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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Amazing Grace

Matthew 22:15-22  
The Pharisees Question Jesus by James Tisson
        Did you hear that final sentence in our gospel this morning? “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” What was it about what Jesus said that amazed these disciples of the Pharisees who had been sent to Jesus to try to trap him? Was it that he saw through their thinly veiled guise, through their conniving and treachery? Was it the way that Jesus turned their words and intent around, in fact ensnaring them in a trap of their own making? Or was it simply the authority with which Jesus spoke?
        As we seek to answer these questions and those others that we might add, it is important to place this reading in its appropriate context.        This story occurs during what we know of as Holy Week. The shouts of “Hosanna to the Son of David” have all but faded away as Jesus enters the divine space of these few days between his triumphant entry into Jerusalem and his tragic crucifixion.
        The temple leaders are trying in earnest to trap Jesus and fulfill their mission to destroy him. They have one goal in mind – to be rid of this man who is causing so much trouble with his cross-cultural message. But they have also been taking great care in planning his downfall, because they fear the crowds.
        The 1st century Jews and everyone living in the Roman territories are required to pay an Imperial tax, the one being referred to here. Of all the taxes that they must pay, and there were many, this tax is without a doubt the most despised because this is the tax with which the people of Israel pay their oppressors to do the very work of oppressing them.  
        Jesus avoids the trap that has been laid for him by his questioners, by asking a question of his own, “whose head is this, and whose title?” Someone pulls a coin from his tunic. They answer, “the emperor’s. Perhaps it is at that moment they realize their folly. And they are amazed. Because Jesus knew. He knew they would reveal their divided loyalties by carrying this Roman coinage into this holy place, the temple. They knew that this money was idolatrous, bearing on it not only the face of the emperor but also an inscription that declares him divine or the son of a god.
        Jesus’ response must have cut them to the quick. “Give, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”. Jesus doesn’t accuse them. Rather, he calls them to a higher fidelity than they had ever imagined; he calls them to live in a relationship to God that bears evidence of their faith and understanding, that everything belongs to the one true God, the Holy One of Israel.
        We, too are called to a higher fidelity than we can ever truly understand. Our gospel text raises questions for those who surrounded Jesus in the temple that day. It raises questions for us today. While Jesus raises these questions, he doesn’t give us pat answers.
        Instead, Jesus issues an invitation to another kind of life, where we acknowledge that although we do have responsibility to render certain elements of our lives to the world order within which we live, we also identify our deepest self as belonging to God. Jesus has made the amazing promise that no matter what we do or say, regardless of where we go, no matter what may befall us, we belong to God. We are and will always be, first and foremost, God’s own beloved children. Therefore, the simple truth found within this text has profound implications for how we live in the world, for the choices we make, and for how we value and conduct the various parts and parcels of our lives.
        One day, when I was about five or six years old, I got mad. I don’t really remember what was wrong, but on that day I decided to run away.
        I carefully and selectively packed my bag. Into my little suitcase I placed my favorite pajamas and a frilly dress my mother had just bought for me. I packed a sweater and my favorite stuffed animal, Andy the Panda Bear. Then I set out on my own.
        One of my neighbors must have seen me and ratted me out because I didn’t get very far before one of my parents caught up with me. I returned home for “The Inquisition.”
        “What were you doing?” I was asked. “Running away from home,” came my reply. “Oh, I see,” my parent responded. We may or may not have discussed the reason for my flight away from our home and family. I don’t really remember. But what happened next is forever etched in my memory.  “So, what do you have there?” they asked, pointing to my suitcase. I opened up and revealed the few treasures I had taken with me.

        Well, my parents told me. They would be really sad to see me go, they had really gotten used to having me around. But if I must go, I must. However, the suitcase would have to stay. In fact, they said, everything would have to remain here, because as my parents so eloquently told me, “you arrived in your birthday suit, and if you leave, you will have to leave in your birthday suit.” I guess it was our own, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” kind of moment.
        I got their point. I elected to stay.
        You might say that my parents strong-armed me that day. Perhaps they did. They certainly shocked me. And sometimes that is what we need in order for us to see the truth. Perhaps, sly fox that he can sometimes be, that is what Jesus did that day as well.
        Remember the final sentence of our text, “When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.” Perhaps that conversation with Jesus was a sort of watershed moment for those men. We don’t really know. We don’t know for sure where they went afterward, or what they did.
        But I wonder, might hearing those words and considering the import of them for our lives today be a watershed moment for us?
        We reflect on those words of Jesus: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s and to God the things that are God’s.” Exactly what is God’s?
