The Unbearable Joy of Fear-Filled Discipleship

14 “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15 to one he gave five talents,[a] to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’  (Matthew 25:14-30 NRSV)

Let’s make one thing clear:  you are enough.

If in, reading this parable you think you’re not enough, you’re not alone.  As Christians, we profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  With that, we are saved by grace through faith.  I repeat: saved by grace through faith.

You see, it’s all about grace.  Grace is God’s greatest gift to the world.  We don’t earn it; we don’t deserve it.  Grace is that unexplained provision that you didn’t expect; that moment of serendipity; that sense of feeling God’s presence, perhaps for no reason at all.  God’s grace is irresistible.  Grace is God’s way of saying,  “I love you more than you can ever know.”

Then what’s this parable all about?  Did Jesus change his mind and decide that we’re not saved by grace?  Perhaps we forgot to read the fine print and we have to work for salvation after all.

Let’s begin with that third slave.  Does he remind you of someone you know?  Someone who sees the glass half empty.  She has an excuse for every bad thing that’s happened to her and it always ends with: it’s not my fault.  He blames other people and other situations for his bad luck in life.  She can’t possibly accept people as they are, but reads into every action a negative connotation.  He’s angry most of the time.

Our third slave is like that.  He sees in the master a harsh man.  Yet, what we see is a generous man, trusting his slaves to care for his money while he’s gone.  He gives money to each slave, “according to his ability.”  He sees in the one-talent man the potential to make money.  Apparently, the two-talent and five-talent slaves have proven themselves in the past and receive more responsibility.  Not only that, the  money with which he entrusts them is huge.  One Talent, alone, is equal to 15 years’ wages.

The third slave had a golden opportunity to rise above his station, to prove to himself and to the master his God-given gifts.  Instead, he couldn’t take the risk.  He was afraid so he played it safe.  Despite the master’s faith and trust in him, he couldn’t trust himself enough to risk.  Rather than drop the money off at the local bank, he angrily buried it.  “There!  I’ll show him!”

I don’t want to be that slave.  God has richly gifted me.  I want to pay it forward.  But, I’m afraid.  I’m scared to do more than drop a dollar in the hand of a homeless man at the red light.  I write checks to various charities, knowing that my few dollars will do so much more than I can imagine.  Yet, I never have the time to drop in and visit the homeless shelter.  I’m afraid to risk.

The two- and five-talent slaves dove in with both feet!  They felt God’s grace and it empowered them to step up and make things happen.  They managed to double the investment, but it took years.  It wasn’t easy.  They almost lost everything a few times.  Some investments weren’t as lucrative as others.  They misjudged, on occasion.  But, the master had trusted them so they kept at it.  And the day he returned, they proudly returned to him twice what they had received.

What will you do with what God has graced you with?  I hope that you’ll spend some time thinking about how you’ve been gifted.  That those painful experiences may have also been teaching moments; that your career choice developed your skills; that age and experience have taught you more than you realize.

This week, as you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, perhaps you can give thanks for those things.  List them, embrace them.  This is where life has brought you by the grace of God.  God has been with you, yes even you, through both the easy and the difficult times in your life.  What have you learned from them?  In what ways are you a better person for having lived through them.  It took risk, but you did it anyway.

Now, pay it forward.  Where is God calling you to be?  Perhaps giving more money to the poor.  Writing letters to your Senators encouraging acts of justice for those who are sidelined.  Volunteering at the local shelter or food pantry.  Mentoring young people who are just beginning their careers.  Working with children to encourage them to reach their potential.

Will you take the risk?  Jesus calls us to do just that.  Risk.  Jump into that river of grace.  Expand your horizons.  Accept Jesus’ invitation to that high-risk adventure of faith and discipleship.

Scared?

Yes.  So am I.

Find someone to jump in with you.   And then welcome others to that unbearable joy of fear-filled discipleship.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

Advertisements

Walking the Talk

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,[a] and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.[b] And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah.[c] 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12 NRSV)

The funeral was painful.  He had suffered cancer for two years and died peacefully. Surrounding him at his death were his closest friends and his family.  Anyone who knew us would have viewed the dichotomy.

His family knew his brokenness.  We knew him to be an angry man who tried to handle it and, at times, managed to do so.  But, we also remember the rages and the humiliation at his hands.  He was a brilliant man, but his narcissism ultimately controlled him.

