The Parable of the Mean Girls

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To tell you the truth, as of last evening, I still wasn’t sure where this sermon was going to go. This past week was one roller coaster of a ride, wasn’t it? Not knowing election results for four days was anxiety-producing to say the least. Watching and wondering how people – on both sides – were going to react to the final tally was  worrisome. Compulsive news checking was a thing, even when we knew it was too early to know anything. 

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By Wednesday, I was all ready to start Advent early. Advent’s theme of watching and waiting seemed to fit perfectly. I redid the bulletin. I picked out a graphic of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” and edited in “Advent” in place of Christmas.  The sermon was going to be all about waiting patiently. Then yesterday morning the election was called and the waiting was over. Lighting Advent candles didn’t seem as appropriate. So I put the bulletin back to the way it was and started looking at the gospel again – in the context of where we are now.

And where we are is with yet another parable from Matthew. Now, I love the parables. But even I have had just about enough, especially since the last three parables before Advent really does begin on the 29th all talk about the second coming of Christ and a day of judgment. And there are textual problems with them and theological differences of opinion on what they mean. But – reading this one again yesterday, I did have some new insights. 

First of all, I started really thinking about that wedding that those bridesmaids were in. If you’ve ever planned a wedding, you know there are a lot of details involved – from the design of the invitation to the table decorations at the reception. Nobody wants to forget any of these details. You want to make the day as perfect as possible. If you’ve ever been a bridesmaid, you know that certain details fall to you. I know that’s true for groomsmen, too. Even these days, when those who stand with the wedding couple might be of any gender (I was “best man” at my brother’s wedding), there still are specific responsibilities. And one of the main ones is to take care that at no time attention is diverted from the wedding couple to you. 

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There are websites where you can read stories of weddings going awry, like the one where the bridesmaid who had refused to try on her dress before the wedding showed up late in a dress with straps that were too long and had to be fixed with safety pins. She’d also smoked a cigarette in the car on the way to the church and the dress had a small burn front and center from ash blowing back in. I mean friendships and family relationships are irrevocably broken over stuff like this. 

But our customs would sound very strange to people in Jesus’ day, when wedding festivities typically lasted seven days, and the processions of the bride and groom marked the beginning of the celebration. In the scene in the parable, the bridesmaids are awaiting the arrival of the groom. This was their big moment, their specific duty: to wait for the groom – either at the bride’s house where he would come to fetch her or at the home of his family where the wedding would take place. All of them have either lamps or large torches, so that when the groom arrived, they would lead the wedding party in a procession of lights.

Now, unlike our weddings, that are supposed to start at a specific time (and there are plenty of stories about when that didn’t happen), in Jesus’ day it wasn’t unusual for there to be a delay. For instance, there could be last minute negotiations between the groom and the bride’s relatives over the gifts to be exchanged. The story doesn’t explain the delay, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The bridesmaids would have known that a delay could occur. Or they should have. The parable describes the debacle of five bridesmaids who missed the procession and undoubtedly incurred the wrath of the bride and groom and their families, and the distain of all the wedding guests. If this was a morality tale, the moral of the story would be: don’t mess up your best friend’s wedding. 

But we know that parables are more than that; there’s always at least one (and often more) deeper meanings to be mined from what, at first, seems like a straightforward cautionary tale. And frankly I’m relieved there’s more to this story because, on the surface, I really don’t like it. 

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For starters, I don’t like the wise bridesmaids. They sound like mean girls to me. Or just selfish ones. Instead of sharing they send the others away to try to find oil. No shops would have been open at night; they would have had to bang on doors of friends, relatives, and shopkeepers begging for help. Really? I can’t think of any other place else in the Bible that such selfish behavior is called ‘wise’? They say, “We can’t share because we might not have enough for ourselves. Just to be safe, we’re not sharing what we have.” It seems they’re operating out of scarcity and fear. We know what that looks like. I’m sure they would have been among those hoarding toilet paper and sanitizing wipes at the beginning of the pandemic.  And these were the wise ones?

But, you know, I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the foolish ones either. They should have known better; they should have been prepared. They shouldn’t have listened to the mean girls and gone off in search of oil. Surely the knew that, with the groom approaching, it was too late. Their foolishness guaranteed that by the time they got back, they were left out in the cold and dark. The groom probably thought he’d been deserted by his so-called friends. Maybe he thought they’d simply given up and gone home. And I don’t even want to think about what happened when the bride heard about it! Did she know that when the foolish five did show up, her husband barred the door and refused to let them into the banquet? It seems there was a lot of foolishness going on.

The only distinction between the wise and the foolish ones was preparation. Five were ready when the groom arrived; five were not. They all were judged on the basis of how well-prepared they were. And we get it, right? We get that the bridegroom is Jesus and that we’d better be ready or at least appear to be, like the billboard says:

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But, like with many of the parables, we squirm a little when we really listen to it. Which is good, because parables are supposed to cause us some discomfort. If we’re honest with ourselves, our discomfort comes when we acknowledge that we can relate to both the wise and the foolish bridesmaids and sometimes even the groom.

I’ve been the foolish whose lamps have run out. I’ve been the wise who feared sharing and losing what they had. I’ve been the bridegroom who refused to let people in. And maybe that’s what this parable does. It allows us to really see ourselves. 

That could be why this parable is so troublesome. It creates a stark duality of either you’re wise or you’re foolish; either you’re ready or you’re not; either you’re in or you’re out. But we know we’re more complex than that. and I’m pretty sure God knows that, too. Recognizing ourselves in all of these characters can go a long way in making us better disciples. 

So, when you find yourself feeling foolish, like the foolish bridesmaids, stop and wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. It can be a holy place where God will meet and transform you. When you find yourself feeling like the wise bridesmaids, tempted to hoard what you have, stop and remember to share, even if it scares you. And when you find yourself feeling like the bridegroom, angrily closing the door against others or erecting barriers to keep certain ones out, stop and open the door to the banquet feast. 

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The second troubling thing about this parable is that it just doesn’t sound like Jesus. The separation between those who are in and those who are out is in stark contrast to the inclusive nature of Jesus throughout the gospels. What’s going on here?

What was going on shortly before Matthew wrote his gospel was the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE. It was a time of terrible turmoil and the religious leaders were understandably trying to figure out how to maintain their community, their religious identity, even their theology that had tied the very presence of God to that temple. We can relate somewhat, right? Keeping the congregation together during the turmoil of the pandemic, wondering what the future of the church will be even after we can go back into the building. 

What the leaders back then were doing was clamping down on the strands of Judaism that didn’t fit into what they deemed to be the correct expression of the faith. They were drawing lines of who was in and who was out. And, among others, those Jews who were part of the Jesus movement were most definitely out.

Matthew and his community understandably didn’t take that well. In turn, Matthew tells a story about how Jesus would probably have responded to these religious leaders. The tables would be turned and they would be the ones cast out when Jesus came back to establish the kindom of God on earth. And there have been centuries of Christians ever since who have been waiting hopefully for this second coming. 

Unfortunately, this idea has created a theology that abandons the earth to the “powers and principalities” of the world, while looking heavenward for divine rescue. That kind of dualistic thinking has created a mindset – and policies – of injustice and ecological destruction. And again we’re challenged to think bigger and understand that we need to be both heavenly minded and of earthly good.

There’s much scholarly disagreement about whether Jesus himself was an apocalyptic preacher, that is concerned with end times and a judgment day, and whether he would come back to lead what John Dominic Crossan calls the “Great Cleanup” – when God would step in and clean up the earth, bringing a new creation where justice and peace would reign.

Some believe that the second coming already happened – on Pentecost. Others say that Christ is continually appearing among us and leading us, sometimes pushing us, into the kindom of God right here and right now. 

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I don’t think it ultimately matters – as long as we hold to what Jesus taught us about the kindom of God. Jesus did not promote division, but our oneness in God. Yes, there are places where we can argue about that. But again, we take those places in context and mine the message for us today. Jesus did promote loving our neighbors – all of our neighbors. The characters in the parable are useful to us in holding up a mirror to ourselves to see where we’re not as well-prepared as we could be, not as generous as we could be, not as welcoming as we might think we are. The parable can challenge us and lead us into better discipleship, knowing that Christ is always coming to us: we don’t have to wait for a great divine cleanup to experience the kindom of God.

And if that’s true, then we have our work cut out for us. Loving and welcoming our neighbors – all of our neighbors. Feeding the hungry, sharing generously from our bounty. Opening doors, taking down barriers that have been erected between those who are in and those who are out. 

In these post-election days, we’ve been hearing a lot about healing the divisions in our nation. That is now the challenge to us as followers of Jesus. How will we promote this: in ourselves, in our congregation, in our wider community?

It’s a big question, probably not one to be answered today. Thankfully, we have more apocalyptic parables to keep us at it over the next few weeks. 

For now, remember the words of Jesus from Luke’s gospel: “. . . in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

And from the Gospel of Thomas: “the kingdom of God is within you.” 

So remember: Christ can come to you at any time. Be as prepared as you can be. But most of all, be open to the wonderment and surprising possibilities that Christ will bring – to you and through you.

To be continued . . .

Amen 

MATTHEW 25:1-13

“Then again, the kindom of heaven could be likened to ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went to meet the bridal party. Five of them were wise; five were foolish. When the foolish ones took their lamps, they didn’t take any oil with them, but the wise ones took enough oil to keep their lamps burning. The bridal party was delayed, so they all fell asleep. 

“At midnight there was a cry: ‘Here comes the bridegroom! Let’s go out to meet him!’ Then all the bridesmaidsrose and trimmed their lamps. 
The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise ones replied, ‘Perhaps there won’t be enough for us; run to the dealers and get some more for yourselves.’

“While the foolish ones went to buy more oil, the bridal party arrived; and those who were ready went to the marriage feast with them, and the door was shut. When the foolish bridesmaids returned, they pleaded to be let in. 
The doorkeeper replied, ‘The truth is, I don’t know you.’

“So stay awake, for you don’t know the day or the hour.”

All Saints: the Power of Naming Names

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This weekend, I watched the new Netflix movie, The Trial of the Chicago Seven. The story in a nutshell is the 1969-70 trial of a group of Vietnam War protesters charged with inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. The movie ends with the closing statement made by defendant Tom Hayden. Instructed to keep it short and respectful, he chose instead to begin reading the names of soldiers killed in Vietnam. My understanding is that this didn’t actually happen. However another defendant did read  names at another point in the trial. So the movie did take some liberties. Nonetheless, the reading of the names was a powerful part of the trial, no matter when it happened and by whom. The point of doing it was to keep the focus on those who had died.

This ritual of naming is powerful. Watching that scene on the eve of All Saints Day was a reminder to me of the importance – and the power – of naming our dead. We do this every year on this Sunday, but sometimes we are particularly confronted by the reality of death, often in tragic circumstances.

The other day, Barbara and I were out for a walk around the neighborhood. It was fun to see the Halloween decorations in yards and on houses. I know decorating for Halloween has become much more elaborate since my days of trick or treating (we thought it was a big deal to make a stuffed dummy to set out in a chair on our front porch). But I wondered if this year, there were even more skeletons, ghosts, and ghouls than usual. I wondered if this might be a response to our being confronted with death in a particularly alarming way this year. 

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I read recently that Covid-19 has already, killed more people in the US than Americans killed in battle during the five most recent wars combined.  And according to the New York City medical examiner and the Department of Defense, COVID deaths in the US are equal to having the 9/11 attacks every day for 66 days. 

These statistics do not take anything away from the 9/11 deaths or any of the war dead. They do highlight our need to remember. Every year since 9/11/2001, the names of those killed in the fall of the twin towers are read. Unfortunately, even this ritual became controversial this year, with two separate events taking place blocks apart in Manhattan. At the official ceremony at Ground Zero, the names were prerecorded because of the pandemic. While at a new event, the same names were read live and in person. But again, ultimately, it’s no matter when it happened and by whom. The point was to keep the focus on those who had died.

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Just as the “Say Their Names” initiative of Black Lives Matter keeps the memories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others lost to systemic racism and violence alive in our hearts and minds. 

In the same way, we see lists of the COVID dead in various news sources. Many of us have the name of a relative or friend on our own personal lists. We are confronted by death in a terrible convergence of biological and societal ills. Halloween, that day when tradition says that the veil between this world and the next becomes particularly thin, is a good outlet for our anxieties and our grief. 

