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Monday, November 17, 2014

All in the Family--Part One

I recently had the chance to lead a study on Matthew 25 recently at a "Women of the ELCA" cluster event at Emanuel Lutheran Church.  The focus was the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.  So I will share here what I shared with the participants that day.  We will hear this text read in worship on Christ the King Sunday.

The first thing to notice is that this text is not a parable.  Instead, it is a vision.  It doesn’t begin like a parable.  There is no “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to” a man or a seed or a treasure.  This is the climax of Jesus’ discourse on the fate and future of Jerusalem and the Temple.

In this vision, “all the nations” stand in judgment before the Son of Man on his throne.  In New Testament Greek, the same word is used for “nations” and “Gentiles.”  Immediately we may notice that at least some of these outsiders are going to end up inheriting “the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world.”  But we will leave aside this assertion of a measure of universalism within on the lips of Jesus.
Many Old Testament texts imagine that the Gentiles will come to be judged when God sets all things right.  Here is an example from Psalm 9.  Notice the connection between the judgment of the nations and the protection of the needy and the poor.

16 The Lord has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
   the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.
17 The wicked shall depart to Sheol,
   all the nations that forget God.
18 For the needy shall not always be forgotten,
   nor the hope of the poor perish for ever.

Or again in Psalm 66:4-5:

4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
   for you judge the peoples with equity
   and guide the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God;
   let all the peoples praise you.

Or again in Psalm 96:10-13

10 Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!... for he is coming,
   for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
   and the peoples with his truth.

This image of judging the Gentiles is emphasized in some passages associated with the coming of God’s Messiah.  For example, we can read in Isaiah 2:2-4:

2 In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. …
4 He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.

The “son of man” passage in Daniel 7 also mentions the judgment of the nations.

13As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
   coming with the clouds of heaven….
14 To him was given dominion
   and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
   should serve him.


So there was an expectation during Jesus’ earthly life and ministry that the nations would be called to account by God at the end of all things. 

Please be clear, however that this vision is not primarily about the end of history.  This vision is about God’s victory that begins in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  Jesus describes the coming of the Son of Man in Matthew 16:24-28.

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?  For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

In Matthew 24:34, Jesus again makes it clear that the judgment begins with his cross and resurrection.  “Truly I tell you,” he says there, “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

So this scene in Matthew 25 is a vision of that calling to account.  In Ezekiel 34:17, this judgment is connected to the image of a Shepherd who will save and lead Israel: “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats…”  So the image is familiar to Jesus’ listeners.  They know precisely what Jesus is describing.  This is what happens to the nations after God’s people have served faithfully.

More tomorrow...

Monday, October 27, 2014

Simply Jesus Study Guide Chapter One

Men in our congregation are reading N. T. Wright's book, Simply Jesus.  We invite you to read along (or come and discuss in person, men).  Next Sunday we will discuss chapter one, "A Very Odd Sort of King."  Here is the study guide for the chapter.  Any comments posted here will be shared with the study group the following week.

Chapter 1: A Very Odd Sort of King
Here are some quotes from chapter one and a few questions to prod your reflections.

“Jesus’s arrival in Jerusalem a few days before his death is one of the best-known scenes in the gospels. But what was it all about?  What did Jesus think he was doing?”  What do you think Jesus was doing on that first Palm Sunday?

“Unless you ask this question (‘Are you who they say you are?’), your ‘Jesus’ risks disappearing like a hot-air balloon off into the mists of fantasy.”  What are some of the images of Jesus that make Jesus more of a fantasy than a real person?

“With Jesus, it’s easy to be complicated and hard to be simple.  Part of the difficulty is that Jesus was and is much more than people imagine.”  Where do you see that people sell Jesus short in their understanding or experience of him?

“Jesus—the Jesus we might discover if we really looked!—is larger, more disturbing, more urgent than we—than the church!—had ever imagined.”  Have you ever been challenged by Jesus?  If so, how?

“We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy, escapist ending after a sad, dark tale.  Piety, conscience, and ultimate happiness are important, but not nearly as important as Jesus himself.”  How do you respond to this statement?

“He was the king, all right, but he had come to redefine kingship itself around his own work, his own mission, his own fate.”  How would you describe the sort of king Jesus claims to be?

“We want a ‘religious’ leader, not a king!  We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world!  Or, if we want a king, someone to take charge of our world, what we want is someone to implement the policies we already embrace, just as Jesus’s contemporaries did.  But if Christians don’t get Jesus right, what chance is there that other people will bother much with him?”  In what ways do you see that Christians don’t “get Jesus right”?