His friends only knew a man who was funny, talented, caring and knowledgeable.  They were younger than him, and he mentored many of them.  They had many stories to share with us.  His friends loved him and listened to his wisdom while teasing him.  His family loved him while tiptoeing around him.

The funeral was painful because no one was willing to speak up for the painful side of him.  No one permitted family to speak about his brokenness.  We weren’t allowed to share the story of his daughter’s wedding day when he felt the presence of God and worked diligently to convert to Catholicism.  We weren’t allowed to grieve the loss of this broken, hurting man.  Instead, we buried a pillar of the society who could no wrong.

That’s why All Saints’ Day is important for me.  Traditionally celebrated on November 1st, it’s a time to remember those who have died in the faith.  These are the saints who have gone before us.

We remember them because they taught us or modeled their faith.  Like the woman who got tired of seeing the children playing in their yards instead of going to church.  She gathered them up and brought them to Sunday school.

Like the elder who took a young, newly married man and mentored him through his early 20’s.

We remember those who told their stories boldly.  The World War II Veteran who ran behind a hill with his fellow Lieutenant when the bombers flew over.   When the bombing was over he turned to see that, though he came out unscathed, his comrade had died.  Why?”  he asked.  “Why not me, I wasn’t married with a family like this guy.”

We remember those who suffered long illnesses with grace; the musicians who showed up every Sunday morning; our Sunday school teachers; our Youth leaders.  We also remember those who showed up, broken and alone.

Jesus is still in the temple in Jerusalem.  The religious elite are done arguing with him.  Jesus knows, however, that this reprieve will be short.  Within a few days he’ll be betrayed, tried and crucified.  Before he goes, he has some more teaching to do.  So he turns to the crowds and his disciples to begin the teaching.

“Do as the religious leaders say.  They are learned men and they do a good job interpreting scripture.  Don’t do as they say, though.  They don’t walk their talk.”

When we are put in a position of power, it becomes all too easy to believe our own press.  Ministers and pastors run into this often.  They are seen as men and women with Biblical authority.  They are intelligent and speak truthfully.  And they get used to being treated with deference.  The more beloved they are, the greater the honors given them.  Before long, they arrive at a banquet and head for the best seat in the house like a metal is drawn to a magnet.

After a while, no one dares argue with them.  No one confronts them.  And they fall easily into a state of being loved, not for who they really are, but because of their authority.

There are a few who go further.  These are the ones who aren’t particularly comfortable in their own skin.  They make sure you know that they are the Rev. Dr. Jones from that tall steeple church.  They pretend humility.  They pretend everything.

They are the hypocrites.  The ones who deceive themselves and others into believing they are something they aren’t.  The ones who cover up their sins behind pretenses of pietism.  The phonies and fakes.  The fearful and broken.  The proud and damaged. The loving and lovable.  The caring and cared for.

In fact they are all of us.

We are the saints who say one thing and do another.  We say, “yes” to the Beatitudes until we see the latest news.  We speak of racial equality while ignoring our white privilege.  We strive to serve the poor but can’t seem to find the money or the time to reach out ourselves.  We pray for peace and demand vengeance.

It’s all of us.  We are confused and torn by what we honestly believe and how we carry out that belief.  We look for the Kingdom of Heaven and see very little, if anything.  We are worn out by compassion for hurricane victims and threats of war in the world and violence in our nation.  We are sick and tired of those who seek their ten minutes of fame.  We’re tired of arguing and bickering; of agreeing over nothing.

Where’s the good news?

The good news is found on All Saints’ Day.  In many churches across the world, it was celebrated this past Wednesday.  Others will celebrate it today.  There is much good news to be found in this remembrance.

We remember that a Sunday school teacher may have been a great person, but they were also bigoted;  that the wonderful choir director was an abusive husband; that each of these saints weren’t perfect.”  Saints are Christians.  And they were Christians.  But, they were also broken in some way, just as you and I are broken in our ways.

On All Saints’ Day we remember those who have gone before us not as perfect people but as people perfected by our Lord.  This is a reminder that our Lord is perfecting us right now in this minute and every day.

Embrace your brokenness and let it go.  Give it to God.  It won’t be easy.  For some of us, it’ll take a lifetime.  But you can begin, if you haven’t already.  Give to God your pain and desire for revenge; your broken spirit; your fear; your burdens.  Let it go.

It’s a gift to God who will embrace you even as you let go.  God will fill that void left by the anger or fear.  Perhaps not today, but soon.  God will work with you to transform your life, to perfect you.

