Why do they keep listening?

In my sermon yesterday, I made the assertion that Jesus was not stupid.  This brought about a few chuckles, probably because the idea of Jesus not being the smartest person in every room is absurd to many.  As a modern-day religious authority, I wish I could say that the Chief Priests and the Scribes weren’t stupid either, but based on the way things go in Matthew 21, I’m not sure that’s the case.

Their best question, the one they planned all night in an attempt to trap Jesus in blasphemy, was a weak noodle.  And then, as Jesus launches into a three parable tirade on how awful they are at leading the people of Israel into a full relationship with God, they just stand there slack jawed.  Why do they keep listening?

At the end of the Parable of the Two Sons, Jesus makes a very pointed statement toward the religious power-that-be, “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 (“metanoia” = repent) and believe him.”

Following the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, a particularly awful parable, Matthew tells us that they finally realized that he was speaking about them, but for fear of the crowds they did nothing.  Here’s where I really begin to wonder about these people.  I mean, they didn’t have to arrest him, but surely they could have turned around and walked away, but no, they stayed for yet another Parable.

Finally comes the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, which we’ll hear on October 12th.  This is perhaps the harshest of the three and ends with people either dead or cast into outer darkness.  Finally, they figure out they have offices to retreat to and they go off to scheme some more, but seriously, why did they stay so long?  Just to give Jesus the chance to tell three particularly harsh parables?  Probably not.

Here’s what I think.  These guys are proud men.  They’ve worked hard to get to their place of prestige and they aren’t likely to give it away easily.  My gut tells me that they stick around for two conflicting reasons.  First, and probably foremost, they stay to save face.  If they turn and walk away with their tails between their legs, it gives Jesus all the momentum.  Second, and perhaps more sympathetically, they are heavily invested in the faith of Israel.  There must be some small part of them that wonders if Jesus really is the Messiah; some part deep in their bones that feels hope even as he speaks judgment against them.  Yes, Jesus is growing increasingly inconvenient for them, but the people are drawn to him and the people seem to have been right about John the Baptist.  Maybe, just maybe, they’ve found their hearts strangely warmed in Jesus’ words to them.  It won’t last, however.  Things are about to get much, much worse.  Yet for now, something keeps them listening.  I wonder what it was.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit.

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.

When God’s Grace Disappoints Us

Jonah is pissed off.  After all, he knew this was going to happen.  He knew God was gracious and full of compassion.  How he knew that the fish slapping people of Nineveh were going to repent and change their ways, I don’t know, but he knew it.  He knew that all of his effort to travel to Nineveh to see these people get smote by a rain of fire was going to be for naught.  He tried to avoid it, but God wouldn’t let him off the hook.  And now, after storms and fish bellies and long a really long walk in the desert, here he sits, overlooking the city of Nineveh, which is very much not being destroyed by the angry hand of God, and Jonah is pissed off.

Of course, Jonah isn’t alone.  He is perhaps the archetype of human interaction with God.  At one time or another in our lives, God’s grace is going to disappoint us.  We’ll be disappointed in other ways, no doubt.  Our favorite sports team won’t win the big game.  Our friends’ marriage will crash and burn.  The child we prayed for will die of cancer.  The parish church of our ancestry will close.  We’ll be disappointed in those ways often, but they tend to not make us quite as angry as when God’s grace overflows upon those who we’ve determined should be on the outside looking in.

This is, of course, the whole premise behind Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Landowner.  “Are you envious because I am generous?” or more literally “Is your eye evil because I am good?” or more to the point of this post “Are you ticked because of my graciousness?”  If we’re honest with ourselves, each of us can name plenty of people who we hope are outside of God’s redeeming grace.  I don’t want to share heaven with Mark Driscoll or Joel Osteen any more than they want to share it with me, but alas, God loves them even in their bad theology as much as he loves me in mine.

Our disappointment in God’s grace assumes that we deserve it while other don’t, which is, of course, not true.  Jonah didn’t deserve God’s grace, he ran and hid instead of following God’s will.  The workers hired at 6am didn’t deserve God’s grace, they moaned and groaned at the landowner’s generosity.  I don’t deserve God’s grace because I name people who I don’t want to share heaven with in blog posts.  And yet, God extends his grace to each of us sinners while also being merciful to the people of Ninveh, the workers hired at 5pm, and any number of people who I cold squabble with theologically.  Our disappointment in God’s grace is a reminder that God loves even us.  Which, when it comes right down to it, is just as shocking as his decision to spare the people of Nineveh.

