Jewish people do remain within God’s covenant after the appearance of Christians – they’d stayed in the vineyard, and gotten their pay; the landowner didn’t kick them out after the later workers showed up.

But what if Jesus never meant the parable to be understood as an allegory? Many parables in scriptures and taught by rabbis weren’t, in fact. What if Jesus was trying to teach something about the kingdom of God through a story where a landowner really represented a landowner, a laborer a laborer, and a vineyard a vineyard? What if Jesus’ story wasn’t so much about heaven or how to get into it, but more about how we’re actually supposed to treat people here and now? Let’s think about it that way then.

If we hear the words of the parable, the landowner didn’t cheat anyone. He paid the first workers what they’d agreed to; a normal wage for a day’s work, a denarius. But he also recognized that the last workers hired, who for whatever reason hadn’t had work for most of the day, still needed their daily bread; they still had the exact same daily needs as the first hired, whether they’d worked or not. Just by virtue of their being human beings, being created, as we often point out, in the very image of God, they were deserving of having their basic needs met – that simply by virtue of their being human, they had a right to that.

I don’t know; is that what Jesus’ original point was? Is that what he’s trying to teach people here? That in God’s economics, in God’s understanding of fairness, that’s the way that we’re supposed to treat one another? I mean, I don’t know, even though it might rub us the wrong way and be contrary to our own perception of economic principles and fairness, was this parable Jesus’ way of arguing for a minimum living wage? a universal basic income? universal healthcare? universal free education? An end to homelessness? If we’re going to look at this parable seriously, and as little through our own cultural and contextual filters as possible, I think we have to at least seriously consider that possibility. Is this parable Jesus’ way of showing us God’s real understanding of economics and fairness, and his telling us what it really means to pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?

When it comes right down to it, is the landowner actually more fair than what we want to give him credit for? Does he recognize that it’s very possible that the first hired today might also be the last hired tomorrow, and vice versa; and it would only be fair – as well, from a selfish standpoint, as being the only way he’d be assured of having a sufficient workforce to run his vineyard – if everyone’s basic human needs were being sufficiently met, regardless of their work output on any given day, or on the whims of whether they’d been hired one day or not?

And do we only see the landowner as being unfair because we’ve been conditioned to see the parable through the eyes of the first hired? I suspect, in fact, I know, we’d see things differently if we imagined this story through the eyes of the last hired.

Clearly, God has bestowed more than ample resources and wealth in this world to more than provide for the daily needs of every person on the planet, multiple times over – and the only thing preventing that from happening is our own perceptions of fairness and merit, and it’s pretty clear that on this score, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.

To that point – the point that God has provided us with all we need, and the only thing between it actually being provided is our own perceptions and human-imposed priorities: This isn’t the setting to consider how that might work or how it could be fixed. But instead of that, I invite you this week to look around, and see what God is providing us, to meet our actual needs, that aren’t being obstructed in some way, that we actually can access. Right now, based on conversations with a lot of you, and knowing my own thoughts and feelings, I think it’s safe to say that right now, many if not most of us are having feelings of isolation. Separation. Disconnectedness and disjointedness. Loss. Grief. Depression, uncertainty, free-floating anxiety. Fear. But even now, just as the landowner in the parable did still pay the laborers regardless of whatever the conditions in the vineyard were that day, God is still providing us with a number of things we do have access to; that no one can block us from receiving. We still have human relationships, the love and support and comfort of family, and church, and friends, even if we can’t access them the same way right now. God does still give us the technology to access those relationships, and even provides people who can help us learn and use that technology if it’s new to us. God still gives us the hope and promise of new beginnings, and God’s continued love and care, with every new sunrise, every new flower that blooms, every gentle rainfall, every changing of the seasons. Through both the beautiful, continuing, natural rhythms of creation, and especially in the love that we still share with family and friends, God is offering us our daily need to know that God is still present, and we are still loved, and that good times will most assuredly follow the bad ones. So look for those cues, look for those ways that God is providing us with our needs in ways that can’t be blocked by misplaced priorities or perceptions. For us, as God’s laborers regardless of when we were hired, to do that is all in a day’s work.

Thanks be to God.

Holy Weirdness

(sermon 9/6/20)

Photo by zepfanman.com – used with permission https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

Romans 10:8-14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

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Matthew 18:15-20

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

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Church people are weird. Don’t get me wrong; everyone is weird in one way or another; that doesn’t uniquely distinguish us from other people. You’d just like to wish that church people might have things a bit more figured out and because of that, we’d be a little less dysfunctional and weird than non-church people, but that really just isn’t the case – we’re just as weird as everyone else. In fact, studies have shown that statistically, we’re actually slightly more weird, when it comes to any number of social dysfunctions, than the general population.

One of these ways is the way we deal with disagreements, and when we feel that we’ve been wronged by another church person. And that’s a problem since while it’s true, as Jesus said in today’s gospel text, that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, he will be there with them, it’s also just as true that wherever two or more are gathered in his name, there will be an argument. And when church people fight, we often fight hard, and fight dirty, because obviously we all think we’re right, and we all think we’re fighting for God’s honor, and we all think we have God on our side.

We fight hard. We fight dirty. And we can fight weird. I mean, really, think about some of the crazy, counterproductive, shooting-ourselves-in-the-foot kinds of dysfunctional, weird things we church people do when we have disagreements. I thought about listing some examples here, but your own mental list is probably better and more comprehensive than might could be right now. And it’s been that way in the church since its very beginning.

