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Faith Over Fear

Monday, November 14th, 2011

Nov 13, 2011
Proper 28
Matthew 25:14-30 “Parable of the Talents.”

The traditional understanding of this parable is: Take what God gives you, according to your ability, and make more. Often we hear that word “Talent” which is a transliteration from the Greek (that means, it was a Greek word that is left untranslated and simply written using English letters) and we hear our English word talent which refers to a skill we may have; such as speaking, serving, counseling, teaching, evangelizing…So we understand the parable to mean that we should take these kind of talents, work really hard at them to expand God’s kingdom. Or sometimes, this text is used on stewardship Sundays to talk about the importance of giving to the church, and how the church needs to wisely manage it’s reasources. Yes, God wants us to use the gifts he has given us for the good of his kindgom – to multiply them; yes it is important to be good stewards of both our personal and church resources. But, I don’t think that this parable is mostly about money or self-help improvement of your own God-given talents. This is a parable for a church facing the end times and facing persecution. This is a parable about how to live by faith and not by fear until Christ returns.

This parable comes right in between two other parables, which certainly shed some light on the Parable of the Talents. This whole section of the Gospel is at a part when Jesus is talking about the end times, and the coming of Lord. Begining with chapter 24 of Matthew, Jesus begins to talk about signs of the end times. The day and the hour are unknown! And then our three parables. The parable of the Sheep and Goats, which follows our reading this morning (and will be next week’s Gospel reading) is about the separating out of true Christians from false Christians based on their actions through life. Those who cared for their neighbor are sheeps and those who did not are goats.

Immediately before the Parable of the Talents we have the parable of the 10 madiens. The kingdom of heaven will be like 10 madiens who were told to keep watch for the bridge groom. The wise ones brought extra oil, the foolish ones did not. By the time the bridegroom arrived, the lamps were out of oil. The foolish ones had to go into town and buy more and they missed the party. But the wise madeins who had extra oil were there to greet the bridegroom. Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour!

I think, that in light of this context, the parable of the Talents is not simple financial advice or self help guidance for how to live a better life. This parable is about how Christians, the church, ought to live our faith inbetween the time Jesus went to heaven, and when he will come back. again. Keep watch – be ready. Expand what God entrusts to us. And serve your neighbor. Its a way of living the faith in spite of fear which wants to twart faith.

Scripture remains silent on the motivations of the first two servants who were successful in doubling their master’s investment. But we are given a glimpse of what is going on in the mind of that third servant. So maybe we may want to avoid those same movitivations? This third servant knew his master to be a harsh man; he was afraid so he hid his talent. Basically, he wanted to absolve himself of the responsibility of managing his master’s resources. So he put it somewhere safe and forgot about it. When the master returned he said “Here, take what is yours.”

He was afraid. Afraid of what? Perhaps he was not confident in his business savy to do well in the market place. He was afraid of losing what was given to him. He was afraid to risk. Afraid to lose. Now, its not the fear that got the servant in trouble, it was when he let that fear win. He chose to hide that talent in a hole; that is when he was called “wicked and lazy.” He acted in fear and put an end to the master’s will. Fear over faith.

Does the church ever get afraid? You better believe it!

Do you all remember in April when we had our two fish fry dinners? I think that was a parable of the talents, faith over fear moment for us. Remember we had two dinners? The first dinner was small “scale” (remember that joke?). We only invited members and friends. And then I suggested why don’t we do another one? In three weeks and we’ll advertise and invite everyone, we’ll serve the community, it will be great! And most everyone said “ehhhh, maybe we shouldn’t…” I think we were afraid. “We’re too old,” “We’re too tired,” “It’s too much work.” “There’s no money in it.” “What if no one comes and we lose all the money we’ll spend?” “What if too many people come and we run out of food?” “What if we make someone sick?” “What if the health department shuts us down?” “What if them young people don’t know how to pull off a church dinner?” Those were lots of really good reasons not to have the dinner. In that case we did not let fear get the best of us. We went out in faith, bought $500 worth of fish and put out a ya’all come. We served over 100 people (members, friends, and complete strangers). We turned that $500 into a $500 profit. Good and faithful servants. Sure it was scary, but there we let faith win.

Its not just about multipling money or resources. It can be scary to share the faith God has given us (even though it didn’t cost a thing it is quite valuable, worth many many Talents). Fear of what others may think, fear of rejection, fear that we don’t know the faith ourselves, fear that we don’t have the right words. Its scary to go out there and share our faith.

You folks who went to the orchard with me, where you afraid to go? I’ll admit to being afraid. It is scary to go somewhere that no-one knows who you are and what you’re doing there. When I went last Sunday, Grace Covenant wasn’t there. I went alone, and my Spanish is still pretty weak. I was really quite nervous. I could have took my faith and dug it in a hole – kept it to myself, be satisfied that I personally know the Lord. I share this with you not to tell you how great I am, but how great God is. I did not let fear win, I let faith win and I went. Nearly the instant I got out of my truck a man saw me in my collar and ran up to me, I believe he said “I want to talk to God.” I tried my best at a prayer, and caught myself repeating a few times “Dios te ama, Cristo te ama.” God loves you, Christ loves you. He showed me into the kitchen. I brought a Spanish Bible with me, and not knowing what else to do I opened it to the third chapter of John and asked him to read. And the man proclaimed the scripture as he read: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” Before I left he asked for a prayer for his wife at home far away. Certainly, I was awfuly limited in how effective I was (mostly because of our language barrier), maybe I would have been the servant in the parable who only earned interest on the Talent God gave me. But, I’ll tell you one thing- it sure was a greater result than if I keep my faith to myself.

How else do we fear in the living of our faith at the county line? In our personal lives? For as long as we wait for Jesus to come back, do not let fear hide your faith!

Churches and Christians may bury their Talent (many do), hide their faith and keep it to themselves. This happens when churches opperate from fear rather than faith. Being The Church is going to be scary until Jesus comes back. But we can not let that fear put out our faith.

Well done, good and faithful servant. Faith is the opposite of fear.

God Calls Us Saints

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

Nov 6, 2011
All Saints
1 John 3:1-3

The New Orleans Saints are 45 years old this week. On November 1, 1966 the NFL awarded a franchise to New Orleans to start a professional football team. The name came naturally since the franchise was awarded on All Saints Day, but was officially the result of a fan’s choice contest in the city newspaper. What else would you expect from the city of jazz who brought us “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The team went to the archbishop of New Orleans to ask if it would be sacrilegious to name a football team The Saints. Archbishop Hannan answered no, of course not. The Saints is a great name, he said, but I must warn you that most saints were martyrs.

The All Saints holiday is an opportunity for us to remember all the saints known and unknown. Commemoration of saints, especially martyrs, comes from a time when the church was under great persecution. The church would remember the anniversary of a church member who died because he or she confessed the faith. That church would gather, pray, and fast on the anniversary of a martyr’s death. Each of the churches would share the saint’s story with neighboring churches who would share in the commemoration of one another’s martyrs As time went on, and persecution grew, there became more martyrs than the church could possibly remember throughout the year. And so we got the tradition of All Saints which goes back to the 4th century, observed on the first of November, but often moved to the following Sunday because it is just so important for us to remember those Christian brothers and sisters who have kept the faith before us.