“We can try to get, not ‘behind’ the gospels, as some sneeringly suggest is the purpose of historical research, but inside them, to discover the Jesus they’ve been telling us about all along, but whom we had managed to screen out.”  What Jesus stories do you recall that cause questions or struggles for you?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Show God the Money--October 19

A man parked his brand-new Lexus in front of his office, ready to show it off to his colleagues. As he got out, a truck passed too close and completely tore off the door on the driver's side. The man immediately grabbed his cell phone, dialed 911, and within minutes a policeman pulled up.

Before the officer had a chance to ask any questions, the man started screaming hysterically. His Lexus, which he had just picked up the day before, was now completely ruined and would never be the same, no matter what the body shop did to it.

The officer shook his head in disgust and disbelief. "I can't believe how materialistic you are," he said. "Did you notice anything else that happened?”

"What do you mean?" asked the man.

The cop replied, "Didn’t you notice that your left arm is missing from the elbow down? It must have been torn off when the truck hit you."

"Oh, no!" screamed the man. "Where's my Rolex?"

Money is not a spiritual issue.  Our relationship with money is.

We need more income at Emanuel to fund God’s ministry.  The kingdom of God, however, will come whether you or I give or not.  God doesn’t need us to give.  We need to give. 

Money is not a spiritual issue.  Our relationship with money is.

We want our money to serve us.  We want our money to make us secure, powerful and comfortable. 
Like us, the Jews of Jesus’ day were saddled with many taxes. In the Gospel reading a controversy arose about the annual tribute tax paid to Rome: "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Jesus’ attackers didn’t want a dialogue about national policy.  They wanted "to trap Jesus in His words."  They wanted money to serve their needs.

Trapping Jesus seemed easy enough. But he surprised his opponents.

He asked them for the coin that was used to pay the state tax.  Then he asked whose image it bore. One side of the coin had a picture of Emperor Tiberius.  On that coin Tiberius was named a son of god.  The other side honored him as the "Pontifex Maximus.”  That means Tiberius was the chief priest" of Roman religion.

To a faithful Jew, such a coin was religiously offensive and politically humiliating. The fact that Jesus’ opponents had such a coin revealed them as hypocrites only interested in power.   They wanted their money to serve them.

Money is not a spiritual issue.  Our relationship with money is.

Two men are in a bank, when, suddenly, armed robbers burst in, waving guns and yelling for everyone to freeze.  The robbers take the money from the tellers.  They also line up the customers and take their wallets, watches, and other valuables.

One of the men jams something into his companion’s hand. Without looking down, the second man whispers, "What is this?"

The first man replies, "It’s the $100 I owe you." 

That’s a handy way to get out of debt.  But it’s a miserable way to be human. 

Money is not a spiritual issue.  Our relationship with money is.

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  The word "give" means "give back."  
So we have to ask ourselves, “What belongs to God?”  For Christians, the answer is simple.  It all belongs to God.  And that’s the good news.

Everything belongs to God.  But God has given us everything.  Jesus died to do that for you.  What will we give back?

Money is not a spiritual issue.  Our relationship with money is.

The comedian, Jack Benny, was famous for being cheap.  One sketch stands out in particular.  A robber points a gun at Benny.  The robber says, "This is a stick-up. Your money or your life."

Benny replies, "Mister, put down that gun."

The robber persists.  "Shut up. I said this is a stick-up. Now, come on. Your money or your life."   Benny puts his hand to his chin and frowns.  The robber repeats himself, "Look, bud. I said, your money or your life!"

Benny exclaims, "I'm thinking it over."

Everything belongs to God.  But we act like it all belongs to us.  Benny’s sketch illustrates our dysfunctional relationship with money in this culture.  Some have called it the disease of “affluenza.”

Affluenza is a dysfunctional relationship with money. It produces a concentration of wealth in a few hands and a concentration of want in many homes.  Affluenza means we serve our money.

What is the cure for this disease?  We need a conversion in our relationship with God and with money.  We need to use our money to serve God. 

So I invite you to pray that our Lord will help you in your relationship with money.  I invite you to spend less, save more and give away more.  Watch less television.  Read fewer advertisements.  Play games with other people rather than with machines.  These are simple things.  But it’s a start. 

Money is not a spiritual issue.  Our relationship with money is. 
If we do nothing to change that relationship, people suffer.  When we serve our money, we sacrifice other people for our own needs. 

A millionaire throws a massive party for his fiftieth birthday. During the party, he's a bit bored and decides to stir things up a bit. He grabs the mike and announces to his guests that down in the garden of his mansion he has a swimming pool with two great white sharks in it. He offers anything he owns to anyone who will swim across that pool.

