Sunday, October 12, 2014

In the Presence of?




Matthew 22:1-14 (29)

1Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Psalm 23 (KJV)

1The LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
2He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
3He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest my head with oil;
My cup runneth over.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

The stores have already started selling Christmas. One can walk past aisle after aisle of costumes: princesses, pirates, warriors, and witches and begin to see the elves and evergreens that have come to characterize the season leading up to December 25th.

Two months out, and already the powers of advertisement and commerce are working to grab out attention, to ask us to choose sides, telling us that if we want to be the special ones who have exactly the right stuff, we have to come to them. As we approach Thanksgiving, their voices will intensify, urging us to trade sleep and time with family for a discount on whatever device the marketing firms have decided to lead us to this season.

Even more prevalent this time of year, as we approach Election Day, are voices of spokespeople and politicians. Asking for us to support their campaigns, to buy their rhetoric, to put our name on their list, because they will be the ones to guide us into a new age of right values and responsible action.

The commercial jingles and the political soundbites whirl dizzyingly around our minds, leaving us disoriented and numb, waiting for the flashiest or the loudest voice to carry us to the only place we can see to go.

Perhaps it was always this way, or perhaps something has changed in our lifetime and things will be this way forever. After all, this is the way the world is, we are separated into our economic brackets, organized into our political parties, divided into our denominational loyalties. It's not practical to try and shift too far from that reality.

We are bound up in affiliations and categories and manufactured wants.

But what if...

What if instead of letting party lines and brand loyalty guide us...

"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want."

The dominant culture may be pulling us apart. We may find shouting voices use fear to control our perception of the world. The tiny, flickering, differences between us might be stoked into sources of infernal conflict.

In a culture that prefers to be ruled by fear and division, "The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want," brings us together and surrounds us with the comfort of centuries of faith and tradition. Rather than focusing on everything that could go wrong, every reason to be afraid, both trivial and substantial, we are invited to imagine how God will bring us together. Instead of the scarcity we have learned throughout our lives, we are given permission to trust in God's abundance: "He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters."

Green pastures and still waters feed us in a very different way than the calls to action to which we have grown so accustomed. With the LORD as our shepherd, we don't have to scrounge for weeds in the wilderness or hoard every drop of water. We do not even have to seek them for ourselves, because God guides us to where we need to be, providing for us and the rest of his flock at each stage in the journey.

So why is this reality one we experience through metaphor and faith when we can imagine a world where we experience it through our senses? Would not the Psalm 23 life free us to live faithfully, justly, and lovingly? What hold does the dominant reality have on us that we only turn to this Psalm in trouble?

We've turned to this Psalm for comfort for more than four hundred years, going back the the scholars and poets of the King James Version. Before that we sought the same poem in different translations for thousands of years going back to David's lyre and the breath of the Holy Spirit. We need it's comfort most when our world is spinning out of our control, when a loved one is in surgery, when we are wracked with fear in a dark parking lot, when we confront our own mortality at a graveside. We turn to this Psalm when we need the comfort that God is control, and that God loves us faithfully.

That's the cost of a Psalm 23 life: we must abandon the illusion that we are in control and submit to the LORD. Our broken souls struggle to make that leap, and we seek to serve ourselves, and the dominant image of the world becomes skewed toward fear. 

Perhaps that’s why, in our Gospel lesson this morning, those who had been invited to the King’s Wedding banquet reacted the way they did to the slaves call to come to the feast. I think our tendency, when we hear someone talk about the kingdom of heaven or about submitted to the sovereignty of God, is to ignore them in favor of  - quote - more important things - unquote. We can control our farms and businesses, or at least we think we can. We certainly have more of an impact on them than we do on the joyful feast of the kingdom of God.

Sometimes, though, our resistance is more severe. The history of Israel is full of prophets who were killed for telling the truth, for imagining a different world than the one earthly kings tried to rule. As God’s people expanded to include the church, the violent response to the servants of God also grew. Christians have made more martyrs of each other than all the foreign persecutions we could imagine. All because we wanted to hold on to the illusion that this world and our lives are ours to control. Our culture is dominated by Christianity, and yet our control-hungry souls have taken us away from the justice and freedom that is imaginatively tangible in “The LORD is my shepherd.”

Left to our own ideas, we sheep would be truly lost. We are not, however, left to the devising of our broken souls. God lovingly, faithfully, brings us back into the fold. "He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” God rescues us and renews our spirits, and we know that we are not lost. Commercials may tell us that we are lost without a particular product, political ads may tell us that we are lost if the election goes the wrong way, but as people of the book we know that those are manufactured crises, they may pull at us for a moment, but God holds us closer, leading us in the paths of righteousness not for our own sake, but for the sake of God’s holy name.

Lest we believe that this psalm is just some naive fairy tale, we are shown that "Psalm 23 knows that evil is present in the world, but it is not feared. Confidence in God is the source of new orientation." "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me." There are things in this world that will cause us to struggle, and we will walk through the valley of the shadow of death. One paraphrase of this psalm wrote this line as "when I crawl through valley of the shadow of cancer." That makes it hit home for a lot of us for whom cancer and the stale air of hospitals are the image we have of loss and grief.

Yet we have comfort even in those dark places that God is with us and guides our steps. God brings us from the green pastures and still waters to the valley of the shadow of death, and from there we are gathered in to the table. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: Thou anointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over.”

Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet from the second half today’s Matthew reading does not specify if the wedding feast was a table or a buffet. it only tells us that the slaves were sent out into the main streets to gather and invite everyone they could find, the good and the bad.

That almost certainly means that enemies were both invited. If those same slaves were sent out today in the city of Lowell, they’re probably invite republicans and democrats, duke fans and carolina fans, feuding families whose stories have been lost in memory and only the fight remains, and every kind of division that contemporary culture can thrust upon us.