Let’s face it, we have a lot to be anxious and to grieve about. Even before COVID, we were mourning the fracturing of our nation. Now, with the election just 2 days away, we wonder how it will go, how it will turn out, how will people react. In so many ways, fear of the unknown and our lack of control over a lot of what concerns us is keeping us up at night. We talk about the new normal, but we don’t know what that new normal even is yet. We can relate to the writer of the I John passage: “it has not been revealed what we are to become in the future.” 

The immense upheaval we are experiencing takes its toll. It is helpful to at least recognize that your anxiety, or restlessness, or lethargy, or fatigue, or headaches, or however this upheaval is affecting you is – in this unprecedented time – normal. But then we also have to acknowledge our need for help. 

A poem in a recent blog post by Presbyterian pastor Todd Jenkins spoke to me of our spiritual state in these trying times. It’s called “Turn, Turn.” This is part of it:

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My cup, it feels  
so empty much  
of the time.  

Maybe it’s cracked,  
and that’s how some  
of what God fills  
it with leaks out;  

but I’m beginning  
to suspect that,  
too much of the time,  
I live with it  
turned upside down.  

Not because  
I’m pouring it out  
for others’ sake,  
in helpful ways;  
but because  
I’m out of tune  
with the melody  
in my soul.  

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I need to have my cup  
turned upright, so that  
the kin-dom of the divine  
can fill me and overflow  
into the holy  
here and now.  

Turn my cup, O God;  
turn it up, O Lord.  

 I love the imagery of a cup (I picture a chalice) turned upside down. There’s some small comfort there, that I’m not alone in my feeling of weariness. But there’s also an invitation: to allow my cup to be turned upright. It is the grace of this poem that even allows us to know that even this action might be too much for our weary souls. Yet we can trust that, as the I John text says, one truth remains steadfast and true: we are children of God. 

We have been claimed in love by God. We have been named by God. Each one of us has been made a saint: named and claimed. That doesn’t mean that we’re some kind of spiritual superstars. It does mean that this is what fills our cup: hope rooted in knowledge that God the creator is continually working on us, that Christ the redeemer is always in our midst, and that the Holy Spirit is always at work in and around and through us – even in the midst of chaos. With cups refilled and overflowing with gratitude, we can follow the way of God’s love from holy here and now into whatever future awaits us.

As saints, with cups filled and overflowing with gratitude, we come to this day of remembering the dead – not as one more sorrow to absorb in these sorrowful times, but as our way of celebrating them and the gift of themselves that they brought to our lives. On All Saints Sunday we remember deceased loved ones and we honor the One who loved them into life and received them in death. We celebrate their entrance into what is called in church-y language “the church triumphant” – as opposed to “the church militant,” an unfortunate term for those of us still doing battle in this life. Together we make up the communion of saints. Although physically separated by death, we are still united with one another in, as the old hymn says “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”

Although we don’t know what that will be like either. Still we wonder. Call it what you will – heaven, the church triumphant, the afterlife – what is it like? The answer is simple: we don’t know. Although people throughout the ages have put forth their ideas about it. A professor I once had – a member of the seminary choir – expressed his vision of heaven as singing in an eternal choir. Although I like to sing, I confess I’m not too thrilled about doing it for all eternity. I mean, eternity is a long time! What kind of music will it be? Who gets to pick? Will we get to sing Beatles songs or show tunes? Will we all have good voices in heaven? Will there be auditions? I think his vision has some flaws. But then it’s just one vision.

The reading from the book of Revelation is another and it’s pretty strange as well. Though the promise of never again experiencing any deprivation or suffering is certainly appealing, the image of the throne, the Lamb, palm branches and robes is rather off-putting (at least to me). 

What happens when we die? I remember the homily given by the pastor when my grandmother died, in which he said, “She is now everything that God intended her to be.” Those words struck a chord with me, although I don’t know exactly what it means. When I try to think about it too much, it makes about as much sense as my professor’s vision and the revelation of John of Patmos.

I do know that my grandmother, at the age of 26, had become a widow with 4 children under the age of 6 on the eve of the Great Depression. She went to work as a janitor at the junior high school and did that until she retired in 1968 – almost 40 years. She never remarried. Of course she had her family, her wonderful grandchildren – especially the oldest one (me) – but I’ve often wondered what her life might have been in another era, under different circumstances. What did God intend for her? And is she living in that reality now?

I was reminded of that funeral homily when I read this paragraph this week:

What some call the beatific (or heavenly) vision is, I believe, an evolutionary process. Beyond the grave, we continue to grow in wisdom and stature. We forgive and are forgiven. We experience the healing of memories and relationships and continue to explore paths not taken, in companionship with God. This applies to saints as well as mere mortals. A life of saintliness is a life of adventure and growth, dissatisfied by any static heavenly vision. We continue the journey, freely and creatively responding to the grace that leads us toward wholeness.

While this doesn’t give us any details either about how this process happens, the concept is more appealing to me than an unchanging, eternal heavenly choir – or any vision, no matter how wonderful. The idea that God’s care for us doesn’t end at death, but continues in a new way, another dimension, a different reality – ever luring us onward from brokenness to healing, from sorrow to consolation, from sin to grace is not inconsistent with the biblical witness.

Again, as the author of the first letter of John wrote: “we are God’s children now, but what we will be has not yet been revealed,” gives us insight into the idea that we are in the process of becoming what God intends us to be, and that our ultimate way of being is something that we just can’t imagine. But the letter proclaims with certainty that “we will be like” the One who calls us to become who we are and who we will continue to be as we evolve in God. So if the One who seeks our wholeness in this lifetime continues the process beyond the grave, then indeed my grandmother – along with all the blessed dead – has become (or is in the process of becoming) all she was ever meant to be.

This way of considering the evolutionary process of afterlife also provides us with the opportunity, not only to give thanks for the blessed dead, but also to forgive them. All of the people who have shaped our lives are the saints – even with all their imperfections. This is good news especially for those who have had difficult relationships with the influential people in their lives – parents or grandparents, siblings or friends.

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Our forgiveness can go even deeper when we accept our place among the communion of saints, where we see that the universal experience of suffering is what binds us all together. In John’s revelation, the great throng of diverse people is united in a common experience of coming through a great ordeal. Our common humanity and our universal experience of suffering call us to become partners with God in embodying compassion. We join as one body and praise the One who lures us into living our lives in such a way that we are aware of the suffering of others, even those who have caused us suffering.

Illustration by Elizabeth Wang, T-00042A-OL, copyright © Radiant Light 2006, www.radiantlight.org.uk
used with permission

That’s the work of the church militant – or shall we say of ordinary saints like you and me – to actively embrace our relationship with the Divine, with ourselves, our families, neighbors, strangers and all of creation, and work to nurture those relationships in order to continue to grow and become what God is calling each of us to become – in this world and the next.

And so we will name our saints today, our beloved dead. In memory and in gratitude. There is power in this naming. Their witness fills our cup, so we can pour ourselves out for others, for Jesus’ sake. Blessed are you.

Amen

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Revelation 7:9-17
After that, I saw before me an immense crowd without number, from every nation, tribe, people and language. They stood in front of the throne and the Lamb, dressed in long white robes and holding palm branches. And they cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation is of our God, who sits on the throne, and of the Lamb!”

All the angels who were encircling the throne, as well as the elders and the four living creatures, prostrated themselves before the throne. They worshiped God with these words: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”

Then one of the elders asked me, “These people in white robes—who are they, and where do they come from?”

I answered, “You are the one who knows.”

Then the elder said to me, “These are the ones who survived the great period of testing; they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white. That is why they stand before God’s throne and the One they serve day and night in the Temple; the One who sits on the throne will shelter them forever. 

Never again will they be hungry or thirsty; the sun and its scorching heat will never beat down on them, for the Lamb, who is at the center of the throne, will be their shepherd and will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe every last tear from their eyes.”

I John 3:1-3
See what love God has lavished on us in letting us be called God’s children! Yet that in fact is what we are. The reason the world does not recognize us is that it never recognized God. My dear friends, now we are God’s children, but it has not been revealed what we are to become in the future. We know that when it comes to light we will be like God, for we will see God as God really is. All who keep this hope keep themselves pure, just as Christ is pure.

Matthew 5:1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on the mountainside, and after he sat down and the disciples had gathered around, Jesus began to teach them:

Blessed are those who are poor in spirit: the kindom of heaven is theirs. 
Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled.

Blessed are those who are poor in spirit: the kindom of heaven is theirs. 
Blessed are those who are mourning: they will be consoled.

Blessed are those who are gentle: they will inherit the land.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice: they will have their fill.

Blessed are those who show mercy to others: they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are those whose hearts are clean: they will see God.

Blessed are those who work for peace: they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of their struggle for justice:
the kindom of heaven is theirs.

You are fortunate when others insult you and persecute you, and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward in heaven is great; they persecuted the prophets before you in the very same way.

Reformation Sunday: Don’t Let Truth Piss You Off

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The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable
is a quote attributed to, among others, President James Garfield, who seems to be following up on the words of Jesus in John’s gospel: “If you live according to my teaching, you’ll know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

I’m sure many of us have found Garfield’s additional commentary to be true. Sometimes the truth hurts or is a huge challenge to our usual way of being. Gloria Steinem’s version, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off” is another common response to being confronted with a different reality than the one we thought was true. Why else do we sometimes wonder whether it’s best to tell a friend or loved one the truth about something we know will be very hard to hear? Or will make them angry – maybe with us?

But this wasn’t the case with Martin Luther. He wouldn’t have agreed with either Steinem or Garfield – at least not when he had his so-called “Tower Experience.” The story in a nutshell is that while studying Romans 1:17 (our second reading) in his study in the tower of the monastery in Wittenberg where he lived as an Augustinian monk, Luther had one of those light bulb moments. You know how that goes; a light goes on in your head and you suddenly see something in a way that you never had before and you suddenly get it, whatever “it” is. A revelation. An epiphany! An “ah hah!” moment. A blinding flash of insight that reveals – the truth. 

For Luther, that truth did set him free and it did not tick him off or make him miserable. In fact, he’d been angry and miserable before this revelation: 

I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God.

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His big “ah! hah!” moment was when he was set free from a way of thinking about God that was unhealthy, destructive, and wrong. Now, he could have done what many people do and stop there. Many who abandon the idea of a wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased abandon any idea of God at all. To be fair, who can blame them? A lot of terrible things have been done in the name of this idea of God. 

But Luther didn’t go there. What he discovered in Romans1:17 was freedom. 

All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of Scripture in a different light. I ran through the Scriptures from memory and found that other terms had analogous meanings, e.g., the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.

Reformation: a spiritual awakening
On Reformation Sunday we don’t usually think about Luther having a spiritual awakening. We tend to focus on the shift from a belief that one’s good deeds could get you into heaven to a doctrine of justification by faith through grace. In the 16th century that was a big deal; the Church was selling indulgences so people could help loved ones get out of Purgatory more quickly. The title of Luther’s 95 Theses was actually “A Disputation on the Power of Indulgences.”  

But things are different today. In 1999, The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification was signed by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church‘s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, which essentially ended the 500-year-old conflict at the root of the Reformation. And in 2016, in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church held an historic joint commemoration of the Reformation in Lund, Sweden.

So – times have changed. And reconciliation between Lutherans and Catholics and agreement on a doctrine is something to be celebrated. But our commemoration of the Reformation shouldn’t stop there. We should savor that moment of spiritual awakening that caused Martin Luther to discover that his idea of who and what God was no longer made sense. And we should celebrate his magnificent and joyful new awareness of the true nature of the Divine. 

It’s a moment and an awareness that many of us have experienced and that, by the grace of God and our efforts, many more will experience. I often quote the late Marcus Borg, who liked to say in response to someone who said they didn’t believe in God, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” When the person would describe a version of Luther’s wrathful, vengeful, punishing deity who needs to be appeased, he would say, “I don’t believe in that God either.” And then would begin a conversation on the true nature of God – loving, compassionate, luring us into wholeness, calling us into works of peace and justice – the God that had Luther joyfully running through the Scriptures and finding more proof of what he’d discovered:

the work of God, that is, what God works in us; the power of God, by which God makes us powerful; the wisdom of God, by which God makes us wise; the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.

This was no mere intellectual exercise. Why else would he write:

I exalted this sweetest word of mine, ‘the justice of God,’ with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase was for me the very gate of paradise.

A liberating spiritual awakening indeed. A re-formation of a man’s relationship with the holy truth of Divine Love.

