Author Archives: Sandy Bach

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.


Unfair! Extravagant Generosity

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage,[a] he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.[b] 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 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?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”[f] (Matthew 20:1-16 NRSV)

I don’t know about you, but I feel annoyed.  Here I’ve worked my fingers to the bone, taking care of that huge vineyard!  I toiled under the hot, scorching sun.  I’m in need of a cool shower and a good meal.  Yet, those late arrivals received the same amount of pay as I did.  They should get what they deserve!

Do you feel the same way?  Are you angry with Jesus for telling this parable?  What’s up with this?

Okay.   So, before we put Jesus in the dock, we have to be clear.  The parable is about “the kingdom of heaven.”

So, maybe you’re ahead of me, already.  If this is about the kingdom, then everyone is equal in there.  Yes.  But, the behavior of the early workers isn’t kingdom behavior, is it?  What else are we missing?

A lot.  This simple parable isn’t so simple when you get into it.  It’s rich in its teachings.

First, we see a landowner who can’t get enough workers.  Everyone has an opportunity to labor in the vineyard.  No one is left out.  No one.  Not even those last hour laborers who weren’t in line at the marketplace early in the morning, or at 9:00 or noon or 3:00.  Don’t you wonder where they were all day?

Even the owner asks them that question: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” (Mt 20:6b)  I suspect they were busy elsewhere, their attention on something else, perhaps other jobs, or they slept in.   As the day waned, they made their way to the day laborer office and found themselves a job.

Everyone has work to do in the kingdom.  The more workers available, the easier the work.  The more workers who arrive the better the variety of gifts and talents to put towards the work.  We’re all needed from the mail clerk to the CEO, from the blue-collar worker to the white collar, from the poverty stricken to the wealthy.

Everyone has work to do in the kingdom, because God is so madly in love with the world.  Not just you and me, but all of creation.  Even our enemy.  In the kingdom, everyone works for the kingdom.  Earthly power means nothing.

Another teaching point in this parable is the generosity of the landowner.  He could have paid less money to the late arrivals and no one would have blamed him.  Instead, the early arrivals complain because they don’t get a bonus.

When have you felt jealous over a friend’s good fortune?  Why her and not me?  She isn’t even deserving?  Yet, God is generous.  And only after we study our own life do we realize that generosity.  The fact that you’re reading this blog tells me that you can afford an electronic device on which to read it.  Perhaps you have several devices.  And you have food to eat and a roof over your head.

More important, God is watching over you.  You’re walking with God each day.  You can speak to God, listen to God, see God at work in the world.  And when we get outside ourselves, we can rejoice in the good fortune of others.  That’s the kingdom at work!

Most important, there was nothing any of the workers in the vineyard could do to earn or deserve God’s generosity.  We work hard to earn our way in the world, to achieve the promotions and the pay raises.  We work hard to be noticed in all the right ways.  What a relief, that we don’t have to do any of that in the vineyard.

When we enter God’s kingdom, we are one with each other.  There is joy in the work; we are given an opportunity to work in the kingdom.  There is good work to do with no need of merit.  Work is a gift that is graced on us without our deserving it.

So, when I identify with those workers who spent 12 hours of labor in the hot, scorching sun, I wonder if I might take a different view.  First, that the 12 hours was hard work, but not without the joy of working for the vineyard owner.  That envy didn’t enter into things until I got wrapped up in jealousy at the end of the day.  During the day I enjoyed a gracious and undeserved gift.

Second, I could have been the late arrival, receiving what everyone else had received and feeling the joy of being accepted equally.  What if one of those all day workers had high-fived me in celebration?

Most important, none of us in the vineyard got what we deserved.

We received a gift of work and worth: undeserved and gracious in the giving.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 


Unfair! Extravagant Forgiveness

21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[a] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[b] times 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents[c] was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii;[d] and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister[e] from your heart.” (Matthew 18:21-35 NRSV)

Note:  This is part two of a three-part series entitled, “Unfair!”  We will look at some texts that may make us feel uncomfortable, even angry and want to say to God, “That’s not fair!”

“Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.”

These are not words Jesus lived by.

You see, the particular congregation is unique.  Last week we pointed out that church isn’t meant to be a civic group, nor a business entity, nor a not-for-profit organization.  Though a church holds a few aspects of each of these, it still stands out as uniquely different.  It’s a place where members can let down their guard and be themselves.  They work together, pray together, break bread together.  They build trust within the group and then go out to share with the world.

At least, that’s the way it’s meant to be.  Being human, we often sin and an authentic church will point it out and help restore that person.  But what if they continue sinning?

That’s a good question, and Peter isn’t afraid to bring it up with Jesus.  In fact, he knows Jesus to be a generous man, so tries to second-guess him.  “How often should I forgive?  How about seven times?  That’s a good number.  A heavenly number.”

“Peter, I want you to quit counting.  That’s what legalistic religious folk do.  They count up their mint and dill to make sure they tithe a perfect amount.  They use the law to get around behaving compassionately with people.  No, Peter.  I want you to forgive over and over and over again.”