As I sat at that funeral, I was angry and, sadly, everyone knew it.  But in the years since then, I’ve learned about Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I’ve looked back on my life of abuse and realize that God was present with me to make me stronger.

Most of all, I give thanks that when he took his last breath, I believe with all my heart that he fell into Jesus’ arms and sobbed out a lifetime of pain.

Do we have the courage to do the same on this side of life?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 


Wholly Holy

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

(Matthew 22:34-39 NRSV)

How’s your “holiness factor?”

Do you measure it on a continuum from one to ten?  One is not very holy while ten is totally holy.  Perhaps you measure it daily: yesterday I wasn’t very holy, but today was much better.

The first question you might consider is, “What does it mean to be holy?”  Good question!  Glad you asked!

Holy means sacred.  The altar or communion table in a church is holy because it’s where we come to take communion (or Eucharist) with Christ.

Holy means set apart.  God repeatedly tells the Hebrews while in the wilderness, “For I am the LORD your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.”

So, how’s your holiness factor?  Still confused?  Maybe you don’t consider yourself holy.  Perhaps you don’t view yourself as a beloved child of God.  Or even beloved.  Don’t believe it!  God created you and God didn’t create anything that God doesn’t love, completely and totally.

The holiness factor?  I made it up.  It doesn’t exist.  You don’t have a bad holiness today and better one tomorrow.  You may feel closer to God tomorrow than you do today, but it has nothing to do with your holiness.  You are holy because you belong to God.

Jesus stood in the temple in Jerusalem, discussing scripture with the Sadducees and Pharisees.  They tried hard to show him up; to prove to those watching that this upstart young rabbi didn’t really know his stuff.  The Sadducees couldn’t trip him up, so the Pharisees took their turn.

One of the experts in the law, asked him a good question.  Whether his motivation was to test Jesus, or to show up the Sadducees, we don’t know.  Perhaps he was truly trying to discern God’s law.  Maybe all three.

There are 613 Jewish laws.  Which one is the greatest or most important?  Tricky question.  Only one out of 613?  Definitely a test.

Jesus uses the “Shema” as his first answer.  The Shema (pronounced shi-mah’) comes from Deuteronomy 6:4.

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.  Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.  Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when your are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”

This is the heart of the law.  When we love God we put God ahead of everything else.  The other 612 laws fall into place as support.

Then Jesus adds something else.  He recites a passage from Leviticus 19:18:

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD”

Love God.  Love your neighbor.  Love your neighbor.  Love God.

You can’t have one without the other.

One of the great rabbis of Judaism is Hillel the Elder.  He was born somewhere around 110 BCE and died around 10 CE.  The story goes that a Gentile approached him one day and challenged him to explain the Torah (Law) while standing on one foot.  His response: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.  This is the whole Torah.  The rest is commentary.  Go and learn.”  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillel_the_Elder#The_Golden_Rule)

Loving your neighbor is defined by the Jewish Law.  How we treat each other matters to God because it’s an important function in our love for God.

We are holy.  We are set apart to serve God.  When we answer God’s call to serve, we respond with love for God.  We love God by caring for God’s creation.  We express this love through song and prayer and poetry and any number of ways.

We express our love for God when we love our neighbor.  Jesus explains what that means in his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7.)  When we are angry with our neighbor or hurt them in any way, we risk a form of murder: murder of their spirit.  We risk committing adultery even when we “only” commit it in our hearts.  When our word carries no meaning, we are swearing falsely.

Retaliation is no longer limited by, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  Jesus commands that we not resist the evildoer; give more than they ask for; go the second mile.  Don’t ignore the beggar.

Worse of all, we’re to love our enemies.  Yes.  Love our enemies.  Those who have hurt you with words or lies or physicality.  (He didn’t say go back for more, though.)  Love those who would hurt us.  There’s a lot of that going around today: North Korea and ISIS to name a couple.

Jesus doesn’t make it easy, does he?  Loving God and loving neighbor is challenging.  It takes so much courage and thought.  Old Testament Law states that loving neighbor means not holding a grudge while holding them accountable; to be fair to the rich and poor alike; we don’t put our neighbor’s life in jeopardy.

Love God.  Love neighbor.  This is the heart of our faith.  Love God.  Love neighbor.  It’s not easy, but we’re called to do it because we’re holy.