In popular culture we get the name for this day: Halloween, from “All Hallows Eve” which points to the tradition of celebrating important holidays the night before just like we would for Christmas eve. All the ghouls, goblins, witches, vampires and other creatures that folks dress up as for Halloween certainly emphasizes the death aspect of All Saints Day (slash) Halloween. And the archbishop’s comments that most Saints are martyrs (or those who have died for the faith) caused me to pause and wonder: Who are the saints? What do you have to do to become one? Do you have to be dead to be a saint?

At least for me, when I think of saints, I automatically think of those who have died, of those who are in heaven right now as we speak. The really good super-hero Christians who went on before us. Like Saint Luke who wrote a Gospel and the Book of Acts. However, it astounds me time and time again when I read the words of Saint Paul to the various church’s he wrote to. For example in the address section of Romans he writes “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints…” Paul is writing to Christians who were alive, here on earth. You could walk up to them and have a conversation. And perhaps must puzzling of all….you could see their sins and their flaws. Reading on in the letter to the Romans certainly points out that the Christians in Rome were by no means perfect.

The phrase there is literally “Those who God has called holy.” To be a saint is to be called holy. What do you think of when you hear “Holy?” Holy, set apart, marked for a special purpose, belonging to God, something that was ordinary now made holy. Like in our communion service today we have ordinary bread and drink which are called holy because they are used in God’s holy work. And so Paul declares to the Romans, you are God’s holy people. I think that offers a lot of hope for us as Christians today. If it were up to use to be super-hero Christians, I think heaven would be pretty empty. But we are saints because God calls us so.

Saint Augustine reflects on his life and recalls a time when he was given into evil. Here is an excerpt from his Confessions:

“Yet I had a desire to commit robbery, and did so, compelled to it by neither hunger nor poverty, but through a contempt for well-doing and a strong impulse to iniquity. For I pilfered something which I already had in sufficient measure, and of much better quality. I did not desire to enjoy what I stole, but only the theft and the sin itself.

“There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night — having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was — a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden. Such was my heart, O God, such was my heart — which thou didst pity even in that bottomless pit. Behold, now let my heart confess to thee what it was seeking there, when I was being gratuitously wanton, having no inducement to evil but the evil itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own undoing. I loved my error — not that for which I erred but the error itself. A depraved soul, falling away from security in thee to destruction in itself, seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself.” Book 2, Chapter 4 Confessions of Saint Augustine. These are the words and the action of a man who became a saint. He became a saint because he was called holy by God. He committed evil just for the sake of committing evil, and yet through God’s power, just his word, this man would become called a saint, a holy one of God.

From our second reading: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are! He called us saints, his holy people, his set apart ones, his people for a special purpose; his children. It all begins with God’s call, and God has it for us, those who are gathered here today because we believers. Our role is to live into what we are called – to know God more and more each day. To become more wholly-completely his. Holiness and sainthood is a continual work in progress, and one of the reasons God gave us the church; because it sure is hard to be holy alone.

How do you become a saint? God calls you. Who are the saints? I look around and I see the saints before me now. Be the children of God, that is what you are, that is what you’re called.

What is a Phylactery?

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Brooklyn Museum

Oct 30, 2011
Proper 26
Matthew 23:1-12

External signs of faith are meant to glorify God, not ourselves.

I was at the Woodstock Wendy’s one day just at noon. I sat in a window seat and outside I saw a small group of young men, about my age, about 5 of them out in the grass. They had small rugs spread out on the ground and they were all facing the same direction and then they got down on their knees, and then brought their faces to the ground. They rose a few times, and knelt a few times, their lips moved, I could tell they were saying something. This went on for just under 10 minutes. They rolled up their rugs and then came in for lunch. I assumed they were Muslims, conducting noon time prayers, one of the 5 obligated times of prayer in a day. I thought to myself – I bet that takes quite a bit of courage to pray like that out in public; Seeing their external signs of faith did draw my mind to God and it called me to consider my own prayer life. What a humbling prayer form, bowed with their faces to the ground – how humbling!

But the Pharisees seemed not to realize that they were attempting to exalt themselves in their showy practice of religion. You know the saying “Do as I say, not as I do?” They seemed to be saying “Do as I say, and look how good I am at it!”

I want to spend some time exploring the middle section of today’s Gospel reading, verses 5 thru 7. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogue; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplace and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’” How do these externals of religious piety serve to exalt the pharisees? How would Jesus have us practice our religion?

What in the world is a phylactery? I’ve seen them once. There was a rabbi in my class at chaplain school. And he invited us to join him one day for morning prayer. Before he began with the words of prayer, he prepared himself for prayer. He ritually washed his hands, he put on a stole with tassels, and then he took out these square leather boxes with straps on them. He put one on his left hand and wrapped it up. The other he tied to his forehead, right between his eyes. Those two boxes are the phylacteries.

It is a Jewish practice that finds it’s roots in the law of Moses; in four scriptures to be exact. One of those scriptures is Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 8; How interesting that this practice which Jesus questions the Pharisees on comes just after Jesus’ answer to the Greatest Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength” Deut 6:5, Now Deut 6:8 referring to God’s commands “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” They took this word of scripture literally. Literally putting bits of paper with scripture on it, in these boxes called phylacteries, and tying them to their hands and foreheads.

Phylacteries have deep meaning and symbolism attached to them. The head phylactery has four compartments which holds the four scriptures which speak to the practice, each box is attached to the straps by 12 stitches, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The boxes have an Hebrew letter on the outside of them which represents the four scriptures. Archeologists have discovered that other peoples would tattoo the name of a deity on their arm and forehead. Perhaps this Jewish custom was in response to that, a way to mark themselves out as belonging to the one true God and not to the foreign gods. And the phylacteries were used to remind the wearer about the word of God, a reminder to pray, and to put the commands on their hearts.

All of that sounds pretty good to me. Sure, I would understand the Deuteronomy scripture to be figurative; tie the commands of God to your forehead – that means always think about it, always pray, always be aware of God, let it be part of your life. But at the same time, isn’t it interesting how the literal, how the tangible help us to put into practice the figurative Its the difference between just having loving feelings in your heart for someone, versus expressing that love in a tangible way – a hug, a kiss, flowers, a card.

Christianity has plenty of its own phylacteries, externals. Jesus fish bumper stickers, bible verse t-shirts, cross necklaces. I get all dressed up in a robe, stole, and collar. On Ash Wednesday we run around with dark splotches on our foreheads. All these are externals, and when used for the wrong reason may draw attention to ourselves, rather than drawing our attention to God. It can go both ways. And Jesus’ anger at the Pharisees here is because they had let the things that were meant to remind them of the holy, instead become fashion statements.

