The God We Expect

Twelve Angry Men

“12 Angry Men,” MGM Studios, 1957

(sermon 11/19/17)

Matthew 25:14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

=====

The other night, I re-watched the classic old movie “Twelve Angry Men.” If you’ve seen it, you know it’s about a jury who is deliberating the fate of an eighteen-year old defendant who is accused of murdering his father. At the beginning of the deliberations, eleven of the jurors are convinced that this is an open-and-shut case, that the evidence is clear that this teenager is guilty of the crime – it’s a clear-cut case. There’s only one juror, the character played by Henry Fonda, who isn’t so certain. He doesn’t necessarily know if the teenager is innocent, but he’s not really convinced that the case that the prosecution has put forward makes as open-and-shut a case as the other eleven jurors think. In his mind, there was at least a reasonable amount of doubt, so he was voting not guilty. So the jurors continue to deliberate, and they talk through the evidence and the testimony, and gradually, one by one, each of the jurors recognize that even though the prosecution’s case looked really solid on the surface, the minute you started digging a little bit deeper, the evidence didn’t really hold up. And so, one by one, each of the jurors changes their vote. They recognize that as they looked at the evidence, they had allowed their preconceived perceptions to give them the appearance of something that really wasn’t necessarily the case. And in the case of several of these jurors, they came to realize that their perception of the evidence was also being clouded by another perception – the perception of the defendant himself, who was underprivileged and lived in the ghetto, and was part of some never-specified ethnic minority group. They realized that they were allowing their preconceptions of that ethnic group, not actual facts, to convict the young man in their minds. They realized that their perceptions were skewed.

Perceptions are an important element of this parable from Matthew’s gospel that we just heard. We’ve heard this parable over and over again since we were probably five or six years old, and we’ve been taught that the parable is a kind of allegory, where the characters in the story represent someone or something else, and in this case, we’ve been conditioned to perceive that the landowner in the story is supposed to represent Jesus himself, or in a broader sense, God. Jesus is going to go away, and he’s entrusted things to his servants, and he’s going to return at some point, and of course then, the message of the parable is that we’re supposed to be good and faithful stewards of what God has entrusted to us; we’re supposed to take what God has given us and put it to good service in the kingdom of God. That’s a perfectly good and valid message that we can glean from this parable. In fact, it sounds a whole lot like last week’s sermon, when we looked at the story Jesus tells in Matthew just before this one; they’re kind of a linked pair. But I wonder if there aren’t other, additional ways that we can look at the parable and maybe get additional valid understandings.

For example, what if we didn’t automatically assume that the landowner represented Jesus? A lot of people have suggested that maybe that was the case; maybe the landowner is just a landowner. Maybe the slaves are just slaves. And maybe instead of this being a message about Jesus, it’s a story that points out the unfairness of the way of the world, and that the kingdom of God is the *opposite* of what we’re hearing here. I mean, let’s face it, if we’re supposed to assume that the landowner represents Jesus, that can get pretty troubling, because there are some things in the story that aren’t very flattering to the landowner. We’re told in the story that the landowner is exploitative. He gets the slaves to do all the work, and then he reaps all the profits. We’re at least told by the third slave that he’s a harsh man; that he reaps where he hasn’t sown. That doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know. So let’s assume for a moment that maybe this is a story that tells about what’s going on in the world that we in the kingdom of God are supposed to resist, that the God opposes. Can we look at the parable this way, in addition to the first way we were taught it? I think we can. I think that these words in the parable, to the one who has much, more will be given; and the one who has little will have even that taken away from them, that sounds a whole lot more like “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” that we in the kingdom of God must oppose. So I think there’s some validity to perceiving the parable that way.

But there’s something else, another perception, in this parable that I really want to focus on today. I don’t want to focus so much on our perception of the landowner, and who the landowner may or may not represent, but rather, on the third slave’s perception of him. The third slave perceives that his master is harsh; that he’s unjust. But you know, in this story, we don’t really know if that’s true; all that we have to support that assessment is the third slave’s perception; none of the others have made any indication that this was really the case. Is it possible, then, and we heard in the story that the landowner gave to each of these slaves “to each according to his ability,” that the landowner had a lot of faith in the business skills of the first slave, so he gives him five talents – insert whatever dollar value you want here; the proportions are what are important. And he looks at the second slave and thinks well, he doesn’t have quite as much business sense as the first, but he’s still got a relatively good head on his shoulders, so I’ll give him two talents. And then there’s the third slave, and the landowner looks at him and shakes his head and thinks, bless his heart, he really doesn’t have any business sense at all, but his heart’s in the right place, let’s just give him one talent and see what he can do with it. Is it possible that when the landowner came back and the third slave hadn’t made any money with his one talent, he would have thought “You know, that’s OK. I really didn’t have any great expectations from him anyway; at least he didn’t lose the money.” And really, think about this scenario for a moment: here’s a person who has a total of eight talents to invest, and he ends up with 15 talents. That’s an 87% return on investment earned for his portfolio that balances risk across three different investment strategies ranging from high-risk to no-risk. I don’t know about you, but I’d be very happy with that rate of return, and I suspect that in reality, a landowner like the one in the story probably would be, too.

