God’s Extravagant Welcome Comes with Expectations

Written by Joel on 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.


Baptized at (not in) The Roman Catholic Church

Written by Joel on October 8th, 2011

Next Saturday, my daughter will be baptized. We chose to have the baptism at the Roman Catholic Church where my wife is a member. I also attend Saturday mass with her when I can. This of course raises the interesting question about the nature of baptism and where one finds a faith home, particularly as an inter-church family. We do plan to raise her in the Roman Catholic Church, though of course how could I not share my own faith with my own child as a Protestant Christian, and as a pastor at that? We’ll just have to wait and see what that looks like as her faith grows.

The church where I am currently serving as pastor practices infant baptism, so that particular issue isn’t so challenging (I wonder what challenges would have presented themselves had I discovered my first call in a Disciples of Christ context where infant baptism is not practiced). Still though, I often wonder if all things Catholic may prove to be initially suspicious for a Protestant congregation. I invited my congregation to the baptism.

Penny’s baptism does come shortly after the reception of Common Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Baptism, approved at this year’s General Synod. The Roman Catholic Church and Reformed Traditions mutually recognize the validity of one another’s baptism. It is the sacrament we are able to already share. There is one baptism after all, and she will be baptized into a body of believers that is so much bigger than any one manifestation of the church (denomination) that happens to be able to gather next Saturday at any one particular place on the map.

Baptism is so much bigger than all that. Our faith fathers and mothers who went on before us, the saints, and all those who will come after us – all Christians throughout the entire world – this is the body of faith she will be incorporated into. The Body of Christ so expansive, yet so intimately near as to care for even the tiniest of babes placed in it’s care. We are very much looking forward to celebrating Penny’s baptism in just over a week.


God Wants His Fruit

Written by Joel on 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

Written by Joel on 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

Written by Joel on 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

Written by Joel on 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

Written by Joel on 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.


Surprised by Grace

Written by Joel on August 18th, 2011

Aug 14, 2011
Proper 15
Matthew 15:21-28

Have you ever been surprised by grace? Have you ever seen grace ever shown up in unexpected places? Grace: unmerited, undeserved, unearned favor from God. Have you ever seen grace show up in unexpected people? Not people who were not expecting grace themselves; have you ever been surprised at who was receiving grace? That’s the tricky thing about grace- you can’t earn grace, by definition you receive it because you don’t deserve it, and yet people seem to get uneasy when they see undeserving people receiving favor from God.

I think our Gospel story is about being surprised by grace – specifically being surprised by who is seeking God’s mercy, how they seek it, and all they represent. It would seem, from this Gospel text, that even Jesus is surprised by just how far his grace extends – even to a Canaanite! Jesus is 100 percent God, but also 100 percent man, and he was conditioned by his upbringing. Growing up, he probably heard the stories about the Israelites who were told by God to conquer the Canaanites under the faithful leadership of Joshua; about how the Canaanites made war against Israel. He may recall the story of Noah, how Noah fell asleep drunk and naked and his youngest son Ham saw him. Noah, embarrassed, pronounced a curse on Ham the father of the Canaanites. “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.” (Gen 9:25-27) You may begin to see that there is some bad blood between Israelites and Canaanites; in fact they are cursed by God in Holy Scriptures – how can you argue with that? And now how surprising that the accursed, a Canaanite woman is able to call Jesus Lord, and recognize him as the son of David.

This is not Jesus’ first encounter with non-Jews. He has even healed Gentiles just by saying a word. In fact, this encounter might remind you of the faith of the Centurion. Again, a non-Jew approached Jesus and asked for healing on behalf of another – his servant. Jesus was quick to respond in that encounter saying “Shall I go to him.” The Centurion said, I am not worthy to receive you into my house, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed. And it was so, and Jesus even commended the Centurion on his faith. But grace does not seem so abundant for the Canaanite woman, with very similar circumstances – she approached Jesus, asked for grace, this time for a daughter, but she was ignored – this is asking too much! And today’s Gospel reading is put right in the middle of not one, but two miraculous feeding stories. Jesus fed 5000 people (not including women and children) with just five loaves of bread and 2 little fishes! After this encounter Jesus feeds 4000; and this woman literally asks for crumbs. Why so much grace for so many, and so little grace for this one?

