By what authority?

For me, the problem with only preaching once in a a eight week span is that I’ve somehow missed the giant leaps the lectionary has done within the Gospel of Matthew.  Even if reality doesn’t bear this out, it feels like we all of a sudden find ourselves in Holy Week.  In actuality, we have jumped only a few chapters at a time over the course of the past few months, but this week, we find ourselves deep in the conflicts of Holy Week.

Chapter 21 begins with Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  Known these days as Palm Sunday, this marks the beginning of Jesus’ final week.  Riding on a donkey, Jesus entered Jerusalem from the east on the same day that Pilate, the Roman Governor of Israel, would have arrived from the west on his war horse.  On the east side of town, the crowd cheered “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”  On the west side of town, a much larger crowd proclaimed Caesar as the son of god.  Upon his arrival, Jesus made his way to the Temple where with a whip of cords and disgust in his eyes, he flipped the tables of the money changers and equated the whole enterprise with Isaiah’s “den of robbers.”

The next day, which would have been a Monday, Jesus again entered Jerusalem through the east gate and returned to the scene of yesterday’s unpleasantness.  It is here that our Gospel lesson begins with the chief priests and elders asking a perfectly legitimate question, “By what authority are you doing all this?”  In common parlance, we might imagine them saying, “Who do you think you are?”  I’ve written on the topic of authority in Matthew before.  Then, it dealt with Jesus’ claim to have been given “all authority” following his resurrection.  I think the topic deserves attention here, before the crucifixion, as well.

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My current working definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary.  In a commentary on Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability,” which I find helpful in this context as well.  After all that had happened on Sunday, Jesus returns to Jerusalem and finds himself, once again and still, surrounded by a crowd of followers.  The leaders are indignant.  How could this rabble-rouser still have followability?  Who gave him such authority?  One suspects that they already know the answer, though deep down, they pray it isn’t true that God’s judgment had really come upon the Temple system.

We who follow Jesus recognize his authority simply by following.  By subscribing to his teaching of the Kingdom of Heaven and how it has been inaugurated, implicitly we agree to the reality Jesus names after his resurrection.  Namely, his authority, the reason we follow him, comes from the God who created everything that is.  In so doing, we place ourselves under that authority while also having some of it ceded to us.  Since we are not in the midst of Holy Week, and will not be under the scrutiny of those of would do us harm, by virtue of our baptisms, we are all able to answer the question, “by what authority” with confidence – “we follow Jesus.”

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Jonah is all of us

Proper 20, Year A always takes me back to my senior year of high school.  Every Friday morning, about a dozen of us who made up the core group of my Young Life club would gather at the Fletcher home for Bible study and monkey bread.  Occasionally, we would spend the night there Thursday night, though the older I get, the more I can’t imagine how our parents let this happen.  Anyway, on those Thursday evenings, we would hang out with Fletch and Julie’s kids (who are now way too old for my liking) and watch Veggie Tales videos.  Mostly, we’d enjoy the Silly Songs with Larry best-ofs, but every once in a while, we would watch a real episode.  Proper 20, Year A takes me there not because of any of the VHS tapes we watched then, but because of the 2002 release of the Veggie Tales Jonah movie, but you, dear blog reader, are used to reading long, useless intros by now.

My favorite part of both the movie and the Biblical book from which it based is the ending.  Without so much as a spoiler alert, Sunday’s Track 2 lesson takes us right to the very end of the story.  To recap, Jonah tried to escape God’s call to prophecy in Nineveh by jumping a ship to Tarshish on the other side of the known world.  A storm comes up, presumably because of God’s indignation over Jonah’s failure, and eventually Jonah is thrown overboard where a fish (not a whale) swallows him alive and vomits him out three days later.  A contrite and probably disgusting Jonah makes his way to Nineveh where he prophecies against their sins and retreats to a high place to watch God’s destruction.

