Search This Blog

Monday, September 25, 2017

The A of Grace

Matthew 20:1-16
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
September 24, 2017

            Imagine for a moment that you are a student taking an essential class, one that you are required to pass in order to graduate. You, along with many of your classmates have really struggled with the material, as well as with time management all semester. There are so many other needs you’ve been addressing, trying to balance life, in the midst of academia. As hard as you’ve tried, you haven’t done all the reading, and you’ve barely made it to class each day. You’ve often felt and been unprepared. You arrive to take the final, following a brief review session—and you know you are in trouble. You are woefully unprepared; while many of the students struggled with the material during the review, you felt totally lost. 
            Your neighbor across the aisle, on the other hand, is super-student. She gets all the breaks. She doesn’t have to work while going to school the way you do, she always gets all of her work done, she’s had all the time in the world the study, to get special tutoring if necessary, to be ready for today, and she seemed to have all the answers during that review. She seems ready to embrace this exam.
You dread what’s coming. It’s going to be Judgment Day. This test is going to separate the winners from the losers, the wheat from the chaff.
            The professor explains that all the questions on the test are based on the reading, and students are responsible for everything in the reading. He then hands out the exam, face down on each student’s desk, with the instruction that you are to wait until everyone has their test, before turning it over.
When it comes time to turn the test over and begin, the students find that all the answers were filled in! A note on the bottom says, “This is the end of the final exam. All of the answers on your test are correct. You will receive an A on the final exam. The reason you passed the test is because the creator of the test took it for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced Grace”.
            Just imagine for a moment how you, the student-in-need-of-Grace feel in that moment. Imagine the relief. Imagine the joy. Imagine the gratitude. You experience transformation from fear and dread, to hope and gratefulness for this gift you have been given.
            Not all of the students feel the same way, however. Take your across-the-aisle neighbor, for instance. She has worked hard at this class, crossed every “T”, dotted every “I”, checked off each item on the syllabus, fulfilled every requirement, read every word of each reading assigned, and always gotten her work in on time, fully applying herself to the coursework in order to get that A. She isn’t exactly feeling grateful. She is feeling as though she’s been gipped.
            While many of the students who had felt unprepared for the exam feel relief and gratitude, like the 11th hour workers in our this parable – the ones sent out into the vineyard at 5 o’clock, others, who were prepared feel furious. How can it be that they, who had worked so hard the entire semester long, get the same passing grade as those who probably hadn’t prepared at all? How could they, “the deserving,” receive the same reward as those who just showed up? Why should they all get As? It’s scandalous! It’s just not fair!
            “Are you envious because I am generous?” asks God.
            The thing is, Grace is like that test grade. It is scandalous. It is unfair. It doesn’t follow the rules. It makes fools of all of us.
At the same time it is this scandalous grace that is God’s greatest gift to all of us. It is God’s greatest expression of love for us, because the truth is, as Martin Luther wrote, “we are all beggars in the presence of God’s mercy.”
            God asks, “Are you envious because I am generous?” and our emphatic answer might well be, “Darned right I am!”