A New Re-formation
Today, many thinkers, writers, theologians are claiming that we are in the midst of a new reformation. There are several new lists of theses (items for discussion), including John Shelby Spong’s The Twelve Theses. A Call to a New Reformation and Matthew Fox’s 95 Theses or Articles of Faith for a Christianity for the Third Millennium.

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In The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why, the late Phyllis Tickle talked about the fact that about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale. And I believe she’s right. We’re going through our religious “stuff” – doctrines, language, practices, etc. – and making decisions about what should stay, what should go, and what might still be a treasure if we just cleaned it up a little bit. The process is messy; discussions about what stays, what goes, what gets transformed are chaotic, unsettling. 

Even our image or concept of who or what God is up for discussion. Not that this is something new. It wasn’t even new to Luther. In ancient times, the idea of God being more than a tribal deity, one among many other tribal deities, was re-formed to a belief in one God. The idea that God is comprised of persons, including Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, was a re-formation brought about by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In recent times, we’ve had to re-examine what we think we know about God in light of what people of other religions think they know about God. Those who have declared themselves to be atheists present us with the challenge of defining what we mean when we claim to believe in a deity. Science does this also. And this is all good. We are free to wonder and question and explore.  

“Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context

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Before World War II, Barth was a strong critic of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. He also criticized the many churches that went along with the Nazis, for not fulfilling their  prophetic role in society. In 1917, a group of these Nazi Protestants coopted the 400th anniversary of the Reformation, in an event that endorsed German nationalism, emphasizing that Germany had a preferred place in the Protestant tradition, and legitimizing anti-Semitism. They used Luther’s admonishment to respect secular authority to justify their positions. When Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Barth was involved in the drafting of the Barmen Declaration opposing these churches. So “Ecclesia semper reformanda est” is not simply a call for change for change’s sake. It is a call to look around at our own cultural context (Barth is often quoted as saying that one should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other) and to be the church with integrity. This is the tradition in which we stand. As Luther famously said, “Here I stand; I can do no other.”

In today’s cultural context, we find ourselves taking our stand in the midst of a great number of people disaffected with the church, with clergy, and with God (or at least God as God has been defined in the past). We also find ourselves among a great number of people who imagine the Divine differently from the way we do. 

We can respond to this in one of two ways. We can wring our hands and lament the good old days when churches were full and we could hold a real old-time Reformation service where we bashed Catholics and sang “A Mighty Fortress” like it was our national anthem. 

Or we can enter into the spirit of “semper reformanda” with the freedom granted by the gospel. And with joyful hearts, knowing as Luther discovered in that transformational tower experience, that God is gracious and good, compassionate and healing, freeing – and challenging us to bring peace and justice and healing to the world 

So let’s not talk about the God we don’t believe in. Let us share the good news of the Divine Presence in which we do live and move and have our being. There’s a Reformation going on. Here we stand.

Amen 

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An excerpt from Martin Luther’s “Tower Experience”
. . . in that same year, 1519, I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, but thus far there had stood in my way, not the cold blood around my heart, but that one word which is in chapter one: “The justice of God is revealed in it.” I hated that word, “justice of God” . .  .  I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction. I did not love, no, rather I hated the just God who punishes sinners. In silence, if I did not blaspheme, then certainly I grumbled vehemently and got angry at God . . . . I constantly badgered St. Paul about that spot in Romans 1 and anxiously wanted to know what he meant . . . I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God, I paid attention to their context: “The justice of God is revealed in it, as it is written: ‘The just person lives by faith.'” I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the justice of God,” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise. 

Romans 1:16-17
For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is itself the very power of God, effecting the deliverance of everyone who has faith – to the Jew first, but also to the Greek. For in that gospel, God’s justice is revealed – a justice which arises from faith and has faith as its result. As it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”

John 8:31-36
In “The Freedom of a Christian,” Martin Luther developed the concept that as fully forgiven children of God, Christians are no longer compelled to keep God’s law to obtain salvation; however, they freely and willingly serve God and their neighbors. Luther also further develops the concept of justification by faith. As Luther stated, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”  

Jesus said to those who believed in him, “If you live according to my teaching, you are really my disciples; then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered, “We are descendants of Sarah and Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be set free’?”
Jesus answered them, “The truth of the matter is, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not always remain part of a household; an heir, however, is a member of that house forever. So if the Heir – the Only Begotten – makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

In the Vineyard with St. Francis

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Yikes! Another tough parable told by Jesus to confront the  religious leaders of his day. This time, the setting for the story is a vineyard. Now those listening would surely have gotten his meaning. They would have known very well the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Let me sing of my beloved; it is a love song about a vineyard.” The vineyard for both Isaiah and Jesus is God’s people. And Jesus tells this story to indict the chief priests and elders for mistreating and the people and abusing God’s messengers and even God’s son. 

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But today, as we celebrate St. Francis, patron saint of animals and ecology, I am envisioning the vineyard as bigger than one group of people – or even of just people. I see the vineyard as all of God’s good creation. I can easily imagine God, resting on the seventh day of creation and crooning, “Let me sing of my beloved; it is a love song about a vineyard.”

Has anyone seen the TV series The Good Place? It’s a comedy about what happens after you dieI’m going to try not to give the whole story away, except for two things. First is the premise that when we die, we go either to the Good Place or the Bad Place. Getting to the Good Place all depends on how many good deeds you’ve done in your lifetime. Every good deed gets you points. If you rack up enough points, when you die, you’ll be greeted by the “Welcome! Everything Is Fine” sign and then by Ted Danson, who will introduce you to the delights of the Good Place. 

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Of course, as Lutherans we’re super big on salvation by grace alone. No amount of good deed-doing is going to get you into heaven. But The Good Place isn’t a religious show. There’s no Supreme Being. The Good Place is never called Heaven; the Bad Place isn’t called Hell. It’s more about ethics: what does it take to be a moral person, to do the right thing in every circumstance? So in the name of comedy, I think it’s OK to suspend our theological criticism.

The second thing I’ll share with you, which is a bit of a spoiler, but it’s going to help me make my point. After a time, some of the characters begin to question the ethics of the point system.  They discover that very few people actually make it into the Good Place. As they tell the Judge, who’s in charge of running the place:

“These days, just buying a tomato at the grocery store means you’re unwittingly supporting toxic pesticides, exploiting labor, and contributing to global warming. Humans think they’re making one choice, but they’re actually making dozens of choices they don’t even know they’re making. Life has become so complicated that it has essentially rendered the point system meaningless, and we simply don’t have the time to do the research and buy another tomato even if we wanted to.”

Sounds hopeless, doesn’t it? Although it has a familiar ring to it. It sounds like the words from an older Order of Confession: “we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” 

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And that’s my point. The reason that most of us find it so difficult to know what to do about climate change or any aspect of our environmental crisis is just this: we can’t free ourselves. Buying an environmentally-correct tomato is virtually impossible. The choices we make – and sometimes forced to make – are complicated. When it comes to environmental issues, most people just throw up their hands. The big issues, like climate change, are too big. What can I do to make a difference? Even our attempts at little things, like trying to cut down on plastic bags, are thwarted by circumstances beyond our control, as when our canvas grocery bags were banned in the first months of the pandemic . As Kermit the Frog knew, it’s not easy being green. No wonder so many don’t even try.

But difficulty is no reason to give up. In the Confession, being in bondage to sin isn’t the end of the story. It’s just Part One: recognition of our situation. Part Two is turning to God for help. 

When it comes to caring for our vineyard we have not done a good job. Although scripture is very clear on the goodness of all creation, unfortunately we have allowed other voices to inform our beliefs, policies, and actions. One branch of Christianity is so focused on the Second Coming of Christ that its adherents feel no responsibility for creation care. This view is embodied perhaps most famously in Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, who said, “We don’t have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand.” That kind of thinking lives on today. Whenever we hear predictions of the Rapture (remember the “Left Behind” books?), Armageddon and the Antichrist, you know you won’t hear anything about creation care. 

And there are other forces at play. We are inheritors of the Enlightenment of the 18th century, which is still largely in operation today. There were many good aspects of the Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, which sought to illuminate human intellect and culture after the “dark” Middle Ages. Concepts such as reason, liberty and the scientific method were elevated. Enlightenment philosophy was influential in ushering in the French and American revolutions and constitutions (shout out to Alexander Hamilton!).

However, one aspect of Enlightenment philosophy has not been helpful. That is its dualism and hierarchy, which sees a separation between us and our environment and claims that as human beings are in charge of the environment, we have the right to shape, control and use nature for our own purposes. As Francis Bacon wrote, “Let the human race recover that right over nature which belongs to it by divine bequest.” That dualism included the relationship between men and women. Bacon likened nature to a wild and untamed woman who must be tamed by man and become obedient.

That philosophy, which seeped into our theology, might sound antiquated, but it also survives to this day. Conservative Christian Ann Coulter said in her book, “God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” Appalling, yes. But the seeds were sown in the Enlightenment. Thankfully, many evangelical Christians have been joining the ranks of those who care for creation, but this theology has been hard to weed out.

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Last month Bill McKibben, co-founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org, was the speaker led a Zoom webinar at PLTS (you can listen to it here). McKibben isnt a theologian or biblical scholar; he’s an environmentalist and activist. But he was a Sunday school teacher in the Methodist church (which is no small thing!).

Listening to him, at least in the beginning, I felt the despair I always feel when confronted with the vast scope of destruction and further threats to our environment. He called it “an enormous challenge to our Old Testament sense of sacredness of God’s creation, the Genesis charge to safeguard that; and a fundamental challenge to our gospel sense that we are called to love our neighbors.” Care for the vineyard! 

Thankfully he didn’t just give a litany of our sins. He didn’t make any rosy promises about our chances of success, but he did offer examples of people and groups on the front lines, doing the good work. He described how much the movement has grown in 10 years since 350.org was formed. He lifted up Greta Thunberg, but said there are 10,000 Greta Thunberg’s and a million followers. “That’s what the Holy Spirit looks like in our age – a collection of 14-year-olds and 16-year-olds.”

It was the Q&A time that brought out the questions of what individual congregations and denominations can do. One thing we can really be excited about is that PLTS has just instituted a Climate Justice & Faith Concentration into its curriculum. Its mission statement: “to empower leaders to cultivate moral, spiritual, and practical power for the work of climate justice in communities of faith.”

One questioner asked about resources for individuals and congregations just getting  started on learning about this issue. He recommended videos done by Dr. Katherine Hayhoedirector of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She is also an evangelical Christian. I haven’t watched any of these yet, but I’m encouraged to know there’s been movement within that religious world

More advice from McKibben was for congregations to become part of movements, not to try to go it alone. He noted that collaboration with faith communities of all kinds has grown in the past ten years; they have been and can be a potent, powerful force. People  coming together in solidarity is crucial, he said, and churches are specialists at this.

Don’t try to repeat the work of scientists; it’s already out there. We need people who follow Jesus talking in those terms, acting in those terms. He encouraged pastors to be constantly, constantly talking about this.  

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Another great resource is our Lutheran Office of Public Policy, an interdependent advocacy ministry of the ELCA, and the three California synods. Regina Banks is the director. I met her at a synod gathering and I am sure that she’d be glad to speak with us any time about the work she is doing on our behalf. 

Another speaker at PLTS several years ago was George (Tink) Tinker, Professor Emeritus of American Indian Cultures at Iliff School of Theology. He is the son of a Lutheran mother and an Osage father and is an inspiring resource for thinking about creation in a way that’s much more aligned with the wisdom of indigenous people – and working at making that the philosophy that informs our political decisions, governmental polices, as well as our individual practices. 

Way back in the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen coined the word “veriditas” and used it as a guiding theme in her writings, poetry, and music. And it’s an excellent word for us on our evolution from domination of the land to respect for it. Veriditas has been variously translated as freshness, vitality, fruitfulness, creative power of life, growth. But my favorite word for it is “greening” from its joining of two Latin words: green and truth. This “greening” runs through our being, As a metaphor for our spiritual and physical health, it’s what enlivens us and enables us to make wise choices as tenders of the vineyard.  

Yes, we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Bill McKibben called this a scary time. I don’t think that’s news to any of us. But he also called it a moment of great privilege. What we do matters. we should do all we can; the rest of the world may meet us half way. So we confess our sin, we ask for God’s help, and go on in the power of God’s Spirit. As St. Francis taught us: “Lord, make us instruments of your peace.” And St. Hildegard:

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“O most honored Greening Force,
You who roots in the Sun;
You who lights up, in shining serenity, within a wheel
that earthly excellence fails to comprehend.
You are enfolded
in the weaving of divine mysteries.”