We are holy because of God.  We are set apart by God because God is holy.  That set-apartness doesn’t give us the right or the authority to be a part of an exclusive club.  It calls us to model behavior befitting a beloved creation of God.  It calls us to see the people who cross our path each day.

We love because God first loved us.  (I John 4:19)  We aren’t perfect.  We fail regularly.  But, this isn’t a pass-fail class; it’s life.  And we keep working at it while God works with us, perfecting and purifying and convicting and loving.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 


Faith. Love. Hope.

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:

Grace to you and peace.

We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions[b] report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.  (I Thessalonians 1:1-10 NRSV)

They had no good reason to believe in Jesus Christ.  They had every reason to continue worshiping the gods of Caesar.

Thessaloníki was a prosperous, cosmopolitan port city.  As the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, it was a seat of politics and a center for worship of various gods.  Most important was the worship of Caesar and his family.  As long as you bent a knee to Caesar, you could worship any of the other idols available in this large metropolis.

Yet, a small group of people found new life in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  If Jesus is savior, than Caesar isn’t.  If Jesus is all powerful, than Caesar takes a back seat.  That will get you into lots of trouble with, well, Caesar.

And think of the neighbors.  “Those Joneses next store?  They’re worshiping that Jewish guy, Jesus of Nazareth.  That’s one weird religion: they drink his blood and eat his body.  They’re cannibals!”

Yet, they turned to this Jesus of Nazareth and found freedom.  Freedom from idol worship, social constructs, even fear.  In Christ, they found a peace that no Roman Emperor could provide.

This fledgling congregation had no thick, dense theological libraries, no New Testament scriptures, no seminaries, no Ministers of Word and Sacrament.  All they had was Paul’s words.  The Word.

So, when Paul speaks of them with a grateful heart, he does it with a knowledge that this small congregation is doing something extraordinary, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it.  He speaks of their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Thess 1:3b)

Work of Faith.  Labor of Love.  Paul uses the words, “labor” and “work” in referring to their faith and love.  Faith is trust.  It’s the foundation upon which everything else is built.  A strong foundation takes labor and effort.  Whenever they entered the market place or their neighbor’s home, they knew they were different.  They faced criticism and ostracism and persecution.  They would need to work daily at their faith in order to stand up to the society of their day.

Is it any different today?  Being a Christian in a post-modern world brings criticism.  I have had any number of lovely conversations that go awry when I’m asked that one question I dread the most: “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a pastor.”  And everything changes.  The comments run from, Oh, that’s nice (and they really don’t believe it’s nice at all.)  Or, they fear I’m going to attempt to “save them” and they launch into a long description of their faith.  Or they simply shut down.

Being a Christian and holding onto Christian values is difficult.  Speaking peace is for sissies; love is an overused, empty word.  Our affluent society finds more strength in hate-filled words and speech.  God’s provision has been lost in money, insurance, and credit cards.  Christians find it easier to stay under the radar.

Paul and Silvanus and Timothy worked their faith by being a model for the Thessalonian Christians to follow.  They walked their talk.  When we model our value system, what does it look like?

A couple showed up in my office about a year ago and plopped a heavy brown bag on my desk.  “Every evening we take our loose change and put it in a jar.  As Christmas comes near, we find someone to give it to.  The thing is, we do this anonymously. We need you to deliver this for us.”

A recent visitor approached me after worship with a question.  “What kind of food ministries does this congregation support?”  I shared with her that we helped support two community projects and that we also had a food cupboard at the church.  She reached in her purse and handed me a check.  “Please use this for the food cupboard.”

I have a friend who refuses to listen to bigotry from anyone.  For the past thirty years, she has worked out ways of responding to hate-filled words.  The few friends she’s lost count as nothing.  We know her as a woman of courage who stands for what she believes.

Those moments when we’re being watched and we don’t realize it,  what do people see?   I hope friends and strangers see a person of faith revealing that faith in love.  I hope they see someone who stands for Christ’s truth not with angry words but intentional action based in love and peace.

This kind of faith and love will get you a lot: a heart that breaks every time you see social injustice; a reputation for being a person of  your word and criticism when you do it; a renewed sense of understanding that this isn’t what God intends: the world outside our front door doesn’t always mimic the kingdom.

This kind of faith revealed in loved does something else.  It inspires us with a strength that neither Caesar nor the next door neighbors can touch.  It moves us ever closer to God, seeking out God’s kingdom and working to make our corner of the world a little bit better because we were there.