So maybe all the problems that the third slave ended up enduring was just the result of a false perception of the landowner. Maybe his harsh and insulting words to the landowner just ticked the landowner off, and that was the reason for the landowner overreacting and treating the third slave so harshly. Maybe the third slave’s fate was a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, all stemming from a flawed perception of what his master was like.

And I think that’s another important message that we can take away from this parable – that there’s a similarity between the problems that the third slave’s misperceptions caused for him, and the ways that we can perceive God. Each of us has a particular perception, or image, of God. There are as many different perceptions of God under this roof today as there are people here today. Those perceptions are shaped by our past experiences, by what we heard in Sunday School when we were six years old, by what we heard in Confirmation when we were thirteen, what we heard on television last week, what the school of hard knocks has drilled down into us over the years. All of these things work into our perception of what God is really like. Sometimes, those perceptions are constructive and helpful; other times, maybe not so much. It’s easy to see the broad range of perceptions of God when you look at the full spectrum of people who call themselves Christian. Some people perceive God to be the harsh taskmaster, standing by with a checklist just waiting for you to mess up, and when you do, then the hammer is going to fall. Some people are very exclusionary and judgmental themselves, so they perceive a God who is similarly exclusionary and judgmental. And there are others who have a more forgiving and gracious perception of God. In the end, because of our own perceptions, the God we expect becomes the God we experience.

So today, I ask you to consider: what is your image of God? What is your perception of God? Are there things in your life, in your experience, that are causing you to react, and respond, and to embrace an image of God that is inconsistent with the God that Jesus personifies? Are we harboring any unconstructive images of God, based on our perceptions?

As you consider that, remember that as Jesus is telling this parable in Matthew’s gospel, he’s on his way to Jerusalem. In just a few short days, Jesu is going to be crucified. Not because of some mandatory requirement that literal blood has to be shed to receive forgiveness from a bloodthirsty God; and not because he’s receiving some kind of substitutionary punishment that God demands in order for God to love and forgive us. But rather, because the totality of Jesus’ life and ministry and death and resurrection was intended by God to show us the full depth, to show us how far God is willing to go, to teach us the ways of love, and mercy, and forgiveness, and welcome to all of God’s people. Jesus’ life and ministry was about all of that, and for standing up for the poor and the oppressed against the powers that be; and for that reason he was seen as a threat and was killed.

That’s something important to consider when we examine our own perceptions of what God must be like. And I’m convinced that if we keep that in mind, then the perception that God is truly all loving, and merciful, and forgiving, and gracious, will be an open-and-shut case.

Thanks be to God.

Advertisements

Ugly Words, Scary Story

(sermon 10/15/17)

banquet

Exodus 32:1-14

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

=====

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

=====

Isn’t this an odd story? Really, when we hear this parable, isn’t it more than a little discomforting? Here’s a story about a king who flies into a fit of rage because people won’t come to a big, lavish party he’s invited them all to, and in his rage, he ends up causing harm, even death, to thousands, and who knows, we don’t know the size of the city, maybe millions of people who haven’t done anything wrong to the king, by obliterating their city, and all because his precious, tender ego had been bruised. Then he sends his people out to bring in other guests – a rental crowd, if you will – just to fill the empty seats and make sure that it looks like the king is great, and very popular, and to give the impression that his wedding party would be the best and biggest one ever. Finally, after bringing in all these new guests, telling them they’re invited and welcome to the party, and the guests all come in under those terms, the king comes in and changes the rules on them after the fact. He throws one of the guests out for not complying with his new rules, throwing him out of the palace and presumably out into the death and destruction of the burning city that the king had destroyed, even though the guest had really been abiding by the rules originally set out for him.

This is an ugly story. And yet, the way most of us have been taught about it over the years is that this parable is an allegorical depiction of what the kingdom of God is like, and that the king in the story represents God. Well, I’m sorry to say this, but I don’t think I buy that. To me, this all sounds a lot more like the pride and ego and capriciousness of the kingdom of this world, not the kingdom of heaven; and the king in the story sounds more like a madman, an egomaniac who wouldn’t deserve respect if he were a human leader in this world, let alone if he were the eternal God of the universe. He clearly doesn’t resemble the God of all love; the God who is portrayed in the scriptures as continually changing his mind in favor of offering mercy to people instead of lashing out in anger, just as we heard in today’s first reading. No, the king in this story doesn’t represent any God that I can comprehend through observing Jesus’ life, and the studying the totality of the scriptures.