God’s generosity is radical. God’s grace does not take into account what we have done or not done, only what God has done for us.
            We often read this parable through the lens of this seeming disparity. We focus on the aspect of the story that deals with what we so often get caught up in - the who-is-right and who-is-wrong, and what, by our human viewpoint, is fair?
 The problem is that our human focus on equity and equality is limited; it’s measured by human standards. Therefore, most of us see ourselves as the first workers. Because look at us, we are here today, aren’t we?  
Most of us have devoted a considerable amount if not our whole lives to being part of a worshiping community, to belonging to a church, to doing our homework, hoping against hope that we will be prepared when that final exam, the Last Judgment, comes along. Because isn’t that what we are supposed to do?
It’s easy for us to make judgments of those we don’t deem worthy of Grace –those who aren’t here every week like we are, those who are altogether unchurched, those who don’t play by our rules, or came too late to the game. We do it all the time.
“Are you envious because I am generous?”
Gospels like this one can feel like a smack in the face, or a punch in the gut. How could God grant the same Grace to one who hasn’t devoted their entire lives to the church, hasn’t dotted all the “Is” of faith, hasn’t crossed all the “Ts” of the rules?
American novelist and non-fiction author Anne Lamott writes, “I do not at all understand the mystery of Grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
What do we do when God acts in ways that don't meet up with our expectations, when we don’t understand the mystery of Grace?
Funny thing is, I don’t think this parable is about idleness or preparedness, or number of hours worked, or being prepared, or being the first to show up versus the last.
I don’t think it is about laborers or who got up early and who was given work near the end of the day. We make this parable about those things because they are the things that matter to us. They are our own obsession, not God’s.
Because if we truly could see God for the awesome one who is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” then perhaps instead of pushing back against the concept of what is fair and what is not, we would instead embrace this parable for the beautiful illustration it offers of God’s extravagant, all-encompassing love.
We are all on the receiving end of God’s abundant generosity. Through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and by his life, death, and resurrection we are all the recipients of God’s grace. No matter how we interpret this parable, if we are to be honest, we are the ones who get way more than we deserve.
Jesus’ healing and compassionate love for all, most especially for the least, the last, the lost, the little and the lifeless. Jesus cares about the ones who come early, come late, or don’t even come at all.
 While we judge one another as deserving or undeserving, Jesus has been clear that it is God’s purview to judge, and not ours. And God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
So, while we jostle for position, gossip about one another, tear down rather than build up through the choices we make, although we ignore those most in need of our love, compassion and forgiveness, God asks challenges us with this question – “are you envious because I am generous?”
            Do we see God’s generosity as radical when it applies to us? God’s grace is not measurable. It is a mystery that is both perplexing and wonderful. It covers you and me as much as it covers our neighbor, as much as it covers the stranger, as much as it covers our enemy - and we are as much in need of it as they are.
            Every time we are tempted to size up who is idle and who should be on the receiving end of generosity (God’s or ours or others), we need to consider this parable. We need to remember that, truth be told, we’ve gotten not what we deserve, but what God has so generously, extravagantly, radically, and foolishly given: Grace, mercy, forgiveness and salvation.
            We each come to the font and have water sprinkled on our brow and hear the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit;” By God’s Grace. Each one of us hears the words of absolution spoken to us following the confession, declaring that we have been forgiven; by God’s Grace.
Together we come forward to this table, regardless of what good or bad we have done during the week, regardless of what terrible thing has happened in our past. We stretch out our hands, undeserving beggars that we are, and in the mystery of God’s Grace we hear those amazing words, “Body of Christ, Given. For. You.” 
We each receive the same bread, the same wine or grape juice, the same immeasurable and undeserved forgiveness. That is the scandal of God’s Grace. That is the scandal of God’s love lived out for us every single time. That is the way God loves us, and it is not based on our goodness, success, good works, righteousness; it is based on who God is and how much God loves us, and what, out of that love, God has done for us.
            Our response, our only response is, Thanks be to God!

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Problem When We Play Auto-Correct: the difference between dominion and domination

 Exodus 14.19-31
      Anyone who texts or types knows a thing or two about this devilish thing called “auto correct.” It’s an automatic editing function that anticipates what you are typing. It automatically corrects your words to match words that are programmed into it. The problem is, that sometimes auto correct anticipates incorrectly, or doesn’t “know” a particular word – it’s not part of its vocabulary - and assumes your word, or at least its spelling, is wrong. Other times it’s as if the program simply cops an attitude and tosses out the one word you really want to use. 

      There are a number of “churchy” words that auto correct really doesn’t like. For instance, it will routinely kick out the work ‘lectionary’ and it consistently changes ‘pericope’ – the word for the scriptural text assigned for a day -  to ‘periscope’ – something that you might use aboard a submarine. 

When word processing systems don’t like your word choice, they will sometimes just underline it with an obnoxious squiggly red line; other times, they allow auto correct to take over, and replace the word with something that is similar but doesn’t even come close to meaning the same thing. Auto correct likes to take control.

