Thursday, September 28, 2017

Who Said You Could Protest THAT Way?

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 21st Chapter

When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?’ And they argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say to us, “Why then did you not believe him?” But if we say, “Of human origin”, we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.’ So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And he said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 

‘What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him. 

Lying, and tricks, and power plays, Oh MY!  One group KNOWS they’re right because they have LOTS of power and money and with enough power and money can make even the horrible alright.  Even cozying up to foreign governments is fine if it means winning!  The other wing of that same group KNOWS they’re even MORE right than the first group because they are MORALLY right, with fanatical, fundamentalist, certainty.  “Those people,” all over the country, should be FORCED to follow our faithful, fundamentalist ways!  It’s how God ordained it!

You know, those two groups used to HATE each other with the fiery hate of a thousand burning suns!  But here they’ve found a common enemy.  That guy.  That guy who keeps pointing out injustice.  What’s worse is “that guy” gets people’s attention.  Did he have to do THAT?  Did he have to do it HERE?  Couldn’t he do it, you know, in a way it would be easier to ignore?  It used to be that the rich and powerful folks and the God and country folks couldn’t agree on ANYTHING.  But since “that guy” came to town, the rich and powerful Chief Priests and the God and country Pharisees made a miracle happen!  They found the one thing on which they could agree.  Jesus has GOT to GO!  

Jesus was a threat.  He said the rich and powerful would be cast down and the powerless and poor would rise up.  The Chief Priests WERE the rich and powerful, and the Pharisees knew the poor were obviously sinful, so you can imagine, neither were fans of Jesus!  So, together they confronted Jesus and asked him “by what authority do you teach like this.”  Their hope was to trip him up, or at least shove him out of the spotlight and they wouldn’t say no to an early grave for him either!  

Jesus dodged the trap with a parable that made the rich and powerful Priests and the ultra religious, super pious, fundamentalist, Pharisees shake with anger.  Jesus told them about two sons.  One SAID he would get right to work but didn’t.  The other defied his father in public, saying he wouldn’t work... but then actually went out and worked.  Jesus told them, by way of this story, that God cares very little about what folks say, how they spin their story or even what they send out by carrier pigeon or even by little blue tweety bird!  What God really cares about is WHAT YOU’RE DOING.  Are you gonna DO something?  Or are you just TALKIN’?  

He was talking about faith, but faith, in Jesus’ day, wasn’t something that happened up here in the ol’ noggin.  It wasn’t a list of things to agree to, it wasn’t a sticker for your car or liking and sharing a post to prove you loved God.  Back in Jesus’ day, faith wasn’t something that happened in your head or even with your words.  Faith was much more about what you did with your feet and your hands and your life.  God, it turns out, pays WAY more attention to how you walk than what you say.  That means, Jesus wasn't really asking the rich, powerful, and puritanical if they thought John the Baptist had good ideas.  He was asking them if they had started LIVING like John the Baptist!  Clearly they hadn’t and that meant they were trapped.  John the Baptist was the third rail of Palestinian politics… the rich, powerful and puritanical hated John, but the people LOVED him.  So with one, little, tiny, parable Jesus got all of Jerusalem’s attention.  Basically Jesus asked, "In all the time these rich and powerful, God and country people have been yackin', have you ever seen them DO anything"?  Nobody had.  They were all SHOW and no GO and God doesn’t watch the show.  God’s MUCH more interested in the GO.  

So, what’s GO look like?  It looks like deep gratitude for what we’ve been given.  It looks like seeing the person others look through as if they aren’t there.  It's hearing that quiet voice that says, “this doesn’t feel right” when the rest of the world sticks their fingers in their ears and shouts, “LA LA LA!”   It looks like a life lived in service… a life of little things done for someone else who can never pay you back.  It looks like boosting a small voice so it might finally be heard.  It looks like bringing healing, wholeness and life to everyone whether the world thinks they deserve it or not; whether they'll appreciate it or not; whether they'll ever even thank you for it or not.