Now I will say that I don’t have any doubt that whoever wrote Matthew’s gospel really did mean to portray God in just this way. I’m sure he was trying to portray a God who rejects an initial group of selected people and who will deal harshly with them, and who invites in replacements – but replacements who can’t get too cocky themselves, or they’ll suffer the same fate as the first group. I don’t have any doubt that the writer of this gospel framed this story in a way to denounce and discredit the Jewish religious leaders who rejected Jesus; and to explain, in hindsight, the reason for the Romans’ destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple, which had occurred shortly before this gospel was written. And it was intended to claim that Jesus’ followers – who by now were mostly Gentiles – were now God’s new favored ones. I’m sure that was the author’s intent.

But we need to understand a bit of history here. We need to know that this gospel was written at a time of terrible division and bitterness and hatred between the Jewish orthodoxy and Jesus’ followers, and telling the parable this way was the author’s equivalent of sending a letter or email out to someone when you’re the maddest at them and haven’t had time to take a breath and see things a bit more clearly. It was the equivalent of posting a snarky, hurtful meme on Facebook designed to make your own group look good by trashing and insulting the other side. It’s an ugly, and frankly, counterproductive thing when people do it now, and it was just as ugly and counterproductive when the author of this gospel did it in the first century. And back then, just as it is now, once hurtful, ugly words are spoken, they can’t be unspoken – they take on a life of their own, and the hurt they cause can continue for a long time. Unfortunately, this parable has been used hurtfully up until our own present time by some people to want to justify the worst kinds of prejudice and discrimination and violence against Jewish people. To be honest, I think that not only have this writer’s way of telling this parable been harmful, it’s served to disguise what Jesus may have originally said, and what he’d originally meant.

And we can look at this passage with those critical eyes, you know. The truth is, this same story shows up here in Matthew, and again in Luke, and also in the so-called Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian collection of the sayings of Jesus that wasn’t itself included in the New Testament. And in each of these versions, you can see that the author told some basic, core teaching of Jesus, but each of them told it in a way with some degree of editorial “slant” that emphasized their particular overriding message.

If that’s the case then, what might be a better way for us to hear this parable as it appears in Matthew? Is it possible to strip away some of Matthew’s dangerous and ugly editorial slant, and maybe get closer to what Jesus might really have been saying?  Is there a way to hear the gospel here, and reject the hate?

Well, how about something like this summary: The kingdom of God is indeed like a banquet that God is hosting – a banquet that we begin to enjoy here in this life as we live in relationship with God and with one another, and it continues at this Table as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and it continues into eternity. It will be something indescribably good and wonderful, and God will not allow anything in the world to prevent it from happening. And God invites the famous and the faceless, the great and small, the good and the bad, the acceptable and unacceptable. And finally, as the banquet goes on, God does expect those guests – us guests – to show, with God’s own help, some evidence of lives transformed by this act of immense grace, and welcome, and hospitality on God’s part. This is the great joy, the great hope, that all of us guests have through our faith in Christ, regardless of what the kingdoms of the world and the kings of the world might do to crush our hope.

Maybe that’s a good synopsis of Jesus’ original point. Maybe that’s really the good news that we can get out of this parable, after strippng away the storyteller’s harmful editorializing. I don’t know, what do you think? We all have to reach our own conclusions, I guess, but I think it is, anyway. Because that’s the kind of banquet I hope for – that’s the kind of God that I can put my faith and trust in.

Thanks be to God.

In the Weeds (sermon 6/14/15)

morning glories in field

[Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.   – Mark 4:26-34

=====

I didn’t mean to give Ed a heart attack.

Well, it wasn’t really a heart attack, but at the time it almost seemed almost like one. Let me explain. You see, even though my father grew up on a farm, as part of a big farming family, I didn’t. I grew up as a town boy, and although there were plenty of farms around the town I grew up in, my firsthand knowledge of farming, then and now, is pretty limited. This made for some interesting situations in my first pastorate, which was serving a wonderful, small congregation in southern Ohio that was literally in the middle of miles of some of the most beautiful, fertile, flat farmland imaginable. As I’d navigate through the fields of corn, wheat, and soybean on the hour-long trip between my home and the church, it was like driving through an incredible, always-changing oil painting. And it was one of those scenes that caused Ed’s near-heart attack.