The Greek for “phylactery” sounds like a safeguard, a charm, or an amulet. What was once something that set God’s people apart and served as a reminder of him, became nothing more than an amulet. They made their phylacteries boxes more broad – but failed to become more aware of the Word of God they contained. That risk exists today. You can find rather impressive gold crosses to wear around your neck. But donning that symbol of Christ’s death, resurrection, and the world’s salvation; wearing it around your neck – symbolizing that you too have taken on the yoke, the burden of the mark of what it means to be a Christian – wow; that should be awfully humbling. Or is it just a fashion statement, an amulet? Did you find a really clever Christian t-shirt to show off how trendy and hip it is to be a Christian – or do you bear words from scripture across your chest as a reminder for you in this day that you too are marked by God’s word? Do you feel uncomfortable wearing ashes on your forehead out in public – You are probably on the right track.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with these kind of external signs of our faith. In fact, in many ways they can serve as reminders of God’s love for us. We are human beings existing in time and place and we do need the tangibles to remind us of the intangible. It is a wonderful and good thing that when someone sees you live the Christian faith in someway that they too glorify God. Like praying at a restaurant for your meal, doing so may cause others to give God thanks themselves; but bowing that head and making a big show of it to show how much better you are than those heathen non-restaurant pray-ers, well that’s how a Pharisee prays.

It comes down to who is exalted in the practice of our religion. We are not to be exalted, but in the way we live our faith we are to give God the glory.

Fulfilling God’s Law of Love

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Oct 23, 2011
Proper 25
Matthew 22:34-46 – The Greatest Commandment

Before Homecoming we had been working through Matthew’s Gospel at the time when Jesus entered Jerusalem and he was being tested by the religious leaders before his trial and crucifixion. We heard a series of parables in which Jesus challenges the religious authorities, and in particular used parables as a way to show them a mirror. Now, the tables have turned, and the religious leaders are presenting to Jesus a series of testing questions, loaded questions. The kind of questions that are designed to have no right answer, the kind where whether you answer yes or no you are still wrong no matter what. Kinda like asking your parents “Who is your favorite kid?” Unless it’s an only child, that parent better be a bit clever in how they answer. Today’s Gospel reading is the third of such attempted trapping questions.

The first was whether the faithful should pay taxes – if Jesus answered “yes” then he would have been condoning the Roman Occupation and oppression of the Jewish people; but if he answered “no” he could have been accused of inciting an uprising against the government. So we have that famous answer: “Give to Caesar what is due Caesar, and to God what is due God.” The 2nd question was on the resurrection and marriage in heaven. And the third, our reading this morning is on the law: Which of the laws are the greatest?

At first glance the question may seem innocent enough, but there is a risk in the way Jesus may chose to answer this question. If he just picks one (say, one of the 10 commandments) it may imply that all the other commandments are unimportant. Though, this is a common question that is going around Rabbis in those days – people who were attempting to get at the essence of the law. Which law is the greatest?

And so Jesus answers with scripture: “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That’s Deuteronomy 6:5; and just for good measure Jesus offers a second “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Now, this second one is also a quotation from scripture, from the Old Testament. Love your neighbor is actually not a new idea introduced by Jesus, but rather he is restating it here from Leviticus 19:18. Both quotations come from a section of the Bible called the Pentateuch or Five books, or also called the law of Moses. How is it that such love can be summed up in law? Law and love.

Law. There are 248 affirmative laws found in the Torah; that is 248 things you should do. 365 negative laws, things you should not do. All together this makes 613 laws, which is the same number of words found in the 10 commandments. We still understand law in this day and age. There are things you must do and things you must not do or you will get in trouble. My car registration came in the mail last week and I know that I better put that sticker on my car or else I’m going to get pulled over – affirmative law, something I should do. When I drive I ought not go faster than 70 mph on the free-way (well, around here I guess you wont get in trouble until at least 85mph) – negative law, something I ought not do. But now just how odd is it that Jesus quotes laws of love! Love God, love neighbor; like the two halves of the 10 commandments, all the law can be summed up in these two directions of love. They are both affirmative laws, things you ought to do, but how can we legislate love?

It’s not like people haven’t tried. I think I’ve told you about the clever mother who, when catching her two kids fighting, forced them to hold hands, walk around the house 3 times and say “I love you” to each other until it became true. But the kind of love we are talking about here is not about warm feelings. It is an action kind of love. Its a love that goes upward and outward – to God and neighbor; not asking “what’s in it for me?” but rather “how can I love?”

I have a friend who prefers to drive US11 up and down the valley instead of I-81. Not because he is afraid of the interstate traffic, but because this route provides him a better opportunity to fulfill the law of love. He tells me that you are much more likely to see people walking US11 and that gives him the opportunity to offer them ride. One hitchhiker he picked up was going to work at Bowman Apples in Mount Jackson but didn’t own a car. Another was heading to the court house in Woodstock to clear his drivers license so he didn’t have to drive his moped (which broke down on that rainy day), and another was on his way to South Carolina to see his son who was home from the Army.

Now, we ordinarily associate warm feelings with the concept of love. We think that love is something that happens to us – romantic love, chemistry, it just happens. Just think of every romantic comedy ever made. But the love your God, love your neighbor, law of love is not this warm and fuzzy nice kind of love; its an action kind of love. Do you think my friend who picks up hitchhikers has any warm feelings for any of those neighbors on US11? Of course not! How could he? He never knows any of these people for that kind of love to take place. Instead it is that kind of love that is constantly seeking for how to fulfill such a thing as love. How can what I do this day show love for my neighbor? Not because you are particularly fond of them (you could really dislike someone and still love them!), not because of warm feelings, not because of what happens to you. Fulfilling this law starts with love; it’s not the result of love.

God calls us to fulfill the law of love. It is the summary of the law and the prophets. We love because God first loved us. It is something that we do, not something that we feel. Let us continually seek how we might fulfill the law of love. Love God, love others.

God’s Extravagant Welcome Comes with Expectations

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

Oct 9, 2011
Proper 23
Matthew 22:1-14 – Parable of the Wedding Feast

Another Sunday, another parable. This one is quite difficult. Again, remember that we find ourselves in a series of several parables. All of them take place shortly after Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and kicked over the tables. These parables all serve as an answer to the chief priests and elders questions about Jesus’ authority. Again, this parable comes on the heals of last week’s parable. You may remember that that one ended with the chief priests and the Pharisees realizing that these stories were all about them. It would seem now that Jesus is no longer trying to make them see, but now he is driving his point home.

Again, there is what would appear to be a quick and easy allegorical reading of this parable. The Pharisees are the people who rejected God’s invitation to the Son’s party, and so Jesus invites all, the good and the bad, to his feast. But again, we must be willing to look at the mirror of the parable and ask as the church in the modern day – when do we risk falling into the trappings of the people in the parable? When might we reject Christ’s invitation to the party?

This parable is about an extravagant welcome, and a rejection of that welcome – on two counts, a double rejection. First, this was not just any old wedding we are talking about here. This was a royal wedding. I can’t help but think back to the royal wedding in England earlier this year. It was watched by over 2 Billion people around the globe! Could you imagine anyone turing down an invitation to actually be there in the Cathedral for the wedding? It would be kind of unthinkable, kind of an insult to the king and the royal family. Back in Jesus’ day these were grand events, lasting for a week or more and the king would have the resources to invite the entire city. Anybody whose anybody would have been there. Yet the parable shows how all the worthy people – the dignitaries, the high class, other royals, business owners, etc – all these people rejected the invitation. They “paid no attention” to the invitation, regarded it has completely unimportant, and they did not attend. If ever they wanted to be sure to let the king know that they were disrespecting him, they were sure to abuse his servants are really let him know that he was not respected around here (by the way, what is going on with all the poor defenseless servants in these parables!?). The king’s invitation came with an expectation that his guests would come.