This is the greening spirit that will enable us to care for God’s – and our – beloved vineyard.

Amen 

MATTHEW 21: 33-46 
Jesus said, “Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, installed a winepress and erected a tower. Then this owner leased it out to tenant farmers and went on a journey. When vintage time arrived, the owner sent servants to the tenants to divide the shares of the grapes. The tenants responded by seizing the servants. They beat one, killed another and stoned a third. A second time the owner sent even more servants than before, but they treated them the same way. Finally, the owner sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ T

“When the vine growers saw the son, they said to one another, ‘Here’s the one who stands in the way of our having everything. With a single act of murder we could seize the inheritance.’ With that, they grabbed and killed the son outside the vineyard. What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do to those tenants?” They replied, “The owner will bring that wicked crowd to a horrible death and lease the vineyard out to others, who will see to it that there are grapes for the proprietor at vintage time.” 

Jesus said to them, “Did you ever read in the scriptures, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; it was our God’s doing and we find it marvelous to behold?’ That’s why I tell you that the realm of God will be taken from you and given to those who will bear its fruit. Those who fall on this stone will be dashed to pieces, and those on whom it falls will be smashed.” 

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard this parable, they realized that Jesus was speaking about them. Although they sought to arrest him, they feared the crowds, who regarded Jesus as a prophet. 

Making Sense of an Ugly Parable

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“What should I wear?”
I used to ask my roommate years ago. Her answer was always the same, “Wear whatever makes you feel good.” That’s not the same advice that used to be given by the fashionistas on the makeover show, “What Not to Wear,” as they picked through someone’s  closet, tossing out what they judged unflattering, out-dated, or not age-appropriate. Nothing there about feeling good.

Then there’s Jesus, not your definition of a fashionista. But, at least according to Matthew,  he had some ideas about what and what not to wear. The Parable of the Wedding Banquet takes a bizarre twist as the king invites people off the streets to his son’s wedding feast, but then gets upset when one of them arrives in clothing he deems inappropriate for the occasion. The hapless guest is bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness. 

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This is an ugly parable.
Granted, parables should be disturbing. They’re meant to shake us out of our complacency and compel us to ask hard questions. If we’re not surprised or challenged by them, we’ve missed the point. But this one? If this is what God is like, if this is what the kindom of heaven is like, I doubt we could convince many people that this is Good News. So what are we supposed to do with it?

This is why biblical studies are so important: when it was written, who wrote it, to whom was it written, etc. Taken at face value, this parable takes us down into some dark and violent places. So if we’re going to find any meaning for us today, we need to do a little background work. You see, this is one of three versions of this story. One is from Luke. One is from the Gospel of Thomas, a collection of the sayings of Jesus discovered in 1945 among a whole collection of manuscripts buried in the desert near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. 

The versions in Luke and Thomas are quite similar, but Matthew has some very distinctive differences. Many scholars consider Luke’s version closer to the original than Matthew’s. See if you can spot  the differences. 

Then Jesus said, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. He sent his slave to say to them, ‘Come; everything is ready.’ But they all began to make excuses. One said, ‘I’ve bought a piece of land, and must go out to see it; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I’ve bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m going to try them out; please accept my apologies.’ Another said, ‘I’ve just been married, so I can’t come.’ 
The slave returned and reported this to his master, who became angry and said, ‘Go out into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ The slave said, ‘What you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ The master said, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’” 

What’s missing? No king, no wedding. No violence – they don’t kill the messengers who brought the invitation; the king doesn’t retaliate by sending troops to kill them and burn down their town. There’s no guest without proper wedding clothes; and there’s no threat of being cast into hell. It seems that Matthew has turned a challenge parable into an allegory about Jewish rejection, Christian acceptance, and final judgment. 

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Oh, boy. You can see the problems. For centuries, this story has been interpreted by Christians, with the king representing God, the bridegroom is Jesus, the wedding feast is the Messianic banquet, the rejected slaves are Old Testament prophets, the A-list guests who refuse to attend are the Jews, and the B-listers who come in off the streets are the gentiles. The guest without the wedding garment refers to those who don’t produce proper fruit. He’s thrown out into the darkness where “they’ll weep and grind their teeth,” another favorite phrase of Matthew’s. 

It’s an ‘attack parable’
But here’s what we have to understand about what Matthew was doing here. John Dominic Crossan, in The Power of Parable, doesn’t just call this version an allegory, he calls it an ‘attack parable.’ The additions to this parable give us a glimpse of a low point in an intrafaith fight. Matthew and members of his community are Jews who are caught up in a struggle with their own Israelite kin about how to be faithful to the God of Abraham and Sarah and whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah Israel’s prophets had promised. It’s not a Jewish-Christian dispute – though in the centuries that follow Christians will use this passage to further their anti-Semitism (which is one of the things that makes this passage dangerous). At this point, it’s an intense family feud, and it’s crucial for us to understand that – and reject any further dissemination of anti-Semitism. 

In fact, reading this in conjunction with the Isaiah text gives lie to the oft-repeated explanation that the Old Testament is about God’s wrath and the New Testament is about God’s love. But listen to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: 

On this mountain, the Lord of Hosts will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines, food rich and succulent, and fine, aged wines. On this mountain God will remove the mourning veil covering all peoples, the shroud covering all nations, destroying all death forever. God will wipe away the tears from every cheek, and will take away the shame of God’s people on earth, wherever they live. Now that’s Good News!

OK, now that we’ve got the background, what’s the “so what?” for us today? Something we were discussing in our book study group Thursday night pinged into my thoughts as I worked with this text. We were talking about the idea proposed by some that we are in the midst of a shift in human consciousness. One of the characteristics of this shift involves a redefinition of religion because many of the answers given in the past don’t address questions being asked today. 

One of the reflection questions at the end of the chapter was: “What are some questions asked by people today that aren’t being answered by traditional religion?” Reading this version of the parable in light of that question, I realized that the allegory/attack version doesn’t work for us today. We’re not in the same place or time of his community. Nor are we asking the same questions. So what questions arewe asking today?

I can think of a lot, as I’m sure you can too. The president is in the hospital. COVID-19 is ravaging our country. Racial tensions continue. Climate change threatens the whole planet. How will the human race emerge from these threats? When will the wildfires stop? How will the church survive in these days and in whatever circumstances are to come?  

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There’s an article that’s been making the rounds on social media this week called “30 Signs of Soul Exhaustion.” It was actually written in 2018, so it’s not even current. But it was all over the place, which should tell us something about how many of us are doing. It begins: 
Are you in a funk and feeling like you can’t get out of it? Perhaps you’re going through a traumatic event. Your heart and mind are preoccupied with what’s going on in your life. Your body starts reacting to the situation. Your body and mind are interconnected. So, when your mind is stressed, your body will begin to show the symptoms. Stepping beyond the physical issues and treating the problem is the only way to help. Your soul is tired. A worn-out soul is impossible to heal with medication. It takes confronting the underlying issues directly and dealing with them comprehensively to allow the soul to revive and recover.

Then, there are 30 ways your soul will try to tell you it’s exhausted and needs help. I don’t think they’re in any kind of order, but I find it interesting that #1 is: You don’t laugh anymore. #30 is: You’re physically exhausted all the time. In the middle at #16 is: you’re afraid of the future. It’s a pretty good article. It’s from a website called Medical News, so I wasn’t expecting any spiritual advice. Still, I found it intriguing that they would diagnose the problem as a condition of the soul. In another place they call it ‘spiritual exhaustion,’ but they don’t offer any remedies.

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So I went back to the parable. And there was that poor soul who was thrown out for wearing the wrong garment. What can we make of him in light of the questions we have today and for the good of our souls?

It’s a brutal way to say it, but Matthew appears to say that being seated at the heavenly banquet requires something more than merely accepting an invitation to discipleship. It’s not enough to just show up. There’s further accountability beyond out initial response of discipleship, our ‘yes!’ to God’s invitation to the banquet.”1 “In other words, “it’s not enough anymore to call yourself a follower of Christ and then act as if you were sound asleep during the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not enough to pledge allegiance to church membership without then vowing to live out that chosen-ness in the world. It’s not enough say you’re a “Christian” and then stay silent when life, liberty, and love are in jeopardy.”2   Or as Garrison Keillor once quipped, “Anyone who thinks just sitting in church can make you a Christian must also think that sitting in a garage can make you a car.” 

We might balk at the idea that the guest with no wedding garment refers to those who don’t produce proper fruit. That might sound awfully works righteousness-y to our grace-accustomed ears. But again, Isaiah points the way: “My soul shall be joyful in my God, who has clothed me with a garment of deliverance and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, the way a bridegroom puts on a turban and a bride bedecks herself with jewels. (Is.61:10)

In the New Testament, the writer of the letter to the Ephesians reminds us: “You were taught to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in the justice and holiness of the truth.” 

And then, with more practical detail: 

“So, let’s have no more lies. Speak truthfully to each other, for we are all members of one body. When you get angry, don’t let it become a sin. Don’t let the sun set on your anger. 

Be on your guard against foul talk. Say only what will build others up at that moment. Say only what will give grace to your listeners.”

The writer of Colossians says:
“Rid yourselves of anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language. Don’t lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self. Clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, with kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive whatever grievances you have against one another – forgive in the same way God has forgiven you. Above all else, put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect. 

Let Christ’s peace reign in your hearts since, as members of one body, you have been called to that peace. Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness. Let the word of Christ, rich as it is, dwell in you. Instruct and admonish one another wisely. Sing gratefully to God from your hearts in psalms, hymns and songs of the Spirit. And whatever you do, whether in speech or in action, do it in the name of Christ.”

And in today’s second reading, Paul sums it up:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, decent, admirable, virtuous or worthy of praise – think on these things. Live according to what you have learned and accepted, what you have heard me say and seen me do. Then will the God of peace be with you.”

Compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, love, thankfulness – these are not abstract concepts. They’re not works we have to do in order to be acceptable to God.  They are the threads that make up the fabric of our wedding garment. In the midst of our questions, our doubts, fears, and uncertainties, this is the answer to the question “What should I wear?” It’s an answer that will never be unflattering, out-dated, or not age-appropriate. And we can put it on every day. The remedy for soul exhaustion is to think on these things – so much so that our garment of deliverance is our second skin. These fruits of the Spirit aren’t so much actions or works, but just who we are. So that we can have the where-with-all to face the future – known or unknown – with thankful hearts. 

“Wear whatever makes you feel good.” This is it. 

Amen

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1. Sharon H. Ringe, “Commentary on Matthew 20:1-14,”

http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=997

2. Karoline Lewis, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4980

MATTHEW 22:1-14

Then Jesus spoke to them again in parables. He said, ”The kindom of heaven is like this: there was a ruler who prepared a feast for the wedding of the family’s heir; but when the ruler sent out workers to summon the invited guests, they wouldn’t come. The ruler sent other workers, telling them to say to the guests, ‘I have prepared this feast for you. My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding.’ But they took no notice; one went off to his farm, another to her business, and the rest seized the workers, attacked them brutally and killed them. The ruler was furious and dispatched troops who destroyed those murderers and burned their town. The workers went out into the streets and collected everyone they met, good and bad alike until the hall was filled with guests. The ruler, however, came in to see the company at table, and noticed one guest who was not dressed for a wedding. “‘My friend,’ said the ruler, ‘why are you here without a wedding garment?’ But the guest was silent. Then the ruler said to the attendants, ‘Bind this guest hand and foot, and throw the individual out into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

In the Midst of Chaos: Become Empty

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17th Sunday after Pentecost                        
September 27, 2020
Philippians 2:1-13

Look at me! Look at me!
Sometimes a Bible passage just jumps out and demands your attention. At least that’s how it was for me with this week’s readings. My first assumption was to go right to the Matthew parable. It’s what I’ve been doing throughout this green season of discipleship. But St. Paul was having none of that. His letter to the Philippian church kept creeping back into my consciousness – like a child interrupting her parents with cries of, “Look at me! Look at me!” And, as good parents are wise enough to pay attention to what’s going on in front of them, I decided to stop – and look. 