That makes GO hard!  So hard it’s impossible to GO all by yourself because it means not only feeding the hungry but asking why people are hungry.  Not only caring for the poor, but asking why working 40 hours a week can’t earn everyone enough for a place to live AND food to eat.  It means not only being charitable, but changing the world so that everyone has enough... enough food, shelter, self worth and dignity.  But it’s only in living in the GO that we’ll realize along the way that we’re really living and finally experiencing a life that is full, real, abundant… and eternal.

The difficult twist to this parable is that in this parable Jesus is asking you and me the same question he asked the priests and pharisees.  Are we all talk, or are we taking a real step toward who and what we value?  Are we just show or are we GO?  GO is HARD but it’s the path to a real, meaning-filled life… an eternal and abundant life, not just for ourselves but for the world.  The other way… well, it just doesn’t go anywhere.  So what’ll it be?  TALK and SHOW or GET UP and GO?  Amen. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

One Perfect Moment

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew the 20th Chapter

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went
out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

My Master’s thesis was titled “Optimization of a Sherry Baking Process for Muscadine Grapes and a Feasibility Study for Sherry Baking Utilizing High-Temperature, Short-Time Technology.”  Basically I tried to see if you could make Sherry wine from native, North Carolina grapes.  It turns out it’s possible… technically.  Taste wise though, there’s a reason nobody does.  On the up side I learned a few things about wine making and that makes me wonder about today’s parable.  

You see, winemakers are generally an obsessed lot.  So, when it gets close to harvest time they go out in the vineyard almost every hour and take a sample, eat a few grapes and test them for sugar and acidity.  As the sun moves across the sky, as the dew dries, as the rain falls, as the day warms up or cools down, the grapes on the vine constantly change and then there is that ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT where everything is just right.  The trick to making great wine is to pick ALL your grapes in that ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT.  And, since the grapes keep changing as long as they are on the vine, when that moment comes, you’ve got to move FAST!  The land owner keeps going out to get more workers because THIS is that ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT.

He gets everyone he could find to start at 6 a.m.  They agree on one denarius for a 12 hour day, which was a living wage, but there aren’t enough workers.  So he goes out and grabs a second bunch and promises them whatever’s “right.”  Still, there aren’t enough people to so he sends others.  The grapes are still changing on the vine, you know!  There’s no time to talk about pay, THE ONE… PERFECT… MOMENT is slipping away!  He needs EVERYONE picking… even people hired at “the eleventh hour” could make all the difference if, with that last hour’s push, all those grapes can get into the crusher! 

And then the day’s done, the grapes are in the crusher and it’s time to dole out the cash!  Everyone gets a denarius.  The one hour workers open their pay envelopes, their eyes widen, but shockingly they don’t say, “Hey, you paid us too much!”  The twelve hour guys though, look in their envelope, and their eyes widen and they shout, HEY!  THAT’S NOT FAIR!  

The landowner however, they all soon learn, doesn’t care about “fair” and if they had been paying attention, he gave away his M.O. when he told the second group what he would do for them.  He said, “I’ll do for you what is RIGHT”… this landowner does what’s “right” not what’s “fair.”  So THAT’s what this parable teaches, right?  God is passionate about justice!  God cares about doing what’s RIGHT… generously giving us what we need, regardless of what the world says is “fair” or how things have always been done.  That’s a whole sermon right there and if life was “fair” I’d say “Amen” and we’d all sit down and get to coffee hour all that more quickly.  But life’s not fair and as good as justice is (and it’s REALLY GOOD), justice is only the tip of the iceberg in this parable.  You see, I think we miss something really important when we forget that this is a winemaker, and winemakers are an obsessed lot.  

So, take a minute and imagine what happens in the scene that follows in this little wine making town.  On the way home, the workers start talking in the car.  It was so bizarre that in the drive through at McHummus they tell the guy in the window what happened.  They sit down and eat and can't stop talking about it.  And what are they saying?  “Do you believe what that guy just did!?  He paid everyone the SAME!”  “Yeah, EVEN the ones who only worked ONE HOUR!  Can you believe it?”  And soon, all around the table, all around the town, all around the COUNTY, the story of this obsessed, wack-a-doodle winemaker goes viral.  Their conclusion?  This guy’s crazy!  They also think, next year this guy is going to be sorry because EVERY SINGLE PERSON in this whole town… heck this whole COUNTY is going to show up at this guy’s vineyard at the eleventh hour, work for an hour and expect a whole day’s pay!  