Rather than dispense with the festivities, throw away all that food, and have an empty palace the king chose to invite the commoners. The wedding feast must go on! Go to the street corner, invite everyone you can find – the good and the bad. Could you imagine such a wedding party? Now, there were a number of strange and unruly characters at my own wedding – I just happened to be related to them. But seriously, could you imagine in this day and age what it would look like to just walk up and down the streets of Timberville, Broadway, New Market, Harrisonburg and invite just any old body you find to something so significant as your wedding? Drug dealers, prostitutes, drunks, homeless, hooligans… even… teenagers! Seriously though, the invitation was to the good and the bad. Yes, certainly the extremes of society, but also the common folks. What would that look like around here? Single moms or dads just trying to make it and raise their kids, small business owners, minimum wage workers, young families just starting out in a small town because its better for the kids; new retirees who move to the valley; people with mental and physical disabilities, folks who don’t own a car, folks who don’t speak our language but share the American dream. The king saw as vitally important that his social hall be full, so that the party could be better. Have you ever thrown a party where no one shows up? Not so much fun. He just put out a “y’all come!” And he did so through his servants. Servants!, go and invite people to the palace.

This is starting to sound a bit like church. We love to see the pews filled, and on light Sundays I hear folks remark as such “slim crowd this Sunday.” It sure is nice to fill this hall, something a bit more celebratory when the many voices gather together and shake the windows with our hymn singing. But I do wonder, how important is it to us to have a full church? – Is it important enough to us that we would go out into the the streets to invite the good and the bad alike, just like the those servants? Let’s face it though, there really aren’t many churches out there doing that. Even if there were, it really is a tough sell these days. Come to church? Why would I want to bore myself with that on a Sunday morning?

We live in a culture were the fastest growing religion is “no religion” at all. To some extent, though I do wonder if this is in part due to the lack of invitations being extended, and also the church forgetting that Sunday morning is a celebration. Come, sit, listen. But do we celebrate? Do we understand “going to church” as a celebration- like the king’s wedding feast? Or perhaps as an inconvenient chore we’d rather not go to because there are better things on TV, perhaps much like the invited guests who rejected the invitation? How much does church look like a feast, or a party? And would our invited guests recognize what goes on here on a Sunday morning as a continuation and anticipation of the wedding feast of Christ? Yes, that extravagant welcome, that invitation does come with an expectation – that you will celebrate!

The last piece in this parable is quite challenging and is quite harsh. A man shows up without a wedding garment, he is spotted, yelled at, tied up, and thrown out! Doesn’t this king realize that he invited poor, common, and bad folks alike to the feast? Why would he expect these people to be dressed up? Saint Augustine tries to rationalize this harshness and suggests that the king would have provided a garment for the man, but he chose not to wear it. That, or he could have borrowed from someone, or at the very least simply not worn dirty work clothes to a wedding feast. This of course, is symbolic. This is not an invitation to discuss whether it is appropriate to wear jeans, t-shirts, and sandals to Sunday morning worship. But what does it mean to dress spiritually for the feast? I wonder that it means that you show up and you are ready to celebrate. What happens here on a Sunday morning is a celebration at it’s very core, come not as a chore, but join in on the celebration! You are the celebrators of worship!

In another sense the man, in choosing not the dress appropriately (again, we think of this in a figurative sense) for the feast showed that he did not take the invitation seriously. That he did not not to change what he was doing in order to attend the party. You know people understand Christianity as the “religion of nice.” Come as you are, those are some very nice people; but people seem to get offend when you suggest that the Christian life comes with expectations. If someone accepts the call of Christ to enter his church and yet still clothes themselves in sin – drunkenness, sleeping around, lying, stealing, and cheating. How much would that person be failing to be clothed in Christ, figuratively “not dressed for the occasion?” Yes, this invitation comes with expectations – that the old stain of sin would be put off and that Christ would be put on.

God offers an extravagant welcome to all, an invitation to join in the celebration of his feat. This invitation comes with expectations. God expects the called to accept the invitation, that his guests celebrate, and that the called would put on a new life in Christ. You are invited, let us continue to join in the celebration.

God Wants His Fruit

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

Oct 2, 2011
Proper 22
Matthew 21:33-46 – Parable of the Wicked Tenants

Another Sunday, another challenging parable. Again, this one is set in a vineyard – it’s the third in a series of vineyard parables. The first with the workers (the first will be last and the last will be first), the one from last Sunday (the two sons asked to work in the father’s vineyard) and this Sunday (the tenants of the vineyard). They are all connected. Today’s parable comes immediately after last Sunday’s gospel reading. The chief priest and the elders just didn’t get it, so Jesus offers another parable for hopes that they will get it. Just like last week’s parable this one also speaks to authority – Just who is this Jesus, what gives him the right, and where does his authority come from? And also how the established religion, and the leaders of the religion, are challenged.

Again, just like last week, it may be easy to allegorize this parable and understand it as a simple affirmation that the kingdom of God was taken away from the elders of the temple and Christianity replaced it. It seems pretty clear those connections. A people are chosen to tend the vineyard for many years, they are sent folks who ask for the produce but they abuse and kill them – we might understand those to be prophets and teachers sent throughout Jewish history. And then finally the own sends his beloved son – and we instantly think of the love of God who sent his only son that he would die for us. The tenants killed this son just like the temple leaders would hand over Jesus, God’s son, to be killed.

Again, just like last week, we need to be willing to try and see ourselves in the mirror of the parable. Because the church is now the establish religion in our day, and we are always at risk of falling into the same traps as the temple in Jesus’ day. We may want to quickly identify as the new tenants who receive the vineyard; but how might the church be at risk for acting like the first tenants? Might we see ourselves in this parable?

The lease agreement described in the parable still happens today – landowners may rent out farm land for other people to work. Today, it is probably most common to simply have a cash lease – the tenants pay a certain amount each year or month and in return they get use of the land and have control of the sale of the produce. The lease agreement in the parable sounds like the payment was some portion of the crop, in this case grapes. It sounds like this is a new vineyard, one that is not yet established. He planted the vineyard, put in the fence, dug the press. In this case, with a new vineyard, harvest time would be years later, not just a season. The grape vines would need considerable time to establish before it would bear any fruit. Over those years it might be easy to see how the tenants forgot that they were working some-else’s land. It was an absentee land-lord after all And could you imagine spending years of labor on the vineyard and then have some stranger come in and ask for a portion? We might have a bit of sympathy for the tenants and how they wanted to say no. I bet that after all that time, it felt an awful lot like their vineyard, and they weren’t inclined to give any of it up. The landowner wanted his fruit!

But the tenants seized the servants. Beat one, killed another, and stoned another. A direct challenge to the landowner. It was as if they were saying “This is not your vineyard, it is ours! Back off.” Right then and there the landowner could have exerted his authority, appealed to the courts or sent in assassins (which was a common practice in the day to deal with insubordinate tenants); but instead he tries again. Again, he sends more servants. Is this landlord crazy? Stupid? Just full of too much grace? Already, by sending the second group of servants his is being way more generous than anyone else would be. And the tenants, just like they had already done, abused the second set of servants. No surprise.

The landowner sent his son. “They will respect my son.” Really? What in the world makes you think they will respect your son? The evil tenants saw the son and their selfish greed took hold. They thought to themselves if we kill him, this vineyard could be ours for good. And they might be right, if they took care of all the servants, and now the son; if this landowner is going to continue to be a push-over and not exert his right on the land, then this just might be all they need to do to get the vineyard for themselves. They kill the son out of selfish greed, when all the landowner wanted was his own fruit that was due to him.

This is a failure on the tenant’s part to recognize the ownership and the authority of the landowner. Though he was not physically present, the vineyard still belonged to the rightful owner; they were just working the land. How often do we refer to this place as “our church?” Is it our church, or is it God’s church. His vineyard, we are the workers, and God wants his fruit. Remember, the tenants in the parable were successful they raised the grapes and harvest time came, they were able to bear fruit from the land. But they were selfishly evil when they wanted the fruit all for themselves – the tenants were evil because they did not produce fruit for their lord. Does the church ever risk being selfish with its fruit?

I heard of a church that approved the building of a playground on church property. Everything was ready to go, it was funded, they hired a contractor to install it, ready. But then a few of the members raised a fuss – we don’t like where you are planning on putting the playground because it can be seen from the road. Neighborhood kids might come down to the church and play. There was a handful of folks who wanted it hidden so that the community would not be tempted use church property. I think those handful were missing the point of offering good fruit for others just as a good in itself. The tenants produced fruit for themselves but not for the Lord.

Jesus asks the hearers of the parable “When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” Now, the elders answered, this is not Jesus answer: “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.” That sounds like a right and just answer and what anyone would do. But what in the parable would cause us to think that this is in character for the landowner. He sent 2 groups of servants and then his son, he hasn’t been violent yet, why would he now? If we understand this to be a parable to point to Jesus’ rejection and death, it is interesting to realize that though he could have Jesus did not call down legions of angels to conquer his executioners; nor did he seek vengeance following his resurrection.

Jesus does not seem to agree with the elders in their answer, instead he quotes Psalm 118 “the stone that the builder rejected has become the cornerstone.” Else where in Psalm 118 there is a constant refrain “His love endures for ever.” The parable of the landowner is a reminder for us of God’s constant reach for those, even those who reject him because his love endures for ever.

That, and it sounds like a call to us to view Jesus as our corner stone – the most important part of a building. We are are not talking about a literal vineyard here. And Jesus spells it out – he is our corner stone. His is the authority, his is the vineyard, his is the kingdom. The call of the parable is to remind us that it never was our vineyard in the first place, it never is our church, our ministry – it is the Lord’s. The Lord does not own just a small portion of our fruit, it is all his. God calls us to work in his vineyard as an act of grace in itself, and God wants the fruit that is due to him in his kingdom.

Words are Backed Up with Deeds

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Another parable set in a vineyard

Sep 25, 2011
Proper 21
Matthew 21:23-32

Which is better: To say the right words, or to do what is right? That is the dilemma presented in today’s Parable. It would seem that the Pharisees are yet again able to answer correctly with right words, and yet not able to back up their words with deeds.

Our gospel readings put us in the middle of a set of quite challenging parables, beginning last week (the first will be last, the last will be first), today and for the next 2 weeks, Jesus offers parables which upset the status quo. It would seem that Jesus is not in the business of making friends right now, especially not with the religious leaders of his day. The readings skip Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem when he is received as the messiah king, thus challenging authority. The very first thing Jesus does after arriving in Jerusalem is to kick over the tables in the temple, again exerting his authority. His is an authority that comes from heaven, and an authority which will not be satisfied with the conventional structures of his day – the way it has been. So it is in this context: Jesus is received as messiah king and he kicks over the tables that the chief priests and the elders ask “Who do you think you are?” and “What gives you the right?”

To some extent, perhaps this may be an honest question: Who are you, Jesus? He was a traveler to Jerusalem, perhaps they may have thought that Jesus represented a religious order or school of thought. They might be asking “Who are you, so we can decided if you’re worth listening to.” But on the other hand it could be an attempt at playing a trump card. There was no higher authority than the temple and the chief priests and elders which represented it. So those elders might be saying: “Tell us your authority, Jesus – is your authority by some teacher, some school, some institution? Well that’s great – well we have a higher authority, so shape up and listen to us.” It would appear that they did not consider Christ’s heavenly authority. Jesus has an authority that answers to no one. Jesus doesn’t need to try to explain it to them; the Pharisees are so blind to the real authority right before them. Jesus tries to help them along, to help them see it by pointing back to John the Baptist. Was John’s a human authority or a heavenly one? The Pharisees are so concerned about having the “right” answer and the crowd’s opinion, so paralyzed with concern for popularity that they fail to pick either answer. “We do not know.”

Jesus tries to help them see the source of authority in another way, with a parable. He lets this next parable serve as a mirror that these Pharisees will hopefully see themselves in. Remember last Sunday, I said parables are an invitation to see yourself in the story. That is what Jesus is doing for the Pharisees here, which son are you Pharisees? The church today, as we read these challenging parables must also examine ourselves in the light of these parables.

Two sons. Neither is perfect – the first is openly disrespectful to his father telling him “No!” to his face, what an embarrassment Yet in the end he does fulfill his father’s will. The other, while obedient in word to the father’s face, he does not follow through. Which is better? I don’t believe this is a trick question. The obvious answer is probably the correct one here. Which one did the will of the father? The first. That son was a little slow to get there, but he had a change of heart – he changed his will to match his father’s will. Jesus doesn’t yell at the Pharisees because they answered incorrectly, but because all they have is the right answer. The had the right answer but the still failed to see how they are acting like the second son themselves – with no deeds to back up their “yes.” Tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of heaven ahead of you! Though these sinners reject the father’s will now, we hold out hope for a change of heart which leads to repentance and a will which matches the father’s will. Where is your changed heart, Pharisees?

This parable has often been understood as how Christ brought a new law of love and grace into the world. The Synagogue is seen as a way of law (right words) and Christ’s new covenant of grace being the more full acting out of how to understand God’s will. But, we as Christians need to be willing to also look in the mirror of this parable and consider if we are ever at risk for falling into the pattern of the second “yes” son. Being a people with plenty of good words, right beliefs, yet of little action. Yes, Lord, I’ll go work in your vineyard…and then choosing not to go.

Brian Stoffregen offers a modernized version of this parable which shows what is at stake. There were two couples. The first got married in a large church ceremony. They pledged life long vows to one another and exchanged rings. But their relationship has been marked with abuse, both physical and verbal. Both have been unfaithful. The other couple lives together. They haven’t signed marriage licenses, they did not exchange vows or rings, but their relationship is marked with mutual love and respect. Which couple is doing the will of God? Well, they both seem to fall short. The first couple in how the act out their marriage; the second in how they view the importance of words and saying “yes” to God’s will in the first place. And that is what this parable is all about – calling us to make our will match God’s will. That our yes may be yes, and not just a word.

Christianity is in some ways in the place of the temple today. It is the established religion here, and it is all throughout our society. An establishment with plenty of right answers; but perhaps finds it challenging to do the will of God. It would seem that Christianity has become more about a set of beliefs (right words) and less about a way of life (right acts). Christians who order their lives with a discipline of daily prayer, fasting, worship, and sacrificially helping their neighbor rather than those who just believe all the right things.

Imagine a “yes” church, which follows in the way of the second son who said yes and then choose not to go. We might call it “Church of the 2nd Son.” This church gathers together every Sunday. They recite the creed, read scripture, and hear biblical sermons – they have all the right beliefs. They say yes. They read scripture about mission, about hospitality, about welcome. They say yes. They hear about worthy causes in their community and abroad so Church of the 2nd Son sends money – but only money. They say yes. Church of the 2nd Son says that it is very important for them to welcome new people into their community, but when visitors do show up they decide that new folks are not worth any extra effort. “Well, I said hi to them.” Church of the 2nd Son reads the parable of the sheep and the goats – you feed me, clothed me, visited me. They here these things, they say yes that’s a wonderful idea. But Church of the 2nd Son has no ministry in the community. That church has the right beliefs, the right words; but it is not living it’s faith. We cannot be like this Church of the 2nd Son.

I have a call for you County Line Church. A call I hope you will both say yes to with word and with action. This whole year I have been preaching about the importance of mission, of going out into our community. We have prayed about here together about mission, you have prayed at home individually about the mission of this church, and now is the time to stop just talking about it. Now is the time to let our yes turn into action. I announced last Sunday that I will be joining Grace Covenant Church of Harrisonburg as the go to Paugh’s Orchard, right down the road, to reach out the migrant workers who are here picking apples. Grace comes from 20 miles away to do ministry in our own backyard. Will we reach out in love to those who are need of it – to offer a sign of welcome; or will we go on and just read about it – just saying “yes.” Let’s not be a “yes” church which likes the idea of God’s will better than actually doing it. Invite you to join me, this Friday. We will gather right here at The County Line at 6:30 pm. We’ll have prayer and we will go. You don’t have to speak Spanish, you don’t have to know what you are doing – just come and see what mission looks like in our community.

Which is better – good words or good deeds? What is best is when our will matches God’s will, when our yes is backed by our action.

God’s Grace is greater than Our Fairness

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

Sep 18, 2011
Proper 20
Matthew 20:1-16

When Jesus uses a parable, we are invited to see ourselves in it, and also to see a bigger picture. Who are you in this parable? Are you the one who worked first, the one who worked last, or someone in the middle?

Matthew Henry, in his commentary does a wonderful job of explaining the allegory of this parable (An allegory is a story in which each element stands for something else). He says, all of us, who have answered God’s call to enter into his kingdom as Christians are those laborer’s in the vineyard. The vineyard is the church, and the owner is God. The day stands for our life time and the payment of a denarius is our eternal reward. Some of us have been at this Christian path for all of our lives; our parents shared the faith with us from before we can remember; some here in this assembly have lived the whole of your Christian lives right here at County Line church and you can remember how your ancestors deeded the land and built this church with their own hands and money, a gracious act memorialized with their names in our stained glass. There are others in this assembly (or those who have come by to take a look) who are new (or newly re-discovering) God’s call on their lives. You may not have grown up at County Line, or even grown up as a Christian for that matter, but somehow your are recognizing what God is doing in your life so you go like the laborer in the parable because you are now called. Your name is not in the stained glass (you might not even have your name on so much as an offering envelope), you don’t know how we do things around here, your new. And then there are folks in between. I’ve heard that here in the valley, if you’ve been here for less than 20 years then you’re a new comer. We have new comers that have been here for 3, or 5, or 10 years. County Line faces the not-so-unique church challenge of bringing old-timers and new-comers together has one church; because at the end of the day, whether you’re a new comer, old timer, or somewhere in between we all get the full days wage. It would seem that God’s grace is greater than our fairness.

It’s really unfair, isn’t it? These folks worked for only an hour and they get a full days wage!? We’ll its not so much that the early workers are unhappy for the late workers; its just in light of all due fairness, all of work, shouldn’t we get more? More pay, more benefits, more say…

This parable is set in a common experience in Jesus’ time. A land owner would go out to the market place to find laborers. It’s a practice that still exists today, and may tell us a bit about the experience. Folks stand idle outside of a home improvement store and wait for folks to hire them. Day laborers. I read the summary of a 2006 UCLA study on day laborers in America. The five top five jobs include construction work, gardener, painting, roofing, and dry wall. A larger majority (83%) of day laborers rely on this work as their sole source of income. Day laborers earn an average of $10 per hour, but their work isn’t stable. There are good months and bad months, which come down to about $15,000 per year – keeping them at or below the federal poverty threshold. Because day labor escapes regulation there are many workplace abuses. For example half of the laborers surveyed reported that at least once in the last two months an employer refused to pay them – they stole their work. Half of the laborers also report being denied food, water, and breaks. Tough work. Plus, if you don’t find work you don’t get paid and you might not eat or be able to provide for your family.

So, let’s hear the parable with some of these modern figures (maybe with a bit of rounding). A farmer went out at sunrise to hire some day laborers to work the fields. He agreed to pay them $100 for an honest day of hard work. They agreed and so they went to work. He paid the average wage, not abundantly generous, but certainly fair, and enough to care for the family’s need for a day. Every couple of hours the farmer went out to hire some more folks saying “I will pay you *whatever is right*.” He even went out at 4 o’clock to hire some more of the unemployed laborers. How strange of course. Did he really need the extra workers for this hour, or was he being generous in this case for those unable to find work? This farmer paid the folks the same day they worked – no waiting for a two week pay period, he knew their needs and his agreement to pay. So 5 o’clock rolled around. It was time to go home and time to get paid. I wonder that this parable isn’t so much about the owner’s generosity as it is about our sense of fairness, or our covetousness. He could have paid the folks in the order that they started work, he could have still been unfairly generous with those that only worked for an hour, if he paid the last – last, it would have been a pleasant secret between the owner and the late workers. But for some odd reason he wanted the early workers to see it. Could you imagine what was going on through their minds when they saw the 4pm workers getting a hundred dollar bill? A quite calculation: this man is paying $100 an hour, now that is really good money! I’ve been here for 10 hours, so I’m going to get $1,000 bucks! Of course imagine their surprise when they also get that $100 bill. It is what they agreed for in the first place, it’s not unfair. There is only grumbling when their payment is compared to the payment of another; there is jealously about the grace of another. The owner shares: you’re being ridiculous. This is my money and you can’t tell me how to spend it. God’s grace is greater than our fairness.

What might this parable mean for the modern church? I do hear folks here talk a bit like the early workers: “I worshipped here all 60, 75, or 80 years of my life and haven’t missed a Sunday in all that time.” or “My family built this church” or “I’m here every Sunday.” What is left unsaid is “therefore, my opinion matters more.” and its certainly understandable, that sounds like it would be more fair that early workers deserve more, it would be more fair for the more devoted to have more say. What about a member who does only show up once a year? Maybe they would be a 4 o’clock worker, but does that make them smaller sharer in receiving God’s grace, or less of a member than others? The last will be first and the first will be last. What about our youth who are now fully professed, baptized, and confirmed members of this church – do they have any less of a stake because of their age? This is a challenging parable indeed, because God’s grace is greater than our fairness.

It does cut both ways too – old-timers don’t have any less of a say either just because they are the old timers that like the way we’ve always done it. Old-timers call the church to be deliberate in our actions. And newcomers don’t have less of a say just because they haven’t been around long enough. Newcomers may call the church to take risks that may revitalize the church for a new millennium.

The challenge of this parable is for Christians in the church today is to view each other as fellow workers, all with the same claim to God’s grace. Not competitors for a greater portion of God’s grace, not competitors for a great say in how we organize this body we call church. This is God’s vineyard after all, not ours. We don’t have a claim to more of a say here on the basis of any good works that comes from our own self – we are here because we have been called to be laborers in the God’s vineyard, and he deals grace and a place in that kingdom in the way he sees fit. God’s grace is greater than our fairness.

September 11th, 2011

Monday, September 19th, 2011

Sep 11, 2011
Proper 19
Exodus 50:15-21 (The conclusion of Joseph’s story)

Unfortunately the mobile microphone lost power so I don’t have audio this week.

9/11 changed us.

Ten years ago, September 11th was a Tuesday. Most of you can remember where you were and what you were doing that day. I was sitting in sociology 101 at our local community college. Just a few minutes into class there was a knock at the door and an administrator spoke briefly to the teacher who shared the news with us: A plane flew into the World Trade Center, it might be a terrorist attack. Classed were cancelled that day. I went to pick up my little brother from middle school – something I’ve never done before, but knowing the world wasn’t right that day I had the inclination to gather with family. We sat by the television and we watched, in real time, the smoky tower fall to the ground right before our eyes. Already, I knew that the whole world had changed. I struggle to think of a day that hasn’t gone by in the last 10 years in which I haven’t heard some mention of 9/11. Ten years later we can’t help but reflect on how 9/11 has changed us, and changed the world.

Our first reading, from Genesis, is the end of Joseph’s story – when he confronts his brothers who committed evil against him. You may remember the Joseph story: He was Jacob’s favorite son because he was born to Jacob in old age. He was given a fancy coat because he was the favorite, and he dreamed dreams. He shared one of these dreams with in brothers; in the dream his brothers bowed down to him, and this was the last straw. It made Joseph’s brothers all the more jealous and vengeful. They decided to sell Joseph into slavery, and told their father that he was killed by wild animals. Joseph ended up in Egypt on the slave market, and his troubles grew. His owner’s wife plotted against him, lied saying that he made advances on her and Joseph was thrown into prison. In prison, Joseph continued to dream dreams, and they started to come true. Pharaoh took notice and took him as his personal servant. Joseph foresaw 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine and because of this vision he was able to help Egypt prepare and to save many across the entire region from starvation.

It was during this famine, when the brothers were in need, that they went to Egypt to get food – not knowing that is where their long lost brother who they sold into slavery ended up. In the food line, Joseph recognized his brothers. More happens here (I encourage you to read the whole story) but eventually we get to the confrontation we read today.

The brothers fear Joseph’s revenge, he certainly could have taken it if he wanted to because Joseph is the one in power now, just like his first vision. His brothers beg, in the name of their deceased father – please have mercy! Joseph wept. His brothers wept. Joseph calls his brother’s actions evil, but ultimately declares that he is not God and cannot take vengeance.

If forgiveness was offered in this story, it is done in a rather unclear way. Joseph never goes as far as to say “I forgive you.” But, he does weep with them, he does care for their needs by giving them the needed food. But he doesn’t seem to deny forgiveness either, he doesn’t say “What you did is too awful for forgiveness.” When confronted with his brothers and their evil he simply stated that he is not in the place of God. A rhetorical question: “Am I in the place of God?” No, of course not. Then, he seems to say then I am also not in the place for revenge, and perhaps even; I’m not in the place for forgiveness – that is between you and God.

Joseph goes on to realize the big picture in his personal tragedy: What you intended for evil, God intended for good. Yes, Joseph was sold into slavery, but because of that God was able to save many from famine.

The Joseph story may speak to our experience with 9/11. An evil committed that completely changed everything, with reflection years later and the choice with how to respond. The parallels don’t work perfectly of course – Joseph was a personal tragedy, 9/11 was a national one which affected the whole world and lead to war. I certainly don’t think that I could apply Joseph’s personal reflection to 9/11 that what some meant for evil, God meant for good – I really just don’t see the good in it. Maybe we will understand one day, but right now I can’t – what good has come of it? 9/11 was an act, but it also stems from an ideology of terror. There have been many realizations that have come out of our ten year 9/11 experience – that we are not as invincible as we may have thought. And that a war of ideologies cannot be won with guns.

It is certainly a challenge for us today when the readings assigned for today seem to focus so heavily on forgiveness. We can see how Joseph may have had the power to forgive the evil his brothers did him personally. But what does forgiveness mean in response to an act of terrorism against a nation? What does forgiveness mean when this evil affected so many? I cannot tell you that we ought to forgive, forget, and move on – that would be a rather superficial kind of forgiveness – the kind of forgiveness that does not have accountability, and the kind that means you no longer have to deal with the wrong; I don’t believe this is the true nature of forgiveness. Not for personal matters, and certainly not for national tragedies like 9/11.

Maybe it is helpful to consider what forgiveness is not. It does not cancel out the need for justice. Forgiveness is not being passive in the face of evil. Forgiveness does not mean that we do nothing.

No, instead for forgiveness to even be an option, evil must be called for what it is. What happened on 9/11 no matter the underlying reasons or rationalizations on the part of the terrorist, what they did that day was evil.

What happened that day 10 years ago changed us, but I believe, at least to some extent we do chose how it changes us. And that may be the difference between a genuine spirit of forgiveness versus a spirit of vengeance Both change you. But, it would seem that choosing an attitude of vengeance changes us in ways we might not like, ways that may even horrify us if we look closely enough in the mirror.

In the days following the attacks, Americans retaliated against fellow Americans of middle-Eastern decent simply because of the color of their skin, an accent, or their religion. Those were actions that came from a vengeful heart. We became a country that for the first time in our history invaded another preemptively. We entered into an 8-year long war, and counting; asking less than 1% of our nation to bear the full responsibility of combat deployments while zero sacrifice is asked of the rest of us. We have become a nation where war has become easy to wage. Our nation became willing to resort to torture. 10 years later, Osama Bin Laden was killed, justice served. But it causes me to pause and wonder, in this time have we become more safe? More prosperous? More free? What has been gained with a vengeful spirit?

But, a spirit of forgiveness frees us of the poison of revenge. This spirit of forgiveness stems from the fact that we are a forgiven people, and that forgiveness overflows like a spring. A spirit of forgiveness, however, is not a giving in to evil. No, having a spirit of forgiveness rejects the power of evil which breeds more evil. A spirit of forgiveness is a light shining in the shadow of darkness. That spirit of forgiveness is not passive in the face of evil, it is active: This is a time for prayer, that we might better walk with the Lord each day in this uncertain time. This is a time for fasting that we may recognize we need more than bread alone. This is a time for witness, that we may share the grace we have been given. This is a time to serve, like Joseph did when he stared down evil. Prayer, fasting, witness, and service in response to evil – It is this kind of spirit of forgiveness that good will triumph over evil.

On this anniversary we are again reminded that we live in a fallen world, evil seems to run free, and God seems silent. But we are a forgiven people, with abundant forgiveness that overflows. We are not in the place of God, vengeance or mercy are his to give. The 9/11 terrorist and Osama Bin Laden are dead and gone, and they will answer to the Lord at the judgment for their actions – whether it be mercy or vengeance – that is the Lord’s. We, however are left with how we will respond. Will we let evil win, embracing a spirit of vengeance which breeds more evil? Or will we offer a spirit of abundant forgiveness upon all we encounter that good may triumph even in the face of evil.