        We’re going to take just a few moments now, and I am going to ask the ushers to give each of you a dollar bill. This dollar bill is a gift. It is a gift from me to you. It may seem like a crazy thing to do, for the pastor to give each of you a dollar bill, and out of her own pocket, no less! But you know what? That dollar bill really was a gift to me in the first place.
        The ability to earn it is a gift. In fact that dollar bill, multiplied by however many people worship here today pales in significance as only the tiniest portion of all that God has given me. Like the belongings that I placed into my suitcase that day when I was five, none of these dollars is truly mine except by the grace of God. As a precious gift to me, I am called to care for them, to use them wisely and appropriately. My use of them should bear out the fact that I belong to Christ.
        And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, once you get your dollar bill, I invite you to take just a moment and look at it. Examine it closely, and then talk for just a moment or two with your neighbor. Tell your neighbor what you see in the dollar bill. What symbols are drawn on it? What words written upon it? What do they mean to you? What does this dollar bill represent for you?
        Next, I invite you to imagine what this dollar bill might buy. What kind of work might it do for you, either alone or combined with other money you have in your possession?
        I invite you then to do with this dollar bill what you see fit. There were no strings attached when you received it. If you need it, keep it. You can choose to give it away to a worthy cause. You can decide to put a portion of it or combine it with other dollar bills and place them in the collection plate. You can take a pen and mark it with a cross, then tape it to your bathroom mirror or carry it in your wallet to remind you that you are a child of God and everything you possess, from every moment of your day, to the very body you were given, your loved ones, to your last dollar, and finally your very salvation is a gift from God, given for you through God’s everlasting love and mercy. It is, quite simply, amazing!
        What would it mean then to see everything as coming from God and belonging to God? It means that you fulfill certain civic responsibilities because God made you a citizen with a homeland. It might mean that you see your role in creation through new eyes, and determine to become a better steward of the environment. It might be that the concept of the tithe takes on new meaning for you.
        How hard is it to see everything as belonging to God?
Christ on the Cross by Carl Heinrich Bloch
        Not long after this confrontation, Jesus will live out the kind of sacrificial giving that none of us will ever be able to truly appreciate on this side of the cross. In Christ, God risks everything. God knows the risk of the grace bestowed on us, and God gives it freely, anyway. That is the core of God’s grace. God is the one who takes the risk. God is the one that gives it all, in order that we might all have eternal life that begins in Christ Jesus.
        May the grace of God call us to the kind of amazement that stays with us when we leave this place today, and colors all the rest of our days. 


Monday, October 13, 2014

Wedding Day Blues

Matthew 22:1-14; 10-12-14              
          Is there any parable more troubling than the one we just heard? I’m not sure there is. When I look at this parable, I know my mind just starts racing, and I am tempted to begin making excuses for the king. Because on the surface, with our 21st century ears and context, the events depicted in this parable are appalling. However, as is usually the case in the stories that Jesus addresses to the leadership of the temple, there is a great deal below the surface of any parable.
          The details would have been appropriate and better understood by those for whom the gospel was being written. That being said, this living word of God still carries with it the meaning for us today. So, let’s dig under the surface together and discover applications of this gospel text to our lives of faith.
          So let’s start by considering three questions:
          1. What is the most elegant (or expensive) dinner or party you have ever been invited to?
          2. What is the most fun you have had at a wedding or other party to which you have been invited?
          3. What is the lamest excuse you have ever used yourself, or heard someone else give, in order to get out of doing something – like accepting an invitation?
          Today’s gospel text begins with preparations for a grand wedding banquet, a feast that would, in those days have played out over an entire week –compare this to the recent wedding activities of George and Amal Clooney, which reportedly cost well over one million dollars, to which only a few of the most connected people were invited. This included activities, outings and parties that went on for days. Only in our reading of this wedding feast described in our gospel, it is the king’s own son for whom the wedding feast is being held.
          Invitations are sent out, but unbelievably, the intended guests all find something better to do – that is hard to understand, given that fact that in this context, an invitation by the king is tantamount to a command to appear and partake in this celebration. Those who received that invitation by all rights would have a) felt privileged to be included, and b) known that their participation in this feast was essential to their political welfare; it was an opportunity to show the king appropriate honor, and allegiance to the legitimate successor to the throne.
          Indeed, political alliances are at stake. Your life and well-being are at stake. Refusal to come for any reason short of a death in the family or some other tragedy would have been interpreted not only as an insult – but as an act of rebellion – as a deliberate act of defiance and contempt for the king’s authority - not a good move in anyone’s book of etiquette or survival manual. In light of this fact the excuses of all the invitees were pretty lame indeed. They probably trump the lamest of excuses you might have recalled.