The party continues for some time with no one accepting his offer, until suddenly there's a loud splash. All the party guests run to the pool to see what has happened, and in the pool a man is frantically swimming as hard as he can. Fins come out of the water and jaws are snapping and the guy just keeps on going. The sharks are gaining, but the guy manages to reach the end and he leaps out of the pool, soaked.

The millionaire grabs the mike and says, "I am a man of his word, anything of mine I will give—-for you are the bravest man I have ever seen. So, what will it be?" the millionaire asks.

The guy grabs the mike and says, "Why don't we start with the name of the person that pushed me in!"  I have to ask myself if my consumption is tossing someone else into that swimming pool.


Money is not a spiritual issue.  Our relationship with money is.   Let us pray…

A Great Little Film!

Watch this award-winning little film called "The Art of Neighboring"!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Picked to Party! Message for October 12

View on youtube.

Satan opposes joy.

So Satan opposes anything that leads to joy.  Satan opposes music and humor and laughter.  Satan despises laughter and play and silliness.  Satan is disgusted by loving and serving and giving.  Even the slightest whiff of joy will lead us closer to God.

Real joy freezes Satan in terror.

So Satan supports the serious.

Too often I cooperate in this.  God may well be throwing a party.  It appears that I am invited.  But why would I bother with a party when I have so many important things to do?

I have a farm to tend.  I have a business to build.  I have a church to serve and books to read and meetings to manage.  I have sermons to preach and classes to prepare.

Let’s not even start with the yard work and house work and book work staring me in the face.  Then there are the lessons and practices and games and concerts.  I simply don’t have time for some foolish party—even if the invitation comes directly from God!

Satan supports the serious.

When I am serious, I tend to focus on me.  The more I focus on me, the less I focus on God.  For example, I spend so much time working for Jesus that I never spend any time with Jesus.  I am so busy studying God that I never take time to enjoy God.  I am so consumed with worry that I have nothing left for worship.  I am so busy handing out invitations that I never get to the party.

Satan supports the serious.  Because the business of Hell is serious—deadly serious.

God invites me to the party.  Am I going?

I align myself with the first invitees in the parable.  I have made my confession about that.  I know you can make your own confession.  We all face the same charge.  Count One of God’s indictment is “Failure to Party.”

After all, Jesus loves a good party.  He does dinner with Pharisees and tax collectors.  He makes sure a wedding has enough wine.  He supplies a picnic for thousands and dances with those freed from demons.  And what does he get?

The serious people are not amused.  “Look,” they say, “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!(Matthew 11:17).  Guilty as charged, Jesus says.

The deadly serious people could not take Jesus seriously.  The charge against them was “Failure to Party.”  They, too, were guilty as charged.

God invites me to the party.  Am I going?

I can excuse all those serious people.  They had not yet seen the end of the story.  They didn’t know the reason for the party.  But what about me?  Where is my excuse?  I know how things turn out!

This is the Marriage Feast of the Lamb!  Sin, death and evil have done their worst to Jesus.  And they have failed.  In Revelation twenty-one, we hear the song played at the Divine wedding dance.

“See, the home of God is among mortals…
And God himself will be with them;
He will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
Mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
For the first things have passed away.”

If I cannot sing that song, then why am I here?  If I cannot dance to that tune, why did I come?  If that song doesn’t make me smile, I am in the wrong place!

God invites me to the party.  Am I going?

Worship is a party, first and foremost.  Worship is joy—joy embodied and enacted.

But we are serious people.  We demand decorum and decency.  We clamor for cool and calm control.  We regulate our rituals and domesticate the Divine drama.  We cooperate with Satan in corralling the Spirit.

After all, how dare we be happy?  People are still dying.  Diseases leap from continent to continent.  Missiles rain down on the innocent, and murderers still stalk their victims.  Women are abused, and cancer still rages.  Hungry bellies growl for food, and naked bodies shiver for clothing.  Depression deepens into darkness.  Children are stolen for sex and soldiering.

What business have we to celebrate anything?

Here is what I imagine.  I imagine that I go to a wedding reception.  The bride and groom radiate happiness.  The joint is jumping with joy.  And I—I just can’t stand it.  “What is wrong with you people?” I shout.  “Don’t you realize that this is the beginning of sixty years of misery?  There will be a miscarriage.  There will be horrific arguments.  There will be debt and discouragement.  There will be ungrateful children and unloving parents.  At best it will end with death and at worst with divorce.  You should be weeping in despair, not laughing love.”

In my dream I hear a little tune.  “Every party needs a pooper.  That’s why we invited you.”

God invites me to the party.  Am I going?

Yes, the journey has its share of puzzles and pitfalls and pain.  But we know how it all ends.  “He will wipe every tear from their eyes…for the first things have passed away.

Worship without joy is like balloons without helium.