Offering Grace in the Presence of Christ

Monday, September 5th, 2011

Sep 4, 2011
Proper 18
Matthew 18:15-20

There was a fiery pastor in a mainline Protestant denomination, somewhat similar to ours, who had been growing inpatient with inactive members on the church rolls. He said to himself “I haven’t seen these people in all the years I’ve pastored here and the treasurer says they haven’t given as much so a dime to support the mission of the church in those many years.” So, one Sunday after church, armed with the denomination’s book of discipline in one hand and the congregation’s membership book in the other he went out to meet these inactive members. He knocked on the door and said “We haven’t seen you in so many years, and you haven’t given to the church. According to Matthew 18, I’m here to ask if you still want to be part of the church.” The inactive member looked back at him wide eyed and surprised, speechless. Then the pastor opened the membership book and had the member cross off their own name from the roll. As the pastor left he said “Now I’ll regard you as a pagan and a tax collector. Jesus loves you! Good day.” And down the street he went to find the next one.

A quick read of today’s Gospel might support the actions of the fiery pastor; some folks understand it as a step by step guide for how to excommunicate a member. But I hope to show us the grace in this text, and how Christ is present even in conflict.

To begin with, this is about a brother or a sister sinning against you. Brother or sister. Some translations simply put “member of the church,” but I can’t help but think this sacrifices the intimacy that is conveyed by brother or sister. Members of the Body of Christ, the church are not merely members of a social club, its a lot more like family. A church like St. Luke’s, County Line might better understand church as family, especially when for many of you church literally is family. Brother or sister… there is nothing quite like the close bond of love that exists between siblings; and there is nothing quite like the fierce fighting siblings are capable of. She took my toy, he stole my doll, she got a bigger brownie, he hit me, she hit me first…But as siblings grow older, conflict can become more serious. I don’t like that girlfriend of yours, you kept that secret from me, you don’t help out enough with mom and dad, we fight every time we see each other.

There are conflicts and fights, and if they aren’t reconciled they may turn to grudges and cutoff.

Conflict in the church may follow a similar path, and Jesus offers this way in the Gospel to avoid grudges and cutoff.

V15 Go and point out the fault, just between the two of you. This is that first step. It derails the process of grudge making. Holding grudges or being resentful only happens in your own heart, when a wrong is kept to yourself. There is real power simply in naming an offense “You have wronged me.”

If they listen to you. Did you hear that? If they listen to you, not if they admit their mistake, not if they say “I’m sorry.” If they so much as listen to you, you have won them over. Of course, that is hard to do – on both sides of the listening: The one speaking to express clearly what they are feeling in a non-judgmental, yet honest way. And it is hard to hear, someone accusing you of a wrong, to not offer rebuttal or defense but to first hear.

V16 To hear and to be heard. It’s hard to do, and why we are encouraged to bring witness to help the process if hearing can not take place between the two of you.

In the chaplain corp, one of my jobs was to help facilitate marriage enrichment retreat weekends. The biggest focus of the weekend was teaching listening skills to spouses. Couples were given practice sessions to try out the technique – I think one of the scenarios was where to go on a vacation. And some of them had trouble hearing and being heard. This is such a vitally important step. Solutions come later, but first one must listen to the other: “What you’re saying is,” “This is important to you because…” It is amazing how a third person can help this process when tempers are flaring.

Although, witness may carry the meaning of a trial. As if you have mounted a case against an individual, and you are presenting evidence about how this church member is a sinner and should be thrown out of the church! The Gospel does say, if they will not listen even to the church (or in other words the whole community…isn’t it interesting how sin affects more than just one person – it affects the whole community); if they will not listen to even the church treat them as a tax collector and a pagan.

Sin. This sermon is a whole lot easier to preach if we simply consider it as a lesson on interpersonal relationships and how it is important that we all get along as Christians. But, looking back at verse 15 – this is about finding a Christian brother or sister in sin (absolutely, it could be a sin against another Christian which would result in conflict; but what about sin generally?). Our pew Bibles, the NIV includes “against you.” But you may see the footnote that not all Greek manuscripts include this. The parallel of this text found in Luke reads more clearly: If a brother sins. It sounds more general; if you find a Christian who is sinning, this is how you address it. Now, that is a more difficult text. Interpersonal conflict is one thing, because at least there you can both work it out. But addressing someone else’s sin? We just don’t do that in our modern society. Mind your own business.

It’s kinda like that ABC show “What Would You Do?” with John Quinones. They set up a hidden camera in the public and set up situations in which some sort of injustice takes place and waits to see if people would speak up. For example they had one where a homeless drunk fell over on the sidewalk and the cameras rolled to see who would help.

This is a challenging text in our day when read this way: If you notice that one of your brothers or sisters is sinning, point it out to them. It’s kinda like a spiritual “What Would You Do?” What Would You Do if you saw a brother or sister church member pinching money from the cash drawer at work? What would you do if a brother or sister member of the church suggested that you needed to sit down and talk because they needed to point out some way you are erring in the Christian faith. Could we do that well?

It demands a closer kind of relationship – it sure is different to hear correction from someone you trust than from a stranger. And you point these kinds of things out only to people you truly care about, like brothers and sisters.

Verse 17 – casting someone out of the church is not the goal, and I would say it is not even meant as punishment. This is really about grace. This section on dealing with conflict or sin within the church comes immediately after the parable of the Lost Sheep. If a shepherd of 100 sheep realizes that one is missing, he leaves the 99 to save the one. That is the goal of our Gospel today – offering grace. As a community we have a responsibility, that if a sheep is missing – go find that sheep! Keeping silent on sin, is saying without words – I don’t care if you find your way back. We do not address conflict to breed more conflict, nor to find someone to blame or to punish. We address sin and conflict within the church because it is harmful and has real consequences. If Christians start on the Matthew 18 process with the goal of casting folks out of the community, they have already missed the point of this passage. At all steps, through the whole process it is about regaining that lost sheep; re-offering grace. Immediately after this instruction Peter asks “how many times ought I forgive?” 77! Forgive 77 times! Church discipline is about grace.

Even still, if this process runs its whole course – a brother won’t listen to you, won’t listen to you with witness, a brother won’t listen to the church then treat him as a pagan or a tax collector. I can’t help but think Jesus says this rather tongue in cheek. How does Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors? With grace and forgiveness. He teaches them, heals them, and even called a tax collector to be a disciple! Yes there are times when church members sin, when we need to show them the way; there are times when members are negligent in their duties and we need to show them the way; and there are times when they won’t hear it. So we treat them as pagans and tax collectors: with grace, humility, and always the standing offer to be part of the community.

Following this instruction, Jesus speaks about his presence, in what may be a rather familiar verse to you: Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them. Does it surprise you to discover that this verse is not found in a section about prayer or worship, but instead it is found at the end of a section on dealing with sin in the church? Could Jesus be present in church conflict? Two or three. I am there with those two Christians who are fighting; I am there with those two Christians who may have trouble hearing each other; I am there with the three Christians who come together to disciple the erring member. Where-ever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am.

If a brother or sister sins, offer them grace in the presence of Christ.