It’s hard to apply the saying “What Would Jesus Do?” to today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus begins by just ignoring the woman, and then calls her a dog. Maybe he was having a bad day, after what must have been a quite tiring time of healing and teaching he was just seeking some peace and quiet and then this woman intrudes. Maybe Jesus was having a bad day. Maybe grace was easier in theory for the faceless crowd, but more difficult when face to face with your ancestral enemy.

But the woman persists, shamelessly so. This is not a simple passing request. She cried for mercy! She kneels down and pleads “Lord!” three times. Much like our opening litany this morning: Lord have mercy! Christ have mercy! Lord have mercy! She was not just reading from paper, she was pleading with all her heart. She cries for crumbs. What would you do in the face of such a passionate plea?

One time, while at scripture study with other pastors in Woodstock – we were sitting in the church basement office, eating lunch, talking about our Sunday sermons and ministries, enjoying each others company. A timid knock comes and the door and a young woman with frizzy red hair shows her self in. Her eyes getting a bit big, I wonder that she wasn’t expecting so many people in that church during a weekday. She cautiously asked for the pastor, and someone mentioned we were all pastors- I’m not sure if this was good news or a bit overwhelming for her. We waited patiently as she struggled to find the words to explain why she had walked in that day. She was looking for financial assistance. Specifically gas money. There was some awkward silence, we glanced around the table. And finally someone spoke up – offering her names of assistance agencies and phone numbers; those really were the right places to get that kind of help right? What could we do? How were we to know if she was abusing the system? So we sent her away, we did what the disciples wanted to do with the Canaanite woman. We were short on grace that day. The Canaanite woman was not as timid as the Woodstock woman. The Canaanite woman cried and pleaded. I wonder what would have happened, what would we have done if she started to cry, what if she were able to point out to us how we were discussing how to preach grace on Sunday, but found it hard to offer grace on Tuesday. Even the dogs eat crumbs that fall from the children’s table, the Canaanite woman said. The Canaanite woman pointed out the hypocrisy: “you are treating me worse than a dog.”

I don’t know what exactly changed for Christ, that he would move from outright ignoring the woman, to name calling, and then to grace. In her passionate plea, her recognition that Jesus is the Christ, son of David, he saw her faith. Perhaps he was confronted with what he had been taught his whole life about Canaanites and had to reconcile it with what he knew now about this one woman before him – that faith is possible even in the most unlikely, and that his grace could be poured out for her. Prejudice is much easier in theory when you don’t have to look a person in the eye to see their tears, to see their humanity. I wonder that Jesus was surprised by grace that day, surprised at just how far his grace could extend. He did come for the lost sheep of Israel – and yet his grace overflowed. Thank God that his grace overflowed to Gentiles, even such as us.

Where might you not expect grace? Who would you be surprised to receive grace? Who is the Canaanite for us – that type of person we have been raised to be weary of? Would you be surprised to find them with grace? Do illegal immigrants deserve Gods grace? Arabs? Gays and Lesbians? Those who are disabled?

Who deserves God’s grace? You might be surprised.