That’s Christian faith at its best.  That’s why people get out of bed on Sunday morning and get themselves to church.  They know that in community with others, they learn and grow and gain strength for the week ahead.  At our best, we are inclusive and loving and filled with joy, seeking to share that with anyone who crosses our path.

We do that because out of our work of faith and labor of love comes hope.  Steadfast hope.  Hope that knows that this isn’t the end, but the beginning.  Hope based in a faith that follows the ultimate model of faith and love: Jesus of Nazareth who was faithful even to death and was raised by the Father, reminding us that death isn’t the end and has no hold on us.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”  (I Corinthians 13:12-13 NRSV)

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Dangerous Conversations III

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again 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.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those 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, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then 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.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:1-14 NRSV)

Who would refuse an invitation to a party!?!

This is the event of the season: anyone who is anyone will be there.  This will be an opportunity to rub elbows with the elite and the powerful and wealthy.  You can engage in conversation with the most intelligent; drink the best wine in the kingdom; enjoy delicious food.

Why would anyone refuse to go?  Why wouldn’t anyone mark their calendar, buy a new suit of clothes and get their hair done?  This is an opportunity for that special spa day for women.  Men could get a professional shave from their barber.  Get the car washed, vacuum it out and throw away those old McDonald’s bags you threw in the back seat over the past weeks.

You don’t even need a babysitter; kids are welcome.

So, who wouldn’t show up?

Quite a few, according to Jesus.  In Luke’s version of this parable, the excuses appear important at first:  a real estate sale;  an animal auction; a honeymoon.  Matthew’s version doesn’t provide any excuses but the invitees make light of it and even commit murder and assault on the king’s servants.

How busy are you?  I spent the past year selling and buying homes.  It took a lot of my time and energy to prepare my home for prospective buyers to view; to gather the necessary information to provide the mortgage lender; to arrange for utilities and moving vans.  It was a distracting business.

I’ve never attended an animal auction, but you can’t simply show up when it’s convenient.  You go when the auction announces the date and time.  And who wants to miss their honeymoon trip?  Money is on the line here.  Deposits aren’t returned because the king issued a last-minute invitation.

But, this isn’t just any party.  God has issued the invitation.  It’s a wedding banquet for his son, code word for the messianic banquet at the end of time.  When that time arrives you won’t need that new home, or the animal or the wedding trip.  All you’ll want and desire is to be a part of the banquet where people arrive from the east and west and the north and the south.

Yet, we’re all too busy.  And at the end of the day, we often can’t state what we accomplished.  “How was school today?” we ask our children.  “Fine.”  “What did you do?” “Nothing.”

Nothing worth talking about.  Nothing worth sharing about at the dinner table.  Nothing.

How often are our days filled with that.  Nothing.  Another report for the boss.  Another week of housework.  Another trip to the doctor.  Another Saturday doing lawn work and grocery shopping.

We’re busy taking care of the busy-ness of our lives.  The responsibilities are endless.  And hopefully, we find a certain joy and contentment in the mundane.  We’re blessed to have these chores to do; John Calvin would advise us to settle in, give of our best and accept that we are where God has planted us.

Are we too busy for God?  That’s the problem of the man who showed up without a wedding robe.

This answer has two parts to it. The first view is that we are too busy to worship and/or serve.  I’ve watched the decline of the mainline church for more than 40 years.  Each decade shows fewer people in the pews and more churches closing or merging.  Times have changed and sometimes the church has failed to keep up with those changes.

What worries me more than empty pews Sunday morning is the empty building the rest of the week.  People come calling seeking food, help with utilities and rent payments or fuel for their car so they can get to work.  The pastor handles it or, worse, delegates it to the office staff.  No laity are present to assist.

We’ve lost our sense of service and mission.  We don’t know how to visit with the poor; we don’t know how to learn from them; we don’t know how to help without enabling them.  We can help out with a utility payment this month, but how will they pay it next month?

The excuse is, we’re too busy.  Frankly, I think we’re scared to death.

“‘Those people’ are different.  They’re not like us.”  So, get to know them and learn about their challenges.

“Some of them are using the system.”  You’re right.  Some of them are.  How did they get that way?  What can we do to help them find appropriate boundaries?

“They’re argumentative.”  I didn’t say you would agree with them or even like them.  Just get to know them.  Build the relationship with them.

Who do you see as you go through the day?  Chances are they’re hurting as much as you are or worse.  Everyone has their own issues and regrets and guilt and shame.  Let your words speak to them with acceptance and understanding.  I’m yet to meet anyone from any part of society that hasn’t a story of disappointment and pain to share.