Perhaps one of them knew that his enemies would be there, and therefore did not dress appropriately for the occasion, accepting the invitation, but not the overwhelmingly inclusive grace that accompanied it.

I’m not satisfied with that interpretation though. One of the lunch bunch folks pointed out that going from the radical invitation to throwing the guy out just for not meeting the dress code seemed uncharacteristically cruel of God. Where’s the grace we have come to know and need from God? Where is the assurance of Psalm 23? When I walk through the valley of the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing to teeth, do we still fear no evil? Is God still with us?

One of the ways to get new richness out of a familiar parable is to change the cast. The obvious interpretation of this parable is that God is the king, the feast is in honor of the Son, Jesus, and the feast is the kingdom of heaven. But Jesus doesn’t say that the kingdom of heaven is like a feast, he said it’s like a king who gave a wedding feast. Perhaps then, we can recast the friend who lacked a wedding robe. Perhaps in the hurry to invite the good and the bad, one person was not told about the dress code, or didn’t have time to go home and get their own.

Perhaps the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ saw someone who was not properly dressed and loved him enough that he gave him his own cloak, and then he was cast out from the party. when I walk through the valley of the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, perhaps Jesus has been there too, and so we still need fear no evil. For thou art with me. comforting us, like a good shepherd, with thy rod and thy staff. bringing us back into table fellowship with both the good and the bad, setting a table before us in the presence of our enemies.

Because the enemies are seated at the table too, and a place is prepared for them as well as for us. God loves us faithfully enough to seek us and protect us in the valley of the shadow of death. God also loves them enough to offer his own wedding robe to them when they are unprepared. God loves us faithfully, but not exclusively. 

One of the reasons that we love this Psalm so much, and one of the reasons we read it from King James today instead of the New Revised Standard Version, which is the pew bible, is the NRSV translates the line, “my cup runneth over” as “my cup is filled to the brim.” I like the NRSV, i grew up with it, it’s a scholarly and faithful translation. But my cup is not filled to the brim, my cup runneth over.

We are given an overwhelming abundance of grace, an overwhelming invitation to the table. So are they. Their cup also runneth over. But we’re not paying attention to who is served what, or when, or why. For our cup runneth over, and we are seated at table with God.

So it’s an opportunity to step out into the world. With all the whirling voices of commercialism and politics and say “Yeah, there’s this stuff, and yeah, there’s this other stuff. But the LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want”

We don’t have to be divided into any camp for long. For we all come together around cups that runneth over, around a table that is prepare before us in the presence of mine enemies, and in the presence of theirs. For the table is big enough for all, and Christ gives us a wedding robe when we’re not prepared for the feast.

Because we’re not going to be well enough prepared. There’s always something new. But when we break free of the bonds of the dominant culture fo commercialism and conflict tells us…

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.




Sunday, October 5, 2014

Vineyards

Vineyards from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Isaiah 5:1-7 (776)

1Let me sing for my beloved
My love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.
2He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines:
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yield wild grapes.

3And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

5And now I will tell you
what to do with my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
6I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.

7For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel
and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice, but saw bloodshed;
righteousness, but heard a cry!

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 21:33-46 (29)

33”Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, skilled another, and stoned another. 36Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “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 time.”

42Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes?’ 43Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom. 44The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

45When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parable, they realized he was speaking about them. 46They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.


Isaiah and God have a very different relationship than the discipleship we normally imagine. In a world where we often keep God at arms length by talking about the god of all heaven and earth, who spins the whirling planets, whose majesty is without end, there's something scandalous about beginning a prophetic passage with "Let me sing for my beloved." I have not found that level of divine intimacy in many of the churches in which I have worshipped.

The divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were accustomed to the grand language of Temple worship, where God was enthroned in the heavens, and the earth was his footstool. God was always accessible for the divided kingdoms, but as also kept distant by the pomp and ritual of the temple. It was the kind of difference between shaking hands and holding hands.

God held Isaiah's hand. God wanted to hold Israel's hand, and Judah's, as he had when they wandered in the wilderness together. But the divided kingdoms kept God at a distance.

Perhaps God's covenant peoples kept God at a distance because an intimate relationship with God means living a transformed life. Reformed and always being reformed, as the saying goes.

Yet God is not satisfied with a handshake and an unchanged life. Isaiah's love-song on God's behalf portrays a vineyard owner who tirelessly and diligently does everything right. "My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines: he built a watchtower in the midst of it," The land is ready, the best vines are selected, a watchtower is built to defend it from any pest that might threaten the vineyard. This is not the act of a creator who can be held at a distance, this kind of loving cultivation shows that God cares deeply about our response in faith.

God carefully collects us and prepares a place for us as a long-term investment, even hewing a wine vat which would not pay for itself for many harvests. Truly no vine could hope for better circumstances in which to grow. "However, it is not our self-interest that God is cultivating...God's love, care, and protection come with an expectation: justice and righteousness. These are the fruits God longs to see flourish in us.”

When those fruits do not flourish, things take a darker turn. Isaiah’s love-song changes voice, and we find ourselves feasting on the bitterness of wild or rotten grapes. God is deeply hurt by the failure of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!”

For all the work God has done establishing a covenant people, guiding them from slavery to the promised land, preserving them through the centuries, one would expect unfettered faithfulness. Yet the chosen people cannot keep the covenant, and the consequences for their crimes are vivid.

”The threat of judgment may be thunderous here, but the parable also invites us to glimpse the potential for abundant fruitfulness in the lives of those who are faithful." Everything is set up for our success as servants of the living God, who redeems with a strong arm and who holds our hand throughout all our struggles. God’s reaction to Israel and Judah’s failure is not that of a distant God, but of the intimate beloved on whose behalf Isaiah sings.