Get out of the Boat

Written by Joel on August 7th, 2011

Water Shoes

Aug 7, 2011
8th Sunday after Pentecost; 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Proper 14
Matthew 14:22-33

Our Gospel reading this morning reminds me of a time I was very young – young enough that I didn’t know how to swim, and I needed those little orange arm floaties. We were vacationing as a family in Ocean City, MD and had chose a pool day at the hotel instead of an ocean day at the beach. We had been swimming the afternoon away and my dad told me that it was time to go. I hoped out of the pool, dried off, and gathered all of my things. But then I saw that our floaty hippo was still in the pool. Being the helpful young chap that I was I decide to go fetch it. I, of course, had already removed my orange floaty arm bands, and the hippo was just within reach by the edge of the pool – the five foot section of the pool. I reached and reached, and then the weight of my big ‘ol child head was too much for my little body and in I went. And then I realized – Oh yeah, I don’t know how to swim yet! I panicked and splashed and flailed about. It was the most scarred I had ever been up to that point in my short life, and this was going to be the end; I was sure of it. Until out of the blue an arm reached in and single handedly lifted me out of the pool, and I lived to tell you about it today.

A non-swimmer reaching out for a toy was pretty foolish, and I sure didn’t let little details like gravity get in the way of my goal. We hear the story of Peter and Jesus walking on the water and might realize some of his foolishness as well; but neither did he let little details like physics keep him from walking on the water (if even for but a moment).

This miraculous sign comes immediately after another – the feeding of the 5000 with two little fishes and fives loaves of bread. And Jesus sends the disciples on ahead. Why did the disciples cross the sea? To get to the other side! Well, they didn’t quite make it. The waves began to increase. Wind and wave battered against the boat and the disciples were afraid. Before dawn, it still being dark, a figure was seen out there walking upon the waves. Now this is becoming a ghost story!

Jesus attempts to calm the disciples fears saying “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” It is I, or literally “I am.” Without saying who he is, Jesus calls out to the disciples with the familiar yet simple phrase “I am.” The same declaration which is shared with Moses at the burning bush when he asks for the name of the almighty God. The voice from the bush responds “I am who I am.” And now, this revelation is echoed on the wind and the waves as Jesus declares “I am.” This is perhaps the first time it was made so clear to the disciples that Jesus, the Christ is the I am who I am; God in the flesh.

What happens next is not such much about what we are able to do; but rather what Christ does through us, his disciples. Peter is still sitting in the boat, with the wind and the waves still crashing about him – he is likely still afraid, likely still in disbelief concerning the presence of Christ on the sea. Peter opens his mouth and offers a challenge to what he is concerned is a phantom or a figment of his imagination; he says “If it is you, then command me to come to you on the water.” I can’t help but find this to be an incredibly odd request. Peter: Um…if your concerns are well founded and this is just a figment of your imagination then your best case scenario is sinking like a rock into the sea. I think Peter is showing a great sign of faith in this challenge – it boils down to Peter submitting himself to the command of Christ; in fact Peter was asking for it – asking to be commanded; asking to be command to come near to him. Peter asked to be commanded to come to Christ no matter the risk, no matter the cost, no matter the wind, no matter the sea. Peter didn’t consider the physics, he wanted to be with Jesus and at Christ’s command he went. Peter was still afraid, Peter still had doubt in his faith; and in the face of fear and doubt Peter stepped out in faith.

The church is often symbolized as a boat. This image recalls a time when the Christian religion was illegal and the faithful would conduct worship hidden in side boats. I have seen churches which are designed to look like upside-down boats – so that you could see what would be the planks over head. The church has been called a boat because it is a place of salvation, where we may be safe from the tossing of the sea and the crash of the wind. And in our Gospel reading, the disciples found their salvation when Christ entered the boat with them and the waves died down.

But, boats are vessels. They are vehicles that go somewhere. Why did the disciples cross the sea? To get to the other side! Sometimes I fear that the church these days values the safety of the boat a little too much. It is very tempting to, instead of going somewhere, to stay tied up at dock – and that is certainly very safe. But, could you imagine if the Disciples refused to cross that sea for the purpose of sharing the Good News with the people on the other side?

So Peter asks Christs “Lord, command me to come to you.” And Jesus did, and even Peter walked on the water, if even for a moment. Still, I believe this was such a humble, faithful, and brave request on Peter’s part; and he provides an example for us. Peter saw where Christ was, and while knowing the danger asked to be commanded to go to him.