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Remarkably, the people repent of their evil (fish slapping, in the movie version) ways and in our lesson for Sunday, we hear that God decides to forego his wrath, which ticks Jonah off to no end.  It is there, under the shade of a tree he did not plant, stewing over God’s grace freely offered, that I realize that Jonah is me.  Jonah is all of us.  It may not be so obvious as grumbling about the eleventh hour conversion of another, but each of us has a place where God’s grace catches us short, where God’s unending love seems wildly unfair to us.  How often do we recognize God’s grace in our own lives while being unwilling to comprehend how that same grace might be made manifest in the life of another?  Like Jonah, it can make us angry to witness God’s grace poured out abundantly on those whom we deem unworthy – angry enough to die – and in those moments, though we fail to recognize it, God pours out his grace on us, even in our undeserving.  This week, I’m grateful for the reminder of fun times in high school, for silly videos, and most especially, for God’s never failing grace that is poured out upon me, even in my most undeserving moments.

The Challenge of a 1st Century Sacred Text

I have always struggled with Philippians 1:21.  Paul write this letter from prison, nearly a decade after his first visit to Philippi.  He is, perhaps here more than anywhere else, aware that his life and ministry could soon be coming to an end.  Like any human being, what is on Paul’s mind tends to reoccur in his writings.  As he ponders the reality of his death, he addresses it three times in his letter to the Philippians, the first of which we encounter in the New Testament lesson for Sunday, which begins with that passage that has always puzzled me.

“To me,” Paul writes in 1:21, “living is Christ and dying is gain.”  The second half of this sentence seems self-explanatory.  Realizing that his date with his savior might be coming sooner rather than later, Paul takes comfort in his faith that life beyond this mortal body will be better than anything he has experienced on earth.  Life in paradise, heaven, the bosom of Abraham, or however a first century Jew turned Apostle of Jesus might describe is was ultimately what Paul longed for.  Not that he disliked the life he had.  Not that he was eager to give up preaching the Gospel.  Not that he was sad about the life he had lived.  Rather, Paul knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that life in the fullness of God’s love would be beyond his wildest imagination.

Where I get caught short is this odd turn of phrase, “living is Christ.”  What does that mean?  Is there an idiomatic expression that I am missing?  I went looking for other translations, to very little avail.

  • For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (NIV)
  • You see, for me to live means the Messiah; to die means to make a profit. – N.T. Wright (Paul for Everyone, The Prison Letters, p. 90)
  • For to me, living is for Christ, and dying is even better. (NLT)

The best rendering I could find comes from the CEV, which reads “If I live, it will be for Christ, and if I die, I will gain even more,” but it wasn’t until I opened my old standby The New Daily Study Bible by William Barclay that I found something that made it make sense.  “If Christ were to be taken out of life, for Paul there would be nothing left.” (p. 32)  I commend to you the entire paragraph on this phrase on page 32, but I won’t reprint it here for copyright concerns.

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All this to say just a few things.  First, sometimes, dealing with a first century sacred text is difficult.  Taking the time to do a bit of research on what it is the original author was trying to say is never a waste of time.  Second, when we do that digging on this passage, it reveals to us that for Paul, and presumably for all who follow Jesus, the life we live should be defined entirely on our relationship with Christ.  Literally, “to live is Christ,” such that we know no other existence but that which has been made real in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Every moment brings another opportunity to choose life in Christ, and we won’t always be successful, but at its heart, following Jesus is handing our lives, our whole lives, over to him.