          Instead, they defy the king, and refuse to come. However, the king persists in his desire to include all these fine folk in the feast of the bridegroom, and sends another set of slaves out to issue the invitations. Maybe he thought the first set of slaves were just inept at their job, gave the wrong message or got lost, so he sends this second set out with more explicit directions to instruct the people to come now that everything is ready and waiting for the party to begin.
          It is in horror, then, that we consider what happens to those poor, wretched slaves when they deliver this invitation. The response from the invitees can be seen as nothing less than a deliberate act of insurrection. The king, appropriately, responds as any king would, to put down this rebellion and destroy those who initiated it.
          Following this interlude of violence, death and mayhem, the invitation is opened up to include everyone else. And they come: the good and the bad, the wealthy and the poor, the Gentiles and Jews, the women and men, the business owners and the farmers, the sheep and the goats.
          And, just when we heave a big sigh because all seems, at last to be well, the king spots this one man who has the audacity to upset the apple cart and wear the wrong clothes to party. Now, at this point we might scratch our heads and say to ourselves, “Really? What was he thinking?!
          And the king’s response to this man’s faux pas? We are again shocked and horrified, as this man is tossed out to a place where he will endure great suffering – we’re confused because isn’t this a parable about the kingdom of God? Isn’t Jesus telling those around him this story to prepare them for the Lord’s coming? And don’t we hear from our scriptures that God is patient, full of grace and mercy and abounding in steadfast love?
          So how do we interpret this parable?
          Today’s gospel is about invitations, feasts, and the appropriate response to magnificent, lavish grace. Like other parables, this story uses hyperbole, allegory – and metaphor. Most of us will recognize the king as God, and the son for whom this feast is given as Jesus.    
          The marriage feast represents the great marriage feast of the Lamb. The slaves who are sent, are the prophets; those whom God sent to invite the wayward people of Israel to repent, to prepare the way for the Messiah, and finally, to believe. Those initially invited, are God’s chosen people – the Israelites. The violence represents Israel’s rejection of the prophets, up to and including John the Baptist.
          The destroyed city may be seen as the fall of the temple and its destruction which, for Matthew’s original audience, is an event which stands out in collective experience and memory. Finally, the clothing that is worn by all who accept this invitation may be understood as metaphor for the baptismal garment of Christ.
          So, if you received this invitation, from the king no less, wouldn’t you be honored? Wouldn’t you be exponentially more honored than you were by the invitation to the event you wrote down in our exercise a little earlier?
          So we have to wonder at the refusal of the original honored invitees; where is their awe?  Where is their sense of wonder? Where is their gratitude for the grace and generosity of the king? Where is their party-spirit?
          Those responses come from the ones who DO accept the invitation – the misfits; the marginalized; those whose only real value comes from that fact that they were invited at all, regardless of the circumstances. It is the king’s invitation that grants them status – they have none on their own. Finally, the hall is filled with a mix of people glad to be fed and served at the behest of the king. They show up ready to party.
Clothes say a lot about a person, especially in the tradition of first century Palestine. For an important event, especially something like a wedding feast, or an appearance with the king, one would wear his or her best. Anything less would be an insult. 
          So important was it to honor the host of something like a wedding, especially when the host is king, that wedding garments might have been provided by the host. If the garments were provided, not only would everyone be suitably attired, but individual class and station would be indistinguishable. The clothing offered would be, as the feast was, equally generous to all. So it is with the mystical garment which clothes us from the moment of our baptism, mercifully prepared by our Lord.
          This garment, supplied by our most gracious Lord of all, is no ordinary garment. It is the righteousness that comes from God and it becomes for us the outward expression of the inward change God performs in us through our baptism. It is comprised of threads of compassion, generosity, kindness, and forgiveness. The fabric of this garment is knit with concern for social justice, care for the poor and marginalized. The golden thread that holds together the seams of this garment was spun from the blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and it compels us, to welcome others to the feast. It compels us to be not only guests, but servants.
          This garment that clothes us so righteously reminds us that in the eyes of God, whether we came from the stock of the good or the bad, beggar or prince, sheep or goat, we are forever transformed by God’s grace, united with Jesus Christ and with one another. Those of us who wear this garment will be forever equal to all other garment-wearers, with no distinction between race or class or gender, for the righteousness which comes from our Lord, Jesus Christ knows no distinction, and becomes our salvation.