So with that backdrop, let’s think about today’s gospel text. It starts with Jesus talking about the church, and laying down what almost seems like a detailed disciplinary section of church’s original Book of Order. And that’s odd, since there wasn’t any church yet when Jesus was alive, so it seems pretty likely that this is more of an attempt by the new church, a few decades after Jesus, to establish some ground rules for dealing with disagreements in the church; rules no doubt consistent with Jesus’ teachings, but not actually something he said in these words, but giving them more authority by putting these words in Jesus’ mouth. If a member sins against you, go to that person by yourself, privately, to try to resolve your differences. Don’t just ignore them or avoid them. But don’t call them out, either. Don’t publicly blowtorch them on Facebook or Twitter. Don’t deny or deprive them of their own human dignity as a fellow child of God. Reason with them. Then, if that doesn’t work, go to them in a small group of two or three of you to still keep the dispute relatively private as you try to resolve things. Finally, only if it hasn’t been resolved yet, then take it to the whole church to be resolved. For what it’s worth, it’s important to note that even at this point Jesus doesn’t mention anything about Tweetstorms.

One of the things I thought about as I read this text this week was the implied but unspoken possibility: what if the person who had allegedly sinned, who had allegedly been in the wrong, was brought before the whole church for supposed correction, but the church ended up siding with them – deciding that whatever the person had done wasn’t wrong, that they hadn’t sinned?

This gets into a very important aspect of Reformed theology, that through the moving of the Holy Spirit, God’s intentions are most likely to be correctly discerned collectively, rather than by a single individual. The acknowledgement that individual people can err, and frankly, so can collective church bodies; and because of that, what someone, or some church body, thinks is right or wrong at one point needs to be periodically revisited as new contexts present themselves. This is truly an argument against any church doctrine of an unchanging theology, an unchanging doctrine, an unchanging church across all time. It’s an argument in favor of, as we say, “The Church reformed, and always being reformed in accordance with the Word of God.”

This concept of examining a situation in light of some scripture and determining whether the scripture applies or doesn’t, and whether the particular thing that’s occurred in wrong, sin, or it isn’t – this interpretive work of the scriptures – was known as “binding and loosing” in ancient Jewish culture. If the religious scholars examined a situation and felt that a particular scripture applied in that case, the situation was “bound” by the scripture and compliance with it was necessary. On the other hand, if they examined the situation and determined that the scripture didn’t apply, then the situation was “loosed” from that scripture, and there was no sin in not abiding by it.

Now, this passage makes the point that the church has the authority to bind and loose – to determine what is and isn’t considered wrong or sinful, in this process of periodically reviewing and perhaps revising its thoughts in light of new and different contexts.

We, the church, have the ability – and it’s a sobering and humbling one – to change over time what we see as right or wrong; what is consistent with the kingdom of God and what isn’t. And of course, the church has done this, and we’ve done it in our own lives, many times and regarding many things.

But that ability leads to a dilemma: How do you know, either personally or collectively as the Church, if you’re getting it right? If there isn’t some fixed, permanent, single authority out there to decree what’s right? Doesn’t that put us on some hopeless slippery slope of ambiguity, where nothing’s nailed down and everything’s in some grey area? If we can change the rules, as it were, how do we know we aren’t getting something wrong?

Unfortunately, the answer to that is that we don’t. We can’t know perfectly; and history is full of examples of when we get things wrong, sometimes horribly wrong. But still, in this passage Christ calls us all to live on just that slippery slope, if we’re going to try to conduct our personal lives, and our collective lives as church, and by extension our society, in ways consistent with his teachings and the reign of God. Even if we can’t have that kind of absolutely certainty that maybe we’d like, Paul gives us a pretty good and reliable way for us to do the best we can at this, in the Romans passage that Lauren read for us this morning. Here, he gives us an excellent touchstone for our discernment of who or what might be right, and who or what might be wrong – what positions might be consistent with the kingdom of God and our Christian faith. It really comes down to a simple formula – the most loving thing is always the right thing. The most loving thing is always the right thing. All the Law, all the prophets, all the gospel, distills down to that one simple concept. And Paul writes that the loving thing is defined as the thing that does not harm a neighbor. Love is the fulfilling of the Law. If they’d had microphones in Paul’s time, you could see him doing a mic drop right there. BOOM.

If we do the most loving thing in any situation, we’ll please God. If we don’t allow ourselves to let personal interest, or traditions, or biases, or politics, or our “you just don’t understand”s, or our “that just doesn’t work in the real world”s, to keep us from doing the loving thing, the we will please God. And if we don’t, we won’t. And it will, in fact, work in the real world, because the real world is God’s world. Doing the loving thing requires us to eliminate and rebuild any thing, any system, any structure, any institution, any power or law or regulation, any norm or standard or assumption or tradition, that obstructs from doing the most loving thing and not harming a neighbor.

Does that sound weird? Maybe it is, but here, it’s being weird in a good way. Let’s all strive to be that kind of weird. To paraphrase the scriptures, We can be weird, because through Jesus Christ, God was first weird for us. God first broke down and bound the systems and norms and customs and powers that held us hostage; and loosed us, freed us, into new life, and new love, and an ability to have the same radical kind of love for others. And in gratitude for that, we can surely work to bind up the bad, to keep it from causing harm. We can bind up the tears and the wounds in our world and promote and work for healing. We can loose the powers of love, and forgiveness, and mercy; we can loose justice, and equity, and compassion. And if we do that, we will please God, both in the doing and even just in the desire of doing it.

Maybe that sounds too ambitious. Maybe it sounds hopelessly idealistic or naïve. Maybe it sounds weird. But that’s OK. Because we were all already weird anyway. And for that kind of weirdness, I’ll say

Thanks be to God.