Allowed? Yes. Wise? Well…

While in seminary, I brought in some extra income by working with the maintenance crew at the seminary.  I learned all sorts of interesting things: how to run a backhoe, how to thread pipe, how to test for a gas leak, how to epoxy a basement floor, how to rebuild a Sloan flush valve, and how to stretch your breaks for as long as possible without getting in trouble.  Part of stretching your breaks was learning how to make trips to the store last.  Always drive the speed limit.  Stop to pick up donuts for the rest of the crew.  Be very specific about which stores you will go to.  On trips to the Home Depot, I also learned a theological lesson about the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

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Day laborers were a big thing in the DC metro area.  There were spots all around town where (usually) young Latino men would congregate waiting for work.   One popular spot was near an apartment complex on Route 7.  As the day went on, the crowd would dwindle, but like in the parable, there were some who, desperate for any work to feed themselves and their families, would wait all day, hoping to get hired.  In the parking lot of the Home Depot, it was a whole different story.  Here the competition was fierce.  Men who were ready, willing, and able to work would all but open your van door and jump in.  If you had an open bed on your pickup, the situation was made even more interesting.  These men were dying to work, and by stopping at the stop sign in the parking lot, you were inviting them to join your crew.

As I think about the parable of the laborers, I can’t help but think of those guys and how much they wanted/needed to work.  I wonder what the end of the day might have been like if the situation Jesus described took place.  Would some have grumbled that those who worked one hour got paid the same as those who worked all day?  Sure, that’s human nature.  Is it the prerogative of the landowner to pay whatever he chooses?  Absolutely, the landowner is allowed to do whatever she or he pleases.  Is is wise to operate that way?  The Invisible-Hand-Capitalist in me says no way.  This system would mean that the next day, nobody will be in the parking lot looking for work until 5pm.

Of course, Jesus isn’t suggesting an economic model in this parable, which is where the theological lesson comes in.  The Kingdom-of-God-Theologian in my says that this is a brilliant model upon which to build God’s reign.  Sure, there are some who might wait until the eleventh hour to come on board, but for so many of us, the sheer delight of working alongside God as the Kingdom is being unveiled is worth more than any day’s wage.  Maybe it wasn’t that the men in the Home Depot lot needed the money so much as they found delight in being useful.  To take our part in the building of something larger than ourselves can be a source of true joy.  Each morning, God invites us to take join in the work of building the Kingdom.  The payment, eternal life, is good, but the satisfaction that comes from the work itself, is inestimable.

Lives Worthy of the Gospel – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s Website, or you can read it below.

I love everything about baptism Sundays.  I think the white hangings we have here at Saint Paul’s are particularly beautiful.  I love this baptismal stole that was given to me by my friends at Saint James’ in Potomac, Maryland, where I worked while I was in seminary.  I love cute babies in frilly white dresses and parents and grandparents beaming with pride. I especially love those rare times when we’re baptizing an older child or an adult who has recently come to realize the power of God in their lives.  I love the pageantry of the ancient rite.  I love the hymns.  I really love it all, but if I were forced to pick my favorite part of baptism Sunday it would have to be the baptismal covenant.  A covenant is a special kind of contract that is designed to create an ongoing relationship between two people or groups.  The terms of the contract are important, but it is the relationship that really matters. We talk about marriage as being a covenant.  A bride and a groom make vows to one another and become a husband and a wife, creating a new thing called a family.

In the baptism service, a relationship is established between the newly baptized person and the family of God.  The five  promises of the Baptismal Covenant mark the special starting place in our relationship with God and with his Church.  As a reminder of our membership in the family, on baptism Sundays we all join in and renew our own Baptismal Covenant.  Even though we are only baptizing little Webb Davis at the nine o’clock service this morning, every one of us has the chance today to be reminded of the what it means to be a part of the family of God.

Sometimes I forget how much I love the baptismal covenant.  This week, amidst all of the stuff I was trying to get done, I almost forgot it completely.  It wasn’t until Thursday morning, as I sat at my desk asking God to give me something, anything, to preach about today, that I remembered the Baptismal Covenant at all.  It came to me in a very unexpected sort of way.  I had planned to preach on Jesus’ Parable of the Generous Landowner.  I was going to talk about how God loves all of us.  Whether we are baptized at 5 hours, 5 days, 5 months, 5 years, or 105 years old, God welcomes us into the family with open arms and a loving embrace.

What got me on Thursday morning, however, were the words of Paul to the Church in Philippi, a church that was very young.  The Philippian church was struggling to understand how to be Christians without Paul there to teach them.  Paul, writing from prison, encourages the new Christians with a deceptively simple sentence, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”  It got me thinking, “How do we live our lives in way that is worthy of the gospel?”  I came up with at least three different answers.

The first answer I thought of was that a life worthy of the Gospel means living a life that is as far removed from the “things of this world” as possible. I grew up in Amish Country, complete with horse and buggies, straight pins instead of buttons on their clothing, and no power lines running to their homes.  The Amish have decided that a life worthy of the gospel means choosing the technology of the 18th century and eschewing new advancements such as 120 volt electricity as being too worldly.  Of course, they are an extreme example, but they are certainly not alone.  Some Southern Baptists have attempted to remove themselves from the things of this world by choosing to abstain from alcohol, card playing, and even dancing.  Some Episcopalians have tried to remove themselves from the things of this world by stubbornly maintaining a preference for vestments, gothic architecture, and organ music.  Since the definition of “things of this world” is so broad, I’m not convinced this is actually what Paul had in mind.

Then I thought that maybe a life worthy of the Gospel might mean a life wholly devoted to prayer.  The Church has a long tradition of special people called “ascetics” who have taken this way of living a life worthy of the Gospel very seriously.  Some have lived in caves in the desert, some have stood atop a pole for years and years, many sold all they had and gave it to the poor, while still others took to living in communities of prayer and service to the poor.  I admire the ascetics and monastics of our tradition, but if we were all to live that way, the church would have died out pretty quickly. At least a few Christians have to be engaged in society in order to share the Good News and propagate the faith.  I suspect that Paul might have had this extreme form of discipleship in mind for some, but probably not most of the Christians in Philippi.  There has to be a way for the regular Jane to live a life worthy of the Gospel.

Eventually, I began to think that maybe a life worthy of the Gospel means living a life that follows the teachings of Jesus and becoming “Red Letter Christians” by following the words of Jesus that were often printed in red in older translations of the Bible.  Jesus summed up how we should live our lives with two commandments.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In The Episcopal Church, we’ve been so bold as to try to spell out what that looks like in the Baptismal Covenant in which we promise, with God’s help, to do our best to “keep God’s holy will and commandments” (1662 BCP).

In just a minute, we will all stand and once again promise that with God’s help, we’ll take our part as members of the family of God through study, prayer, and fellowship.  With God’s help, we’ll work to stay away from those things we shouldn’t be doing, and when we fall into sin, we’ll do our best to find our way back to God.  With God’s help, we’ll tell and show people about God’s love for them.  With God’s help, we’ll serve those in need in our neighborhoods, in our city, and in the wider world.  With God’s help, we’ll look at everyone we meet as a child of God who is worthy of God’s love and our love.

It is through the living out of the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant that we are able to pattern our lives after the Gospel, to work to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, and to fulfill Jesus’ commandments to love God and love our neighbor.  And it is through our example that little Webb and the children of God of all ages will learn how to be disciples of Jesus.  I love baptism Sundays because they remind me that no matter how old we are and no matter how long we’ve been at it, following Jesus isn’t easy and we shouldn’t try to go it alone.  Living our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel is all but impossible, but with God’s help, and the support of our church family, anything and everything is possible.  Amen.

A Life Worthy of the Gospel

In yesterday’s post, I argued that judging others, that is, looking upon others with an evil eye, is not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  This morning, as I reread the lessons, I was drawn to Paul’s words to the Philippians that they should live their lives in “a manner worthy of Gospel.”  As with any admonition in the Pauline corpus, there are several different ways to read this.

A life worthy of the Gospel may mean a life removed from the things of this world.  The Amish have sort of done this by arbitrarily choosing the technology of the 18th century as ordained by God and new advancements such as 120 volt electricity as too worldly.  Some Southern Baptists have done this by choosing to abstain from alcohol, dancing, pre-marital sex, and card playing.  Some Episcopalians have done this by maintaining a preference for Anglican Chant and organ music while abstaining from extemporaneous prayers.  Since the definitions of “things of this world” are so vague, I’m not convinced this is what Paul had in mind.

Ice Machines and F-250s are a bit worldly for me.

A life worthy of the Gospel might mean a life wholly devoted to prayer.  The Church has a long tradition of ascetics who have taken this understanding very seriously.  Some lived in caves in the desert, some stood atop a pole for decades, some sold all they had and gave it to the poor, some were tithed by their parents to a monastery at a young age.  I admire the ascetics and mystics of our tradition, but if we were all to live that way, the church would died out pretty quickly since Christian loins need to produce Christian children and/or Christians must be engaged in society and share the Good News in order to propagate the faith.

It is hard to share the Gospel when you keep adding height to your tower to avoid the people who have come to see you.

A life worthy of the Gospel might mean living a life that follows the teachings of Jesus, or as Tony Campolo might say, being a “Red Letter Christian” by following the words of Jesus (often printed in red in older translations).  Jesus summed it up by saying that we should love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  In The Episcopal Church, we’ve been so bold as to expand upon that in the Baptismal Covenant in which we promise to do our best to “keep God’s holy will and commandments” with God’s help (1662 BCP).  It is through the living out of the virtues listed in the Baptismal Covenant that we pattern our lives after the Gospel and work to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.  That, to me, is how we live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel.

Celebrant      Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the
prayers?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant     Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant      Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?

People          I will, with God’s help.

Evil Eye

There is perhaps no better evil eye than that of the Janitor from Scrubs.

I raise this, partly because SHW and I have been working our way through the whole series on dvd as of late, but mostly because of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson wherein our faithful translators have attempted to capture the meaning of a Greek figure of speech that English probably wasn’t meant to capture.

Toward the end of the parable, as the landowner is confronting the grumbling laborers, he says to 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?”  If we can be honest with each other for just a moment, this is probably the end of Jesus’ dealing with this matter and the whole “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” part is probably a Matthean addition to created the bookend he’s looking for rhetorically.  If this is the end of the lesson from Jesus, it really does end with an interesting challenge, “Are you envious because I am generous?”  I dealt with that yesterday.

What I find even more interesting is what the Greek has Jesus actually saying, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  John R. Donahue, SJ picks up on this little gem in his The Gospel in Parable, noting that for Matthew, the eye bit is something of a recurring theme.  “The final words of the owner, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” underscores the defect in these servants.  Since in Matthew “the eye is the lamp of the body” (6:22) and “if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out” (5:29), these servants allow their attitude to “darken” their whole way of viewing the world.  What began as an act of goodness to them and unfolded as an act of generosity to others blinded them to the goodness of the owner and the good fortune of others” (82-83).

When we begin to make judgements about what we think others deserve, we look upon them with an evil eye.  That evil eye doesn’t really have any negative effect on the other, but rather, it permeates our own hearts with the darkness of envy.  Remember that Jesus has told this parable in response to Peter’s question about what kind of reward the disciples were going to get for having given up everything to follow Jesus.  Remember that Peter asks that question in response to Jesus’ assertion that though it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to enter the eye of a needle.  Remember that Jesus says that because the rich young man walks away sad rather than becoming a disciple.  And remember that the rich young man walks away sad because Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor.  Got all that?

Peter didn’t want there to be any chance that that rich young man, who refused to give up his opulence, could get in to the kingdom of heaven.  And on the off chance he did, since everything is possible for God, Peter wanted to be sure that the disciples would end up better of than that guy.  Peter’s eye had become evil, and Jesus let him know about it.  He saved him the indignity of cutting it out, and instead told a parable inviting Peter to look upon the kingdom of heaven in a new way.  There are no winners and losers, no firsts and last, just beloved children who have been graciously received in through the generosity of the Father.