He sees the disappointment and horror on Peter’s face.  Peter and the disciples clearly need a parable.

The lord of the manner is extravagant in many ways.  He’s extravagant in his lending to the slave.  ten thousand talents is like saying “a bazillion million.”  It’s a ridiculous amount, unpayable by anyone.  The lord is also extravagant in his punishment.  In Jewish tradition, debtors prison was against the law.  In Greek and Roman law, it was permitted but rarely used.

The slave repents and begs for mercy.  How often do we repent and beg for mercy when we’ve hurt someone?  How often has someone repented with you when they’ve obviously hurt you?  Perhaps the slave had no other choice, but he found himself on his knees and asked for time to make it up.

Once again, the lord is extravagant.  He forgives the entire debt!  That’s unheard of!  Out of great love and mercy, he graciously sets aside the debt.  The slave is free to go, his family safe from prison.  He can begin his life anew, debt free!

Here’s the part we don’t like.  The slave refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow slave.  The debt was high, about 100 days wages.  The forgiven slave had received lavish grace and forgiveness, and instantly forgot.  So, he gives his fellow slave what’s coming to him–debtor’s prison.

Don’t like him much, do you?  Yet, isn’t he us?  Seeing the personification of sin instead of children of God?  Afraid to show weakness and vulnerability?  We want the sinner to earn our forgiveness, to measure up.  Forgiving repeatedly is reckless irresponsible.

Yet, God forgives us multiple times.  Sometimes in one day!  Perhaps we should pay it forward.

Jesus taught us last week that we first confront the sinner and do everything possible to restore her to the congregation.  But, she has to be willing.  If not, she dishonors herself and the church.

But, we have to forgive for another reason.  Ourselves.  If we hang onto the wound, it damages us.  The behavior isn’t forgiven and forgotten.  We have to let go so that we can remain authentic followers of Jesus.  We don’t put people on probation.  At the same time, we don’t deny our own hurt, nor do we minimize it.  It may take some time to move through this process.  We can do no less than what the lord of the manner did for the slave who owed a bazillion million.

I was falsely accused of something when I was in high school.  My accuser was one of the ministers, a person a highly regarded.  The church went to bat for me.  And I was counseled and allowed to feel the pain.  And, somewhere deep inside I refused to allow it to ruin church for me.  When the truth finally came out and I was exonerated, I had already forgiven.

Since that time, I understand all to well how church members can hurt and wound each other.  Furthermore, how church members surround the sinner and the wounded to bring life back.

What about the sinner?  What about that torture that’s promised?

After King David took Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, and impregnated her.  He tried to cover it up and ultimately had Uriah murdered.  When Nathan the prophet approached David, he laid it out fully and completely.  David responded, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (2 Samuel 12:13)  And in those words we feel David’s mounting shame.  Psalm 51 is the result, when David cries out to God to, “purge me with hyssop…) (Ps 51:7a)

Ever been caught for doing something you shouldn’t have done?  Wasn’t the torture awful?  It blinds us as we almost double over in pain.  The shock is too much.  The only way through it is to face it.

This isn’t easy stuff.  Lavish forgiveness from God, demands that we lavishly forgive the one sitting in the pew across from us.  Extravagance from God makes us want to be extravagant, as well.

I think that we do this more often than we give ourselves credit for.  We know our neighbor in the pew beside us.  We understand him, perhaps more than others do.  Because of that we make allowances and excuse some poor behavior.  After all, he’s part of the “family.”  We don’t forget, but we do let it go.  And, a healthy relationship demands that we counsel him if he continues to misbehave.

Yet, sometimes we hurt more deeply than we realize.

Will  you allow one person (or even many) to ruin your relationship with God?  Or will you forgive and move on and allow your valuable friends to care for you?  Will you acknowledge the pain and move through it?

Will your use that painful memory to help others?  Will you help them acknowledge the sin and pain?  Will you help them refuse to let it ruin their lives?

Will you reflect Jesus’ call to forgive over and over and over again?

 

It’s unfair when we first look at it.  Unfair to forgive repeatedly.  But, when we behave like the forgiven servant and treat others poorly, it’s unfair to them.

And, it’s unfair to ourselves.

It dishonors Jesus and his Church.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

 


Unfair! Restoration for All

15-17 “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.

18-20 “Take this most seriously: A yes on earth is yes in heaven; a no on earth is no in heaven. What you say to one another is eternal. I mean this. When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”  (Matthew 18:15-20 The Message Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson )

Note:  This is part one of a three-part series entitled, “Unfair!”  We will look at some texts that may make us feel uncomfortable, even angry and want to say to God, “That’s not fair!”

Church, whether outside the walls like this blog or within traditional church walls, is not a non-profit organization.  Church isn’t a club that exists to do good stuff, though reaching out is a part of our mission.  We do not pay dues, we return to God a portion of all that God has provided.  If it were that simple it would be easier: we could “recruit” new members, have a theme song and send out dues notices.  We could “assign” tasks and elect officers to lead us.