I was especially drawn to what is known as the ‘Christ Hymn’ in verses 6-11:  
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus: 
who, though in the image of God, 
did not regard equality with God something to cling to–
but instead became completely empty
taking the form of a slave: born into the human condition, 
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled-
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! 

The entire passage is quite beautiful. Unlike some of Paul’s writings, which wander around in long, convoluted sentences, this one is crystal clear. It is a call to humility and unity among members of the church. Paul’s letters usually address the struggles that his far-flung congregations were having. It appears that there was some disunity among the Philippians. We get a hint of it in chapter 4, where Paul writes, “I implore Euodia and Syntyche to come to an agreement with each other in Christ.” We don’t know what the disagreement was about, nor does it matter. We’re surely quite aware of how easily – even in the church – arguments can arise and if not handled well, can lead to a disruption in the well-being of the whole organization. 

It’s just human nature. And Paul, in his letter, is trying to help them look at their situation in a new way – through the mind of Christ. Maybe this is what was drawing me to this text this week – advice on how to cope with disunity. 

Let the same mind be in you
You know, in a way I was glad I had last Sunday off. On Friday, at the news of the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was thrown into a pit of despair that lasted into Sunday. Part of my distress was knowing how this Supreme Court vacancy was going to throw our country even further into disunity. I couldn’t bear to watch tv news or read any of my many online news outlets. 

But even in the depths of this desolation, I could hear a whisper of something, not quite coherent, not fully formed, but letting me know that I had to find a way out of the pit, off of the path of despair. The words finally came into view – like your fortune in one of those Magic 8 Ball toys – “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”Screen Shot 2020-09-27 at 12.15.29 PM

Let those words sink in for a moment: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” I don’t know about you, but that seems like an impossible task. I mean, we’re talking about Jesus! How can we aspire to such a lofty consciousness? 

But Paul obviously believes that we can indeed aspire to such a – I can’t even find the right word. Attitude, thinking, intellect, mentality don’t convey the kind of mind that I’d imagine inhabited Jesus. This Christ Hymn is a soaring song of praise and confession of faith, probably written by the Philippian Christians:

Jesus, though in the image of God, 
did not regard equality with God something to cling to–
but instead became completely empty
taking the form of a slave: born into the human condition, 
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled-
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! 

That’s the hymn; it’s all about Jesus, what Jesus thought and did. But Paul adds to it, prefaces it, and here’s where it gets really intense: “Let the same mind be in you.” He’s just kicked it up to a whole new level. In the midst of our divisions, disunity, and all the other mayhem going on around us – as well as in just ordinary daily life – we hear his words addressed to us. 

Now I don’t believe that Paul was talking about a strictly intellectual exercise here. It would be easy enough to take what’s been written in the gospels, in creeds formulated by the Church, in doctrines created over the centuries – declare agreement with them and call it a day. But that’s not having the mind of Christ. Those ideas and writings and doctrines may inform us and inspire us, but they’re not the whole picture. 

Jesus’ Action Item
I believe we can approach the deeper challenge by delving into the hymn. And what we find there is the action item: “Jesus emptied himself taking the form of a slave.” 

Now, the use of slave language is problematic. We know that the institution of slavery was supported by many Christians because it was a reality in the time of Jesus. Many translations substitute ‘servant’, ‘oppressed humankind’, or other less inflammatory words. But I kept ‘slave’ for a reason, and I’ll get to that in just a little while – but I didn’t want you to be distracted by the language.

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For now, I want us to consider what it might mean to become empty ourselves. The first thing I think of is the Buddhist concept of ‘sunyata,’ which is often translated ’emptiness.’ In fact, in The Emptied Christ of Philippians: Mahāyāna Meditations, author John Keenan states, 

to those like myself who are involved in the conversation between the Buddhist and Christian traditions, no other Christian text is more pregnant with the potential for interfaith contemplation and insight than Paul’s letter to the Philippians, with its theme of the emptying Christ.

This is not to say there are no differences; there are. But as Keenan says, there is opportunity for dialogue. There is also opportunity in then going more deeply into our Christian understanding of becoming empty. 

Survival Plan Part 1
Another Buddhist concept that can be useful here is that of non-attachment. I used to think non-attachment meant not being overly dependent on one’s material goods. During the time I was running my Buddhist-Christian dialogue group for my doctoral project, my car was stolen. Let me tell you, I loved that car. It was a red Honda Del Sol two-seater with a t-top. It had been lovingly pinstriped by a member of a congregation near Buffalo where I’d been their interim pastor. Getting it shipped out to CA was no mean – or cheap- feat. So I was upset. The next Sunday, when our group met, I told them what had happened; everyone was kind and sympathetic. I told them I’d hesitated telling them because I expected the Buddhists to chastise me for not practicing non-attachment. Instead, one of them said to me, “But honey, it was your car!” I had some learning to do about that. 

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And I’ve come to see the truth and the benefits of letting go of control, of doing what I can in any given situation, without being attached to the outcome, of finding peace in any situation. I won’t say I’ve achieved that goal. If any of you know the Enneagram, I’m a One.  The Enneagram is a kind of personality typing system, but more than that it’s a tool for self-discovery and spiritual transformation (I’m happy to talk about this at another time!). Suffice to say that my type is often called the Reformer. We see problems and we want to fix them. And not just our own problems; we want to fix the world. So you can imagine my frustration with the state of the world today. 

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The Ones’s direction of health and wholeness is toward the number Seven. Sevens are the more optimistic, spontaneous, and playful among us. So my response to the state of the world will be the on-going challenge of finding a balance between taking on the battles of the world and letting go of my expectations of the outcomes – and having fun. 

Survival Plan Part 2
That’s Part 1 of my survival plan. But I want to get back to this emptying idea. The Greek word here means literally ‘to empty,’ as in pouring something out, until there is nothing left. We confess that Jesus willingly gave up all privileges, became completely empty for us. We stand in awe of the one who, though rich, for our sakes became poor. 

But what would it mean for us?  First of all, this practice is not coerced. “Let the same mind…” —it’s an attitude of allowing, of receiving. We don’t simply choose the mind of Christ, we receive it. It’s pure grace; so our posture of prayer must be one of openness, receptivity to learn to see everything through the eyes of God. 

That might seem contradictory, given the ‘slave’ language of the hymn. The words that describe this state are ‘humility’ and ‘obedience.’ Or we might say ‘submission.’ These are problematic words. We do not want to encourage anyone to surrender their will or autonomy to someone grudgingly, out of desperation, or fear of punishment. 

The name Islam means literally ‘submission,’ but not coercion. Just so, submission to the mind of Christ is anchored in feelings of love and longing for union with the Divine. As Jesus said, “Those who lose their lives for my sake will find them.” It’s a paradox that our minds have trouble grasping. That’s why our practice of emptying is so important. 

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This example of Jesus and Paul’s entreaty to us is a call to a radical shift in consciousness: away from the grasping of ego and into the realm of divine abundance that can’t be perceived only through the mind. Your heart, your entire being has to be involved. Practice is important.  There are many ways to practice. For some the emptiness of silence is beneficial; for others music, spoken words provide the pathway into the heart. 

So renewed commitment to my spiritual practice is Part 2 of my coping strategy. Although I know that having the mind of Christ isn’t just about survival and coping. It seemed that way to me last week as my Reformer self felt defeated and lost. And survival and coping worked for a while. But ultimately, the mind of Christ is about thriving, of experiencing unity with the Holy One, of being able to live and work with people of differing points of view – with respect and love. 

I know that I can’t sustain that kind of life without the mind of Christ – as limited as I am in fully letting go and surrendering my ego. But it is what keeps me on the path toward that goal. 

I love that phrase Paul uses: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Rest assured, he is not talking about works righteousness here. Paul is concerned here with how people live out their salvation here and now in the world. 

The world is a frightening place these days, in many ways. We can’t just stick our heads in the sand and hope it will somehow go away. We also can’t fix everything that is broken. And we cannot succumb to hopelessness or despair. Having the mind of Christ is our way, our truth, and our life as we go out and about with fear and trembling – not of the powers-that-be, but in awe-filled wonder at our God who goes with us. 

Amen 

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Philippians 2:1-13
If our life in Christ means anything to you – if love, or the Spirit that we have in common, or any tenderness or sympathy can persuade you at all – then be united in your convictions and united in your love, with a common purpose and a common mind. That is the one thing that would make me completely happy. There must be no competition among you, no conceit, but everyone is to be humble: value others over yourselves, each of you thinking of the interests of others before your own. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:

who, though in the image of God, 
did not regard equality with God something to cling to–
but instead became completely empty
taking the form of a slave: born into the human condition, 
found in the likeness of a human being.
Jesus was thus humbled-
obediently accepting death, even death on a cross! 

Because of this, God highly exalted Christ and gave to Jesus the name above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God: Jesus Christ reigns supreme! 

Therefore, beloved, you who are always obedient to my urging, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, not only when I happen to be with you, but all the more now that I am absent. It is God at work in you that creates the desire to do God’s will.

Conflict Management According to Jesus

Sermon for September 6, 2020

Working Our Way through Matthew
In this season of Pentecost, we’ve been working our way through the gospel of Matthew. We started back in June, and Matthew will take us all the way up to Advent at the end of November – with one side trip into the gospel of John for Reformation Sunday. It’s hard to tell from reading one passage each week, but Matthew has a very distinct structure, more so than any of the other three gospels. He has a prologue (the birth story) and an epilogue (the passion story). In between he has five discourses or blocks of teachings. Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels, writing to a predominantly Jewish-Christian community. He likes to link Old Testament passages to the life of Jesus, portraying him as the new Moses. And he structures his gospel this way because he’s  alluding back to the first section in the Bible, the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses. 

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Yes, Conflict Happens – Even in the Church
Anyway, this is all prologue to my discourse today. Because this week and next we’ll be reading the fourth discourse in Matthew 18. This block of teaching has been called the ‘discourse on the church’ because of its instructions on how to live – in community – as followers of Jesus.  

Contrary to the beliefs of many that the early church was a harmonious group of people, always loving, forgiving, and in agreement with one another, arguments and discord did arise among them. After all, they were human beings, and whenever two or more are gathered, there will be, not only Jesus among them, but opportunity for miscommunication, misunderstanding, bad behavior, conflicts, and divisions.  

In a way, it should give us some comfort to know that even those early Christians needed to be reminded how we’re supposed to be with one another. It takes a bit of the sting out of reading this teaching and applying it to ourselves. Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus can come across as pretty harsh at times. For example, part of Chapter 18 we didn’t read today says: “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it’s better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.” Yikes! 

I, for one, want to run from passages like that to Romans 3.23: “everyone has sinned; everyone falls short of the glory of God. Yet everyone has also been undeservedly justified by the gift of God, through the redemption wrought in Christ Jesus.” 

While that good news is a great relief, it doesn’t take away the necessity of going back to these teachings to learn and relearn time and again how we grow even more into our identities as followers of Jesus. And there’s some tough stuff here in Matthew 18. 
Let’s take just verses 15-17, which is a 4-step process for conflict management: 

Jesus’ 4-step Process for Conflict Management

Step 1. If someone commits a wrong against you, go and point out the error, but keep it between the two of you. If they listen, you’ve won them back; but if not, go to . . .

Step 2: Try again, taking one or two others with you. If they still don’t listen, go to . . .

Step 3: Refer the matter to the church. If they ignore even the church, then go to . . .

Step 4: Treat that person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 

Sounds simple, right? Well, yes and no. Jesus is clear that the goal is reconciliation. And here’s how to make that happen: 1, 2, 3, 4. 

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But he’s also clear that it doesn’t always turn out that way. One thing I’ve learned is the distinction between conflict resolution and conflict management. Some disputes can’t be resolved, but hopefully they can be managed. Think of some of the conflicts going on today. On a micro level, you might be involved in a disagreement within your own family, workplace, or neighborhood. On a macro level, it’s fair to say that our entire country is embroiled in unresolved contention – or contentions. Reconciliation is always the goal, but sometimes the best we can do is mitigate the damage. 

As we know, the church isn’t immune to conflict. Even before the pandemic, many congregations were being strained by political differences. And frankly many were also already stressed by declining membership and financial resources.  Since the pandemic, anxiety has gone up among both pastors and congregational members. And when anxiety goes up, conflict usually arises. So this 4-step plan that Jesus lays out might seem simplistic, but there’s a lot of wisdom in those 3 little verses, and we should take some time to unpack them. 