       Case in point: This week I attended a monthly Clergy Discipling Group. We are a group of pastors who gather for prayer, bible study, and ministry support. Imagine my surprise when I took a second look at the calendar printed in the bulletin last week. Perhaps you saw it - that your pastor was attending a “Clergy Disciplining Group.” I want you to know that, really, everything is fine! It truly is a “discipling” group.

        In life, it is easy for us to act like “auto-correct” at times, to change the core meaning of something to something else that may or may not be like it.

        Back in chapter 1 (v. 26) of Genesis, God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” That’s quite a gift that God presented humankind. It’s quite a responsibility God gave us as well. Dominion is defined as power, authority, sovereignty or control. But the biblical emphasis on dominion does not mean destruction, but responsibility. The Christian is called upon to exhibit this dominion, but exhibit it rightly: treating the thing as having value itself, exercising dominion without being destructive. 

            God created so many things for the good of the world and for our good use and care. But we confess that all too often, humankind has resisted the call to responsible use and care for what God has given us, and instead simply takes, uses, and corrupts our natural resources and elements held sacred within the natural world.  The results have been catastrophic to entire ecosystems, lands, rainforests, waters, species of creatures, and now, oceans and climate. All too often we wipe our hands clean of the responsibility part of dominion, and, in an attempt at exerting our domination over creation, to resort to overuse, misuse, and abuse of the resources God has made.

            What God has given into our care as gift, we take as our right. What God created in balance, humankind has brought to destruction and death through its use, misuse, and overuse, and our world is paying the price. We auto-correct God’s intention, attempting to transform it from gift to entitlement. Rather than exercising dominion, we desire to exercise control. Rather than taking seriously the stewardship aspect of God’s gift, we seek to exercise domination over the resources of the earth.

            As we observe Climate in the Pulpit Sunday, we confess our culpability in the degradation of the natural environment, and the effect our choices are making on our planet. We ask God’s forgiveness and pray for the wisdom and earnest desire to repent of the harmful choices and actions we’ve taken. Today we reflect on our call to care of the natural world God so generously creates. It’s not easy. It sometimes requires tough choices.

            Science tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Bible tells us is that what God has created is good, and that we should use, care for, and preserve it diligently. Good, diligent care means acknowledging that there is an environmental cost to every action we take; and then working conscientiously to make the best choices that serve our needs while still caring for the health and welfare of our world.

            While acknowledging that we don’t fully understand the role that natural cycles of meteorological events play might in our weather systems, we can no longer deny that human activity has detrimentally affected our climate, resulting in rising seas, and increasingly frequent storms of increasing intensity while also, ironically, playing a devastating part in the sub-Saharan droughts and famine.

            The truth is that humans have exercised an immense power over Creation dating back to Adam in the Garden of Eden. Rather than giving us a call to exercise domination over the natural resources of the world, God has appointed us as their caretakers. This is a call and charge to humbly serve and care for creation; to work it, serve it, observe and preserve it.

            As Moses led the people of God out of Egypt, God parted the seas and gave Moses the responsibility to lead and care for these people that God put in his charge. In the parting the Red Sea and later, when Moses produced water from a rock at God’s command, God gave Moses limited powers over the natural world for the sake of God’s people.    

When Moses lifts his staff over the waters, he follows Divine instruction; he interacts with nature in order to let the oppressed go free – in order to do God’s will. The Israelites are saved from a continued life of slavery through Moses’ obedience to God.

            Just as we understand Newton’s third law – that action/reaction stuff, we must understand that whatever we do has a cost, a risk, a reaction at least equal to and in some cases, bigger than the initial action. It is all the more important, therefore, for Christians today to develop a much more exciting and faithful view of stewardship – of dominion that takes seriously the welfare and not just the harnessing of natural resources for our use. Our work in this world is to right the wrongs of systems of greed and domination that have so severely impacted the climate and the creation.