God cares about us so much that God cares how we respond to the intimate intervention in our lives. God longs to see us live righteously, to Do Justice when we interact with one another. Justice and Righteousness in scripture are more than just finding what is fair or living according to some expansive ruleset.

In scripture, Justice tears down oppression and liberates both the prisoner and the jailer. Justice and righteousness reach beyond the boundaries we draw between people and show hospitality to the ones we might consider “other.” Justice and righteousness always point to God as the source of all authority and reject and subversion of God’s sovereign love. Justice and righteousness shine through loving your neighbor as yourself, as commanded in Leviticus 19:18, and through loving the LORD our God with all our heart, all our mind, and all our strength as commanded in Deuteronomy 6:5.

We all know the passage where Jesus quotes those two laws as the greatest commandments. They were nothing new, and yet the people of God then, as now, struggled to live the covenant fully. When God expected the fruit of his vineyard, he instead found violence.

When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, skilled another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’”

"This is the heir, let us kill him and get his inheritance!" I don’t have much experience with estate planning, but I don’t imagine most people write their wills to include leaving something to the one who murders their heirs. But it's exactly how God worked at the cross. We killed the heir of heaven and earth, and through the resurrection we were also made heirs! None of the chief priests and elders of the people to whom Jesus was speaking had this radical grace in mind when they were asked to predict what happened next:

Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “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 time.”

“Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes?’ Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom. 

Where we expect, and deserve, a miserable death for our failure to produce justice and righteousness, God instead responds with unyielding grace. There is still kingdom work to be done, and God cares about creation enough to see it done, even if it means having to find new hands with which to do it. "[The kingdom of God] refers not to the age to come but to a special relationship to God's sovereignty.” When we fail to be faithful, God’s work will still be done, we just lose the joy of having God work through us. God plants new vineyards, God hires new workers.

And yet neither of these texts are hopeless. There is judgment to be sure, but God’s judgment, like God’s justice, restores and invites us back into relationship with the Holy One. “The transfer of stewardship to a ‘people that produces the fruits of the kingdom’ is a restorative act, not a punitive act.”  God is intimately involved in creation, will not wait for us to figure it out on our own, because we’ve shown we can’t get there by ourselves. So at the same moment he is pronouncing judgment, God is already working in both of these passages to bring God’s people back into the joyful relationship which God intends for them. For the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah, that meant prophets and catastrophe, and eventually restoration. For the people to whom Jesus was speaking in the temple when he told his parable, that meant that he would be led to the cross, and that the cross would lead to the resurrection, where the power of sin and death would be forever broken.

We believe that in Communion, by the power of the Holy Spirit we are elevated to dine with Christ at God's table. Our whole selves are nourished by Christ's real presence among us, and we are reminded of how far God went to restore us to the intimate relationship where we can share a meal with God and with one another. Every time we break bread or drink of the fruit of the vine, we proclaim Christ's saving death until he comes again.


Until then, we have the responsibility to bear the fruits of the kingdom of God: justice and righteousness. God cares deeply about us, and holds our hand throughout the whole of human history, and cares about how we respond in faith to what God has already done. We can try and hold God at arms length, like the divided kingdoms did, like the chief priests and the elder of the people did, like the church still sometimes does. But it is better to embrace the transformation God has already accomplished in us, and sing the songs of our beloved, and to bear the fruits from this table, where we are fed, out into the vineyard of all of the peoples of God.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Origin Story

 
Origin Story
from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Matthew 21:23-32

3When he 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?" 24 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. 25 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?' 26 But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." 27 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.

28 "What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' 29 He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. 30 The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. 31 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. 32 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.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Philippians 2:1-13

1If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.

9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Jesus is the kind of guy who sets himself up for questions. In every possible way, this carpenter's son cuts across the grain of his culture. He's not a Pharisee, yet he shares some of their beliefs, preaching the resurrection of the dead and the fulfillment of the law. Even so, he urges us to listen to the teachings of the Pharisees, but not to follow their example, because they are hypocrites.

He's not a zealot, standing in opposition to the occupying Roman government, yet he proclaims that a new kingdom is coming to sweep away the empire and establish the everlasting rule of God. Even so, he urges us to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's," and to not resist the evildoer, even blessing those who persecute us.

He seems to defy expectation at every turn, even after all these centuries that have passed. The religious scholars and community leaders who heard him speak were always trying to pin him down to one established category or another, asking him trick questions that would reveal who he really was, and where he fit in their carefully cultivated social order.

Spoiler alert: he doesn't fit in their carefully cultivated social order. He is deeply rooted in the kingdom of God, and doesn't get entangled in their power plays.

By the time our Matthew 21 rolls around, the chief priests and elders of the people had figured out that he was something new. Out of tolerance and understanding, they decided to add a new category for this charismatic teacher, maybe it would give a place in their little cultural garden to put that wacko, John the Baptist, too. So, armed with their newfound tolerance for Jesus's "different-ness," they go find him in 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?'" A simple question, letting Jesus self-identify, maybe as some new sect within their religion. Maybe Jesus was starting a new political party in their government. Maybe there was room to reach some consensus with this Jesus of Nazareth figure.

The whole temple leans close to hear Christ's response. Maybe we expect Jesus to reveal himself as the Messiah once and for all. Maybe we are waiting for him to climb the temple steps and announce that God has come and that all who hear shall be saved if they believe. Maybe we are waiting for Jesus to fit our imperfect vision of what a Messiah should be.

Once again, though, Jesus sidesteps our expectations and responds with a trick question of his own: "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?'"