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Step 1: If someone commits a wrong against you, point out the error just between the two of you. Well, how simple is that? But how often do we do it? Our usual methodology goes something like: if someone commits a wrong against you, go and complain about them to all your friends, or make a plan to retaliate, or decide just to freeze them out and not associate with them anymore. In church disagreements, you get the parking lot meeting after the meeting, or the complaint phone tree, or the “helpful” member who informs the pastor that “people are saying . . .” 

We’ve probably all fallen into that hole once or twice. Remember: “everyone falls short of the glory of God.” But if we take this advice from Jesus seriously and make a commitment to be good communicators with one another, we will contribute to the health and stability of the community. 

Now we also have to consider when the situation is reversed – when you’re the one committing some wrong. Again, who has not ever done something to offend someone else? And again, Jesus is clear: you listen. Before you disagree, or try to justify yourself, or get defensive – you listen, not with your mind jumping ahead to plan your defense, but real, deep listening.  

Every author, book, program, consultant on conflict mediation says the same thing: listening is key. Paula Green from Hands Across the Hills and other peacemaking projects has said, “When we took the time to listen closely, we recognized each other as friends and neighbors.” And: “We will not avoid the difficult topics, but we expect to listen and be listened to.”

My friend Judy Gussman, former co-facilitator of a Jewish-Palestinian dialog group and my co-conspirator in Hearts Across the Divide has designed and facilitated intra-Jewish Deep Listening sessions on Israeli-Palestinian relations. 

You see it again and again: deep listening, close listening – which also involves keen self-awareness of what pushes our buttons. For instance, I know that as a white woman I need to own my defensiveness when listening to people of color talk about their experiences. The temptation to object with, “But I’m not like that” or “We’re not all racists” must be resisted. My soapbox as a long-time feminist must be set aside when hearing a transwoman speak of her experiences of discrimination. I have to listen to the Jesus voice in my ear saying, “Shut up and listen!” 

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This applies to so many areas of our lives right now. If we could learn – or relearn how to listen to one another, we’d go a long way towards reconciliation. Jesus, of course, understands that even this might not bring a resolution. There was a woman in a former congregation who finally left because, as she complained, “Yes, I know you always listen, but then you don’t do what I want.” 

In times like these or when you hit the wall in a difficult situation, you try steps 2 and 3, bring other trusted people into the conversation and, if necessary, the community. And yes, it can be a very difficult thing to do. But the alternative is to let conflict fester until the entire body is affected. And when we truly live by this process and practice it, it gets easier because it is holy work. 

Now, a warning about Step 4, actually a warning and a piece of advice. The warning is: don’t jump ahead too quickly from verse 17 to verse 21 (which we’ll get to next week). In verse 21, Peter asks Jesus, “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus says, ‘Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Some translations say ‘seventy times seven,’ but it doesn’t matter; in the Bible seven is a perfect number signifying completeness, or in this case, an infinite number of times. Again ‘yikes!’ 

But here’s the warning: don’t jump prematurely from confronting and listening and working the process before taking on the often-difficult work of forgiveness. I’ll tackle that subject next week. 

For now, I’ll go on to the piece of advice, which is: be sure you know what it means to treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector. As you probably know, there are churches who practice shunning, that is cutting off all contact and relationship with one deemed to be an apostate, a threat, or a source of conflict. The Amish are most often associated with this practice, but other Christian groups and some other religions do it as well. 

But if we follow the example of Jesus, this kind of ostracization is not an option. After all, how did Jesus treat tax collectors, Gentiles, and other ‘outsiders’? He always maintained relationship with them. He was secure enough in his identity and could maintain his own boundaries, while staying connected to those who would have been seen as a threat to his – and Matthew’s – community. 

I believe that is what our synod attempted to do back in 1995 when they expelled St. Francis and First United Lutheran Churches for going against ELCA policy at that time, which prohibited the ordination of openly gay clergy. It was stated at the time that the synod would continue to maintain relationship with the two congregations, even though no longer part of the ELCA. That agreement worked better on paper than in practice, but it was the right idea. It also showed how challenging it is to faithfully work the conflict management process. 

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I’ve been reading over and over again in news reports, articles, and blog posts: people are sick and tired of the divisions that plague us these days. But we don’t seem to know how to get ourselves out of the quagmire. 

Yes, it would be wonderful if direction and modeling would come from our leaders. But we don’t have to wait for that. we already have a leader who shows us the way, who models it and even gives us a plan to implement. It really couldn’t be any simpler. Simple, but not easy. If we’ve learned anything about the way of Jesus it’s that self-sacrifice is the way to transformation; the way of the cross is the way to resurrection – of ourselves, of our church, and as a grassroots movement of Jesus people, even our nation. 

I have seen many interpretations of Matthew 18 with which I disagree. One such article is entitled Matthew 18: The Most Misapplied Passage on Church Conflict. Most of these interpretations try to codify what gets defined as sin and in what situations the process doesn’t apply. But I believe that Jesus does give us here a way forward in any situation. Attempting reconciliation by deeply listening to one another. Being willing to go further by expanding the circle of listening, and, if necessary, setting a boundary in the community, for the health of the community – yet with no one never being outside of love, compassion, and connection. 

It’s not a codified process; it’s organic and depends on the good will, faithfulness, and prayerfulness of participants. And the presence of the Holy Spirit. Not that things will always get resolved as we would like. But even then, that Spirit will be with us as we continue to move forward into healing and wholeness.

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You know, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said of Christianity: Christianity has taken the side of everything weak, base, ill-constituted, it has made an ideal out of opposition to the preservative instincts of strong life. In other words, Christians are wimps. He was wrong. It takes courage to be a follower of Jesus, the kind of courage demanded of us in these trying times. This ‘discourse on the church’ hands us our mission – difficult, but not impossible, if we decide to accept it. 

Amen

MATTHEW 18:15-20
Jesus said, “If someone commits some wrong against you, go and point out the error, but keep it between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won a loved one back; if not, try again, but take one or two others with you, so that every case may stand on the word of two or three witnesses. If they still refuse to listen, refer the matter to the church. If they ignore even the church, then treat that one as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. 

“The truth is, whatever you declare bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you declare loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. 

“Again I tell you, if two of you on earth join in agreement to pray for anything whatsoever, it will be granted you by my Abba God in heaven. Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst.”

Live Abundantly – Even When Your Tank Is on Empty

008-gnpi-053-feeding-5000Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost

How do you explain the Feeding of the 5000? This story is so familiar, maybe your ears just tuned it out. But what really happened? How did Jesus turn five loaves of bread and two fish into lunch for thousands of hungry people?

Only two choices?

We might think we have two choices here. Either we accept that this is a factual account of a miraculous multiplication of food. These are the folks with the bumper stickers that say: “The Bible said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Or we look for a rational explanation. Many have tried over the centuries to give rational explanations for miracles.

Here’s one version from the World War II era:

A teenager was riding in a crowded compartment with five strangers. His mother had given him a sandwich wrapped in a handkerchief for his lunch because rationing made food for travelers hard to come by. Noon came and he was hungry, but he didn’t want to eat his lunch in front of the others. He decided to wait until they got out their lunches, but no one moved.  An hour passed and then another. Finally, he decided he had no choice. He needed to eat, and so did the others. He reached in his pocket and took out the handkerchief. He spread it on his lap and carefully broke his sandwich into six pieces while the other passengers watched. He said a brief blessing and gave each one a part of his sandwich. Then everyone else reached into their pockets and bags and took out the food they had brought – and not wanted to eat in front of others who might not have anything. The food was broken and shared around the compartment with a sense of feasting. Stories and laughter were shared along with the food.

And then there’s Woodstock.

I remember hearing a similar version in a sermon back in the 70s. The people out in the desert with Jesus simply shared what they had with one another.  And at the time, that made sense to me. Woodstock had just happened. Food vendors had quickly been Unknownoverwhelmed by the thousands who had descended on Max Yasgur’s farm. But a group from CA, led by Wavy Gravy  (yes, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor was named for him) stepped into the breach. On Sunday morning, Wavy Gravy stood on the stage and famously announced, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” One common thread in stories told about that time is that everyone remembers two things: the food ran out fast and everyone shared what they had.

These are both lovely stories, which could have happened. The problem, though, with this explanation is that there’s nothing in the Bible story to suggest that is what Jesus or Matthew had in mind.

Remember that in this series of teachings from Jesus, we’re always looking for how he’s continually trying to convey what it means to live in the realm of God – or the realm of heaven, as Matthew calls it. We’ve been reading parables over several weeks – stories told by Jesus to get us to think differently about everything.

Is this a parable ABOUT Jesus?

You might have noticed that there are different kinds of parables. For example, there are riddle parables. These were used to confound outsiders or opponents, so they couldn’t understand what was being said. Only insiders, like the disciples, were able to get the message, usually with some further instruction from Jesus.

Then there are example parables. These are moral or ethical stories that deliberately point beyond themselves to wider implications. Think of the Parable of the Poor Man’s Lamb, which Nathan told to King David to get him to realize that the rich man who took the one lamb (Bathsheba) from the poor man (Uriah) was David himself.

Others are challenge parables, like The Good Samaritan, are meant to make us think and discuss, and decide how they apply to present times. This was a common teaching style in Jesus’ time. Many of his stories are challenge parables.

So we’ve been reading different kinds of parables by Jesus. But there’s another type that we don’t hear about so often – that is parables about Jesus. This feeding of the multitude is a good way to illustrate this. All four gospel writers tell a version of the story. Mark has two versions with different details. John is the only one that has a boy with bread and fish. By looking at these accounts side-by-side, we realize – not that they were confused about what had really happened – but that they each had a point that they wanted to convey about what Jesus was doing.

So, debating whether this was a miracle or an example of human sharing is not the  point. The story assumes that there is a sign for us here in the feeding of the people. As a parable, then, the question is: what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God?

And because parables can shift meanings depending on times and circumstances, the question gets even more specific:
what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God – today?

We can’t forget that in Matthew, this story occurs just after Jesus learns of the death of his cousin John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. His sign is accomplished in the midst of political turmoil, grief, and fear, not to mention the ever-present reality of poverty and illness among his people. We can’t see the crowd as a bunch of party-goers out for a good time. They were looking for a sign – that somehow, in the midst of all this bad news, there might be a word of hope.

And Jesus gives it: in the realm of God, something can come out of nothing. Even we, who enjoy a standard of living that might cause us to think this doesn’t apply to us, surely know those times when we feel we’ve got nothing: nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to give. We’re like the disciples who, when Jesus says “Feed these people,” throw up our hands and say, “Sorry Jesus, we’ve got nothing. Oh yeah, a couple loaves of bread and a little bit of fish. But really, what good can that do? The need is too great.”

shutterstock_58909408When you’re running on empty
Think about those times when you feel like your tank is on empty, there’s nothing left. But life doesn’t stop: phone calls, texts, emails keep flooding in, work, school, and family demands intersect and collide. The news of the world is draining. And, oh, yeah, we’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Who wouldn’t feel depleted?

And then you come to church and hear the pastor asking for even more! Sheesh! The potential for burn-out is a real concern. But here’s the good news of our life in the kingdom of God: the success of your discipleship, as a follower of Jesus doesn’t depend on how much you have or what you can give, but rather on how much God gives by multiplying what you have – no matter how small or tired or frayed it might be.

Jesus said, “Feed them.” They respond, “We have nothing—only five loaves and two fish.”
Jesus says, “Bring your nothing to me.” He blesses the fish and bread and proceeds to distribute the food and the bellies of each one of them was filled.

And there were leftovers!

This story reminds us that in times when we feel depleted, all Jesus is asking us to do is to give our nothing – and then to stand back and watch Jesus teach us how God’s economic system is not like our own. In the realm of God, an economy is grown by God’s abundance.

Tikkun Olam
As I write this, I am aware of how naïve this sounds, especially to anyone experiencing unemployment, the very real possibility of eviction from their home, and any number of troubles so many are facing today. But this message from Jesus begins with the command to feed the people. This isn’t a promise of a free ride because God’s going to come and fix everything.

No, we don’t get a free pass. We, as I’ve learned from my Jewish friends, are to be practitioners of ‘tikkun olam,’ Hebrew for ‘world repair,’ signifying social action and the pursuit of social justice. We have to be concerned about unemployment, home evictions, and all the social ills of our day.

But when we look around and see the immensity of what needs repairing, it’s tempting to back away and say, “there’s nothing I can do” or for a church to think, “there’s nothing we can do.”