            In the text from Exodus, Moses led the marginalized Israelites out of oppression. Dirty methods of energy production, irresponsible use of natural resources, and the production and irresponsible waste and disposal of natural resources do just the opposite. They disproportionately harm the “least of these” by polluting the air, soil, and water. More than ever we need to auto correct from domination back to dominion again.

            The same God who loves the world calls us to actively pursue justice, including environmental justice. God knows what a struggle this is for us most days. God knows how deeply we fail at taking seriously our stewardship of the earth. So, God sends Jesus to walk along side us while we wrestle with a new commitment to responsibility and advocacy for the environment.  May God grant us healing for our fractured relationship with the natural world, that as Christians we might grow in rightly valuing the gifts of the earth.

            May we who have been redeemed by God’s love, through the power of  Jesus Christ, be empowered through the Holy Spirit to make wise choices, and be assured of God’s forgiveness when we falter. May our wise choices be our response to what God has done for us. May we participate in the generous work of God, as agents of God’s common grace as we devote our skills, talents, and treasure toward building up and caring for the beautiful and awesome products of God’s creative work. May we grow in our understanding of dominion expressed in sacrificial service that serves God and the common good.          

            The Apostle John tells us that God loved the world (Greek cosmos, the entirety of creation) so much that he gave his son to save those who believe in him. Our lives and work here are not about ourselves, but instead the good of the entire created order. We have a unique and critical role to play, however small it may look to us, in fulfilling God’s purposes for the world.
In doing this work we will truly find our purpose.