Church is more than the sum of its parts.  Church is made up of broken people who know they are in need.  Church is worship of God who is far more awesome and far bigger than we can even imagine.  Church is reaching out to others in unique ways: giving of time, talents and money; being in relationship with those who are in need but can’t find what they’re looking for.

Church is fellowship: breaking bread together at the communion table and at the potluck dinners; praying for each other in sickness and tragedy and death and hurtful times; laughing and crying; trusting enough to be vulnerable with each other.  Church is a place we can go to catch a glimpse of God’s kingdom.

So, it’s no surprise that Jesus spends some time teaching us how to be church.  And here’s the rub: sometimes we misbehave and we have to deal with it using kingdom values.  Jesus doesn’t permit us to behave like the culture around us behaves.  No, we have to behave like disciples of the One who went to the cross.

That’s sooo unfair!

For example.  Jesus tells us how to handle disagreements.  It’s a step-by-step formula:

  1. Confront him or her privately.  Try to work out your differences and come to terms that are agreeable.
  2.  If that doesn’t work, take one or two others to be witnesses and to keep things honest and fair.
  3. If that doesn’t work, tell the church.
  4. If that doesn’t work, treat her or him like a tax collector or a Gentile.

Step one may be difficult but it’s definitely do-able.  Prayerfully, speaking in private can usually bring out the differences and reconciliation can be achieved.  It may feel awkward.  For some, it isn’t easy.  I’ve had times in my life when I’ve chosen not to approach and it’s turned worse instead of better.

Step two, gets a bit more difficult.  Finding two members of the congregation who can act impartially and prayerfully is critical to the success of this step.  Jesus specifically states that they are to act as witnesses, not body guards or henchmen.  No bullying allowed!  Talk it out and listen to your witnesses.

Step three.  Now it’s getting harder.  Take it to the church.  Oh my.  I don’t like to air dirty laundry in public.  Let’s just drop it and I’ll deal with it the best I can.  Nope, says Jesus. That’s not allowed.  The church will need to provide a place of healing and reconciliation.  Everyone is vulnerable at this point and no one is allowed an “out.”

Healing and reconciliation.  Hard words these days.  The news in my city has been difficult this week: murders, someone literally using their automobile to attack homeless victims.  Our societal nerves are worn so thin that our anger is a hair-trigger.  Social media is not just a place to share joys and concerns.  It’s a place to display your anger and disgust in hate-filled ways.  We hate with ease; listen less and yell more; shut down when we don’t like what we hear.

In the best of times, the church is the one place where healing happens because we listen prayerfully.  The congregation recognizes that Jesus is present and they know that everything they say and do is in his presence.

And after all that, if the offender refuses to repent, you can oust him or her.

Really?  Do you honestly believe that Jesus would permit that?  Scripture says we can treat him or her like a tax collector or a Gentile.  So, get those excommunication papers ready, and strip the offender of the keys to the church.  He’s out of here!

Slow down.  Think about this.  Get your Bible out.

Who did Jesus associate with?  Tax collectors and Gentiles and sinners.  He enjoyed many a meal with them and offered relationship, healing and entry into fellowship.

Just prior to this text, we learn about a God who doesn’t want to lose a single believer.  This God will leave 99 sheep behind to search for that  lone lost one.

Jesus also taught his disciples and followers that simple faith is the way into the kingdom.  No bullying allowed.

So, why did Jesus say, “Treat them like a tax collector and a Gentile”?  He said this to remind us that we have to start again from scratch.  We confront them with the need to repent and we offer God’s forgiving love.

Unfair?  Perhaps.

But, there’s more.

“What you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.  What you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  That doesn’t mean that you have the power.  Nor does the church have the power.  Go to God in prayer with this.  Serious prayer and discernment and God will get to it.

Prayer is that place where we go to share with God what we think and feel, what gives us pain, what we question and don’t understand.  Prayer is the place we go where God listens and God speaks.  God’s got this.  God will work it out.

It seems unfair, doesn’t it?

Being a member of Christ’s church means that we have to work together and grow and strive with each other.  That striving means confronting, at times.  And when we do that we risk a lot and that’s difficult.  We risk losing a friendship; we risk hurting someone.  But we also have an opportunity for growth and reconciliation that can’t be achieved if we walk away and allow the hurt to simmer and grow.

Being a member of Christ’s Church is serious business.  What we say or do is witnessed by Jesus.  He closes this passage with the reminder that wherever two or three are gathered, he’s there with us.  So, if Jesus is present, what do you want him to witness: poor, unloving, hate-filled behavior?  Or an attempt at loving (even tough loving) filled with prayer and discernment?

It may seem unfair until we realize that we be the one in need of being reconciled.

It may feel unfair that you can’t let a fellow believer loose and drop her from the rolls.  What if you’re the one being set loose?

It may be unfair that we can’t walk away from each other and forget.  We can walk away, but we can’t forget.  We have to keep them in prayer just as we are held in prayer when we go astray.

When we honor this teaching from Jesus, we gain from it.  We are stronger, more faithful and less vulnerable.  We become a fellowship that builds bridges, tears down walls, and walks with each other in love.  Even tough love.

We become a place where no one is written off.  Not even you.

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.


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