Especially now. A global pandemic ratchets up our garden-variety fears and anxieties so high that we don’t know what to address first. Our health and safety, the health and safety of others, our shaky economy, the sustainability of our education system, the future of our democracy, our family and friend connections frayed by either physical distancing or by too much togetherness in quarantine – to name just a few. It is a scary time.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

And then there’s the church. Every time I come to the church and see the sign that says the building is closed, I kind of feel like I’m going into a building that’s been condemned. That is not what it says, but it’s a scary time for the church, too.

Rev. Erin Wathen writes in If We Weren’t Afraid: What Is The Post-Pandemic Church Going To Be?: 

“Once, there was a little church in a big desert. And it was dying. Money was tight; fewer and fewer people were coming to worship; there was no youth group, and nothing for children past the nursery. Their mortgage kept them from being a generous mission church. They knew things had to change. But like most churches that find themselves in such a spiral, they were uncertain about what to change.

“The reason I tell this story is because it has such a miraculous twist – because that church learned to live again. They tripled in size. They paid off the mortgage. They grew and found resources for outreach. They changed their ministry model and evolved from maintenance to mission. And it was something to behold. In this age of mainline decline, such transformation rarely occurs. Past a certain point of financial struggle, conflict, and general lethargy, there is often nothing a church can do to change its story. But this little church in the desert found its breath, its heart, its spirit again. And I was there to witness it. Because I was their pastor.

“And here’s why else I tell it again– because I can pinpoint the precise moment when everything changed. And it wasn’t a big influx of cash, or an innovative new program, or a viral YouTube video that flipped the switch. It was a single question, posed at precisely the right moment. Knowing things needed to change, a group of leaders from the church started a discernment process with other congregations in our area facing the same challenges. At the first gathering of the group, the facilitator asked us to discuss the following question: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

“We looked at each other– and all the lights came on. This was new. We’d spent many a late night church meeting talking about how to reach out to the neighbors; how to generate more income; how to tweak our worship service and make it more engaging or modern… and on and on. We’d asked endless questions amongst ourselves about what we were doing, and how we were doing it, and whether we could change. But nobody had ever asked us– what would you do if you weren’t afraid? For the next several years, that question drove everything. And it changed everything.”

I share her story because I think it’s a fine example of a congregation going into the discernment process with nothing. And God took their nothing and multiplied it – just like God does, according to Jesus. Whatever growth they experienced wasn’t because they were smarter or worked harder or had more faith – it was because they trusted that in in their vulnerability, in their hunger, in their need – God would feed them. And they, in turn, could then even better than before, participate in ‘tikkun olam.’

Scarcity ORAbundance

Really, it all comes down to deciding whether to live in a state of abundance or of scarcity. If we believe that an economy in the realm of God is grown by God’s abundance, then an attitude of scarcity doesn’t track. Although it’s understandable. There’s a myriad of messages telling us that we don’t have enough, that we’re not enough. But that’s not the message of the gospel, so we have to choose which one to believe.

There’s plenty to be afraid about as well. But there’s no harm in asking: what would we do if we weren’t afraid? (caveat: not about not wearing a mask or believing And then standing back to see where God’s Spirit might lead us. If Jesus is right, we’ll have enough to fulfill our needs – and we’ll have leftovers!

That’s the miracle.

Amen

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Matthew 14:13-21

When Jesus heard about the beheading (of John the Baptist), he left Nazareth by boat and went to a deserted place to be alone. The crowds heard of this and followed him from their towns on foot. As Jesus disembarked and saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with pity, and he healed their sick.

As evening drew on, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late. Dismiss the crowds so they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.”

Jesus said to them: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves.”

They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves and a couple of fish.”

Jesus said, “Bring them here.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass. Taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed the food, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the people. All those present ate their fill. The fragments remaining, when gathered up, filled twelve baskets. About five thousand families were fed.

 

 

 

 

 

Those Violent Verses in Psalm 139

Sermon for Pentecost 7             July 19, 2020

images-1I was all primed to talk about the three parables in our gospel reading today. But for some reason, the psalm kept calling to me. That’s not too surprising; it is one of my favorite psalms. Still, every time I started to think about the parables, I got stuck. Or rather, my head was engaged, but my heart wasn’t in it. Psalm 139 beckoned. Don’t get me wrong; the parables are super important for understanding what Jesus was trying to convey to us about living in the realm of God and how we, as the church, convey that to our community and world. But that sermon will have to wait for another day. Today, I’m drawn to this heart-felt expression by the psalmist; and I’m thinking maybe some of you might be, too.

Generally speaking, the Psalms address two important aspects of human life:

  • our deep reluctance to let go of a world that no longer exists, and
  • our resilient capacity to embrace a new world coming into being.

In his book Praying the Psalms, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that as human beings we regularly find ourselves in one of these three places:

  • a place of orientation, where everything makes sense in our lives
  • a place of disorientation, where we feel like we’ve sunk into the proverbial pit
  • a place of new orientation, where we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit, we’re in a new place and we’re full of gratitude about our lives and about God.

Obviously, we prefer to be in a place of orientation. But if we didn’t know it before, we certainly do now: human experience includes times of dislocation and disorientation. And one of the functions of the Psalms is to “tell it like it is,” so we can embrace these situations as the reality in which we live. This applies to both individuals and communities. There’s no denial or self-deception in the Psalms – especially as they express things like the feeling of being down in “the pit,” hatred of enemies, questioning God, its poignant yearning for older, better times.

But they perform another function as well. The language of the psalms does more than just help us recognize and embrace our real situations. In dramatic ways, they can alsoScream!_corkscrew evoke new realities that didn’t exist before and help us form or re-form (re-orient) life in new ways. Brueggemann’s point was that there are psalms that address each of these states of being.  But I wondered: what happens when orientation, disorientation, and reorientation are all happening at once? I mean, isn’t this the rollercoaster ride we’ve all been on this year?

We’re trying to adjust to a “new normal,” but we don’t even know what that is or if it’s going to change again tomorrow. We long for days past when words like pandemic and social distancing were foreign to our ears and masks were only about Halloween. One theme I hear consistently from people is that of experiencing anxiety, depression, or fatigue one day, and acceptance and resilience the next. Some have added stressors of financial insecurity, worries about jobs and schools – but despite our different circumstances, the fact is that our common plight is disorientation.

So, for some reason, in the midst of the roller coaster ride, this psalm spoke to me. Although I have to tell you that the lectionary didn’t include the entire psalm. It omitted verses 13-22 – which is fairly common. Ending with “even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” emphasizes the sense of wonder and happiness at being so completely known by God.

I love this part. It’s such an antidote to all the negative messages we get from others or from ourselves. To be so fully known, so fully understood is a gift so many long for and never receive. Just the other night, I was watching a Netflix series about a couple who had lost a child. And like so many in that terrible situation, found themselves at odds with one another. At one point, the husband says that he understands his wife and she exclaims that he has never known her at all.

I don’t think that’s an uncommon scenario. We’re each human, dealing with each of our family histories, life experiences, and other contributors to our psyches. Under stress, our differences are exacerbated. How wonderful, then, to learn that there is One who really does get us – each of us, in all our weirdness and wonderfulness, sinfulness and saintliness. It’s a message I believe cannot be understated. It’s the picture of the ultimate experience of orientation – being grounded, feeling safe and secure.

But wait, there’s more!
imagesBut there is more to the psalm. We begin to get some hints of disorientation in the question the psalmist asks of God: “where can I go to get away from your spirit; where can I flee from your presence? You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me.” This sounds a bit ominous, as if perhaps he’s feeling a bit too known by God, perhaps there are things he doesn’t want God to know, wants to keep hidden and secret. If we look inside our own hearts, might we not find those kinds of things, too? Maybe we don’t even want to admit them to ourselves, certainly not to our friends or family members. Depending on what it is, if it’s based on guilt or shame, maybe we don’t always want to be fully known to God. The realization that there’s nowhere to hide could feel quite threatening.

And then there are “those verses”
Now we come to the part of this psalm that is almost never included in a church reading and you can understand why:

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If only, God, you would kill the wicked! If only murderers would get away from me – the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes; the people who are your enemies, who use your name as if it were of no significance.

Don’t I hate everyone who hates you? Don’t I despise those who attack you? Yes, I hate them – through and through! They’ve become my enemies too.

Talk about disorientation! This is not how we would ever teach anyone to talk to God. Yet here it is, right there in the Bible. And it’s not the only place either. This kind of psalm is called an imprecatory psalm, an imprecation being a curse that invokes misfortune upon someone. Imprecatory psalms are ones that call down judgment, anger, calamity, and destruction on God’s enemies.

There are imprecatory words throughout the Bible, not just in the psalms. So as much as we’d like to dismiss them, there they are. So, how are we going to fit them into our understanding of God and humanity’s relationship with God?

They do sound awful read in church. Asking God to act in vengeance doesn’t fit with our idea of a Sunday morning worship experience. We want church to be uplifting, full of praise – and the good kind of prayers.

But then again, what about those times when the ways of the world intrude upon our church, like a persistent, unwelcome visitor – ringing the doorbell over and over, knocking urgently on the door, peeking in through the windows – demanding to get in? And what if that world is screaming in dissonance with the world that our churches are trying to create?

What if a church member has been attacked, fallen victim to a scam, been abused by a nursing home caregiver, been cheated out of their pension, lost a child to a drunk driver, been betrayed by a trusted friend? What if someone in our church is a victim of a hate crimes? How do we respond to the intrusion of an unjust world into our community?

There’s a story of a Carmelite convent in Dachau, Germany, which is an important stop for pilgrims traveling the paths of the Nazi annihilation of the Jews. In 1965, the nuns were given permission to stop praying the daily prayers of the church in Latin. But after a trial period of reading the Psalms in German, they were tempted to return to Latin. The switch, which had been made for the sake of the tourists, brought serious problems because of the  imprecatory psalms, and the cursing passages in a number of other psalms. The use of the Latin had at least covered up the difficulties of the psalms as prayer.

While I can certainly understand their dilemma, there’s another point of view that says we should find a way to make peace with these psalms. After all, what they reveal is as much a part of our human makeup as are compassion and other characteristics we’re much more comfortable claiming.

What if we have been subjected to atrocities that simply do not allow praise and worship? What then? What did and do the victims of the Holocaust and their descendants feel? What did and do the victims of slavery in America and their descendants feel? What about parents and children in Darfur and Syria and other areas of unrest in our world? How do the victims of violent crimes, hate crimes, and fraud feel? And what about children who are victims of sexual and other types of abuse? The imprecatory psalms remind us of the basic human desire for revenge when we or those we love have been wronged. Such words in the biblical text indicate to us that God does not ask us to suppress those emotions but rather to speak about them in plain and heartfelt terms. In speaking out, we give voice to the pain, the feelings of helplessness, and the burning anger.

I realized that these verses were actually what drew me to Psalm 139 this time. Well, that was a little disconcerting, so I dug a little deeper into the nature of  imprecatory psalms. And I found there are three characteristics that helped make some sense of them.

For one, the whole book of Psalms is filled with references to “the enemy” and “the oppressor.” That was because the life of the people of Israel was an ongoing battle against enemies. The people who prayed the psalms felt surrounded, threatened, and engaged in battle by a gigantic army of oppressors. Most of these psalms are communal – expressing the voice of the gathered community of faith – not expressing the voice of one individual.

Secondly, the cries for vengeance in the psalms are not about conflicts that could be resolved by generosity on the part of the ones praying. Those who pray these psalms are shouting out their suffering because of the overwhelming injustices and abject indifferences of their foes, their enemies.

Thirdly, the psalmists cry out to God in the midst of an unjust world. They call on God to mete out punishment, to “make things right” in the face of seemingly hopeless wrong. They are not cries from communities and individuals for permission to carry out their own retributive acts for the wrongs done to them.

Fix this, God, now!
These psalms were not written out of vindictiveness or a need for personal vengeance. Instead, they are prayers that keep God’s justice, sovereignty, and protection in mind. They’re a complaint that makes the loud insistence to God that:

shutterstock_1494985877* things are not right in the present arrangement.

* they need not stay this way and can be changed.

* the psalmist will not accept this way; the present      arrangement is intolerable.

* it’s God’s obligation to change things.