The one without the wedding robe didn’t allow his life to be transformed.  He was too busy to see the people that God put in his path.  He was too busy to try to help those who were hurting or poor or abused.  He wanted no part of them and so turned away from God’s offer of a life transformed and renewed.

Maybe there’s a second part to this.  Maybe the man without a wedding robe refused to accept God’s gracious invitation.  He was too scared, or too angry, or too… He couldn’t allow himself to feel God’s mercy wrap around his shoulders; he couldn’t accept God’s forgiveness and grace.

Which are you?  Too busy?  Too scared?  Too wrapped up in your own life to be able to listen to God’s call to you?

We’re all scared.  That’s why we begin with prayer.

“Where would you have me go, Lord?”

“How can I use the talents and gifts you given me?”

“I’m not sure I can do that.  Help me think it through and imagine myself doing it.  Maybe then I’ll see that it’s not so difficult.”

Prayer.  Open prayer.  Words that express your fear and concern.  Words that help you understand your own fear.  What if you laid it all for God to hear?  What if you told God what bothers you about serving?  What if you told God that you want to serve but you don’t know where?

And then what if you simply sat in silence and listened.  Allow your mind to wander.  Other thoughts creep in; don’t set them aside.  Rest in them.  Ask yourself if perhaps God is providing an answer after all.

We all want to attend that wedding banquet.  It’s a gathering where all God’s people show up; where the best wine flows; where there’s enough food for everyone.  So, go ahead.  Get that wedding gown out.  Allow God’s mercy and grace to enter into your life; give yourself permission to accept God’s call.

It’ll be the most memorable experience of your life.  And you’ll wonder, just why did it take so long?

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 

 


Dangerous Conversations II

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. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now 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.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone;[a]
this was the Lord’s doing,
    and it is amazing in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.[b] 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”[c]

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.  (Matthew 21:33-46 NRSV)

Jesus has entered Jerusalem in a triumphal entry to the throngs of followers calling out in his name to “save them.”  “Save us from Rome; save us from legalities we can’t hope to follow; save us for something better than we have now.”

Jesus then enters the temple and creates a holy mess.  He disagrees with the religious leadership cowering to Rome in order to save their jobs and hang onto their power.  It has led to a life of legalism that excludes the least among them, not seeing the neediest of God’s children outside the temple doors.

Now the religious leaders are angry!  How dare he threaten our existence?!  Rome can take over at any moment and it’s up to us to keep the peace at all costs!  So they go to him and challenge his authority.

So far he has challenged back.  He has used a question and a parable to point them away from their rabid fear and rigid rules to a loving God who will stand with them no matter what.  They’re unable to view their fear in the light of day.  For it is exhibiting itself in hunger and thirst for “the good ole’ days”; in rigid attention to matters that will keep them in power, rather than the law that commands they care for the least among them.

Jesus doesn’t stop there, though.  He continues his dangerous conversation.  Dangerous for him, but even more dangerous for his listeners and for us today.  His parables convict even as they seek to teach us a better way.  They hurt our sense of worldly ethics even while demanding our repentance.

The vineyard is a common thread in the Bible.  Chances are that the listeners heard this parable through the words of the prophet Isaiah:

Let me sing for my beloved

my love-song concerning his vineyard:
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,
    and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and people of Judah,
judge between me
    and my vineyard.
What 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?  (Isaiah 5: 1-4 NRSV)

The inhabitants had failed to work in the vineyard.  Instead, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer.  The widow and orphan were left to their own devices, which often meant death by starvation and disease.

The legal experts wouldn’t like Jesus’ parable much, because of its close resemblance to Isaiah’s passage.  The vineyard owner built a beautiful world for the inhabitants.  All they had to do was care for it.  He went away, as landowners did in those days, and sent emissaries to collect the rent.

Greed, jealousy, anger, hate, arrogance and pride took over.  They committed assault and murder.  The sad, but persevering landowner sent additional people to collect.  Again, murderous intent takes over and they now lie dead on the ground next to the grapevines.

At this point, our worldly values would say, send in the army, get rid of these scoundrels!  Put them in jail and throw away the key!  Better yet, kill them.  It’s what they deserve!

But, no.  The landowner sends his son.  (Sound familiar?)  They kill him as well.  (Again, sound familiar?)  Their greed is over the top, thinking they can take over the vineyard and make it theirs.