But you know, maybe it wasn't a trick question. What would have happened, I wonder, if the chief priests and the elders of the people had answered with the truth as they understood it, rather than holding back out of fear.

My guess is that Jesus, true to his word, would have answered their question. My guess is that Jesus's answer, true to his nature, wouldn't be one they would like. The chief priests and the elders of the people wanted to define Jesus, even if it meant being tolerant of something new in their midst. But they overlooked that God put Jesus here so that Jesus could show us our weakness. Jesus is here to show that we still need someone to walk alongside us. We all need some kind of guidance, even the chief priests and elders of the people.

"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."

We do not know. We have our own beliefs, but we're afraid of the crowd, so we're going to play it safe and tell you that we do not know.

I recognize that line of thinking. I do it all the time. Like many folks, I struggle with a fear of rejection. That means my tendency is to avoid conflict and to say what people want me to hear instead of what I know to be true. After a lot of practice, I’m pretty much to the point where that only happens when I’m caught off-guard, and I forget in the moment that my fear doesn't have to paralyze me from doing or saying the right thing.

The chief priests and the elders of the people, though, were certainly caught off-guard by Jesus’s response. They’re not evil, they just live in a world defined by fear. Perhaps they’re afraid that Jesus will reject them, saying “Why then did you not believe him?” Perhaps they are afraid of reprisals at the hands of an angry mob, “for all regard John as a prophet.” Or maybe they’re afraid that Jesus is on to something, and that their entire world will change underneath them and they won’t be able to hold on to the blessings and comforts they once knew.

We live in an awfully scary world. We hear wars and rumors of wars. Disease is spreading across national border after national border. Christians are being dragged from their homes and murdered for being different. And we all know that religion is not the only difference that can put someone’s life at risk in places around the world, including sometimes our own “developed” nation.

The evening news shows us violence and crime. The radio talk shows tell us that this person or that one is trying to destroy us all. The religious blogs tell us that the church has abandoned its principles and going against the will of God. Our social media passes scary hoax after terrifying chain e-mail around, even though most of them are completely made up.

The poorly dressed stranger looks like he may try and rob us. If we stop to help that stranded motorist they may mistake us for criminals and think we’re going to hurt them. If we ask someone for help when we need it, they’ll just think we’re trying to take advantage of them. Our culture is terrified of itself, and any potential change gets shouted down for fear that something worse will take its place. It’s no wonder that our own chief priests and elders of the people do not have strong answers to the questions Jesus asks.

We are surrounded by the symptoms of our sin-sick souls.

But we also know that even though we may be wrapped in sin, the image of God is still there, called good by God at the moment of creation. Even though we may see fear all around us, we do not have to be defined by it. We have encouragement in Christ, consolation from love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion and sympathy, and an unending connection with our Heavenly Father through the Messiah, called Emmanuel, God-with-us.

“There is no place in the universe, no created being, beyond the reach of the redeeming act of the servant Christ. God’s act is the vindication of what the hymn [in Philippians] has declared. The central event in the drama of salvation is an act of humble servitude.”

“If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

The compassion of Philippians 2 is the kind of compassion we feel in the pit of our stomachs when we see our brothers or sisters suffering. It’s deeper than just being nice to someone who is sad, this kind of compassion doesn’t fit on a greeting card. The compassion of Philippians 2, which we have in Christ Jesus, is one of shared heartbreak. Though it is profound, it is easier to bear because we do not face it alone.

The church at Phillipi was plague with conflict. You know how eventually someone bothers you so much that everything they do annoys you? Like, even they way they breathe is the most offensive thing you can imagine?

Every person in the room with a sibling just nodded...

Philippi had divided itself that deeply, probably over the issue of obedience to Jewish laws and customs. Whatever the cause, Paul felt the need to remind them of their identity as a church. They are not united by doctrine, or by social standing, or even by family ties. We are the church because we have" the same mind... that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross."

In the face of that, no divisive issue, large or small, can tear us apart. We may face issues again, small sins that keep us from loving one another fully, “Small issues could be an indication that the church was suffering from the biggest problem of all: pettiness. Paul’s response to pettiness was a big answer: a hymn, a creed, a confession of faith. At stake is not so much the question of truth as that of the size when the church forgets the central event which begets, nourishes, and matures the community of faith.” In the face of disagreement, we still come together around one table, not because we are holy, but because God is holy beyond measure.

"The Word became flesh, and made his home among us." God became a human, so that we could have compassion, so that would no longer be bound up in our sin, but set free in the Spirit. Our origin story is no longer defined by our sin, but by God's son.

So we are no longer limited by our fear, or defined by our sin, because who Jesus is, and what Jesus did on our behalf, has changed what it means to be human. So the good things in our lives testify to God’s goodness “Because as Paul always reminds his congregation, what looks like their good work - even their humble service to one another - is really God at work in them.”

Our identity is rooted in the God who acts through us, and that we are no longer defined by our sinful nature, therefore we can take hope that even though we are not complete as individuals, even though we are not righteous by our own ability, God still works in us, through us, and on our behalf.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Good People



Jonah 3:10-4:11

10When God saw what [the people of Ninevah did], how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

4:1But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2He prayed to the LORD and said, “ O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” 5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

6The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. he said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

9But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” and he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11and should I not be concerned about Ninevah, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from there left, and many animals?”

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God



Matthew 20:1-16

1”For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4and he ;aid to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three 0’clock, he did the same. 6And 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? 7They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 8when 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. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And 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 borle 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? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am 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.”

