Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ten Talents and What God Says...

I relied heavily on the scholarship and insight of Sarah Dylan Breuer and Mark Sandlin this week. Though I do take the latter to task a bit in this sermon, I really appreciate his words and his insight.

And apropos of nothing at all, here's some really cool music:

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

This is the Word of the Lord.

I am absolutely convinced that a parable is never, ever one thing. Not when it comes from the mouth of Jesus, anyway.

The classic interpretation of this parable focuses on the third servant's – slave's – unwillingness to use what he has been given in a productive way. The idea that the man who has gone on a long journey, whose return was a long time in coming, and who reviewed the performance of those he had left behind, is a representation of Jesus at the end of time is unavoidable.

And, I mean, it works. I've preached it that way, right here, three years ago.

I suggested, back then, that the real error in what the third slave did went deeper than just burying money... because of course the parable isn't really about money, and it isn't really about special skills or abilities that (thanks to this parable) have come to be called “talents,” only as soon as I say that, I realize that I and everyone else I can recall preaching on this parable from this interpretation ends up talking about money and talents in some manner, but I digress.

Anyway, I noted that in the next pericope, when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the criteria he uses to divide the groups is whether they fed him when he was hungry. When he was thirsty, did they give him anything to drink? Was he shown hospitality as a stranger, or clothed when he was naked? When he was sick, when he was imprisoned, did they visit him? In the economy of the Kingdom of God, these are the investments that yield the return the Master is truly interested in.

In the common interpretation of the Parable of the Talents, if that third slave had been around today, he would have been the person who was all about making sure his needs were met, he was comfortable, had a reliable retirement strategy and a nice car, decent clothes and plenty of food. He would have fretted about giving money to a homeless person, because they may spend it on booze. He would have relied on government agencies or nonprofit organizations to provide assistance with rent and utilities, all the time complaining about those agencies and organizations, and never actually daring to face the needy on his own. They might be lying, after all. They may cheat him. Worse, once you start caring, once you start giving, once you answer that phone, well, where does it stop? What if there isn’t enough left for the bills?

That third slave would have buried himself in his work, and in his activities, and played it safe, and probably would have been pretty respectable in everyone else’s eyes.

But playing it safe never changed anything.

Ultimately, the Parable of the Talents is about being present. About doing the things that need to be done without fear, with the same extravagant, joyful abandon with which God has lavished grace and love upon us. The point of the parable was not whether the slaves had been given six hundred thousand dollars, or one point two million dollars, or three million dollars, or twelve dollars and a rusty bucket. What interested the traveler upon his return was, what had they done with it?

And what will we do with what we have been given? Bury it, or broadcast it? Playing it safe makes sense, especially in this day and age. It is rational to be afraid. To be uncertain. We might mess up. We might do the wrong thing. We might be taken advantage of.

All of that is true, and I would be lying to you if I were to say it is not possible. But God calls upon us to act, and to act now, to take chances and trust that God will take care of us.

Like I said, interpreting the parable that way works.


Just like last week's bridegroom, the man, the master, this week... well, I'm sorry, but he isn't acting a whole lot like Christ. He's an absentee landlord who doesn't do any work himself, but lives off of the labor of his slaves. The profit-making that the master demands would be seen in Jesus' culture as coming, out of necessity, at the expense of other more honest people; it would be seen as greedy and grasping rather than smart or virtuous. The absentee landowner tells the slave whom he treats most harshly that the punishment is specifically for refusing to break God's commandment against usury, a practice consistently condemned in both the Hebrew bible and the New Testament.

Is the behavior of the master in the parable something that God would commend, let alone imitate? Is this kind of behavior what Jesus expects of God's people?

Do I have to say it? No.

Mark Sandlin suggests that the hero of this parable is not the master, but the third slave – the one who dared to stand up to the master, to point out his greed and cruelty and injustice. “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed...” Both Sandlin and Sarah Dylan Breuer suggest – and it makes sense – that the next -to-last phrase Jesus utters in this parable: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away...” is perhaps better translated this way: “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.”

What if – what if – the “master” in this parable isn't God... what if it's us?

The master is us, those with power – including the middle class in America.
Every time we live into our positions of power and then judge those who are struggling on what we see as the margins of society, the master is us. Every time we assume a right to our privileges and label those without those same privileges as “lazy,” the master is us. Even when our places of prerogative are so endemic that we live into the abuse they cause by carelessly supporting the slave labor required to provide the goods we want at rock bottom prices, the master is us.