So it looks like this winemaker’s made a horrible mistake, right?  He’s done something completely crazy and next year at the harvest he’s going to pay through the nose!  But is this winemaker crazy like a crazy person or maybe… just maybe is he crazy like a fox?  Because what’s the one thing this obsessed winemaker cares about most?  It’s not his reputation.  It's clear he doesn’t care what other people think about him.  It’s not holding onto cash.  He seems fine throwing that around.  You might want to say “doing what’s right”, and that’s in there somehow, but I’m wondering if the thing this obsessed winemaker values most isn’t simply MAKING GREAT WINE.  

He’s a winemaker!  Could it be that what he wants, more than money, more than a good reputation, more even than doing what’s fair is to get his grapes harvested in that ONE PERFECT MOMENT… in the ONE HOUR when every grape is absolutely perfect?  SO, did this winemaker just sneakily, craftily, brilliantly create a situation where next year, every single person in the WHOLE county will show up for one hour of work and because EVERYONE is there at once, did he just fix it so his entire harvest will get to the crusher, not just on the one perfect day but in the one perfect HOUR?

If THAT’S what’s going on here, could Jesus be telling us that we have a God who doesn’t care what people think, doesn’t care about playing fair and doesn’t care about the cost?  Because if THAT’S what Jesus is telling us, then it looks like we have a God who will do literally ANYTHING, spend ANY amount, disregard what ANYBODY thinks, just to make sure EVERY SINGLE PERSON from every single corner of creation piles into God’s Divine vineyard in that perfect hour… on that perfect day, so that by hook or by crook, by faith or even by flimflam God makes sure EVERY SINGLE ONE in all of creation ends up in the front yard of the Divine Winemaker’s Kingdom.  Is that what Jesus is saying?  Or is it just that we have a God who loves really good wine?  You know, I think it's probably both!  Amen.  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Funny Money

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 18th Chapter

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Twenty five years ago this week I asked Kelly to marry me on top of the city hall tower in Stockholm.  Spoiler alert... she said yes!  One of the things we did to get ready for that trip was go to the bank for our Swedish Kronor.  I remember handing over our normal, green, American money and getting back all this crazy colored stuff and thinking “How in the heck will I know what it’s worth?”  

Figuring out funny money is important in today’s parable as well.  The guy in the parable owed the King 10,000 Talents but what’s a Talent?  Is it like Swedish Kronor?  10,000 Kronor is about 1200 bucks.  Is it like that?  Well, a Denarius is a day’s wages for a field worker, so in round numbers… about 80 bucks.  6000 Denarii makes a Talent.  So, in US dollars, the guy in this story owed the king... 4.8 B-B-B-BILLION dollars!  He owed the GDP of Albania!  He had country level debt!  Jesus is telling us that if we ever had to “pay up” to get right with God, it would be impossible!  The Good News is that we've been made right without having to pay up!

That's not the usual way things work in our world, but there’s even more strangeness in this story than that.  Did you notice... the king never asks what this guy bought with the equivalent of the entire economy of Somalia?  If someone borrowed twenty bucks from me and told me they couldn’t pay it back, the first thing I’d ask is “what did you do with it?” but the king didn’t care.  Jesus did that to show EXACTLY how God is with you and with me.  What we’ve done or what we haven’t done… our King doesn’t care!  It never comes up.  Jesus tells this story about a King with unfathomable compassion… the story of a King whose love for the person is stronger than his love of balanced books, getting even or even getting back the equivalent cost of an aircraft carrier… Jesus tells this story so we would know that we have a God who makes us right, IN SPITE, of what we’ve done or not done… in spite of what we “owe”… no questions asked.  