            About the garment and the rogue guest, Robert Capon writes that the Great Banquet has been made possible, indeed it is ushered in by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and by that alone.
          Capon writes, “one person apparently thought the banquet is based in something other than that.  He wears some other garment.  We are not told whether the man wore rags or a tux.  It matters not which.  Anything other than the wedding garment of Christ's death and resurrection is irrelevant. The man is asked how he got in without the proper dress.  The man was "speechless."  In essence, by refusing to respond or speak, the man refuses to enter into a relationship with the king….. if he'd said anything at all--if he would have acknowledged a relationship in any way--he'd have been all right.  But he didn't.  He was "speechless."”
          The man is unceremoniously shown the exit because the death and resurrection of Jesus is the only reason that anyone is there.  Their presence has nothing to do with their "goodness" or "badness."  It has nothing to do with whether or not they are in any way "worthy."  It has everything to do with a "new creation" in which none of that counts. 
          Sooner or later that grandest, most elegant party we listed earlier will end. But for those who have accepted the invitation of our heavenly king, the feast has only just begun. We must do more than just show up when we accept this gracious, unmerited invitation. Like all those clothed in the baptismal garment bestowed by God, we must allow ourselves to be forever transformed by the life-giving feast of Christ. May it be so.

Gospel Grapes

 Matthew 21:33-46
          We need Jesus. Isn’t that the entire gospel in a nutshell? I’m not just talking about this gospel passage that we just read. I am talking about the entire gospel, the whole New Testament, and every word that Jesus utters, taken as a whole. All we need is Jesus.
          Faith in Jesus Christ proclaims this truth. You can take all the Christian creeds, the doctrines of the church, the confessional writings, and the prayers by which we profess our faith, and what they boil down to is this – what we need, more than anything else, is Jesus.
           Faith in Jesus leads to trust in his Word, which leads us to care about what this kingdom of God is all about. We need Jesus to light the way. And we have that, through the life, death and resurrection of our Lord. We need Jesus to teach us how to believe and how to live. And we have that, through the scriptures and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.
          We need a savior to take away our sin–so that we might be freed from excessive worry over what we have to do to earn our salvation, (something, by the way, that every good little Lutheran boy or girl knows we cannot do anyway), and instead focus on Jesus, on his light and his Word, and all that faith means for the day-to-day living of our lives. All we need is Jesus to weed whack our hearts, to transform our turned-in-toward itself heart and our sour grape lives into good grapes, worthy of kingdom work.
          All we need is Jesus to restore us to new life through the forgiveness of sin - individual sin; corporate sin; sins of commission; sins of omission – and we have that, too. So why is it so hard for us sometimes, to believe? Why doesn’t the whole world get it? How is it that the religious leaders Jesus is addressing in our gospel text today don’t get it either? How is it that even though we do have Jesus, we still suffer brokenness in our relationships, our environment, our society and our lives?
          The answer, my friends, is that we still live in a fallen world, where our own brokenness gets in the way of our understanding, knowing, or feeling the fullness of God’s grace. While we may confess, profess, and believe on the one hand that God’s grace is sufficient for us and that God, through Jesus forgives our sin and leads us to new life, grace like that is still a mystery to us. And, as Anne Lamott says, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
          In the text from Isaiah that Caroline read this morning, despite God’s loving planting and provision of good soil and plentiful rain and sun, the vineyard that is the people of Israel has not produced the expected fruit. Rather, it has brought forth “wild grapes” of injustice and distress; instead of the good, fine grapes of justice and righteousness which were expected, rejection and unfaith, or disbelief reign. So it has been throughout the history of mankind. And so it is, still, today.
          This reading gives us a glimpse of the deep anguish and grief that God experiences at the ruin of this vineyard and its lack of good fruits. Rather than the goodness, prosperity, and justice which God intended and expected at its creation, this vineyard has instead become overgrown with greed and pride, selfishness and violence, all evidence of Israel’s rejection of God’s tender loving care, and later, those whom God has sent to teach, to warn, and to prophesy.
          If we look now at the gospel text from Matthew, and the vineyard portrayed there, once again we see a vineyard which has been well-planted with provisions taken for its care. Left in the hands of tenants, there is an expectation of a bountiful harvest yielding good grapes. But just when the time has come to collect a plentiful harvest of the best fruits, emissaries sent by the owner and creator of the vineyard are violently rejected and destroyed not just once but over, and over again. Finally the Son himself is rejected and scorned and then killed. We read into this parable all kinds of parallels to the story of God and God’s people Israel and if we take it a step further even parallels to our own lives today.  