Well, I can relate to that. Things are not right in our present arrangement. People are getting sick and too many are dying. Black and brown communities are taking a harder hit and social safety nets are being torn to shreds. Basic issues of public health and safety have been turned into partisan wedge issues and causes of violence. Willful ignorance in some parts of the country is endangering those in other areas.

So, yes, I appreciate the permission by the psalmists to express my fear, anxiety, and anger – our extreme disorientation. Even the rants that I direct some days at TV news programs – expressions that I’m not proud of and wouldn’t want anyone to hear (I feel God’s hand on my back!) are OK. I am known in all of my human emotional self – and still loved.

And no, I do not recommend a steady diet of imprecatory prayer. What I do pray is that we accept ourselves and one another in the midst of our disorientation – where we feel like we’ve sunk into the proverbial pit – and that we will have the courage, creativity, and resilience to embrace the new thing that will be born,  a place of new orientation, where we realize that God has lifted us out of the pit and we’re in a new place and we’re full of gratitude about our lives.  Gratitude for God’s extravagant love for each and every person, gratitude for being so fully known, so fully loved, and so fully forgiven, gratitude for the vision of a new day when all will fly on the wings of dawn, with God’s hand to guide us; with God’s strong hand to hold us tight!

Amen

 

PSALM 139 (Common English Bible)

O God, you have examined me. You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue that you
don’t already know completely.

You surround me—front and back. You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it.

Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!

If I could fly on the wings of dawn, stopping to rest
only on the far side of the ocean—
even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
the light will become night around me,”
even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
Nighttime would shine bright as day,
because darkness is the same as light to you!

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
Your works are wonderful – I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
when I was being put together in a secret place,
when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance,
and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
before any one of them had yet happened
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you.

If only, God, you would kill the wicked!
If only murderers would get away from me—
the people who talk about you, but only for wicked schemes;
the people who are your enemies,
who use your name as if it were of no significance.[
Don’t I hate everyone who hates you?
Don’t I despise those who attack you?
Yes, I hate them—through and through!
They’ve become my enemies too. 

Examine me, God! Look at my heart!
Put me to the test! Know my anxious thoughts!
Look to see if there is any idolatrous way in me,
then lead me on the eternal path!

 

 

 

Jesus: Rest for the Weary

Matthew-11-28Matthew: the teacher’s gospel
We’re continuing on our way through the Gospel of Matthew in this season of growth in discipleship. Matthew is often called the “teacher’s gospel” because – as you might guess – his emphasis is on the teachings of Jesus. We started out the season a few weeks ago hearing about the calling of the original Twelve disciples and some of the instructions Jesus gave them as they went out, then, to teach. And then we began diving into the teachings.

When we started, I said that the purpose of the gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But it seems that we’ve been stuck in “afflict the comfortable” mode since we began. Frankly, some of the instructions sound rather discouraging:

  • I’m sending you out like sheep among wolves
  • When your message is rejected, shake off the dust from your shoes and move on.
  • Don’t think I came to bring peace on earth. I came not to bring peace, but a sword.

Quarantine Fatigue
But today, at last, we come to a “comfort the afflicted” passage, one of the most familiar and loved passages in the Bible: “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Sounds  a bit like the words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I don’t know about you, but after hearing three Sundays in a row about the challenges and costs of discipleship, I’m ready for some rest. This verse is like the cup of cold water that Jesus talked about last week. It’s like those other familiar and well-loved passages that tell us: “Don’t be afraid.” “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” is both refreshing and reassuring.

And don’t we just need this right about now? 4+ months of quarantine; discouraging news about the rise in number of those infected; people not following protocols, roll-back of plans for reopening; disturbing videos of police violence; protests from both sides of the political divide; millions of people out of work, and a contentious presidential election looming ahead. Given all this, it’s no surprise that a recent survey by the National Science Foundation at the University of Chicago for the COVID Response Tracking Study concluded that Americans are more unhappy now than at any time in the last 50 years. Personally, I don’t think I would have responded to the survey that I’m unhappy. But weary – that I can relate to. And from what I hear from most people I talk to, that’s not an uncommon condition.

A recent article is entitled Are You Experiencing Coronavirus Quarantine Fatigue? It asks if you’ve felt irritable, stressed, anxious, eating more, eating less, unable to sleep, unmotivated or less productive, having racing thoughts, or just on edge in general. If you’ve experienced any of these, you’re most likely feeling the effects of quarantine fatigue. Part of the fatigue is feeling overwhelmed by the uncertainty, unpredictability and the unknowns in all of this. So, “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” is a welcome word from Jesus.

Take my yoke, please?yoke
Then he goes on. The very next thing he says is, “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me.” Now isn’t that a curious thing to say? I mean, who wants to have a bar laid across their shoulders like a beast of burden? Of all the imagery we have for Jesus, this one of a farmer yoking draught animals together in order to pull a heavy load is not very appealing. Plus, the yoke was a symbol of servitude in the Bible, and of the burden of slavery or taxes, while freedom from oppression was described by the prophets as breaking of the yoke.

Jesus isn’t making sense here, especially on this holiday weekend, when we celebrate freedom. But, he’s still not finished. He comes right back with a further description of both himself and this yoke: “Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

How odd that we would find rest for our souls by taking on a burden. But it begins to make sense when we know that in the rabbinic literature of Judaism, the yoke is actually a symbol of great importance, referring to the study of and obedience to the Torah. It’s a symbol of devotion to the kingdom of heaven, which is also the primary message of Jesus’ teaching.

As a Jew, Jesus would have known this imagery very well. He wanted those who were burdened by the cares of the world to learn from his gentle instruction, and in doing so, to find rest for their souls. This kind of rest isn’t the kind we get when we take a break to lie down on the sofa for a while (although that kind of rest is good, too!). This rest that Jesus offers is a deep and abiding peace, in which we find wholeness and fulfillment.

j-teach3Jesus: Wisdom Teacher
What we see in these verses is a portrait of Jesus the Wisdom teacher. Our pursuit as followers of Jesus is learning the lessons, but at the same time it’s a pursuit of wisdom, internalization of the lesson which enables our self-reflection and increased self-awareness, increased God-awareness, and consequently obedience to the word of God – not as a harsh requirement or dreaded burden, but as a life-giving gift.

Now, we need to understand the difference between conventional wisdom and Jesus-wisdom. Conventional wisdom is an idea so accepted it goes unquestioned, even if it’s wrong (like ‘if you work hard, you’ll succeed’). With Jesus-wisdom, which he communicated through parables, sayings, and sermons, we are invited to see things differently. For example, in his day, conventional wisdom said that sinners and outcasts were to be avoided and rejected, while the wisdom of Jesus said everyone is welcome at the table in the kingdom of God. Conventional wisdom said you should always strive to be #1, while the wisdom of Jesus says the first will end up being last.

Undoubtedly there were plenty of people around Jesus who considered themselves learned and wise. And Jesus is not anti-intellectual. His problem was with closed hearts and minds. He’s clearly frustrated in this passage and he calls out those who condemn both him and John the Baptist. People criticized John for being all gloom and doom and no fun. He wore weird clothes and preached messages that some of them didn’t want to hear. Now it appears that they’re criticizing Jesus for just the opposite: he eats and drinks with sinners. He’s having entirely too much fun. There’s no pleasing them. But he says, ” Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.”

I’m sure we could come up with examples of conventional wisdom in our day. One would be that your worth is determined by the work you do and by how well you measure up to social standards. But in Jesus-wisdom, your primary identity comes from being centered in the sacred, in your relationship with God. That’s the primary identity that Jesus himself modeled. “Everything has been handed over to me by you. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son.” This reminds us of John’s gospel, when Jesus says, “The Father and I are one.”

This wisdom teaching – which can bring about a profound change in perspective – comes from a profoundly different experience of reality than what our culture/ conventional wisdom teaches us. That experience is our direct connection with the spirit of God. So this way of Jesus that he calls us to is a way that is deeply centered in God and not in culture.

Your primary identity is a child of God71ZTwFrO04L._AC_SL1500_
So what can we make of all this in relation to our world-weariness today? It sounds overly simple to say tend to your primary identity as a child of God. But that is the message. It sounds simple, but we know that when conventional wisdom tries to tell us a different message or something in our social or cultural setting exerts a pull on us or we’re still in lockdown and have no idea when it will end –  it’s a challenge to hear a word of wisdom from Jesus.

That’s why the teachings are so important. When we are bound to God’s word by the yoke of Jesus, we become so steeped in Holy Wisdom that it becomes second nature to us. At the very least, we are aware that there might be an alternative way of seeing than the one we’ve always known. And we can enter into a time of questioning and discernment with an open heart and mind. That applies to how we make decisions in our own lives and families, but also in our church, our communities, our nation, and our world.

There’s another way of thinking about the purpose of a yoke, and that is as a device that both restrains and enables. It is simultaneously a burden and a possibility.

I admit I am powerless over . . .
I think this is what St. Paul was talking about in our second reading. Paul is obviously in agony over something within himself. This heartfelt passage reminds me of Step 1 of Alcoholics Anonymous and every group that offers help for addictions of all kinds:  “We admitted we were powerless over (fill in the blank).”

He sums up Step 2 and 3 in his closing sentences: “Who can free me from this body under the power of death? Thanks be to God – it is Jesus Christ our Savior!” He might have said, “I came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. And I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God.” Step 3 says “as we understand God.” But Paul is sure of where his freedom lies: “It is Jesus Christ our Savior!” As he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “God has given you life in Christ Jesus and has made Jesus our wisdom, our justice, our sanctification and our redemption . . . so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

What are you free for?
By following Paul’s understanding of freedom, we don’t negate our Fourth of July celebrations. But his understanding of Jesus-Wisdom should cause us to reflect, not only on what we are free from, but what are we free for. How does conventional wisdom want us to think and act; are those ways in alignment with the wisdom that comes from Christ.

I may be free, as some people claim, from wearing a facemask when I’m around other people. But who and what am I free for? I may be free, as my neighbors were, to set off fireworks into the wee hours of the morning. But if I take into consideration what I am free for, would that have changed my behavior? I believe so.

So even though our holiday celebration is colored by our divisions, our anxiety, and our weariness, we follow Paul’s advice in another place, “We do not lose heart.”

Prisoners of hope
And while Zechariah was not proclaiming the Wisdom of Jesus, we can take his words as our way of discipleship: “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope!” Our stronghold is the word of God; our yoke is the teachings of Jesus, who whispers now to you and to me, “Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Amen

Rest-1024x576

Zechariah 9:9-12

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Look!
Your ruler comes to you; triumphant and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

This ruler will cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be banished.
This ruler shall command peace to the nations; stretching from sea to sea,
from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you, due to the blood covenant with me, I am returning your prisoners from their waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope! Today I declare that I will give you back double!

Romans 7:15-25a

Does anyone not feel the depth of moral conflict Paul describes in this passage? In everyday life, we struggle to stay on the right track and often fail miserably to be the disciples we hope to be. We want to be patient with our loved ones in this time of pandemic and have equanimity in responding to what is beyond our control, and yet we are impatient, angry, and sometimes behave less than admirably. No one fully knows our worries and cares and sense of struggle, but they matter to us, and often leave us feeling spiritually weak. Like Paul, we seek assistance and assurance. It is written . . .

I don’t understand what I do – for I don’t do the things I want to do, but rather the things I hate. And if I do the very thing I don’t want to do, I am agreeing that the Law is good. Consequently, what is happening in me is not really me, but sin living in me. I know that no good dwells in me, that is, in my human nature; the desire to do right is there, but not the power.  What happens is that I don’t do the good I intend to do, but the evil I do not intend I do. But if I do what is against my will, it is not I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. This means that even though I want to do what is right, a law that leads to wrongdoing is always at hand. My inner self joyfully agrees with the law of God, but I see in my body’s members another law, in opposition to the law of my mind; this makes me the prisoner of the law of sin in my members. How wretched I am! Who can free me from this body under the power of death? Thanks be to God-it is Jesus Christ our Savior!

 

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 

“What comparison can I make with this generation? They are like children shouting to others as they sit in the marketplace, ‘We piped you a tune, but you wouldn’t dance. We sang you a dirge, but you wouldn’t mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He is possessed.’ The Chosen One comes, eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ Wisdom will be vindicated by her own actions.

Then Jesus prayed, “Abba, Creator of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever, you have revealed to the youngest children. Yes, everything is as you want it to be. Everything has been handed over to me by you. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son – and those given that revelation.”

“Come to me, all you who labor and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Here you will find rest for your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”