Jesus ALSO told this story because he knew we’d like receiving God’s unlimited, unconditional, 4.8 billion dollars worth of forgiveness, love and compassion BUT we’d also have trouble passing it on to others in that same, generous and unconditional way.  He knew we’d be compassionate, but with conditions.  We’d forgive, but with footnotes.  We’d give abundantly, but with an asterisk.  

Jesus knew that and he knew we’d justify it by saying its “good stewardship” or “they need to learn their lesson.”  But what Jesus is telling us here is that when we pass on only PART of the forgiveness we've first been given or give compassion with conditions, the truth is, WE are the ones who will not be free.  Jesus is again super melodramatic to make his point.  We’re not meant to think God is going to literally send us to be tortured when we fail to pass on fully the love God’s first given us, BUT his point is clear… the more we forgive and let go of the wrongs that have been done to us… the more we strive to be generous with others, even when others have not been so generous with us… the more we will experience the freedom, fullness and abundance of life God created us to live.  On the other hand, the tighter we hold those hurts, the longer we hold those grudges, the more we hold back the compassion, generosity and love we have first been given by God, the more our lives will feel tortured.  Not because God sends us to be tortured but because holding on leaves us stewing in those old resentments and burning with the fear of scarcity.  Really letting go and living generously, Jesus tells us, leads to an abundant life.  

A quick side note here.  Some preachers have really done a number on this “abundant life” thing over the years.  They preach that when you are generous and buy them a private jet, God will pay you back with an abundance of MATERIAL wealth.  As much as I think having a private jet would be really, really cool, I have to tell you that’s not what Jesus meant.  What Jesus meant is that when we are generous with every aspect of our lives, we experience an abundant life… ABUNDANT in that it's a life filled with meaning, purpose and peace.  While it’s possible for that to happen with every sort of bank balance, other parables Jesus tells warn that the bigger your bank balance, the harder it is to live fully and genuinely with generosity and that makes it harder to experience a life of meaning, purpose and peace.  But that’s for another sermon.

For now we’ve got this parable to deal with and it’s not an easy one to live into.  Heck, I don't seem to be able to live into this truth very well and I’m preaching it!  I struggle with being generous because I fear that the bad-old-days might return when I didn’t think I had enough to take care of my family.  I also hold onto those times I was deeply wronged and stewing on those wrongs in the past tortures me… and yet I continue to hold on anyway!  I’m guessing, I’m not alone.  

This is another reason we can’t do life alone.  We all need help living toward giving generously without an asterisk and being compassionate without conditions.  We all need help dying to our past hurts and our persistent fears and rising toward being even a bit more generous, a little more compassionate and holding a little less tightly onto the things that hurt us in the past every single day.

Jesus told this parable, not to threaten us with torture, but so that we might have life and have it abundantly!  He told us this parable so we would understand what God has first done for us, so we would then have the courage ourselves to pass on fully what we’ve first been given.  May we take one another by the hand, and together take one small step, and then another, and then another in that direction… dying to our past hurts and resentments… dying to our torturing fears about not having enough and rising each day to the new and abundant life God has already so generously given us to live.  Amen.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Bridge Out

The Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, the 18th Chapter

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 

If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

“Oh wicked ones, you shall surely die!”  That seems harsh.  Let’s try the second lesson.  Let’s see… “reveling, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness…”  OK, not much better.  How’s the Gospel?  “If another member of the church sins against you…”  Alright, Alright, Alright already!  I get it.  We need to talk about sin.    

In our day and age when people talk about sin they usually mean a particular naughty act.  In the 80’s Jimmy Swaggart illustrated this in the most dramatic way when on TV he said through tears, “I have sinned” after he got caught… let’s say “eating pizza” in a hotel with someone who wasn't his wife.  For him, and for our culture, the really bad part was the act of “eating pizza.”  But for Ezekiel, Paul and Jesus, the “act” itself isn’t nearly as bad as the rift… the separation the act creates between you and the other person, between you and your community or between you and God.  For Bible folks, the separation is the worse part.  