One spring, shortly after the fields had been plowed, I was driving down to the church for a Saturday morning men’s breakfast and Bible study. And I noticed that almost overnight, the fields had filled with a sea of little purplish-colored flowers. Their deep color, and the greenery glistening with the morning dew and sparkling in the bright morning sunlight, all under the almost endless, crystal-blue, biggest sky this side of Montana – it was really a strikingly beautiful thing. When I got to the church, as we were eating breakfast, I mentioned the scene to the guys there, and I said I knew the purple things were some kid of wildflower; I didn’t know what they were but in any case they sure were pretty. And that’s when Ed, who was around 75 at the time and had probably been farming since he could crawl, almost had a cow right there on the carpet. He actually spit his coffee, and his heart almost vapor-locked as he sputtered, “Pretty? Pretty? Those aren’t pretty; they’re morning glories! They take over everything and everywhere, they’ll choke out whatever you plant; I think I’ve spent half my life trying to get rid of those awful things!”

I am not a farmer.

Well in this passage from Mark, Jesus just told a bunch of people, undoubtedly including a bunch of farmers, that the kingdom of God is just like morning glories. That’s basically what mustard shrubs are. I know for a long time, when I’d read this parable and I’d try to imagine how Jesus is portraying the kingdom of God, I’d picture some big, majestic tree that’s chock-full of a bunch of cheerful, happy, Disney-animated wildlife, all singing some happy song like It’s a Small World or something like that.

But that wasn’t what Jesus was actually trying to portray at all. The farmers that Jesus was talking to knew that mustard shrubs were invasive, pervasive. They grew quickly, and they overtook scarce farmland. They were wild, erratic, and would get large, casting shade that stunted the remaining crops around them. And the animals that they sheltered were more cursed than cute; they were the animals who ate the seed before it could grow, and ate the crops after they did. So why would Jesus say the kingdom of God was something like that?

Maybe because whether we like it or not, the kingdom of God doesn’t play by our rules. Wherever it takes root, it grows and spreads on its own terms, faster and more tenaciously than we’d imagine. It is anything but decent and in good order. It doesn’t care about our timelines or clocks or schedules or plans.  It goes where we don’t expect it to; it goes where we don’t want it to. It laughs at the neat, orderly rows that we’d planned for our fields; it really doesn’t care about the fences or boundaries we set or the pre-calculated yield per acre we’re expecting. And the people who end up finding shelter and a home in the kingdom of God are often the people who are looked down on in society – the scorned, the marginalized, the ones not fit for polite company, the ones who are just as troublesome as the birds and animals in the mustard shrub.

The people in Jesus’ time wanted their experience of God, their encounter with God and God’s kingdom, to be as carefully planned and standardized and managed and controlled as their farmland. They wanted to encounter God in a predictable and non-threatening way, a socially acceptable way that didn’t rock the boat. They wanted a God that stayed inside the lines.

But in this parable, Jesus was telling people that God’s love, the way of the kingdom of God, is always coloring outside the lines. God’s love knows no boundaries that we’d set for it, it doesn’t abide by any social or cultural norms we’d try to make it obey, it welcomes and accepts the most socially unacceptable within its loving shelter. While we might need to work hard to get the morning glories or mustard shrubs out of our farm fields, when it comes to God’s love and the kingdom of God, what we need to do is to just get out of its way and not do anything to obstruct it. Let it sweep up and cover the whole earth. Let it take in all of us, supposedly respectable and otherwise. The best thing we can do with this wild thing of God’s love is not to obstruct it, but to nurture it, to try to let it grow and spread even more.

And that’s exactly what we do in our Christian Ed ministries, all of those things that our congregation does that we recognize here this morning. Whether it’s directed toward children, youth, or adults, what we’re doing is planting seeds designed to grow the kingdom of God, to plant the love of God into hearts, and to spread that love to others. That’s our whole job as members of that kingdom. Father Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Department chaplain who was killed on 9/11, had a short, very simple prayer that sums up how we should be part of God’s kingdom, and to let it grow as wildly and unpredictably as God sees fit. He prayed, “Lord, take me where you want me to go, let me meet who you want me to meet, tell me what you want me to say, and keep me out of your way.” That’s a pretty good approach. But just to be on the safe side, make sure that when you’re saying whatever it might be that God wants you to say, they don’t have a mouthful of coffee.

Thanks be to God.

Save the Date! (sermon 10/12/14)

 

save_the_date

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” – Matthew 22:1-14

=====

A while back, I officiated the marriage of an old friend in Columbus – she was actually a former employee of my architectural firm, and I was so pleased and honored to perform the wedding when she eventually asked me to. But the very first notice I had about the upcoming wedding was actually a couple of months before that, when I got an envelope in the mail, and when I opened it, there was a pretty good-sized refrigerator magnet, that had in bold letters, “Save the Date!” along with their names, and the date and place of the wedding. It was a “pre-invitation,” something less formal than the actual invitation that would eventually would show up. I’d never received a “pre-invitation” to a wedding before, but as I’ve been talking to people about it, I guess that’s a fairly common thing that couples do now. Who knew?