Of course, Peter sinks like a rock at the first sight of real danger upon him. I’d imagine a thrashing sea looks a bit different when you are outside of the boat. Peter cries out “Lord, save me!” There is no “if” this time; Peter doesn’t say “If you are the Lord, save me!” If there was any doubt that the Lord was there on the sea, it is gone now. And immediately, immediately Christ reaches down to pull Peter out of the water.

“You of little faith.” Not so much a condemnation as a statement of fact. Peter – you do have little faith. We disciples, we do have little faith – that’s a fact. But the man walked on water with that little faith! I wonder that Peter sank perhaps as a little humility check – that he was not walking on the water by his own power but because Christ commanded him.

If we, also of little faith, are able to step out of the boat; step into danger, fear, anxiety, and discomfort at the command of our Lord – we can walk on water….and will also probably sink. And in that is the really good news – that Christ is mighty to save; and that Christ does save. He did not command Peter to his doom; but he commanded him to be placed in a position to receive salvation.

We the church, living up to the image of a life boat, need to be willing to step out in faith so that we might be saved!


Is the Baptism Agreement true?

Written by Joel on July 4th, 2011

Today, The 28th General Synod of the United Church of Church was the final Reformed tradition to approve the “Common Agreement on the Mutual Recognition of Baptism.” This agreement is the fruit of many years of dialog between various Reformed traditions: UCC, Presbyterian, Reformed Church in America, Christian Reformed Church, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The vote was not without debate at Synod. Those speaking against the resolution focused primarily on the language of the formula “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” from Matthew 28. They argued for an alternate formula “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” suggesting that the traditional formula is gender exclusive. The agreement is clear that baptism using this alternate formula is not recognized by the Catholic Church nor by many Reformed Churches.

Those advocating for the alternate formula seem to ignore the Trinitarian problems it presents. These are not names, but functions in which all three persons of the Trinity participate. All Three persons create, redeem, and sustain. It’s a 21st century modalism, and it makes God impersonal.

Calling God “Father” does not mean we believe God is a male (though Jesus certainly is male – there are no two ways around it; Jesus was born a Jewish, middle-eastern man. Does recognizing Jesus’ ethnicity make us racist? Why would recognizing his gender make us sexist?). There are plenty of feminine images God uses – God nursing Jerusalem, Jesus wishing to gather the brood under wing; and yet Jesus calls God father.

It would seem that these alternate words are by no means rare in the UCC. One speaker against the resolution even went so far as to say “We shouldn’t care if other churches recognize baptisms preformed in our churches, we should only care if God recognizes it.” Are we no longer the United (and uniting) Church of Christ? What of John 17 which is incorporated in our logo “That they may be one”?

Those who spoke in favor of the resolution reminded us that Synod resolutions are not binding. “The General Synod speaks to but not for the UCC.” In other words, we can pass this resolution and yet not expect pastors to use the universally recognized formula.

There is my concern about this agreement. What does this agreement do, if pastors refuse to follow the ecumenical formula – not even for the sake of unity? Agreeing to disagree on these very basic elements of Baptism is no agreement at all – it’s a false irenicism. As long as the alternate formula is used, we cannot assume that a baptism preformed in all expressions the UCC will be recognized by the ecumenical partners of this agreement. So is this agreement true?

Ultimately this agreement did pass, 751 yes; 45 no; 13 abstain – that’s 93% approval. But ultimately pastors will continue to baptize in the name of the “Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer” not caring if those baptisms performed are universally recognized or not. At the very least the agreement clearly explains how to preform a baptism which is recognized in the universal church (if that’s something you want).

I hope for this agreement to be true. I am sadden that it is not – at least not among what I hope is a small minority of UCC pastors who find gender inclusive language for the name of God to be more important than unity in the Body of Christ and the directive given by Christ in the Great Commission.