That’s because, “eating pizza” doesn’t usually lead directly to death.  There are no lightning bolts or hell fire rained from above, even when we think there should be!  It’s more what happens AFTER you “eat pizza.”  It’s the broken relationships and the physical separation which leads to death.  In Bible times that was simply a practical truth.  Living apart from others, you just didn’t have the food, shelter, clothing or the protection you needed to survive.  In Bible times we needed each other to just stay alive! 

In our day and age though we look back at Bible times and think, “Yeah, they HAD to lean on one another back then, but me, I’m a modern day rugged individual.  I’m not like them.  I can do everything for myself!  I don’t need anything from anyone to live!  In fact, I’m stronger and better when I DON’T need anyone else!  That’s a pretty popular notion these days, but there’s a problem with it.  It’s not true.  Folks say it very loudly and try to insist that forcing people to live without the help of others will make them strong, but it’s still not true.  These lessons and all of Scripture witness to the fact that “alone” is not how God created us to live.  It’s unfortunate that it takes disaster and horrible tragedy to remind us we really aren’t made to go it alone.  We’ve always been and still remain today, deeply dependent on one another for life.    

I was thinking about this earlier this week as I got ready to start my day.  I thought, “is there even one thing I can do all by myself, without anyone’s help?  I thought, well, I can dress myself!”  But can I really?  Sure, I can pull on my pants and almost always do it without falling over with one foot stuck half way down a pants leg, but I could never have made the pants myself.  Even if I could sew, I couldn’t have woven the cloth, spun the yarn, ginned the cotton, or grown it.  I couldn’t even get to the place my pants were made without the roads, planes and ships other people made!  The more I thought about it, the more I wondered how many people, all around the world, really did help me get dressed that morning?  I found an NPR piece where they followed a t-shirt from the cotton seed to the person who finally bought the shirt and put it on.  Only counting the people who physically touched the cotton, yarn, fabric and finished shirt, there were scores and scores of people.  If you include the people who designed and made the equipment the number increases exponentially!  Here’s the link to that story…

So, yeah, most of the time I can put on my own pants and even get the zipper in the front, but the truth is, even for something as simple as putting on our pants, we are deeply, deeply dependent upon one another.  That’s not a flaw, by the way.  That’s not a human shortcoming.  That’s the way God created us to be.  We have been designed and loved into being to be interdependent… to live in relationship… in community… together and not to live apart.  

That's why in the first lesson, the psalm, the second lesson and the gospel tell us how to do that… how to live together and how to address sin and fix the rifts that inevitably happen which separate us from one another, our community and the One who loved us into being.  The key, it turns out, is love.  Not a Valentine’s Day passionate love and not a bowling buddy kind of love, but the kind of love that drives us to do the hard and sacrificial work of doing whatever is in the other’s best interest.  

This is the kind of love that understands that forgiveness is not forgetting someone "ate pizza" on you, but being very honest about it and working relentlessly to find a way to come back together in spite of it!  This is the kind of love that speaks hard truths… sets clear, firm boundaries… and offers healthy, mutually respectful ways back, and not ways where one walks back over the other. 

We live in a world that seems every day to be more and more intent upon creating division, widening rifts and digging the chasms that separate us from one another deeper and deeper.  Those divisions, rifts and chasms themselves are the deeper, more tragic meaning of sin.  As Christians, we're called to show the world that the way to abundant life is not pointing and shaming the people who “eat pizza,” pushing them farther away.  As Christians we’re called to treat them the same way Jesus treated tax collectors and gentiles and find a way in love to see them, sit with them, talk to them, eat with them and heal the rifts and restore the community to wholeness so there will be life for all.  

These days I know that seems like an insurmountable task.  How can little Christ Trinity Church possibly bring together a world that seems bent on constantly ripping itself apart?  But our call isn't to start at the "fixing the world" end of the problem.  Our call is to gather two or three together in the love of Christ and trust that right there among us in the presence of Christ, God will guide us in ways we can bring life out of death and healing to the world in ways we could never begin to imagine on our own.  God’s done it before you know, and God's ongoing promise to us an all of creation is that light is more powerful than darkness and life is stronger than death.  Amen.