Well, while I didn’t know that people were sending out pre-invitations to weddings, and banquets, and parties these days, I did know that to do so was fairly common in Jesus’ time, and that’s what had happened in this parable from Matthew’s gospel that we heard today. In the parable, a king was throwing a wedding banquet for his son, and he had apparently sent out “pre-invitations” to his guests. And when the time for the banquet drew near, he sent his servants out to his guests as a second announcement, the formal announcement, that now it was time to come to the banquet. As we heard, the first group of guests ignored the formal summons. They even killed some of the servants sent out. This has some similarity to the parable about the tenants of the vineyard we talked about last week. And we heard how the king ordered his servants to go out into the streets – the words the king uses denotes going out to the most remote parts of the land – and to drag in replacement guests. He’s determined that this banquet is going to go on.

Of course, very similarly to the parable we heard last week, the king here represents God, and the servants he sent out to the invited guests are the prophets that God sent to the people to call them to the banquet, the great eternal kingdom of God, and the prophets aren’t listened to. So God makes different plans and calls completely different people from those originally invited to come into the banquet. Just like last week’s parable, it isn’t hard to understand how this parable has been used over the centuries to further anti-Semitic viewpoints: the Jews were those people who didn’t listen to God, and who hurt God’s messengers, and who God got mad at, so now it’s us Gentiles who are *really* God’s chosen people these days. But the fact remains, Jesus himself was a devoted, observant Jew. None of his teachings took away from that fact; in fact Jesus never renounced his Jewish faith and never told anyone else to do so, either. To Jesus, there’s nothing wrong with being a Jew; and he shows that a person can be a Jew and also be perfectly consistent with Jesus’ teachings. But over the past 2,000 years, we Christians have had a really dreadful record of persecution and discrimination against Jewish people, partly as a result of interpreting the Jews as the unworthy first guests that Jesus talks about.

But listen to Jesus’ actual words in the parable. What are the people who refused to attend the banquet more focused on? Different religious views? No. Jesus says one went to his farm, another went to his business. They’re more concerned about their own financial self-interests than in fulfilling their king’s wishes. In Luke’s version of this parable, the reasons that the guests give make this point even more explicit. Based on that, couldn’t we get the message that Jesus wasn’t picking on the Jews, but rather, was issuing a warning to anyone who would put their own self-interests, and particularly their own financial self-interests, ahead of fulfilling God’s will? Could we draw out of this that those are the people who are considered “unworthy,” to use the language in the parable?

Another interesting thing about this story is how all the new guests – the “good and the bad,” according to Jesus – come to the banquet, and everything’s going just great, and everyone is welcome – except for one of the guests who’s found to not be wearing a special celebratory wedding garment – he’s underdressed, unprepared for the occasion, he hasn’t lived up to the king’s expectations of him in the invitation. What’s Jesus trying to teach with this twist in the story? Maybe the point here for us is that even though these guests weren’t invited due to any particular merit of their own – they just happened to be standing around when the king’s servants were rounding up replacements – there still needs to be some kind of follow-through action on their part, out of gratitude for having been brought into the banquet. If all we do is just show up for the fun and the free food, we’ve missed the point. We’re just looking for a free ride without any obligation or responsibility to do anything, or change anything in our lives in order to be God’s agents of change and love in the world if it comes at some cost to us. The great Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called that “cheap grace.” [Wow – my Lutheran seminary will be so proud of me; I managed to slip a reference to Bonhoeffer into two consecutive Presbyterian sermons. Maybe they’ll send me a free T shirt or something for that.]

I think that Jesus is saying that no matter who we are, or what the pedigree of our invitation into the kingdom of God, we can’t just sit on our hands and rely on the mere fact that God has called us. We can’t keep on living in ways inconsistent with God’s will for us if we can change them. That goes to issues of personal morality, issues of treating others with the same spirit of grace and forgiveness that God extends to us, issues of how we shape our personal lives as followers of Christ. We can’t rest on our laurels or think that we’re in the kingdom of God now, and our actions, our listening to God’s word to us, just don’t matter. Some people have said that perhaps the most significant message that Jesus offered to us through his earthly ministry is to show, through his life and his words, that a faith that pleases God can’t just be head-knowledge. It can’t just be all-receiving, all-the-time, with no giving. They’ve said that perhaps the most significant message from Jesus is that when it comes to our religious faith, we need to put our money where our mouths are – our actions need to reflect what we say we believe.