If we church people can’t jump for joy with Jesus, then Jesus will find people willing to learn.  Our worship must be more like a wedding and less like a funeral, more like a circus and less like a class.

God invites me to the party.  Am I going?

We can’t just show up for the buffet and then slip out during the toasts.  That’s the problem with the underdressed guest in the parable.  A good host provided proper wedding duds for underdressed guests.  So this fellow must have turned down the offer of proper party clothes.

He just came for the food.

We get our wedding clothes when we are baptized.  “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” Paul writes in Galatians three, verse twenty-seven, “have clothed yourselves with Christ.” 

The only question is whether we will stay dressed or not.  Because with Jesus, every day is a party!

Three years ago I bought our granddaughter a princess outfit.  It came complete with tiara and wand.  When I bought it, the dress reached her ankles.  Now it hardly covers her bottom.  But she still wants to wear that dress every time she comes.  It is a sign that she is our princess and our joy.  It says much about who she is.

Our baptism dresses us for lives of joy.  As C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Joy is the serious business of heaven” (Letters to Malcolm, page 93).  Resist the temptation to pour water on the Holy Spirit’s fire.  “Do not quench the Spirit,” Paul writes in First Thessalonians five, verse nineteen.  Instead, blow on the glowing coals of joy until they burst into flame.

This means focusing every day on what is good and gracious, what is pure and positive, what is enduring and excellent.  The world has no shortage of crabby critics.  The world has an abundance of shouting heads.  It takes no talent to trumpet trouble.  It takes no skill to celebrate sin.  It takes no wisdom to whine about the world.

No, we celebrate what is true, honorable, just, pure, and pleasing.  We lift up what is commendable, praiseworthy, and excellent.  That’s the music at God’s party.  We are called to know how to dance.

God invites me to the party.  Am I going?  You bet!


Let us pray…

Friday, October 10, 2014

At Play on the Railroad Tracks of the Lord

There is always so much more to say about any sermon text.  One of the elements of the Parable of the Wedding Feast is that the first invitees are just too damned serious to participate.  I use that curse-bound description advisedly, because that focus results in their destruction.

I would commend the book, Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown  and Christopher Vaughan.  If the book is more than you wish to tackle, there's a fine TED Talk that summarizes the work.  As someone who is chronically "play-challenged," I need to return to this book periodically.  Brown puts it plainly:
"I have found that remembering what play is all about and making it part of our daily lives are probably the most important factors in being a fulfilled human being.  The ability to play is critical not only to being happy, but also to sustaining social relationships and being a creative, innovative person." (page 5)
Of course, playing is much better than talking about playing.  So when I next report my continuing education work to my bishop, I shall perhaps include my return to model railroading as a hobby (N-Scale at this point).  

It is barely a start right now--just a small track layout and a few pieces of rolling stock.  But even that is already a helpful and healthy distraction.  I have intentionally located the layout in my home study rather than in another room to remind myself that play is a necessary part of full human existence.

Nonetheless, I still feel a bit silly and shy about the whole enterprise.  If I am not careful, I can easily persuade myself that it is all a useless waste of time and money.  And if I am not even more careful, I can turn this play time into yet another "job."

So we come back to worship.  I think of Marva Dawn's wonderful book entitled A Royal Waste of Time.  I first read it during the height of the worship wars as "traditional" and "contemporary" were lobbed like musical mortars from one worship camp at another.  I was so grateful for Marva's permission to resign from the wars and focus on what made for good worship, whatever the brand name might be.

These days I find that I must re-inject playfulness and whimsy, poetry and wonder, into worship planning and leadership.  If worship doesn't feel at least a bit like play, then it is probably not done for God's purposes.  "The truth is," writes Stuart Brown, 
"that in most cases, play is a catalyst.  The beneficial effects of getting just a little true play can spread through our lives, actually making us more productive and happier in everything we do." (page 7).
Brown  lists the properties of play based on his studies:

  • apparently purposeless (done for its own sake)
  • voluntary
  • inherent attraction
  • freedom from time
  • diminished consciousness of self
  • improvisational potential
  • continuation desire
This is an interesting list when applied to Christian worship.  What if our worship planning included this list as a planning template?  I would have more fun...and I suspect others would as well.  Most of all, worship would contain the joy of surprise.


I'm good with that.  Whoo-whoo!  All aboard!

Not Plan B

In a 1990 Christian Century column, Deloris Williams suggests that the parabolic king in Matthew 22:1-14 was forced into a change of plans by the irritating invitees.  "In order for the wedding feast to occur," she proposes, "the king had to change his standard about whom he would consider desirable company" (October 17, 1990, page 931).