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
Jonah is one of those stories that we talk about all the time when we're children, but never really revisit after that. Everybody remembers the story of the reluctant prophet who runs away from God's calling, and is swallowed by a large fish until he gets his head on straight. But that's just the first half of the story. Chapter 3 tells the story of how Jonah prophesies to Ninevah, that great city, still smelling of the inside of a fish, no doubt.

Ninevah, that great city, was the capital of Assyria, one of the most brutal empires to cross the Middle East. They were the ones who rolled through the Northern Kingdom of Israel and thoroughly destroyed it. Once Assyria finishes with Israel, there's no one left to return as a remnant, like there would be for Judah after Babylon.

The book of Jonah emerges from the remnant of Judah after they are given the opportunity to return to their homeland. Israel has already been destroyed for several generations by the time this book is written. Assyria is no longer the dominant empire in the region, but Ninevah, that great city, remains as a symbol for the enemies of Israel, wicked destroyers who are outside the covenant.

Ninevah is not just "outsiders," they are the enemy who would eradicate God's people given the chance.

And Jonah is called to prophesy to them. He doesn't run because of a lack of faith, but because he knows who God is, He tells us, "That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing." Jonah knows the God on whose behalf he speaks, and he longs for the destruction of that wicked city.

Those who heard the words of this particular section of scripture had seen the redemption of their people, they had lived through the end of exile, the restoration of Judah, they knew that the wages of sin is death, and that after the cataclysmic destruction of Israel and the destruction of babylon, that grace does follow in the preservation of a remnant.

Surely as God’s favor turned back to Judah, so God’s wrath would turn against her enemies? These are not good people like us, these are awful, sinful, violent people. They are the ones who hurt us, who threatened to destroy us.

"If they are in on the love of God, then Jonah wants out."

The people of Ninevah repented. they stopped ignoring God and mourned their sinfulness at the mere possibility that God would not destroy them. Jonah must have been quite a preacher to change the mind of a whole city while he still smelled like the inside of a great fish. “When God saw what they, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”

Jonah responds to God’s radical and far-reaching grace in the same way that many of us have, time and time again. He goes off to pout. God is not doing what he wants, instead of destroying his enemies, God had shown mercy to Jonah, who repented from inside the fish. God chooses to show the same mercy to the people of Ninevah, that great city. Jonah, who thought he had God in his pocket, even though he knew that God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing,” learns the hard way that God’s limitless grace doesn’t just belong to one reluctant prophet.

Truly, we rediscover how vast our Lord is in this minor prophet. “…the book of Jonah concerns a recurring and endlessly powerful resistance to reduce [God's] character, so large in mercy and comprehensive in compassion, to the local convenience of the insider community of Israel," or, for that matter, the Christian church. If we're going to accept God's grace, we must do so acknowledging God's freedom to give that grace to anyone, even "those people.”

The disquieting thing about Jonah, and our Matthew passage, is that if God is free to be gracious to Ninevah. The comforting thing is that if God is gracious even to Ninevah, if the vineyard owner is generous to those who worked the least, then surely God is also quick to forgive us. Even when we've worked all day, we must still rely on God's generosity, regardless of our own ability.

”For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard." Our parable this morning is not meant to be an instruction for how to run a successful business. If one followed this parable literally and paid workers the same irrespective of how long they worked, one would find very few workers who were willing to start first thing in the morning.

Even though it’s not a realistic guide to living, this parable is my favorite one anyway. It so full of different possibilities. One can look at why the workers didn't get hired at first. Perhaps they didn't look like the kind of who would be productive. Perhaps they weren't there first thing in the morning. Perhaps there was a good reason why they got passed over.

One can look at why the landowner kept hiring new workers. Maybe he called them in to work because the harvest was so great he needed every available hand, even throughout the day, snowballing production into a record profit. Maybe he wanted to encourage the later workers to be more prepared the next day, giving a hand-up to those who needed gainful employment. Maybe those who came later in the day would be willing to work harder than those who started the day.

One cast reinterpret this parable based on the different ways to cast the various characters.

One reading would be that God is the landowner, and we are the workers, and Jesus is the overseer who pays us all with our salvation at the end of the day.

Another reading might say Christ is the landowner, and those who don't know the gospel are the workers, and the church is the overseer who is taught to serve the last first.

But Jesus begins the passage with ”For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard." If the landowner is not God, but rather God's kingdom, that changes things. Suddenly we have a kingdom that pursues us throughout the day, giving us the chance to work in the vineyard. Even those who have started the day negotiating for a fair wage and overlooking the opportunity for joy that the work offers. As one commentator noted, ”The bargainers are working for a denarius; the latecomers are working for the landowner, for God. Both get what they're working for.” The kingdom of heaven is a place of generous joyous giving, if we're jealous it saps the joy.

But even so, the payment schedule still gives us pause. “Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.” Why does the landowner give such specific instructions for making those who have worked the longest watch the others get paid? The whole conflict would have been avoided if the landowner had paid them in the order they began work. Surely God is trying to teach them something by paying them last. And wouldn't it have been just as generous to pay the people who deserve a full days wage even more?

I grew up in the church, a minister's son. I've been attending regularly my whole life! I've been serving others as long as I can remember! I won't begrudge the landowner's generosity, but I could stand to receive some of it, instead of just watching others enjoy their gracious pay. We're all good people here at this church, right? We read our bibles, tithe regularly, and feed the hungry.

But then, wrapped up in our self-righteousness, we begin to recognize the faces of those who were called at the end of the day. I remember when I told someone who asked me for money that I didn't have any cash, even though I had just broken a twenty dollar bill at the grocery store so I could tip my bartender that night. I remember the years at college when I didn't go to church because I "didn't find a church home," when really I didn't make much of an effort. Perhaps we remember that we were on vacation one week when we normally tithe, but when we got back we didn't put twice as much as usual to make up for it. Perhaps we remember that we skipped over the hard parts when we were reading the bible, and just read our favorite stories over and over. Perhaps we remember when instead of feeding the hungry, we went back for seconds just so none of our food would go to waste.