It’s an important lesson for us as individuals, and for us as the Church, too. Because mostly what God calls us to do, in terms of being prepared and true to our faith, is to reach out to others, extending God’s love and God’s message to them. And it shouldn’t surprise anyone here for me to say that very few of our churches are doing a very good job of that. Our church institutions, by and large, are operating on models that may have worked 100, or 50, or even 30 years ago, but which aren’t working any more. We can’t just blame those people “out there” for the fact that they aren’t a part of the church. Most of these same people say they believe in God, and consider themselves spiritual, but they’ve voted with their minds and their feet, saying that the institutional Church has simply lost relevance to their daily lives and spiritual and emotional needs. Our congregation has a great opportunity right now, in this transitional time, to dig into that issue for ourselves. We have the opportunity to really, really look at where God’s love needs to be extended right here in Auburn, and how God is calling us to help do that. Out of gratitude for being brought to the banquet ourselves, now we need to extend that grace and acceptance to others – because, as we heard in the parable, it doesn’t really go well at all for that poor shlub at the banquet who hadn’t lived up to the king’s expectations. As a congregation, let’s take a long, hard look at how we can live out our gratitude, and to do what our King wants us to be doing. When our King steps into the banquet hall, let’s make sure we’re wearing the king’s wedding garment, and not the emperor’s new clothes.

Thanks be to God.

What Do You Know? (sermon 10/5/14)

 

will smith tommy lee jones mib park bench

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet. – Matthew 21:33-46

=====

There’s a scene near the beginning of the movie “Men in Black” where the two main characters, played by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are sitting on a park bench. Smith’s character is a cop, and Jones’ character is one of those beyond-top-secret, off-the-grid federal agents who have the job of dealing with extraterrestrials here on earth and keeping their existence secret from the general public. Just before the park bench scene, Jones has brought Smith into their headquarters and invited him to join their super-s ecret group. While he’s there, Smith is shocked when he meets his first real-live aliens, just hanging out around the coffee pot in the breakroom, of all places.

So there these two characters are, sitting there on the park bench as Smith is trying to process this shocking new knowledge he’s gained that aliens are real, and all around him, and trying to decide whether he should join the Men in Black. At one point in the conversation, Tommy Lee Jones is discussing human knowledge, and how it’s shifted over time, and he says, “Fifteen hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Human understanding, and knowledge, does shift over time. That’s true in general, and it’s true in terms of our religious thought, too. In fact, the examples that Tommy Lee Jones offered were both examples of religious-based “knowledge” that was later proven to be flat wrong. It isn’t hard to come up with other examples. We used to know that human slavery was not just acceptable, but ordained, by God. We used to know that some races were designed by God to be inferior to others. We used to know that drinking, and dancing, and playing cards were sinful abominations in the eyes of God. We knew that women were subordinate to men, and that they weren’t supposed to be in leadership positions in the church, and that if they had any questions in church they were supposed to keep quiet and just ask their husbands about it once they got home. We knew that our understanding of Christianity, coming out of the Western European tradition, was superior to the other, sometimes very different, ways of understanding the faith originating in other places around the globe; in Africa, or Asia, or even the Holy Land itself. Some of us know that God is a Republican, or a Democrat – take your pick.

And for a long time, many Christians – probably most Christians, unfortunately – used to know that the Jewish people were the “Christ Killers” – that they had angered God and were deserving of God’s worst wrath. That because of their hard-headedness, God had cast them aside and replaced them with us Christians as his new chosen people.

This idea is called “Replacement Theology,” and for centuries the Christian church gripped onto it tightly. You’ll find it in the writings of the early church fathers. During the Reformation, Martin Luther wrote horrible, scathing attacks on the Jewish people. John Calvin didn’t write as much about the Jews as Luther, but what he did write was every bit as hateful and anti-Semitic. You can even find Replacement Theology in the writing of the great 20th century theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It wasn’t until after WW II, when the church was forced to see how their anti-Jewish teachings had fed and given cover to the mindset that allowed the Holocaust to occur, that we finally began to reexamine and question what we supposedly “know” about the relationship among us, and our Jewish brothers and sisters, and God.

It’s a little ironic that this passage comes up in our Lectionary today, just a day after the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, arguably the holiest of days in the Jewish year – because this parable from Matthew’s gospel has often been used throughout the history of the church to support this ugly idea of Replacement Theology. There really isn’t any question that the way Matthew’s author has presented this gospel, that he’s interpreting Jesus’ words to make the Replacement Theology argument. And maybe we could say that when this gospel was written, Christians were still a distinct minority in the friction that existed between Christians and Jews, so this bit of theological sour grapes wasn’t so harmful when he wrote it. But a couple of centuries later, when Christianity became officially sanctioned by the Roman government, and Christians eventually became a majority over Jews, this understanding of what we “knew” became a very dangerous thing. With all due respect to the author of Matthew’s gospel, I think it’s important to ask ourselves if maybe he missed the real point of what Jesus had said some 50-odd years before this gospel was written down.