How Quickly We Fall - the Story of Peter

Matthew 16:21-28
The gospel text for today is a continuation of the text we read last week. When Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am,” Peter is the first to answer, declaring that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. For that, Jesus heaps praise on him. Yes, Peter, you got it! And on the strength of this truth, Jesus says, he will build his church.
It was a pivotal moment in the ministry of Jesus. It was a moment of profound transition in the gospel of Matthew.
So, as the story continues today, the gospel writer tells us that from that point on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and undergo great suffering, and be killed, and be raised on the third day.
      After 16 chapters working up to this moment, of Jesus teaching about the true nature of God, of Jesus calling disciples into ministry with him, and his teaching the disciples how to be disciples and even giving them a few practice runs, once the revelation of Jesus’ divinity is made, Jesus moves on to revealing the purpose for his coming; Passion; Death; Resurrection.
       But, hearing Jesus talk about his own destruction and death is more than Peter can comprehend or bear. “God is merciful to you, Lord! This will never ever happen to you!” In Peter’s mind, the God who loves, sent, and guides the Messiah could never allow such suffering to befall him – could never allow such an end to come to the Anointed One.
Jesus’ response to Peter is, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a big problem to me because you are not gripped by the concerns of God but by the concerns of human beings.” That, my friends, is the crux of the problem.
       I have compassion for Peter. Following so closely on a pinnacle moment for Peter, Jesus’ response indicates that in his eyes, Peter now embodies evil.  In the blink of an eye, the movement of the text goes from praise to condemnation.
Rather than being praised for possessing knowledge that is the rock upon which the church of Jesus Christ would be built, Peter is denounced as a stumbling block. A rock that doesn’t build up the work of the church becomes an impediment and worse – it causes other to trip, to fall.
How easy it is for us to lose sight of who we are supposed to be.
Peter’s problem is that his imagination is crippled by the way he wants things to be – by the way he’s always understood or imagined God works. He is crippled by the comfort he experiences as he imagines how God will save God’s people, and he is unable to imagine, he cannot fathom, the way that Jesus has revealed salvation will come.
Peter confessed a Jesus he thought of as the conquering hero, mighty warrior king the people of Israel had been expecting. It was leap enough for him to imagine this itinerant rabbi who had become his friend as the Anointed One sent by God to redeem Israel, but once he got past the fact that this man who seemed so ordinary was fact God’s Son, well, he reverted back to assumptions based on the way it had always been: the weak were routinely overcome by the more powerful; therefore of course the victorious Messiah would show himself to be the ultimate, most powerful avenging hero.
Are we any different in our expectation for God? Greed for power and wealth still drive the world in which we live. Therefore, power and acquisition are still viewed as vital requirements for and measure of success, even in the church.
David Lose writes – “Like Peter, what we most often want is a little more of what the world already offers – be it force or security or wealth or status or popularity or whatever. But Jesus didn’t come to comfort us with a little more, but instead to free us. And freedom first means realizing that we’ve settled for something that isn’t life giving.”
It's like this: Imagine you are making lists on a paper with 2 columns on it: 1 side for the way God blesses us, and the other side for the way God challenges us.
On the blessing side, we would likely list words like comforts, consoles, feeds, nourishes, saves, gives us life and love and riches and family, health, wealth, friendships, church, activities, forgiveness, light in the darkness, etc.
The other side, the one for the challenges might list things like, “sends us out to feed the hungry, tells us to forgive our enemy, love our neighbor, embrace the outcast, accept and accompany those who aren’t like us, insists we must bear the Cross of countercultural activity in Jesus’ name.
God demands that we name evil things for what they are – egoism, racism, poverty, discrimination, white supremacy, religious intolerance, ignoring the desperate, pursuit of wealth at the expense of the less fortunate, sexism, homophobia, perpetuating injustice through our choices. Ignoring the least, the last, the little, the lost and the lifeless. The list just goes on, and on, and on, doesn’t it?
We tend to pray easily for those things on the “blessings” list – we try mightily to ignore the things on the challenges list – the call to move counter culturally in the realm into which Jesus calls us.
Jesus’ way is countercultural and mysterious – he is fully divine yet fully human; he has power over the earth yet submits to death on the cross; and he neither yields to those with earthly power nor does he beat them into submission with mighty arms.
       Instead, Jesus declares, it is divinely ordained and even necessary that he go to Jerusalem where he will be condemned by those holy and righteous leaders of the religious tradition and the political elite. They will torture him and kill him. But Jesus also predicts, and to be honest I don’t think that Peter and the rest of the disciples even heard this part of what he says, as shocked as they are – that on the third day he will rise from the dead.
       They miss the point of what Jesus’ true victory will be – that through his death and resurrection he will defeat the powers of sin and death, and he will rise again. And you can’t blame them.  They have absolutely no experience on which to base what Jesus is telling them about how God will act in this story. They have no way to even begin to imagine it. They have no way to comprehend that in the midst of death God brings life and even when Jesus dies on a cross, God will use him to raise us to new life.
     So, today I invite you to join me as we challenge our imaginations – where are the places that God is at work in and through your life for the good of the world? Can you imagine what you, your congregation, or your community has to offer the world? Can you imagine, that when you befriend the lonely or encourage the frightened heaven rejoices? Can you imagine that, though afraid, when you stand up to those who spew hate God is with you? Can you imagine that even smallest acts of love and generosity can change the world order and introduce a different reality; That through your hands, God’s work truly is done? Can you imagine that love is more powerful than hate and that you hold that power inside your own beating heart? Can you imagine that God raised Jesus from the dead in an act of defiance, strength, power and life for the world?
      Many of us have been moved by the outpouring of love and support across racial and economic lines for the victims of Harvey this week – we’ve even joined in. We’ve been amazed at the heroic acts by strangers who risked their own lives to save the lives of those in peril.
I don’t believe, and I sincerely hope that none of you believe, that this hurricane was a sign of God’s wrath, judgement or punishment. While God’s ways are mysterious to us, so too are God’s enormous store of strength and compassion and drive for forgiveness and relationship. I believe that God is at work in acts of kindness and generosity large and small in the healing of those affected by the storm and floods and that God can use these blessings to change hearts and build bridges.
      When we drift and falter as Peter did, God is there to challenge us, bless us, and call us back. God forgives us and frees us to set our minds, wills, and action in the direction God intends for us as redeemed children of God. In Paul’s letter, we hear the call to let love be genuine, hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good. Life places us in a complicated world. But with Jesus’ blessing, each day we have an opportunity as his disciples to live out the radical, unexpected love of God in Christian life and service. May the Holy Spirit empower us, that it may be so.