We begin to recognize the faces of those who were called at the end of the day, and where we expected to find "those people," we see ourselves. We may think of ourselves as good people, but sainthood isn't about meeting everyone's expectations, it's about trusting God's grace and allowing ourselves to be transformed by it.

At the end of the day, at least in the kingdom of heaven, we are all given our daily wage, whether we negotiated it at the beginning or receive it as a gift. The only difference is in how much work we are able to do, because there's no indication that the landowner is concerned with the harvest or his own profit. Instead he shows concern for those who have not been given the opportunity to work, continually invite people in even if they don’t measure up to the standards we set, but cannot even meet ourselves. But we are invited to work not because we are qualified or at the top of the field, we are invited to join the work of the kingdom because God is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

But we’re still working on learning how to be grateful vineyard workers, especially when the way God shows generosity makes it easier to see to given to others rather than in our own lives. ”The vineyard owner claims the right to pay his workers not on the basis of their merits but on the basis of his own compassion. Why should such generosity be condemned as injustice?” The kingdom of heaven is a place where our expectations are turned on their heads, where grace is extended bother to Jonah and to Ninevah, and to those who labor at any time of the day. If we try and keep track of the numbers, the scores of debts and debtors, the equations don’t come out the way we expect. So we join Jonah in the wilderness, or the early workers in their complaint. Ultimately though, our accounting doesn’t make the difference, God’s generosity defines reality.


We rely of God's mercy whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Welcome Accountability



Matthew 18:21-35 (p. 24)
21 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?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

23 ‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, 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. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But 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.” 29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. 31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Romans 14:1-12 (p. 198)
1Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

5 Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

7 We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.

10 Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. 11For it is written,

‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
   and every tongue shall give praise to* God.’
12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Thursday afternoon, Leah took me hiking.

We hiked King’s Pinnacle, a four-mile round trip that is categorized as “strenuous.” Most days I’m all for it, but this past Thursday I was resistant. I was more interested in a lazy late summer day at home than challenging nature and my own ability. But wanting to spend time with my wife won the day, and to the mountain we went.

Leah is in better shape than I am, and likes to push herself on hikes so that she gets a good workout. I kept up with her pretty well for all but the top half mile. That’s the part that gives the trail it’s “strenuous” rating.

That last half-mile, she took the lead. Once we reached the pinnacle, she ranged around at the top, taking in the view. I found a place to sit down, drink some water, and catch my breath. She was appreciating the beauty all around her, I just wanted my heart to beat the way it was designed to do. But we moved a little ways off of the path and she shared with me that part of why she needed to climb that mountain was stuff was starting to get to her. All the worries of contemporary life can weigh us down, and she needed a change in elevation to get an escape from it.

At the top of a mountain there's a shift in perspective. For Leah, that means she can leave behind all the mess and worry of the world, it all seems so small, so manageable at the top of king's pinnacle. The hike gives her the change she needs to sweat some of it out, to stretch herself and prepare to be reminded that everything that had loomed so large is really so tiny when you're watching from a pinnacle. The hard work of hiking reminds her that she’s alive, and the beautiful and peaceful view at the top reminds her of the creator who gives her life. In that face of all that, everything else seems so small. 

The last couple of days there have been some pretty significant thunderstorms. The other night I wandered out into our carport, which is covered but only has two walls. Leah joined me a a couple of minutes later, wondering in part where I had wandered off to. We dropped the tailgate on the truck and watched the lightning flash and listened to the thunder rattle around the countryside.

I told her that I understand the science behind it, how it's all atmospheric discharge, and potential difference, and static electricity on a massive scale. How the thunder is the remnants of a shock wave triggered by the lightning. But even with all that knowledge and ability to describe it, there's still something primordial about a thunderstorm, a divine power that reaches beyond science's ability to describe it, at least for me.

Sitting down and watching at thunderstorm reminds me of how small I am, it's a shift in perspective from trying to carry my own burdens, and if I'm honest, trying to carry the burdens of others too, but the shift in perspective reminds me that I do not have to be a Titan, holding up the world. In fact, the thunderstorm reminds me that I cannot hope to carry everything I might try and pick up. The power of those thunderstorms also reminds me that the God who puts those storms together is so much larger even than the greatest storms, and even though I can only sit and watch in awe of the violence of two thunderclouds wrestling each other, I know also that God is, and that the God who loves me is powerful enough to make some changes. When one glimpses the immense greatness of God, one feels very small in comparison, but I also feel very safe in those moments. It shifts my perspective, as the only cliche goes, from how big my storm is to how big our God is.

So there's two examples of shifts in perspectives. One where the problems look smaller, one where I look smaller. But both shifts refocus us away from the cloud of troubles that buzz around our heads constantly and on to the God who directs our steps. The mountaintop and the thunderstorm remind us of scripture’s promise: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.“

I could not begin to count the number of ways in which we can lose sight of who we are and whose we are. Sometimes it seems like life’s circumstances are conspiring to throw us off our true identity as a redeemed people of God. Our perspectives move off center and tell us that we belong to this or that political party, or denomination, or club. But all of those are distractions, which can only hold us for a moment. In life and in death, we belong to God. “It is before [our] own lord that [we] stand or fall. And [we] will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make [us] stand.”

Paul teaches us that we should welcome those who are different from us, but keeps us from fixating on those differences. Paul reminds us of our identity is rooted in God’s action on our behalf, rather than our own actions in response. Our perspectives shift from trying to find those like us to reminding us that God allows us to stand from a position of grace, not of deserving or “rightness.”