So which of these dueling interpretations of the Parable of the Talents is the “correct” one?

I want to suggest this morning that we don't have to choose. After all, God is still alive and active, and still speaks to us all where we are – in the midst of our lives and situations, in our own unique language. And note how I said this: God speaks to us.

One of the dangers in preaching, and in Biblical interpretation in general, is the tendency to use Scripture as a teaching tool to bring others into our own points of view. In fact, one of the sources I used this week for this sermon is an article by a writer that ultimately uses this parable as an indictment against a political party that he is not a member of.

I mean, it's a well-written piece, sure. I think it makes good points, but, then again, I am not a member of that political party, either. And just writing or reading something that makes me feel good... at the expense of others... changes nothing. The rich still get richer, the poor still get poorer. It's dangerous.

It is dangerous because nothing changes. As Max Lucado says, God loves us just as we are, but too much to let us stay that way. If I read Scripture to justify myself, but not to grow or change or find direction and answers and bring myself into closer communion with my loving Creator, what good is it to read Scripture at all?

So maybe we do have to choose, but the challenge is to choose to read the parable in a way that challenges us.

If, reading it the traditional way, we are challenged to take what we have and use it in ways which bring hope and healing, which encourage others to put their faith in the risen Christ, if it pushes us to look at what we own in a new and uncomfortable way – not as a security blanket but as a tool kit – then perhaps this is the correct interpretation.

If, by turning the parable on its head and seeing the third slave as the good guy and the master as the one ultimately in the wrong, we are challenged to live beyond our places of privilege, to speak truth to power and to honor those who live in the margins, then perhaps this is the correct interpretation.

Because, ultimately, both interpretations must ultimately be filtered through what Jesus says next, in the end times prophecy about the sheep and the goats, which is, by the way, our Gospel reading for next Sunday. God speaks to us in Scripture, sometimes to comfort the afflicted, and sometimes to afflict the comfortable, but always to lead us to act in a manner which glorifies God and brings hope and healing and comfort and the Good News of the risen Christ to the world.

When the Son of Man comes, he won't say, “Just as you did not do it unto one of the more productive of least of these, you did not do it unto me.” The judgment will not be predicated on the basis of how much money we made, or for that matter on how religious we were or whether we said a "sinner's prayer," but rather on whether we saw that the least of our sisters and brothers in the human family, whether in or out of prison, had food, clothing, and health care. We serve Jesus himself to the extent that we do these things, and we neglect Jesus himself to the extent that we don't. Period.

In the Parable of the Talents, we are the master, we are the faithful servants, and we are third slave as well. This is our story. It is a call to arms, an encouragement, a challenge.

The question is, are we willing to let go of the fear? Are we willing to live into the story of the third slave who confronted the powers that be? Are we willing to risk what little we have in order to heal a hurting world, in order to bring the Good News of new life in Jesus Christ to those in the margins, to those who need to hear it most?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

There's More to the Story!

I cannot begin to express the depth of gratitude I owe to David R. Henson for helping me face the prickly issues in the Gospel reading, as well as the usual suspects (like Kathryn Matthews Huey, Bruce Epperly, and "Working Preacher" contributor Greg Carey).

Seriously, y'all, come by sometime. Lunch is on me.

Matthew 25:1-13

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

I have a confession this morning. Just between us, OK? This reading bothers me.

OK, I mean, I get what the gist of the passage is: be prepared for the Lord's return. The “wise” bridesmaids brought extra oil just in case things ran a little over schedule and the party was late getting started, I get that. If we take this as a metaphor for the return of Christ, then the idea is that Christians should understand that while the Lord's return may be imminent, it isn't necessarily immediate. Don't give up. Stay the course, keep the faith. And hold that perseverance in tension with the knowledge that Christ's return just might be immediate... so stay alert. Be prepared.

And as long as we hold it right there... understand that, historically, the people Matthew was writing to had seen the Temple destroyed, which Jesus prophesied in the previous chapter, and they were expecting Jesus to return in triumph any day now... they had been expecting Jesus to return any day now for a long, long, long time... so the message of not giving up, not abandoning the truth of Jesus in search of some other pleasure or comfort or temporal assurance makes sense... and as long as that is as far as we go with it, everything is fine.

Don't pick at the edges. Don't scratch at the finish to see what's beneath. We're good, right? There isn't anything more to the story. Pass the plate and let's sing.

And maybe that was what Jesus intended. Maybe there really isn't more to the story. After all, he is in the middle of the Gospel of Matthew's apocalyptic passage, which began with Jesus predicting that the Temple would be utterly destroyed, and ends with Jesus talking about separating sheep from goats at the Final Judgment. Maybe all Jesus intended to get across was “be vigilant, be alert, be prepared. Period.”

There is a brusqueness, a harshness in this passage about the bridesmaids, after all, isn't there? It lacks the element of grace we're used to seeing in Jesus' parables – the father who runs to meet the Prodigal Son, the joy of finding the lost sheep or the lost coin, the wild abandon of selling everything to obtain the pearl of great price. Maybe it's like Fred Craddock says, and there are really two types of parables, “those that offer a surprise of grace at the end...and those that follow the direct course from cause to effect as surely as the harvest comes from what is sown. There are no gifts and parties. Together the two types present justice and grace, either of which becomes distorted without the other.”

Still... the passage closes with the admonition, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” That's fine, I guess, but it occurs to me that out of the ten bridesmaids, exactly zero stayed awake waiting on the bridegroom. All of them fell asleep. The only difference – the only difference! – was that half of them brought extra oil.

Oil that they would not share because they might – might! – not have enough. That fact right there drives me crazy! And I don't mind telling you that many of the scholars and commentators that I have read concerning this passage feel the same way.

And the very idea that the bridegroom would punish these five “foolish” bridesmaids for going to get what they needed because of their stingy counterparts... it just seems kind of arbitrary to me. All ten got to the banquet hall on time. All ten of them waited. All ten of them fell asleep. On only one point did they differ. I don't know if I can agree with Fred Craddock. This just doesn't seem all that just to me. There has to be more to the story, doesn't there?

Yes, I confess, I almost went with another reading today. It was a choice between doing that and just kind of glossing over my discomfort, preaching about preparedness and what that means, and being done with it. Nothing wrong with that, it's safe, and it would be true.

And it would be one-dimensional. No depth. And there isn't anyone here who is a one-dimensional person. We have facets, and depths, and complexities and experiences that make us who we are, unique and wonderful and beautiful, and the faith that each of us possess is no different.

So is it enough to say “be like the wise bridesmaids?” Sure, I want to identify with the wise ones... and there are times and subjects in which I feel pretty wise. Some days my lamp burns nice and bright. Some days I think, y'know, Jesus could come back and I'd be OK. I'd be “in.”

But there are days... who am I kidding? There are weeks sometimes, endless dark periods where, if I am honest, I identify more with the “foolish” bridesmaids than I do with the “wise” ones. I doubt, I worry, I harbor fears and gnaw on anger over some offense, where something or another, or several dozen somethings, it seems, overwhelm me, and my lamp isn't so bright. The flame flickers and grows dim. If Jesus came back then, would I be “in?” Is it as arbitrary as this passage makes it seem, is my presence in the Kingdom of God predicated upon what side of the bed I get out of in the morning?

C'mon. Do I even have to say it? No! There is more to the story.

Our faith, our theology, dare I say our God is so much larger than a single passage of Scripture from the Lectionary reading! Yes, we an say the Kingdom of Heaven is like this parable of the ten bridesmaids, and – and! – we can say the Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, and like leaven, and like a treasure hidden in a field, and like a pearl of great price...

What I'm saying is, there is more to the story.

We can call the five prepared (but stingy) bridesmaids “wise,” sure, but we can also put them up against the servant in the very next passage of Scripture who, rather than take a risk with the money his master left him with, hid it away and did not use it at all, and was punished severely for his cowardice, or we can compare them to the goats at the end of this chapter who saw the hungry and did not feed them, who ignored the cries of the thirsty or the shivering of the naked.

What I'm saying is, there is more to the story.

So yes, let's take the important base message here – be patient, but be vigilant, because the Lord will return, and it might be tomorrow and it might be today but maybe not – but let's not stop there. Let's not let this be the only lesson.

David Henson asks a wonderful question about this passage, about the bridesmaids who left, seeking oil for their lamps: “...[W]hat would have happened, I wonder, had the bridesmaids simply continued to wait, with sputtering lamps and dwindling lights?

What would have happened had the bridesmaids simply waited in the darkness of the night?

To me, this was their mistake. They left, when they should have stayed. The bridal couple surely would have welcomed their friends into the light of the banquet, unconcerned about the state of their oil lamps, happy just to see their friends waiting for them.

What faith it would have taken, though, to wait in such frailty, in such honesty!”

Perhaps what we see in this parable is a lack of faith on the part of all of the bridesmaids. After all, the wise as well as the foolish are operating out of fear, not trusting the love that the bridegroom has for his friends. If the wise ones really trusted, really believed, they would have shared their oil. So what if they all end up with flickering lamps, weak flames barely hanging on to the end of dry, smoking wicks, weakly beating back the darkness of midnight? After all, the bridegroom is on his way, and he will welcome his friends who have been faithfully awaiting him into the light and warmth and joy of the wedding feast!

There are times I have been like the five wise bridesmaids: I have all my ducks in a row I have enough and a bit to spare, but I have been stingy; afraid that if I gave away part of my excess, that spare bit, I'd end up with not enough.

There are times I have been like the five foolish bridesmaids, too: scrambling to make up for lost time or a lack of resources or cover my bases because I made a mistake, desperately hoping that no one finds out what an idiot I have been.

And you know what? There are even times I have been like the bridegroom. I know, and the context of the passage is pretty clear, that the bridegroom is supposed to represent the returning Christ. But, again, I think there is more to the story, and I want to separate the personality of the bridegroom for the moment from the apocalyptic nature of the parable.

This guy didn't care about protocol, didn't give a rip about how long anyone had to wait on him, he just showed up when he pleased, and he callously excluded half of the bridesmaids because they were away in that moment when he just decided to pop in, never mind that they were knocking on the doors of friends and family and merchants in the middle of the night, desperately trying to make up for what they lacked, trying their hardest to be good enough for the bridegroom.

What. A. Jerk.

I've been that guy. I've spoken out of my place of privilege, judged others harshly for perceived shortcomings, snubbed those who struggle with difficulties that I have never had to deal with, arbitrarily dismissing whole classes of people because they aren't as “good” as I think I am... or as I pretend to be.

I can, if I am honest, identify with every character in this parable in one way or another. And perhaps that is the lesson.

Perhaps the lesson is this: When we find ourselves feeling like the foolish bridesmaids, remember to wait in the darkness. Don’t run from it. It is a holy place and God will meet us there.
When we find ourselves feeling like the wise bridesmaids, remember to share what we have, even if it scares us.

Especially if it scares us.

Don’t trade temporary comfort for lasting and beloved community. The chance to give of ourself is a holy place and God will meet us there.

When we find ourselves feeling like the bridegroom, remember to open wide the door to the banquet feast. Don’t let hurt feelings and fear insulate us from others. Welcoming those who have made mistakes and who walk in darkness is a holy place. God will meet us there. The Lord's table is vast, and the banquet hall as large as the Kingdom of Heaven.

No matter how thin our light, no matter how dark the night, we wait, not seeking to be anything other than present right where we are. We trust that in the end, when the light of the bridegroom arrives, it won’t matter whether our tiny oil lamps are flickering still or extinguished completely. Rather the light of bridegroom will be enough for all, to illuminate the beauty of the darkness and to bring us in joy to the midnight celebration.

Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come.

Alleluia, amen.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

"A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners..."

I borrowed, heavily and unapologetically, from the work of Mick Mooney for this sermon. 

If we got as upset over the nearly sixteen million children in America who cannot be certain where their next meal is coming from (or if there will be one) as we get over Ebola being present in the United States... if we were as interested in sick people on the continent of Africa as we are about the three people in the USA who have gotten Ebola, there is no end to the problems we could solve.

It's time to get serious... to really, truly do what Jesus would do.

Matthew 22:34-46
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. and a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

This is the Word of the Lord.

MedecinsSans Frontieres,” or “Doctors Without Borders,” was created in 1971 with the idea that doctors and medical professionals should go where the patients are, be it a war zone, a nation stricken by famine, or a part of a continent battling a dreaded disease. “Doctors Without Borders” has treated, in its time, over one hundred million patients, in all areas of the world… including Guinea, in west Africa, where people are dying of Ebola. Supplies are short, medicine is short, protective gear is short… these doctors and health professionals, like Craig Spencer, go anyway. “Doctors Without Borders” claims no religious affiliation, and over eighty-four percent of every dollar raised goes directly to program services.

We heard none of this on Thursday, though, did we? Not a word about the selfless work of these doctors, going into harm’s way to bring healing and hope, or at least some measure of comfort and protection, to a corner of the world most people never even think about. When Dr. Spencer checked himself into Bellvue, and tested positive for Ebola, all we heard that was Ebola has invaded New York City.

Never mind that more Americans have been married to Kim Kardashian than have died of Ebola. Never mind that, if I may paraphrase humorist Andy Borowitz, Americans are more frantic about three cases of Ebola in the US than they are about thirty-nine school shootings – one of them the day after Dr. Spencer's diagnosis was announced – if you pay attention to the media hype, we have collectively lost our minds.

The calmest headlines said, “New York Doctor Tests Positive for Ebola,” but of course there was also this jewel of a headline: “Ebola Strikes New York City!” I fully expected to see “Zombie Apocalypse in Manhattan, Panic In The Streets, Film at 11” next.

I do not know Dr. Craig Spencer’s religious affiliation, if any. I do know that he worked in Guinea for about a month, earning far less than he would have in the same period at his job with Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He didn’t go to Guinea for fame, or for the money, he went because people are dying and they need medical help. He did it in spite of the very real danger to his life.

What is the greatest commandment?” the Pharisees ask Jesus.

Now, we can talk all day about how Jesus turned the Pharisees’ attempt to discredit him on its head, we can talk about how he proved to them that their expectations of the Messiah were far too narrow. That’s the kind of stuff I like to do. I like to pull on threads of the narrative, look at the historical context behind this polite confrontation, explore the interplay between what we think we read and the intention of the original languages. It’s fun, and in far too many ways, it’s easy.

But I want to talk about those commandments. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

I know I don’t have to remind you that love, and especially the kind of love Jesus refers to here, has nothing at all to do with how we feel. This is not a romantic, emotional, felt kind of love. This is an active, expressed, lived love. It is love as a verb. It is a love that is spelled out not by our words, not by our creeds, but by our actions.

Dr. Cornell West says, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Judging by that criteria, what can we say about the way we love? How many Americans thought that Ebola was unfortunate, but not that big a deal as long as it was “over there,” as long as it was citizens of the nations of West Africa that were dying, and not Americans… and how many are in a panic right now, spurred on by those “Ebola Strikes New York” headlines and those FaceBook posts insisting that the CDC is lying to us and that Ebola is airborne? Is it love to not really be concerned about problems on the other side of the world until the media start screaming about it being our problem?

Is that love? Is that loving God, is that loving our neighbor as ourselves?

I think Dr. Craig Spencer, and his colleagues at Doctors Without Borders, might have a different view of what love looks like.

Love is messy. Love is dangerous. Love takes us places we are not comfortable going.

Do you know why the Pharisees hated Jesus so much? Yes, partly because of his teachings – they likely were real fans of the fact that he separated the worship of God from the Temple, and emphasized the importance of worship in everyday life. That’s one of the main bones that the Pharisees picked against the Sadducees, after all. But there were a lot of other places, like healing on the Sabbath, where Jesus flew in the face of what they “knew” God wanted.

A bigger problem, though, was that the Pharisees saw how many people were looking to Jesus as the promised Messiah, but when they looked, Jesus didn’t measure up! Not as much because of what he said as what he did and who he spent time around!

Jesus did not live in a bubble of holy rollers, going through the same worship songs over and over, hiding away from society in prayer meetings and revival events. Jesus was in the midst of the party of life. He was at the center of the celebration, with people, all kinds of people, from all kinds of walks of life, with all kinds of world views and lifestyles. He went to weddings, he went to dinners. He walked and talked and laughed among those the Pharisees referred to as “people of the dirt.” He got a reputation as a “glutton and a drunkard” because of the people he enjoyed associating with.

And Jesus was in the midst of the brokenness of life. When a woman was set to be stoned for her immorality, Jesus was there to defend her from the angry religious crowd. Jesus started a conversation with the Samaritan woman by the well, a woman no one would talk to – not even her own people! And Jesus touched and healed the lepers, the ones that no one dared get close to for fear of having the sin rub off on them. He healed those who shared his religion, and those who were of other religions – the servant of the centurion comes to mind, as well as the daughter of the Syrophonecian woman.

Love is not found in demanding that there be a travel ban on the continent of Africa. Love is found, rather, in the actions of those who provide help, hope, and healing to suffering people of all races, nationalities, social castes, religions, orientations and identities. “Living Waters for the World,” Dr. Craig Spencer and Doctors Without Borders, are two very obvious examples.

In between last week's reading, where the Pharisees teamed up with the Herodians to try and discredit Jesus, and this week's reading, “Pharisees: Reloaded,” The Sadducees took their own pot shots at Jesus. And make no mistake: the whole aim of everything the Pharisees are doing here, including using an expert in the Law of Moses to test Jesus, is calculated to expose him as a heretic, a liar, a false Messiah.

The Pharisees, and for that matter their bitterest rivals, the Sadducees, saved their harshest words for those who did not practice Judaism with the fervor that they expected, who were not willing or able to attend every Temple event. They kept themselves scrupulously separate from undesirables, like Samaritans, Gentiles, lepers, prostitutes...

Jesus, to put it mildly, didn't do any of that. At all. He reserved his harshest words for the religious elite, those who used religion for financial gain, who held themselves not simply separate from, but superior to, the poor, forgotten, despised and marginalized. And he spent all of his time – all of it! - with those marginalized, despised, forgotten and poor.

To quote Mick Mooney, Jesus “doesn't just rock the boat of religion, ...he sets it on fire and then jumps into the water and swims to shore.”

I know that I don't have to spend time expounding on who our modern-day lepers and Gentiles and Samaritans are. I don't have to say that a modern-day Jesus wouldn't be in Mountain Brook very often; he'd be hanging out in Atmore or in the neighborhoods around Legion Field, the two poorest zip codes in Alabama (in order).

Jesus was a reckless lover of people, and he refused to bow down to the religious expectation of loving from a distance. He was up close, real, embracing all people, from all walks of life. He was hated by the religious elite because of his love, a love not made up of the words he spoke, but by the life he lived.

So what does all of this have to do with “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself?”

Well, let me ask: If Jesus, who the religious elite called a “...a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of... sinners” lived out these commandments in his every action, and if the ultimate goal of every citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, everyone who calls themselves by the name of Christ, is to be like Jesus...

...what should we doing? With whom should we be identified? What should they call us?

Let us pray.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

We Don't Get to Choose (Version 2.0)

I used the theme "We Don't Get To Choose" before, but this isn't a rehash of an old sermon. It's built from a statement on the "Pulpit Fiction" home pageThe tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the Kingdom of God ahead of you - note Jesus does not say that they will NOT enter the Kingdom, they will just enter behind the tax collectors and prostitutes... Why is this a problem? Should we celebrate that we are all going to the Kingdom and if not, perhaps that is what is keeping us away...”

Also, the last time I used this theme, the Rev. Dr. Kirk Jeffery posted a quote from Nick Lillo of WaterStone Community Church. I used it in this sermon.

(By the way, Rev. Dr. Jefffery roasts and sells the best coffee in the world. Just sayin'.)

There's a thing comedians and musicians do called "riffing," where you just take a theme and run with it. Maybe today's riff is, "God loves, so just... go with it."

MATTHEW 21:23-32
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Jesus said to them, “I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” And they argued with one another, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

The road into Jerusalem is strewn with crumpled, dusty palm branches from the day before, and somewhere between there and Bethany, there's a withered fig tree that had been leafy, but barren of fruit, just that morning. The Temple was packed, as always, and though Jesus had overturned tables and run them out the day before, the merchants and moneychangers were back at work. It isn't much of a stretch to imagine that it was one of them who had notified the elders and priests that Jesus was back. “Hey Phil, isn't that the guy from yesterday? The crazy guy with the whip?”

They found Jesus, squatting on the pavement in a corner, a tight knot of people listening as he taught.

Those priests and elders were, in a way, painted into a corner themselves. These days, if someone came busting in the church swinging a whip and turning things over, we would of course call the cops. For all intents and purposes, the priests and the elders, members of the Sanhedrin,
were the cops... they could simply have arrested Jesus, right then and there. But if they did that, the people would very likely riot.

I'm not saying that everyone in all of Judea who wasn't a priest or an elder or a Sadducee or Pharisee believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Most probably accepted that he was a prophet, or didn't care one way or another. But in a tightly packed city like Jerusalem during Passover week, all it took was a few angry people to start a fight, and soon the whole town was rioting, and they wouldn't really have cared why. The Temple elite would have been a good target, what with their sumptuous living and constant demands on the dirt-poor believers for more money and more sacrifices.

And even if the priests weren't torn limb from limb by enraged mobs, the fact remained that Judea was a province of the Roman Empire, under occupation by legions tasked with keeping the peace at any cost. A riot would be violently quashed, and the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, would determine that the Temple leaders were ineffective and have them replaced, perhaps even jailed or killed.

So this question the elders and priests asked Jesus,
“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” was truly a loaded question. On the one hand, it may have been a valid question - “Please tell us who empowered you, please help us understand.” Judging by Jesus' reaction, though, it's safe to assume that the priests and elders were struggling to expose Jesus as a fraud and a charlatan, discredit him in front of the people who clung to every word of hope that came from the mouth of this dusty little Rabbi from the middle of nowhere.

In any case, can you imagine the turmoil those religious leaders felt? There was no denying that Jesus was someone special – he spoke prophetically and with absolute authority, and he performed miracles, real miracles! The lame walked, the blind received their sight... and he had even raised a man from the dead. These elders and priests weren't idiots, they had read the Prophets, they knew how God worked to correct Israel over the millenia. Why were they so against Jesus?

Perhaps the simplest, most cynical answer is the true one. They had a good thing going. Wealthy, well-fed, and enjoying what power Pilate allowed them to have, they saw Jesus as a threat to their comfortable lives, and they wouldn't – they couldn't – allow God to send someone, even a Messiah, that they couldn't control.

These priests and elders had responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!” when God had called them to the vineyard. Yet for all their piety, all their dedication to the Law of God, they had, in the end, turned away.

And there. right in front of them, in the small crowd gathered around Jesus – fishermen and laborers, tax collectors and prostitutes – were men and women who had said, when the call came, that they would most certainly not serve in the vineyard. And though they had lived apart from the Law of God, had dedicated themselves to being as impious as humanly possible, had, in Jesus Christ, turned back to their loving Creator.

We don't get to choose.

We don't get to choose how God's Word comes in to this world. Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl, in a barn in the middle of nowhere? Sure, we're used to it now, but think about it... it's ridiculous. Laughable. All wrong.

But we just don't get to choose, do we?

Arrested, beaten, stripped naked, whipped bloody and nailed to a cross to die? OK, set aside this idea of God dying in the first place, to have God die in the most humiliating way possible, amongst criminals, then have his corpse shoved in a rush in someone else's tomb? Preposterous! Unimaginable! Repugnant!

We don't get to choose.

And if you are going to rise from the dead, shouldn't you do it in front of everyone? Or at least find some witnesses that people will listen to! In that day and age, the one hundred percent worst kind of person to appear to, to carry your message, would have been a woman. Yet what does every Gospel tell us? Whether one or two or three or a group, it was women, every time! It makes no sense.

But it isn't our script to write. We don't get to choose.

And we also don't get to choose who God saves. Oh, I have my lists – people and groups of people and kinds of people who in my opinion don't deserve to be in the Kingdom of God. I don't know if anyone else has lists, maybe it's just me.

There's something that Jesus says, though, something intriguing. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you...”

I am comfortable with the idea of those tax collectors and prostitutes being members of the Kingdom of God. Not so much, though, the elders and priests, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees...

Here's the thing, though. Jesus didn't say “ the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God
instead of you.” Believe me, I checked, and the Greek word proago, which our reading translates as “ahead,” really does mean “ahead.”

...the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God
>ahead of you.”

I don't think I am talking about Universalism, the idea that everyone gets in the Kingdom no matter what.

What I
do think it means is...

I don't get to choose.

God will call, save, heal, and reconcile with whomever God will call, save, heal, and reconcile. I can't pick the ones I like. I don't get to choose.

I do get to choose how I treat others, though, don't I? I can choose to be like the priests and elders, or like the scribes and Pharisees, comfortable in some imagined theological or moral superiority, looking down on people who, because of birth or choice or whatever, are different than me.

Or... I can understand that, as a beneficiary of the grace and mercy of the living God, I c
an choose to be a conduit of that grace and mercy to others, all others, no matter who they are. I can be a reflection of the Jesus I believe in and try to serve.

Nick Lillo said, “You have never looked into the eyes of someone who did not matter with God.”

We don't get to choose how God acts, we don't get to choose how the wild and ebullient Spirit of God m
oves in the world, we don't get to choose who God loves, or how God saves. But we can choose – we must choose – the part we play as members of the Body of Christ, as citizens of the Kingdom of God.

And that's really the only choice that counts.