Jesus pauses in the telling of the tale.  He turns an eye to the leaders and asks a question.  “What will the landowner do to those tenants?”

Without thinking they respond, “He’ll kill them and find new tenants.”  That’s that.  End of story.  They haven’t connected the dots, though.  It’ll take a few more minutes to realize that this parable is about them.  This dangerous conversation with Jesus is about those religious leaders who turn God’s people into “those people” who aren’t worthy of respectable treatment.

Jesus doesn’t tell easy parables.  Jesus wants us to dig deeper and get our heads outside of the worldview.

“Don’t forget the stumbling block,” he says, reminding them of Psalm 118, the song they sing when they approach the temple on high holy days.

The corner stone becomes a stumbling block.  That stumbling block is God.  No, this isn’t a divine stone used to kill and maim sinners.  This is a block that shows up when we choose to travel the route of greed and avarice or hate or arrogance, or anything that makes us lesser people than what God created us to be.

The stone is God’s judgement.  Not a stone of death, but one that breaks us down so that God can build us up again.  The stone breaks down our hate and anger and pride and prejudice, leaving room for love and peace.  The stone breaks down our need for protection and opens us up to provide protection for others.

The stone breaks down our fear, little by little, to show us a new way of “being” in the vineyard.  To recognize all people as creations of God.  To find ways of relating to them; new ways of understanding their life situations.

As I write this, I wonder how many of you will say, “Those are nice words, pastor, but you don’t live in the real world like we do.”

I said those words myself in my younger years.  Until I realized that most pastors and ministers and rabbis and other religious leaders, live in a world that is all too real.  You can only counsel people in your study for so long; you can only listen to the voices of those around you that express their fear with hate and exclusion; you can only listen to the news for so long before you pray, “Come quickly, Lord. And make it before I burn out. Please.”

There’s not enough money to fill the pantries or pay the utility bills or the rent of the needy.  There’s not enough money to buy shoes for the kids or put into our educational system.  There’s not enough of anything to go around.

That’s the myth that traps us in our steps.  Perhaps it’s time to embrace that stumbling block and learn from it instead of rubbing our bruised shins and egos.

That stumbling block is God’s justice, challenging us to look at the vineyard differently.  It doesn’t belong to us.  It belongs to God.  We are supposed to be at work in that vineyard.  The task may not be to harvest, but to plant the seeds that will grow to lovely vines that we’ll never see.  The task may be to harvest the grapes that others planted before you.

What does your corner of the vineyard look like?  Is it filled with anger and hate?  Demonstrate tough love.  Where people are building walls, poke a hole in them and reach in with questions that inspire conversation.  Where you find poverty, learn what you can do to make a difference — not a cure, but a difference.  Where you find injustice, pray for ways to bring about justice.

Where’s the good news?

The good news is that Jesus continues to confront us with dangerous conversations.

That God continues to persevere despite our repeated rejection of God’s messengers.

That God always risks violence in order to be in relation with humanity.

Perhaps Frederick Buechner said it best:  “The one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully.”

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 

 


Dangerous Conversations

When 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[a] 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. (Matthew 21:23-32 NRSV)

Fear.  It controls our feelings and our actions.  The more we fear, the more fear controls our every move.  Seemingly good and kind people turn unkind, even contemptuous when in the clutches of fear.  Fear hides behind a broad array of negative feelings.

We fear losing the status quo; our sense of power and privilege.  We desperately hang on to it at any cost.

Jesus didn’t arrive in Jerusalem on a war horse. Instead he mocked the elite Roman Legion by arriving on a donkey: Jeremiah’s symbol of peace.  We celebrate this arrival on Palm Sunday, the Sunday that begins Holy Week and Jesus’ betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.  The week ends with his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

As soon as he arrived in Jerusalem, he entered the temple and “cleansed” it.  His cleansing was in the form of a huge mess, tipping tables of money changers and seats of dove sellers.  His point: the temple is no longer a holy place.  It had become a place where the powerful religious elite hid out like robbers in their den.

Then he turned to the crowds and began healing.  Worship in the temple had taken priority over service to humanity.

Watching Jesus that day were those “robbers.”  The religious elite hanging on for dear life to their temple, their power, their status and privilege.  They hungered and thirsted for the days of Kings David and Solomon when Israel was a unified, independent nation.  Their power was only as strong as Rome permitted.  They woke up every  morning wondering if this was the day Rome would take over and the temple would be gone.