The shift in perspective frees us from having to keep track of all that nonsense that waits for us every morning when we get up. When Peter asks Jesus "How many times should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus's answer totally shifts the focus. Instead of paying attention to his neighbor's wrongdoing, as Peter's question implies, Jesus talks about God's forgiveness, and our own response to it. The funny thing is, not much is expected, we just have to go into the world and with gratitude, and be changed by the free gift of God's grace.

[Talk through the gospel passage]

"How could that miserable creep come rolling out of the King's palace on a highway of mercy, fresh from being forgiven the equivalent of the national debt, only to shut off the water to his own debtor?" (Long 212). But then Jesus puts us in the place of the same wicked servant, and suddenly this story is less comfortable.

We learn that limitless forgiveness from Christ, who calls us to do likewise. That's not an easy task. It's so much easier to take advantage of what God gives us. It's so much easier to take our divinely-given freedom and use it as leverage to control others. It's so much easier to focus on ourselves, rather than our God.

Paul's talking about exactly that temptation. In 1st century Rome, the church was struggling with its identity as a new world religion emerging out of the sect of judaism it had been. There were questions about the centrality of Jewish Law, and about the covenant people as traced back to Abraham. There were questions about meat that had been offered to idols, and questions about which day would be the christian sabbath: the jewish sabbath of sunset Friday through Saturday, or Sunday when Christ was raised up.

God is Lord of every day. And Paul is really tired of these small-minded doctrinal questions. "Paul is not negating political, doctrinal, or moral realities, but he disarms the finality of all such judgements by reminding us that they are not ultimate, that first and last we stand not because we are in the right, but because by grace we are the Lord's (Greenway 66) The unity of the church is paramount for him. Paul knows that a culture like the Roman Empire is not likely to tolerate such strange behavior as the radical love shown by the church. Saying that Jesus is Lord, rather than Caesar, is still a risky claim, and the empires and institutions that stand to gain from caesar are not likely to stand by while their power base is challenged. A divided church is that much easier for the outsiders to tear down, because the church would already have been doing it itself.

So Paul charges us to welcome those who disagree with us, but our disagreement is not the focus. The focus remains on God, who calls us from our various different perspectives, who gives us our faith and fosters its growth. Paul shows us that living as Christians means that we will have disagreements, but also that we will not be defined by them. Perhaps the theological diversity to which Paul calls us is a testament that our God is so great that his church can hold us all together when no logic says we are compatible.


Paul, here, is teaching us that in a world that tries so hard to divide us into our various camps based on social standing and theological and political convictions, that we can still remain one in Christ. The church can and should live in, as the hymn says, “Perfect submission, all is at rest, I in my savior am happy and blest. Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with God’s goodness and lost in Christ’s love.”

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Engraving (Jeremiah 31 and Matthew 18)

Engraving from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Jeremiah 31:31-37
31 The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the Lord. 33 No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.
35 The Lord proclaims:
The one who established the sun to light up the day
and ordered the moon and stars to light up the night,
who stirs up the sea into crashing waves,
whose name is the Lord of heavenly forces:
36If the created order should vanish from my sight,
declares the Lord,
only then would Israel’s descendants ever stop being a nation
before me.
37 The Lord proclaims:
If the heavens above could be measured
and the foundation of the earth below could be fathomed,
only then would I reject Israel’s descendants
for what they have done,
declares the Lord.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 18:15-20
15 ‘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. 16But 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. 17If 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. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

Last Sunday we wrestled with Jeremiah, with his violent language and the way he calls god out as an Adversary. We return to Jeremiah this week and find him beginning to pick up the pieces. Jeremiah is still living in lament, still enduring the catastrophe. Praying lament is walking in the wilderness. It’s a spiritual wasteland that has no end in sight. But the prophet Jeremiah can see farther, and points us in the direction that the LORD is taking us.

There’s a reason we read this passage in the wilderness of lament. There’s a reason Jeremiah speaks to us as we wander through the world, in search of our savior. There’s a reason we need to hear this word in every age, in every time and place. There’s a reason we need to remember the future that has been promised.

The reason is, we’re still a people who need God grace. The reason is we don’t have it together and we can’t do it on our own. The reason is our faith is shaken from time to time, and we still need to hear the promise, because the time is coming, declares the LORD.

“The time is coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah.” Judah, the people who are suffering under the heel of the armies of Babylon, Judah, who are hiding in the hills watching as their homes are destroyed, as the kingdom that was promised to them burns and is systematically ripped apart. Our Judah has been conquered and it seems like the battle is over and we’re on the side of the losers. Our neighbors have been carried off into exile. The Babylonians that are knocking at our own doors are not here to make a social call. The symbol of the promise of God has been taken away from us.

When you’re in the Judah referenced in this passage, you’re watching everything you’ve built crumble before you. Living in Jeremiah’s Judah makes the stories you used to order your life around feel like a betrayal. Because those stories no longer apply, and we’re not equipped to deal with their loss.

My generation was told that if you get a college degree, you’ll get a job, and have a secure future. My parents generation was told that if you work hard, you’ll be able to retire comfortably. My grandparents generation was told that if you provide, you’ll be provided for. And then we all watched as those stories were suddenly not true for everyone anymore. The man who built great things during his long career sees that his retirement benefits are drying up. So now he has to sell what was to be his children’s inheritance to provide for himself and his wife. The woman who worked her whole life at the furniture factory is told that the business is moving overseas and she won’t get the pension she had planned for. The summa cum laude graduate hears that she’s the next great up-and-comer in her field time and again. But those who tell her that she has potential aren’t hiring. She worries that she can’t pay off the mortgage she took out on her future with student loans. And all of them groan together for a new promise, a new covenant.