That Pesky “So What” Question Again

It seems clear that we have another descriptive rather than prescriptive parable on our hands.  Jesus doesn’t tell us to be wheat.  He expressly says that us human types don’t get to do the judging or the harvesting or the burning of the weeds.  No, we are merely wheat, or so we hope, growing for a season in the midst of a sabotaged field.  Is this really what the Kingdom of God is like?  Me just soaking up sunlight, rain, and nutrients all provided by a God who seems just a little bit of his rocker?

I’m not good at taking vacations.  The typical vacation lasts for 7 days.  I can sit and do nothing for approximately 2 hours.  Even 2 weeks of merely descriptive parables has me on edge.  So, the idea that the Kingdom of God is like me being on vacation for my entire life is enough to make me think it isn’t for me.  I need something to do, some task to accomplish, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that this week’s parable is actually a parable about last week’s parable.  This week we get the Parable of the Good Soil.

Seeds that fell on good soil, seeds which should produce at least a 30 fold yield have been sabotaged by the evil one.  He has come and turn what was good soil into a weed infested mess.  The cares and concerns of the world, the lure of wealth, illness and death, all of it grows right alongside each of us and attempts to choke the very faith out of us.  It would be easy to succumb to the pressure of the weeds roots below.  It’d be simple to allow their shadow to steal our light.  Getting choked out by the weeds wouldn’t be hard, and God knows it.  So he continues to provide nutrients, he continues to allow the rain to fall on the just and unjust alike, he continues to allow the sun to shine on both the wheat and the tares, and he encourages us to persevere.  To see beyond the current hardships.  To stand tall above the weeds.  To fight for nourishment when others would starve us of God’s grace.  We are called to be the best damn wheat we can be, even and especially in a field full of pesky weeds.

Yes, this parable is descriptive.  Yes, we are really just called to be wheat.  Yes, this drives me crazy, so yes, I’m going to do my best to be as wheaty as possible when the harvest comes.

A Difficult Story

When it comes right down to it, there are a lot of stories and parables used by Jesus that make our 21st century American ears uncomfortable.  A few weeks back, Jesus used slave imagery to teach about our place in the Kingdom of God.  During this interminable Season after Pentecost, we’ve heard Jesus admonish would be followers who wanted to say good-bye to their families or bury their dads, and there was the pesky, “hate your family” deal.  This week, we parable that Jesus tells is another unpopular one, the parable of the unjust judge, or conversely, the parable of the persistent widow.  100% of the clergy on staff at St. John’s in Decatur, AL don’t like this story (read Evan’s thoughts here and Seth’s here).  It does pose a difficult problem given that Jesus uses the story in a “how much more” sort of way.

The unjust judge, the one who self-identifies as one who “has no fear of God and no respect for anyone” is seemingly likened to God in a simple turn of phrase, “”Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?”  It leaves us feeling theologically icky as we wonder, is God really like this unjust judge?

Over at the Center for Excellence in Preaching, a service of Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, their Sermon Starters page shared a sermon by the incomparable preacher and teacher, Tom Long.  Tom preaches for 21 minutes, telling story after story, anecdote after anecdote, funny non sequitur after funny non sequitur.  When it is all said and done, I felt kind of like Evan and Seth about Jesus’ parable, wondering, “did that accomplish what he wanted it to?”  As I sat there, staring at the black screen from which the sermon had just come, I realized that maybe we shock the system in order to ensure meaning is found.  I think maybe it is called hyperbole.

I also think Luke understood what this parable would do to his readers.  They’d finish hearing it, scratch their heads and say, “Huh.  I wonder what that was all about.”  To preempt that, Luke, writing a generation after Jesus, to a church enduring persecution and awaiting the imminent return of the Savior, told them what they should hear in the forth coming parable.

Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”

Sometimes it feels like God is an unjust judge, sitting in heaven striking down our friends and family with cancer, addiction, accidents and heartache.  Sometimes it feels like the whole world is against us, as in the last 2 weeks when many on both sides of the political aisle have felt like nothing more than pawns in somebody else’s grand game.  Sometimes I wish that Jesus would just come back already and fix this mess.  Jesus knew we’d feel that way, so he told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.

To be honest, I don’t like the parable Jesus chose to convey his point either, but that doesn’t matter much.  What matters is that we are to take heart, to have courage, and to persevere.  Or, as Luke put it, “to pray always and not to lose heart.”

The Color Purple

As an Episcopalian, I can’t help but read the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus without at least a small chuckle about the reference to the rich man’s attire.  With a linen suit hanging in my closet, this parable hits really close to home, but even more so, I get a kick out of the reference to the rich man wearing purple.  For those of you who aren’t a part of the early-21st century iteration of Anglicanism, perhaps a photograph would help.

 

What color is that shirt?

Purple.

Linen.

Fine Foods.

We’ve got that all covered in The Episcopal Church.  Some two-thousand years after Jesus told this parable, I wonder if we are still tuned into the deeper meaning of the details of the story.  Take the color purple for example.  These days, purple shirts are sold everywhere.  You can get a purple polo from the Rescue Mission for less than $2.  There was a time, a long time in fact, when purple clothing was exorbitantly expensive.  The dyes used to make a purple shirt were hard to come across and the color was even harder to set.  I heard a story this summer about how purple became the color of Lent in some parts of the world, while it is blue in other places.  It seems that the original color of Lent was black, but black rarely stayed that color.  In some portions of the globe, the berries used to made black faded into purple, elsewhere, they faded to blue.  Deep colors weren’t for the faint of heart in the olden days.  So this man, who wore purple, was exceedingly rich, and more than likely a member of some royal family.  (Hence the purple in Bishop’s attire as they were once considered the princes of the Church (though it seems that Anglican Bishop’s took to purple much later than their Roman Catholic brethren, but I digress).  Not only did he wear richly colored fabrics, but he had access to linen as well.  Like purple dyes, linen was (and still is) very expensive to obtain.  To say he was well dressed would be an understatement.

Then there is the matter of his food, about which Jesus says “he feasted sumptuously every day.”  This is an attempt by the translators to make sense of the Greek that is two words joined together: euphraino, which means “to make merry or to be glad”; and lampros, which means “magnificently or sumptuously.”  He “made merry brilliantly” according to Robertson’s Word Pictures, or to borrow a modern colloquialism, this guy partied hearty every day.  I assume most of us can understand the nuance in this phrase.  Think about how you eat on a normal day: three meals and maybe a snack – perhaps a dessert on a special occasion.  Now, think of the last Super Bowl Party you attended.  You probably ate 3 or 4 times more than you normally would.  You grazed on delicious snacks all afternoon, while waiting for the main course to be served and having two too many beers.  Or maybe Thanksgiving is your feast of choice.  This guy ate like it was Thanksgiving Day, all day, every day.

The comparison Jesus sets up here isn’t the difference between an upper-middle class guy and his lower-middle class neighbor.  Instead, Jesus lays down an example of extreme wealth and extreme poverty.  Something like this picture from Rio De Janeiro.

I’m wondering this morning if the extreme nature of Jesus’ example makes it easy to dismiss this story as we think, “Oh, I’m not THAT rich.”  What is the purpose behind such an outrageous dichotomy?  As an average American, what can I take away from this parable?

Dishonest Wealth

When it comes right down to it, the real problem I have with this Sunday’s Gospel text, and the problem I suspect most preachers have as well, is Jesus’ admonition to “make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

There are so many problems with this sentence, that I barely know where to begin.  I’m thankful to Evan Garner, who continues to push me on this text for his thoughts today, especially his treatment of the Greek that gets translated as “dishonest wealth.”

And to Bill Murray who commented in Facebook about “dishonest wealth,” “I think the “dishonest wealth” is just that- a faith based economic system that claims to be one thing (of value and worth) when it is not and typically devalues everything around it . . .”