That is certainly one way to read the parable.  I am not so sure, however, that it is the only way.  It may be that the king's standards have not changed at all.  If we do not abstract the parable from the concrete Biblical story, we may come to a different place in our reading.  "On this mountain," intones the prophet, "the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food..." (Isaiah 25:6a).  For all peoples...

It may be that the king has planned all along to invite the riffraff to the celebration.  Perhaps this is the real reason the recalcitrant recipients are so resistant.  They know that the king intends to invite the wrong sort of people to the party.  They do not intend to sit cheek by jowl with such a motley crew.  Like Jonah, they flee in the opposite direction precisely because they know the king's plan.

I remember a conversation with a lifelong Lutheran who did not attend worship on Easter Sunday.  He called it "Visitors' Sunday."  He saw it as one of those days when the riffraff showed up and took the seats belonging to the regulars. 

He said that his favorite days were the "after" Sundays--after Christmas, after Easter, after Thanksgiving.  On those days the "real" church folks could worship unhindered by the disruptive outsiders.

I have a soft spot in my heart for such churchly curmudgeons.  They love the church and want to protect it.  But my friend was, of course, quite wrong.  Welcoming tax collectors and sinners is not Plan B.  It is not a strategy to fill seats that would otherwise go wanting.  Welcoming all is precisely the plan from the beginning.  God's people bear Abraham's call to be the means by which all the nations of the earth will be blessed.

So I do not need to search the emergency guest list to find my name.  There is a beautifully lettered name card at my place. And there is one at the table for you as well.

Note: I did not link you to the Williams column because I found it in my sermon file rather than online.  Sorry!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Time for Some Serious Partying

Praying through the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-14 this week.

And what about the poor fellow who came to the party under-dressed?  God's kingdom is certainly open to all, but not if you come just for the buffet!  This is more than a wedding reception.  This is a kick-off banquet for God's new world order.  Those who just want a to-go box cannot be welcomed because they never really arrive.  Jesus seeks partners not poachers.  Wedding crashers will be escorted to the door.

The robes are not some human set of affirmations.  God dresses us in the royal robes of baptism to make us part of the royal family.  The wedding guests become what the king intended.  Or they must leave because they have refused the full invitation.

"The point of the story," Tom Wright says,
is that Jesus is telling the truth, the truth that political and religious leaders often like to hide: the truth that God's kingdom is a kingdom in which love and justice and truth and mercy and holiness reign unhindered.  They are the clothes you need to wear for the wedding.  And if you refuse to put them on, you are saying you don't want to stay at the party (Matthew for Everyone, page 85).
This parable speaks volumes about how we must view Christian worship.  After all, the wedding feast is an image of the kingdom coming--both in Jesus and in its fullness at the end of all things.  We describe Holy Communion as "a foretaste of the feast to come."  N. T. Wright describes our Christian worship as "the most politically charged act we can ever perform.  Christian worship," he writes, " declares that Jesus is Lord and that therefore, by strong implication, nobody else is" (Simply Jesus, page 217).

In our worship we accept the invitation to God's party for life.  On the Working Preacher web site Lance Pape writes,   "Within the world of the story as told, the problem with this guy is not that he is not taking things seriously enough.  No, his problem is his failure to party."

Our worship is not merely advertisement for pie in the sky in the sweet by and by.  Our worship is our weekly affirmation of our allegiance here and now to Jesus, our Lord and our Leader.  We will not make excuses about businesses or farms.  We will not protest that we forgot our wedding clothes.  We will say yes to the invitation and get down to the serious business of joy.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Biggest Lie

The invitees were, perhaps, skeptical of the king's claims.  Here we are back in Matthew's Parable of the Wedding Feast.  The parable displays the self-interested bias of this skepticism.  The invitees had business to do and farms to manage.  They had a city to guard and power to protect.  It was in their interest to question the claims of the king.

So, Tom Wright notes, "it may be time to be skeptical about skepticism itself.  In Jesus' own day, there were plenty of people who didn't want to believe his message, because it would have challenged their own power or influence.  It would have upset their own agenda" (Simply Jesus).


If I accept the king's invitation, how will my life need to change?  I may need to change how I arrange my family schedule and priorities.  I may need to change how I view and use money.  I may need to change how I deal with enemies.  I may need to change my language or my TV habits or how I talk about people.  I may need to wonder about my personal politics or how I view world events.


We must ask ourselves about our self-interest as we respond to the invitation.  "Skepticism," says Wright, "is no more 'objective' than faith.  It has thrived in the post-Enlightenment world, which didn't want God (or in many cases, anyone else either) to be king" (page 59).