When we look at the parable, we get pretty quickly that we’re supposed to see the landowner as God, who’s entrusted some group of people to carry out some task on his behalf. But this group, whoever they’re supposed to be, doesn’t do that, and they abuse and even kill the landowner’s representatives, who we’re supposed to understand are the various prophets that God sent out into the world. Ultimately, this group even kills the landowner’s son, who of course, we can’t help but understand is Jesus himself. And after telling this story, Jesus asks the people listening to him, “What will the landowner do to these tenants?” And his listeners say “He will kill them and let out the vineyard to others.” Then, Jesus tells the people who gave that answer that the Kingdom of God will be taken away from them and given to others.

Matthew, and many Christians over the past 2,000 years, want us to “know” that it’s at least the Jewish religious leaders, and maybe the entirety of the Jewish people, who are this group of people represented by the bad tenants; and that, of course, the Christians are the good tenants who are going to now possess what God has supposedly stripped from the bad tenants after they rejected God’s Son.

But I wonder if maybe the bad tenants don’t represent the Jews, but rather, pretty much all of us. I wonder if we aren’t all just as much the bad tenants as anyone else. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection atones for all of our sins, across all time and space and nationality, and the fact that we’re all in need of that atonement means that we’re all just as complicit in Jesus’ death as Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate. We’re all, in part, the bad tenants who have killed the landowner’s son. So we’d all better hope that God, the landowner, won’t deal with us the way that Jesus’ listeners said he should – the way that makes sense according to our own sense of justice. Thankfully, we find out the answer to Jesus’ question “What will the landowner do with the bad tenants?” by looking at his own life. From the cross itself, Jesus, the real landowner’s Son, prayed for God to forgive the people who were responsible for his death, and through his resurrection, we know that God accepted and answered that prayer, offering reconciliation to all of us.

I wonder if Jesus told those original listeners of his that the Kingdom of God would be taken from them and given to others because they showed that they didn’t understand the full depth of God’s love and forgiveness and acceptance, because they expected him to be vengeful against the tenants. I wonder if Jesus meant that the Kingdom of God wouldn’t be taken from them because they’d answered Jesus’ question right, as Matthew suggests, but rather, because they’d actually answered the question wrong.

I think our own faith should be built around this understanding – that we aren’t some special group replacing other group that God considers bad, but rather, that we’re part of the problem group, too – but God still chooses to forgive us and accept us anyway. If we can keep that thought in focus, it’s much easier for us to see the face of God, and the love of God, in all people around the globe. Believing that, we can put aside and repent for the evils of Replacement Theology, and we can work to reconcile the differences between us and our Jewish brothers and sisters. Believing that, we can have unity and communion with Christians around the world, even those who have very different ways of understanding the faith than we do. Believing that, we can extend God’s love, illustrated by Christ’s life, to all people, regardless of their religious, racial, or ethnic background. Doing *those* kinds of things is the real meaning in the parable of giving the landowner what he’s due. I think that’s one thing that we can safely say that we know today. And if we continue to follow God’s Spirit wherever it leads, just imagine what we’ll know tomorrow.

Thanks be to God.

Outside the Lines (sermon 9/22/13)

Image

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” (“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!  – Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

*****

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  – Luke 16:1-13

*****

There’s a popular movement in the church today. It follows a number of variations but generally falls under the title of “Pub Theology.” The general idea is for a group of people to gather together, usually over a beer at a favorite local watering hole, and to engage in wide-ranging conversations, discussing deep questions about God, humanity, life, the world. Usually, there will be a series of questions used as conversation starters, but there isn’t any leader who will steer the discussion to an endpoint or supposedly “right” answer to the questions. The idea is to bring together people from as many different backgrounds as possible – different Christian denominations and traditions, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists; and the conversation is to proceed with everyone respecting each other’s viewpoint, and ideally, everyone learning something new in the process. And while the Bible is obviously referred to frequently in conversations, Pub Theology sessions are typically not actual Bible studies, since, by definition, all the participants have very different ideas about how the Bible should be understood. That makes sense, there’s a wide variation in how to understand the nature of the Bible, and how to interpret it, even within the same denomination, even within the same congregation, let alone across multiple faiths, and even those of no faith.

But even in a setting as diverse as some Pub Theology sessions, one thing that pretty much anyone examining the Hebrew and Christian scriptures would have to admit is that throughout those scriptures, God has always acted, and appeared, and spoken, in ways that were unexpected. God seems to always be working outside the normal expectations, always coloring outside the lines. It’s easy for us to lose sight of that reality because we’re so familiar with the stories of the Bible, but when we put ourselves right within the actual context of those stories, we very quickly see, time after time, that God is no respecter of norms and traditions. God doesn’t really seem to care at all about what human beings think is the right or proper way for God to behave. God almost universally tosses aside social, religious, and cultural traditions in the process of interacting with us. It just seems like God is always saying or doing something that we wouldn’t expect, or maybe even approve of.