          Sharron Blezzard points out that while the story within this parable is difficult to hear, God’s solution to the violent, evil tenants is even harder to understand, except as an act of grace itself. As we attempt to unpack this parable we wonder: where do we fit in? Are we the owners, the rightful collectors of the benefits of Jesus’ work of salvation? Or are we the greedy and selfish tenants who refuse to pay their due to the vineyard owner? Are we righteous or rotten—or a little of both? Who are we?  
          While we confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord, too often our actions actually proclaim unbelief in Him…like the religious leaders Jesus addresses in this story, we reject Jesus’ authority…and when we do, we fall into the “self-centered theology of the ‘I am.’ “I am righteous”; “I am entitled; I am capable”; “I am the favored and worthy one”; “I am deserving of power and riches”, “I am in control”.
          Other times our “I am” theology falls more along the lines of “I am unlovable”; “I am not worthy of God’s notice let alone God’s redemption”, “I am full of failure and shame”; “I am poor, weak, burdened”, “I am a victim”, “I am powerless.” Either way, to both those who reject Jesus by thinking “I am in control” and those who have never before felt accepted and think “I am unlovable”, Jesus is the cornerstone, bringing news of God’s ultimate judgment of grace and mercy.
          Jesus is the cornerstone, the one God sent, who comes in humble human birth, in vulnerable flesh and blood, the rejected one. Jesus is the one through whom God does amazing and marvelous things. Jesus has brought about the ultimate, most unexpected reversal.
          All those previously rejected by the world, receive grace through Jesus. All those who are marginalized, are invited to the feast. All those who are born into nothingness, the misfits, the seekers, the scorned and hated, are folded into God’s enormous life-giving grace. All those who are in need of forgiveness for their haughty self-centeredness and pride are granted a new beginning. And everyone whose heart is transformed through this grace of God is blessed and called in turn to produce the finest of fruits for the kingdom. Jesus came among us poor, tiny, and vulnerable – and yet, Jesus became for us this rock, this cornerstone, the foundation for our faith and the foundation of our lives.
          The religious leaders and all who have rejected Jesus, will find all their hopes and dreams, all their doctrines and laws, all their faulty understanding and misguided teaching to be like wild grapes of wrath that suck juices of life from the ground and turn sour in the mouth. Without the cornerstone their building will not last, it will crumble and fall. Their pride will turn in on itself. They will ultimately wither and die.
          Grapes of wrath are produced when we forget that all we need is Jesus.  As Blezzard points out, “It is the fallen humankind that takes the fruit of God’s good creation and extracts a wrathful harvest of injustice and oppression.” And yet, even as we turn from Jesus, even as we reject Jesus, he returns to us with love and forgiveness. This is the grace of God, the love of God coming into our world and into our lives. To our joy we discover the open arms of Jesus on the cross, bringing life into this world even where there is death; bringing hope where there is despair; and bringing resurrection to all creation.
          There is a quote I’ve seen, which succinctly states a great truth. “God’s grace runs deeper than my mess.” (Do I hear an ‘Amen’?) God has showered me, you, all of us, with gifts and blessings and a creation to care for. God invites us to turn from our shortsightedness, abuse and pollution of the earth; God calls us to turn away from the abuse of the gift of our bodies; God yearns to heal the brokenness in relationships; Jesus helps us reach out and repent of our role in the marginalization of the least, the lost, the last, the little and the lifeless who are pushed further to the margins because they threaten our sense of well-being and comfort; the God who grieves when we turn to conflict and war as pride, greed, and thirst for gain take hold in the center of our hearts, calls for peace. You see, my friends, we need Jesus, the cornerstone of the kingdom of God. Henri Nouwen reminds us, “Our life is full of brokenness-broken relationships, broken promises, broken expectations. How can we live with that brokenness without becoming bitter and resentful except by turning again and again to God’s faithful presence in our lives?”
          Jesus invites us, through the images of this text to look upon a new vision of grapes of grace when Jesus, as the cornerstone of our life and faith turns upside down and inside out all the worldly expectations of power with his paradoxical messiahship where the last shall be first, and the first, last.

          Friends, truly, all we need is Jesus, because that which God produces is always life-giving, grace-filled, and hopeful. As we gather at the foot of the cross toward which Jesus is pointing, and where he is heading, may we know the grapes of hope and grapes of grace which God provides. As we gather around the table today, may we partake in wine that is poured out, as the fruit of the Lord’s vineyard, Christ’s blood shed for the forgiveness of all. May we in turn produce grapes of love and grace, forgiveness and renewal in the name of Jesus Christ.