I remember, for example, my years as a cocky and confident atheist.  After a while, I started to examine my motives.  I realized that I didn't want to get up early on Sundays.  But that wasn't God's fault.  I didn't want to adhere to a moral code that might interfere with my self-absorbed pursuit of booze, sex and nihilistic philosophy.  But that wasn't God's fault.  I didn't want to risk the rejection and judgment of another congregation.  But that wasn't God's fault either.  And I didn't want to emulate my parents.  That also wasn't God's fault.

I discovered that authentic atheism was about seven percent of my real motivation.  Mostly I just wanted to raise hell, and I didn't want anyone interfering with my willful excesses.  Raise hell I did--leaving a trail of tears, self-destruction and despair.  

But at least I was in charge of that mess.  "Better to rule in hell," says Milton's Satan, "than to be subject in heaven."

But that, of course, is the greatest lie of all.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Trusting Jesus' Dreams

On we go to the Parable of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-14.

It is one thing to say that the Kingdom interrupts business as usual (see verse 5).  But in the next verse we have a city (perhaps Jerusalem?) burned to the ground by the angry and rebuffed king.  A king does not really invite guests to a party.  The king summons his subjects to honor the nuptials of the crown prince.  If people come, they acknowledge that they are subjects.  If they do not come, they indicate that they are not.  The "invitees" were not willing to acknowledge the king as their rightful ruler.  They would not come.

We don't, in our political culture, know all that much about command performances.  But if I were invited to dine with the president of the United States, I would think long and hard about declining such an invitation, regardless of who occupied the office.  Wouldn't you?

So why would anyone turn down such an invitation?  They would turn it down because the invitation threatens to turn our world upside down.  We may have some problems.  But we tend to have things about the way we want them in our lives.  We don't need God interrupting and disrupting our farms and businesses.  We don't want God re-arranging our schedules and priorities.  We desire a god who is convenient, compliant and comforting.  We demand a god who consults our calendar and approves our agenda.

In his book, Simply Jesus, N. T. Wright puts it this way.  "We have reduced the kingdom of God to private piety, the victory of the cross to comfort for the conscience, and Easter itself to a happy escapist ending after a sad, dark tale" (page 5).


We get the mail and see a fancy, thick envelope.  Inside is an invitation to a wedding.  We look at the date on our calendar and groan.  We will have to rearrange our whole schedule to accommodate the event.  Who wants to do that?  Is it really that important?  Maybe we can just send a really nice gift along with our regrets.


The Jerusalem authorities expected a different sort of king.  And so do we.  Wright continues, "We want a 'religious' leader, not a king!  We want someone to save our souls, not rule the world.  Or, if we want a king, someone to take charge of our world, what we want is someone to implement the policies we already embrace, just as Jesus' contemporaries did" (page 5).

The invitees had not heard from the king in a very long time.  They were so accustomed to running things on their own that they lost the ability to listen.  They were so used to being in charge that they could no longer tolerate the idea of having a king.  So the wedding feast was a threat, not a celebration. Jesus "commands his hearers to give up their other dreams and to trust his instead.  This, at its simplest, is what Jesus is all about" (Wright, page 56).

As long as our dreams seem to work, this is perhaps all just too much.  But every human dream dies in disappointment.  Every human hope collapses in catastrophe.  I had hopes and dreams, plans and schemes for the future, for example.  They evaporated in the death of a loved one.  None of the old stuff would work.

At that moment, Jesus' dreams became the only dreams possible.  I could embrace them or live in delusion.  Here is the challenge that faces the invitees in the parable.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Tenant Behavior

I grew up the son of a tenant farmer.  So I identify first with those tenants in the parable.  When I was four, we moved to the farm where I grew up.  We had an outdoor toilet and an indoor chamber pot. We had a pump on the back porch and a furnace that burned wood and coal.

The house needed what a realtor might generously call “updating.”

My parents went to work.  First it was running water indoors.  An indoor toilet took ten years, but that’s another story.  Dad farmed on the contour and rotated the crops.  The landowner was morally opposed to soybeans, so Dad relied on alfalfa and clover to rebuild the soil.  We repaired buildings and fences.  We moved dirt and cleaned out brush.

Twenty years later, Mom and Dad moved to town.  Dad certainly shed a few tears when they left.  He felt more like the owner than the owners did.  And who could blame him?

But he wasn't the owner.  He was more of a steward.  He owned nothing and managed everything. And he left the place better than he found it.

I guess that’s not surprising.  Dad was a natural as a theologian.  He had a love/hate relationship with the church.  But he had a love/love relationship with God.  Dad never liked the things we sang in church after the offering.  So when everyone else stood up and sang, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…” Dad would hum to himself.

That was a small victory for everyone else, because my dad couldn't carry a tune in a tin pail.  But he would hum the tune to a great old hymn:

We give thee but Thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be.
All that we have is thine alone,
A trust, O Lord, from thee.”