That’s the case with today’s passage from Luke’s gospel, the parable of the dishonest manager. This is a hard passage for us to get a warm and fuzzy feeling about. This manager is a poster boy for behavior that we try really hard to teach people is really, really wrong. The manager cheated someone else for his own personal gain. What the dishonest manager did was unethical. It was immoral. His way of handling other people’s money, of using other people for his own benefit was disgusting.

Maybe it’s an especially appropriate week for this Lectionary text to come up. Is it possible that we see a real-world illustration of the dishonest manager just by turning on the evening news? This past Friday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would make severe cuts to the federal SNAP program – food stamps. They did this while continuing to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare, subsidies, and tax breaks to the richest, most well-connected corporations and industries in the country. And they justified it by claiming that food stamps are a disincentive to personal responsibility; that they make it too easy for people to just sit around and not get a job – but the reality is that a full 72% of the people who receive food stamps are the working poor – working families with children, who are working one, two, sometimes even three jobs but still not making a living wage, and who don’t know if they’ll have enough food to last through the month. If the current bill is enacted, it will strip four million people from the food stamp program this year alone, and another three million people every year for the next nine years to follow. Why, literally in the name of God, would Congress vote to do this?

Is it a coincidence that those same wealthy fat cat corporations who are getting all the government payouts will dump millions and millions and millions of dollars into those politicians’ reelection campaigns? Is it just a coincidence that these same corporations will provide cushy jobs in the private sector to these same politicians when the public eventually votes them out of office?

The poor can’t dump tons of money into reelection campaigns, and they can’t offer golden parachutes to former congressmen. The poor don’t have anyone to stand up for them against the actions of the dishonest managers of this world, and that’s precisely why God has commissioned the church to speak out on their behalf, as part of our working for the kingdom of God.

Are these politicians just misusing other people’s money – our money – in order to feather their own nests, just like the dishonest manager Jesus talked about? Isn’t it just as despicable? Actually, if anything, they’re worse. At least Jesus’ dishonest manager was taking money away from a rich man who had surplus; he wasn’t taking food out of the mouths of the poor.

It is despicable, whether it’s a story from 2,000 years ago or from last night’s news. And yet, contrary to what we’d expect, Jesus seems to be praising the dishonest manager – no, he doesn’t just *seem* to be praising him; he actually *is* praising him, at least in some manner. This doesn’t seem right. This isn’t the Jesus we know – is it?

Jesus obviously isn’t praising or recommending dishonesty, or misusing other people for personal gain. He’s making a different kind of parallel here, and he undoubtedly made the parallel in a shocking way to make sure everyone remembered it – and it worked; we’re still wrestling with this parable two thousand years after he told it. If you listen closely, maybe you can hear Jesus snickering about it in heaven. In this parable, I think Jesus is saying that God gives certain resources, gifts, and opportunities to each of us in the kingdom – both as individuals and together, as the church. They aren’t always the same, or the same measure. But God does entrust all of us with something. And God wants us to use what’s at our fingertips – – not unethically, and not for personal gain, like the dishonest manager, but still with creativity, and innovation, and ingenuity, for God’s purposes, not ours; and thinking outside the traditional norms and customs in order to maximize that good as we try to live out the kingdom of God. God calls us to continually see if there are new, different, unexpected ways that we can use what God has given us to carry the kingdom even further in our world.

Maybe a good way to think of what Jesus is getting at with this parable is just that God has given us all a box of crayons. We might not all have the same colors, or the same number of crayons. Maybe I only got the standard little box of eight, maybe you got 16, maybe someone else got the big box of 64. But however many crayons we got, and what colors, God wants us to use whatever we have at our fingertips, whatever we have at our disposal – and we’re supposed to use all of our intelligence, all of our wits, all of our hearts, to make the best, most beautiful contribution to the kingdom of God. And because we worship a God who isn’t afraid to color outside the lines, if we have to do the same thing in order to make the most beautiful thing – the thing that pleases God most with our crayons – then it’s okay for us to color outside the lines, too.

The good news for us is that God does indeed love us and care for us enough to entrust us with  those crayons. We are that loved, and trusted as co-creators with God. God trusts us with our box of crayons. The question, and the challenge, for us in this story is to ask whether we really are using them in the best possible way, with the best of our creativity and ingenuity, the way that God would want. Are we? Am I? Are you? If we aren’t, why not? And if we did use all the resources God handed to us with the same degree of creativity and ingenuity as the dishonest manager, what would our lives look like? What would our churches look like? What would our world look like? Maybe those are good questions for a Pub Theology gathering. If we really maximized the blessings that God has given us to advance the kingdom of God, would we still live in a world where the poor are trampled by the unethical and the dishonest? Or would it be something very different? Would it be a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing, an amazing picture with all the colors of the crayon box?

Thanks be to God.