I’m also thankful to my Lutheran colleague, Michael Bonham for sharing this reflection on “unrighteous mammon” in a comment on yesterday’s post:

I think the key is in the term “unrighteous mammon” in verse 11. What is this “unrighteous mammon”? Think for a moment, what do we assign to be of value? Money? It is only paper or metal? Gold or Silver? It is only rock. Our home? It is only brick, wood, and mortar. Our Car? Our boat? Our possessions? Giving value to these type of things, and there are others, are giving value to that really has no value. It is “unrighteous mammon”.
If we recognize “righteous mammon” then we see clearly this narrative is simple. It is about giving value to that which is truly valuable. Loving God and loving our neighbor. Taking what really has no value and using it to take care of what is really valuable, my neighbor.
The following link helps to visually see what Jesus is talking about.
http://gawker.com/this-three-minute-commercial-puts-full-length-hollywood-1309506149

I’m also grateful for the myriad other resources at my disposal this week:

  • Robertson’s Word Pictures – “Use your wealth to build the Kingdom and to establish friendships.  When the mammon fails, and it will fail, then the treasure laid up in heaven will suffice.”
  • WorkingPreacher.org – “Instead of using ‘dishonest wealth’ to exploit others (as the rich do [in Luke’s Gospel]), disciples are to use wealth to ‘make friends for themselves.'”
  • The Center for Excellence in Preaching (although the writing is far from excellent) – “So what is it about the shrewd manager’s attitude that Jesus finds useful for also the children of light?  It is this: he gave thought to the future and it shaped his actions in the present.  Further, he knew that for now monetary resources are one way to secure the kind of future vision you have drawn for yourself… The Church likewise has a strong vision of the future called the Kingdom of God.  What’s more, that future vision should include the potential joy that will rock the cosmos in celebration when more, and not fewer, people end up attending God’s big party.  That vision of the future should influence us mightily in also the present moment.  So if we have resources by which to reach out to the lost of this world, then like the shrewd manager, we need to do everything we can to take the risks necessary to be with those people — yes, the very folks whom also yet today we typically don’t invite over for a hamburger. Yet those are the ones we must reach, Jesus says.  And since not much happens in this world without the help of money, then us it, Jesus says, for God’s good purposes and glory.  You cannot serve both God and the Almighty Dollar. Jesus says, but you can serve God by using the almighty dollar to reach out to others.”
  • Dear Working Preacher – “Whatever we may think of the manager, might we recognize that there are better and worse ways to use money, and using money to establish relationships is better than hording it?”

Great stuff is coming out of my study this week.  Now, if I can only perform a miracle and turn it into two pages of coherent text.

How is one “rich toward God”?

The parable of the foolish farmer is a challenging one for 21st century, middle to upper class, Americans to hear.  When Jesus was walking the earth, the standard retirement plan was having children.  Male children would get married, build a room on to or next door to the family house, and support their parents when age and infirmity would no longer allow the men to work and the women to cook and sew.  In most cases, one did not simply choose to retire, but rather it was forced upon you.  So, when Jesus talks about a man who has so much that he can sit back and relax and live off his reserves, he is speaking of an anomaly.

Now-a-days, however, retirement is seen as something of a rite.  Pensions are few and far between, but with Social Security and the hundreds of thousands of investment plans out there, it is almost a given that a middle class person should be able to retire by age 65 and live out their days enjoying “the good life.”  So, when Jesus explains the calamity of the foolish farmer by saying, “So will it be with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God,” it smacks right up against our cultural expectations.

Perhaps there is a middle way, however, given the context in which we live.  Perhaps the Church Pension Fund, a 401(k), and Social Security aren’t an abomination before the Lord.  Perhaps we can secure our future finances knowing our eternal lives are not in peril because what seems to be important in this story isn’t money, but being “rich toward God.”  So, what does that mean?

The NLT seems to pick up the meaning a little more clearly than the NRSV, “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”  The gist of it seems to be that this foolish man was focused only on himself: not his family, not his friends, not his business partners, or his farm hands, and certainly not the poor in his town.  He stored up only for himself.  Those who are rich toward God can store up for themselves, but they also keep in mind those who are are in need: family, friends, employees, and yes, even the poor.  So go ahead, make those contributions to your 401(k), but remember to give alms in thanksgiving for God, from whom all wealth comes.