As long as they had the temple, they had their power.  Fear kept them in its clutches.  They couldn’t even state why the pits of their stomachs were always in knots.  Perhaps if they had been honest with themselves, they could have let go of the fear and recognize that they would still be okay, temple or no temple.

Instead, pride took over and arrogance entered in.  They despised compassion.  Their righteousness was turned into self-righteousness.

How often has this happened in history?  This isn’t about the Jews and in no way does this give us a pass into antisemitism.  This is the human condition.  Who are the powerful elites inside and outside the church who are hanging on to power and wealth and privilege in our nation and our world today?

Jesus turned the tables in more ways than one.  The crowds adored him.  He understood them and spoke to them with respect and authority.  They didn’t care that he was a Galilean: one of “those people.”

The day following his triumphal entry and cleansing of the temple, Jesus arrived at the temple again.  He’d been teaching a group of followers when the chief priests and the elders approached him.

“What gives you the right to smash up this temple?  Who gave you this authority?”

They really don’t want an answer to their question.  They want him gone.  Go back to Galilee where you came from.  Darken our doors no more.

Jesus knows what they’re asking and skirts the danger with a dangerous question of his own.  The religious leaders are afraid to answer.  They don’t dare admit that John the Baptist’s authority was from God.  That’s blasphemous.  But, the crowds are looking at their prophet Jesus and they fear confronting him.  So, they back out of the question with a shrug of their shoulders.

Jesus then uses a parable to teach them and the listening crowds.  A father asks two sons to go out into the vineyard and work.  One says no and goes anyway.  The other says yes and disappears out the side door.

When we say “yes” to God, we’re saying yes to caring for God’s people and the people God loves.  When we say “yes” to God, we’re affirming our desire to return to God our gratitude for all God has done for us.  Saying “yes” to God means that we no longer belong to ourselves.  We give up our own false sense of power and prestige and privilege to serve in the kingdom despite a broken heart and soul.

Jesus’ power comes from God.  It is ultimate.  It is more powerful than any nuclear weapon.

Earthly power is temporary, limited and deals in fear.  Fear of losing the status quo; fear of change; fear of someone bigger and better coming along to depose your own sense of power.  Earthly power resists anything and anyone who would disturb your sense of “truth.”  It attacks those with whom you disagree.  It creates war and builds walls.  It is so dependent on self-preservation that it can’t see the blind and the lame outside their doors.

So, if poor leadership is based on fear and protection and sidelining, what does good leadership look like?

It looks a lot like the Beatitudes.

Good leaders read the paper and watch the news and mourn for a world torn apart.  They set aside their pride, fearlessly sharing their neighbor’s pain.  They know how different the world is compared to the world God wills it to be.

Good leaders refuse aggression as a first resort.  They assert that God is ultimately in charge.  They are humbled, yet refuse to stand down from injustice.  What they are on the inside is reflected in their actions.  They are aware that God is at work and strive to serve where their gifts and talents are most needed.

Good leaders avoid being exclusive, contemptuous and prejudicial.  They seek reconciliation.  They aren’t just peaceful, they make peace wherever they can.

Good leaders are strong even when they appear to be weak.  Think Gandhi, or Desmond Tutu.

Think of Jesus.

Conversations with Jesus were usually uncomfortable.  Yet, even today, Jesus changes minds that were once so certain and angry.  Jesus points away from fear and urges repentance.  Jesus calls us to head out into the vineyard and get our hands dirty serving the least, the last, and the lost.

Which son are you?  I admit that all too often my words don’t match my actions.  I say to the Father “I’ll go, sir.”  Then fear freezes me in my steps as I listen to vitriolic words without trying to make peace.  I give money to those who say they’re in need, but rarely stop to talk to them as the children of God they are created to be.

But, once in a while we all say, “No, Father.  That I can’t do.”  Only to discover that our steps walk forward to the vineyard even while I’m explaining to God why we can’t possibly do it.  Sometimes, we just can’t not do what the Father asks.

Dangerous conversations with Jesus.  They expose fear and pride and arrogance and contempt.  They point us to a different way of living.

They point us to Beatitude-Living.  They point us to a sense of peace that sees clearly all that is around us.  And even while our hearts break and we hunger and thirst for God’s reign to be completed on earth, we see glimpses that give us hope and fill those empty spaces inside us with fresh incentive and energy.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


%d bloggers like this: