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.

Saturday, September 6, 2014


Reconciliation is a hard subject. Here's hoping I did it justice.

MATTHEW 18:15-20
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

One thing people are really good at is arguing. Christians will argue with people who aren't Christians, or with people who are different kinds of Christians than we are, or with people who are in the same denomination as we are. People will argue politics, football, what state has the best barbecue, which Pokemon is the best, we will argue about anything.

A lot of times, arguments have to do with ego – I want to be right, and if I am right, you can't be. Other times, it has everything to do with context and interpretation.

One example of all of this happened with me this week. I was browsing either FaceBook at home, or Yahoo News at work, and I ran across an article: “Five Reasons to Suspect That Jesus Never Existed.” Now, the article's points were easy to respond to, and me being me, I did... I made a blog post. As of this morning, less than thirty people have seen the blog post, compared to the millions that saw the original article, but... that'll show 'em, huh?

One of the things that caught my eye was a quote by Bart Ehrman, which seemed to support the writer's contention that the existence of Jesus is a myth.

Now, Bart Ehrman is the James A Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He's a graduate of Princeton Seminary, the author of twenty books, and he is a well known speaker. Some of the books he's written include “Misquoting Jesus,” “How Jesus Became God,” and “Did Jesus Exist?” - which is the book that's quoted from.

Bart Ehrman will never, ever get a prize for being the world's most passionate Evangelical. He is, in fact, an agnostic – someone who believes the existence of God is something we can not know. However, that is not to say that Ehrman thinks Jesus did not exist. He has said, both in the book the article quoted and in several interviews, that there is very little reason to doubt that Jesus did, in fact, exist.

Here's a couple of quotes from Ehrman from an interview on NPR: "Paul knew Jesus' brother, James, and he knew his closest disciple, Peter, and he tells us that he did, If Jesus didn't exist, you would think his brother would know about it, so I think Paul is probably pretty good evidence that Jesus at least existed."

Also, “The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the enemies – and so if you're going to make up a messiah, you'd make up a powerful messiah, You wouldn't make up somebody who was humiliated, tortured and the killed by the enemies.”

Pretty ironic, I guess, that the author of a book named “Misquoting Jesus” would, himself, be misquoted.

Taking words out of context, purposely misquoting people in order to make a point or to bolster your own position... these things happen all the time. Politicians do it all the time, and so do the news media.

And Christians do it, too, and we do it most often with the Bible. There are very few places this is more true, than with our Gospel reading today, what to do if a fellow Christian sins against you.

This Gospel passage has been misquoted, maligned, and misused as a way to protect the status quo, to keep people from speaking truth to power, to make the vulnerable even more vulnerable… Like far, far too many passages of Scripture, this has been a hammer to beat people down, rather than a beacon to bring them home, wings to lift them up.

What is Jesus really saying? If a brother or a sister does something that offends, hurts, or harms you, or if he or she is committing a sin – and yes, it is entirely accurate to include all of this in the Greek word “hamartia” which is taken from archery and means “missing the mark” – then find a space where you are both alone, and point out the problem. If there’s no meeting of the minds, no resolution, go back with a couple of witnesses. If that doesn’t work things out, take it to church, and if that doesn’t fix it, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Is this a justification for excluding from fellowship anyone who hurts our feelings or does something we don’t like? Is Jesus simply giving us justification for shutting others out, or is there something deeper at work here?

To be sure, if all Jesus is doing is offering us the mechanics of church discipline, the church as a whole does a really lousy job of carrying this discipline out. We seem to operate as if church discipline is a hammer, and people are nails... but I digress.

I want to suggest to you this morning that this passage speaks less to classic church discipline and more to personal discipline within the body of believers. If a brother or sister sins against you – you go… you take one or two others with you… you go to the church…

That’s hard, isn’t it? And we are wired so differently than that. It’s easier, almost more natural that, rather than face the person we have a problem with, in private, one-on-one, we tell someone else about the offense, who tells someone else, and on and on and on. It’s the easier, more face-saving option, sure, because all that gets out as far as we are concerned is our side of the issue, and it's fun, because it's gossip… but it all too often leads to churches splitting, fellowships breaking, or families being destroyed, when a simple conversation would have set the whole matter straight in moments.

Confrontation is toughand by “confrontation” I don't mean reality-TV style confrontation; rather I mean conversation, difficult talks whose foundation is love, speaking softly, with humility, and with an eye toward working things out. This is hard, hard work. But the Gospel is about relationship. Through Jesus Christ we are related to one another, and related to our loving Creator God, members of a singular body and a singular Kingdom of God.

And the Gospel is about reconciliation. In Christ, we are reconciled to God. Jesus Christ is all about reconciliation, and the good news is that even here, even in this Gospel reading, the focus of what Jesus is saying is not exclusion or excommunication – not how to keep people out! No, the focus is upon reconciliation and restoration – how to keep people in!

That first step Jesus talks about has a wonderful focus to it! “If [he or she] listens to you, you have regained that one.” Reconciliation!

That second step – having one or two others who can hear both sides, and help work things out! Reconciliation!

And what about that last, seemingly harsh pronouncement: “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector?” Think about it – the one who is speaking is the same Jesus who made it a point to specifically reach out to, eat with, care for, heal and feed the Gentile? Who not only ate and spent time with tax collectors, but even called one, Matthew, to be his disciple?

Knowing this, it makes sense that Eugene Peterson, in “The Message” paraphrase, interprets the “Gentile and tax collector” verse to say something shocking, something profound: “If [the sinning fellow believer] still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.”

Again, reconciliation.

And where is Jesus in all of this? Right there! “…I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus’ presence is found in the hard work of reconciliation!

It is at once humbling and reassuring. Jesus does not promise to be present when we argue, or make blog posts, or share our opinions on Twitter or FaceBook. As much as I like to be right, God doesn't care so much if I am right. God cares if I am loving. God cares if I am compassionate.

It isn't about fixing people. It isn't about making you think the way I think, or making people agree with a given world view, or adhere to a given doctrinal position. The work of the Kingdom of God is found in bridging gaps rather than widening them, in opening doors rather than locking them, in welcoming rather than excluding... Jesus’ presence is found in the hard work of reconciliation!