Dad understood.  It all belongs to God—and that’s the Good News.

I sympathize with those tenants.  But they had an ownership problem.  They had invested heavily in the vineyard.  The owner was nowhere to be seen.  What sort of owner abandons his property and takes an extended vacation!  They convinced themselves that they care more about the vineyard than the owner did.

So when the slave agents of the owner came, the tenants defended “their” property.  They beat and killed the owner’s surrogates.  Then they assassinated the son to protect their investment.

Jesus’ listeners knew this was no fairy tale.  The religious authorities in Jerusalem could read the subtitles.  Jesus was talking about them.  He started by singing a song everyone knew.  It was Isaiah’s “Song of the Vineyard.”  There is no doubt about the nature of the vineyard.  “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the House of Israel,” Isaiah sings, “and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting…

The tenants want to be the owners.  But that cannot be.  It all belongs to God—and that’s the good news.

It is no great challenge to transpose this tune into a contemporary key.  “What if the church’s job,” asks Barbara Brown Taylor, “were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?” (Leaving Church, page 222).

That would be steward behavior rather than tenant behavior.  But for those of us trained to act like owners, it can be a frightening prospect.

Combating the Competitors

We continue to read and meditate on the Parable (or is it Allegory?) of the Vineyard in Matthew 21:33-46.

I am re-reading Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church, because at our Thursday morning adult study, we are reading and discussing her book, An Altar in the World.  In Leaving Church, Taylor writes,
Where church growth has eclipsed church depth, it is possible to hear very little about the world except as a rival for the human resources needed by the church for her own survival (page 221).
I find resonance here with the Parable, especially as it leads us to think our life as church.  I don't think the rivalry for resources is limited to the human dimension.  Yes, we offer our facility to community groups for use.  But what if we need the space for our own growing and expanding programs and ministries and projects?  There is usually little thought about the issue.  The congregation owns the building, so that's that.

By the way, I am speaking generically and not making a particular comment on the place where I serve.

As a pastor, I communicate that church activities should outweigh and even trump activities out in the "world." Lay people know how to act and even feel appropriately guilty when they or their loved ones choose "secular" activities over "sacred" ones.  And I typically don't even know how my parishioners might be serving out in the world--especially if that serving keeps them from attending classes and committees, meetings and morning worship.  It's off my radar most of the time.

By the way, this is not a generic comment but a chagrined self-reflection.

Our people belong to us, after all.  How dare the world lay claims on them!  There is only so much people power to go around, especially in a smaller congregation.  Why can't people get their priorities straight and put the church first?

We who are tenants in vineyard long to keep the produce for ourselves and our purposes.  So we begin to see the world as competition rather than as a place to exercise compassion.  And our allies, the good church folks around us, reward that perspective on a daily or weekly basis.

But what if the produce is for other purposes...

Monday, September 29, 2014

Is It Time for a Homiletical Cough?

This week we pray over and read together Matthew 21:33-46.  This is the "Parable of the Wicked Tenants" (at that is the title in some translations).  This is the violent climax of the vineyard parables and allegories in Matthew 21.

Before I read and pray over this text, I have to wonder how we can dare read it at all in worship.  Last week, I heard Anna Madsen remind us that we must subject all our texts to the Auschwitz test.  How will a text sound if we read it at the gates of Auschwitz?  This text takes us to the limits of that assessment tool.  The owner of the vineyard "will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at harvest time."  Worse yet, the stone that the builders rejected will break opponents to pieces and crush them to dust.

How does that sound in the precincts of the gas ovens?

A subset of this problem, of course, is the notion of Christian "supercessionism."  Is this about the Church replacing the Chosen People as the tenants in God's vineyard?  If so, what do we do in conversation with our Jewish colleagues in the twenty-first century?  Or will we just cough uncomfortably and preach on the second reading for this week?

In addition, our texts must also be read on the streets of Birmingham or Atlanta or Memphis.  Here we have another "slave" text where the realities of slavery are assumed and never critiqued.  The slaves are sent as disposable commodities.  There is no real indignation regarding the beating and murder of those slaves.  The assault is on the honor of the landowner rather than on the bodies of the slaves.  It is only when the son appears that the landowner's rage is fully engaged.

How does that sound in the ears of the heirs of human bondage in this culture--whether our forebears were owners or owned?

It is easiest to burrow into the text itself and try to work out some sort of contemporary application of limited scope and awareness.  I have committed that homiletical sin many times.  But we cannot un-know what we know.  Texts like these are what Phyllis Trible named in another context as "texts of terror."  The abused in this text are slaves and Jews (some of whom were also women).  