“It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt.” It won’t be like the covenant that required more than the people have been able to live up to. It won’t be like the covenant that instructed them “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.” It won’t be like the covenant that was to be tied on our hands, that should be written on our foreheads as a symbol. It won’t be like the covenant that our spiritual ancestors wrote on their houses’ door frames and on their cities’ gates. That covenant is broken, and we, individually and collectively, are the ones who broke it.

Broken promises to God. We live in a world glutted with broken promises to God. It seeps into every fiber of our culture, every word of our communication, and it’s all so very broken. The brokenness of our promises to God defines us, sinful from our origin. The broken covenant separates us from God. We cannot undo the break because we cannot keep the covenant. With Babylon beating on our doors to take us away, God misses us terribly, and refuses to let our break be the final word.

Jeremiah reminds us throughout this whole book that we have done this to ourselves, and we have done it to ourselves consistently. We cannot say that what has happened to us is not fair, because it’s not a matter of bad things happening to good people, it’s a matter of bad things happening to people who deserve what they get, because they have rejected God. God who wanted an intimate partnership with the people, a partnership compared in this passage to a husband. The comparison is weak, because God goes farther than any human metaphor of marriage could. When we reject and run away from God, God follows us. Our break will not be the word that defines our reality, God misses us too much for that to be all we are. So God changes the shape of reality in order to be with us.

We see how far we have fallen, we see what we have done to the world and to one another, pushing each other and ourselves away with the hope that by shoving them deeper into the muck we’ll somehow feel cleaner. So when we are about to get what we deserve for rejecting God, God speaks.

No.

No, that’s not the kind of God I am. That’s not the kind of people you will be. That’s not the kind of world I created. No that’s not the way it’s going to be. No, I will not allow you to be destroyed as a result of your own choices.

No, this is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel.

When you write something on your hand, it will wipe off. When you paint it above your doorpost, you can always paint over it. The old covenant trusted in human ability to keep it, and the human freedom to break the covenant won out instead. But this new covenant is not something we write, and it’s not something we can wash off or cover up. The new covenant is dependent solely on God’s intervention.

“I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”

I had the opportunity a few years ago to work with a stonecutter. Up until the moment when you begin the engraving process, you’re just looking at a rock. There’s nothing special about it, it’s like so many others. It’s a collection of minerals cut from a quarry. But once it’s engraved, it’s different. A blank wall becomes a monument. An empty slab becomes a gravestone. A floor tile becomes a centerpiece at a wedding banquet. The engraving takes a humble rock and provides it with a new purpose. Engraving a stone can transform the basest mineral deposits into beautiful art.

What the rock carver does to the stone, God’s covenant does to us. The instruction is internalized and engraved on our hearts. A new purpose is provided and we are no longer bound by our own brokenness but free to be restored to our relationship with God. The next verses tell us that we will no longer have to even teach each other what to say, because we’ll just know. We no longer have to remind ourselves what has been said, as with the ancient covenant, because it’s not an issue of knowing about, it’s about being who God has created us to be. God’s engraving on our hearts gives us a purpose and an identity and turns what is essentially a bag of meat and mostly water into a human being, created in the image of God.

And that time is coming, declares the LORD. Because we’re not there yet, we’re still wandering in the desolate wasteland of lament, expecting to find a Babylonian army ready to carry us deeper into this exile of our own making. But being trapped in the desert doesn’t stop God from claiming us as God’s own. Because the second half of the passage is a creation story. God takes a moment to remind us of exactly who we’re dealing with here. We’re not dealing with some idol made of wood or brass. We’re being dealt with by “The one who established the sun to light up the day and ordered the moon and the starts to light up the night.” We are not claimed by a nationality, or a race, or a club, or a fraternity or a denomination. We are claimed by the one “who stirs up the sea into crashing waves, whose name is the LORD of heavenly forces.” This same one claims us as God’s own people.

When we run away and abandon God, and we will, God will engrave her instructions upon our hearts, giving us a purpose and an identity. Our discarded chunks of granite are engraved with and transformed into testimonies to God’s faithfulness. Because our rebellion shows God’s refusal to give up on us. God will have a relationship with us, even when we are broken and imperfect.

And that’s where our Matthew passage finds us. Because sometimes we need to be corrected, brought back to a closer image of what God intends for us as the Church and members of it. God, who reconciles us to himself, also gives us a way to reconcile with one another. “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.” Sometimes we will hurt one another, perhaps without even knowing it, perhaps because someone had hurt us in the past. But just as Jesus holds us close to God, so too we are also held together by that same redemptive and reconciling love.

Matthew’s Jesus carries us through a process to bring ourselves back into the unity we have in Christ, even in the case that a person refuses to be brought in, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.“ But we must remember how Jesus interacted with Gentiles and tax-collectors. When the rest of the culture pushed those groups to the margins, Jesus chased them down and showed them a love that invited them to change their hearts and join the people of God. The Church is called to reach out in love, even to those who have hurt us. That’s a difficult task, and we’re not always going to live up to it. But God will work though us anyway, in spite of our imperfections.

My mother has a saying, “God uses imperfect people because he made so few of the other kind.” We are the imperfect people whom God has choses to use. We are the body of Christ eagerly awaiting the return of our Lord. We are not our own, we belong to God, and God has missed us in our exile, and will bring us back. When we proved that we could not come back to God, God came to earth, taking the form of a slave, and was crucified for us so that we will know that God will be with us no matter what. Let us know that God has engraved our hearts with that powerful message of love. There’s a reason we read this text in the wilderness of lament, so that when we are confronted with our sinfulness, we will be reminded that God will be with us no matter what.