How do we read this text, tell this story, pray about our response in such a way that we do not continue the terror?  Can we do it at all?

I'm a lot better at questions than at answers...

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Empty Suits (and Skins)

Perhaps it really was Billy Graham who first said, "God has no grandchildren."  It makes little difference who really said it.  It is clear in Ezekiel 18 that sin has no grandchildren either.  The prophet will not let them or us distance ourselves from sin by displacing ourselves from the event.

Nor can we claim membership at God's table on the basis of genealogy or accidents of birth.  There are no "legacy members" of the church, no matter what we might wish or pretend.  Following Jesus does not produce a genetic or tribal identity.  There is no "race" of Christians that flows from parents to children.  I may stand a better chance of being a Christian if my parents are Christians.  However, there is no indelible mark that passes from parents to children in the sheer reality of family.

At least that flow does not happen through biological reproduction.  What is passed on is not an identity we can own.  Rather what is passed on is a way of life that can only be pursued, not ever possessed, that can only be practiced and never presumed.  So following Jesus is not something which can be inherited.  It can only be learned.

The congregation I serve is a family-style congregational system.  Such a system sustains itself and grows by birth, marriage and adoption.  But even birth by itself is not enough.  Birth must be followed by nurture.  The next generation must be formed in the faith, not merely enrolled on the register.  Only in that way can a rebellious child like that first son return to the path.

And yet, there is always the danger that we will wear the label without doing the work.  We live in a time when labels are everything.  We will adopt almost any identity--sports team, clothing manufacturer, brands of beer and liquor, brands of cell phones and tablets.  We have become walking billboards in a desperate search to be someone and to belong to something.

We wear these labels as if we ourselves have won the games, designed the purses, brewed the beer, soldered the circuits.  We claim the identity without doing the work.  We are the culture of the second son in the parable.

Is it any wonder we feel so empty?  Is it any wonder we wait with terror for someone to discover that we are frauds?  We hide behind the sacrifice of others and find no greater purpose for ourselves.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Benefits of Use

Continuing with Matthew 21:23-32

There are groups and experiences that only benefit us in the doing.  I can join a fitness club and feel virtuous about joining.  But I will not benefit from the membership unless I actually show up regularly and do the work.  So perhaps the second son in the parable is not so much a hypocrite as he is a fool.

He makes a verbal commitment but fails in the follow through.  So he never benefits from the commitment.  The hypocrisy comes if and when he takes credit for the commitment without doing anything about it.

A library would be another example.  How many people get library cards and never check out a book?  Or the people who join service clubs to pad their resumes but rarely show up?  Perhaps a marriage is a similar institution...

Membership in God's kingdom is a gift of grace.  No one earns a way to the table.  Thus the tax collectors and prostitutes are welcomed along with the religious folks.  But it is a gift to be used, not merely displayed.

This makes me think about Luther's discussion of baptism in his Large Catechism.  How shall we use our baptism properly, he asks (see paragraph 44).  Baptism into Christ's death and resurrection is in and of itself purely a gift.  If it remains merely a label, however, it is valid but not very effective.

Baptism that is not used becomes little more than the fitness club membership.  It was begun with the best of intentions but has been abandoned through absence and apathy.  Parents who "get the kid done" for example (for whatever reason) may think that the label is enough.  And in one sense it is, because God never goes back on a promise.  But the benefits of the gift come from use not from an entry in the church records.

How shall we use this great gift, we who have been called into God's work in this way?  Our baptismal vocation is announced at the end of the rite.  "Let you light so shine before others," the pastor reminds the baptized one, "so that people may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven."

We depend on the gift of baptism to sustain and defend us when we are assailed with doubts and despair.  Then we put that gift to work in loving our neighbors as ourselves.  In this way, we become more and more of what the Creator intends for us to be.

So perhaps this parable is about reaping the benefits of the work rather than about sheer obedience for its own sake.

P.S.  We just returned from the Western Iowa Synod's Fall Theological Convocation.  Our presenter was the Reverend Doctor Anna Madsen of the OMG Center For Theological Conversation.  She was a wonderful presenter.  Please check out her web page and like the OMG Center on Facebook.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

There is No Try

Time to move on to next week's text.  We will read and pray through Matthew 21:23-32.  This is the Parable of the Two Sons.  This little story takes us back to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.  "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock" (Matthew 6:24).  

And it's not enough to piously cry out, "Lord, Lord!" and then do nothing about that cry (see Matthew 7:21).  Apparently prophesying, exorcisms and other deeds of power won't do.  Those who present this religious resume will be rebuffed.  "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers" (Matthew 7:23).

Nor is this the chance for gleeful declarations of Lutheran desperation. It will not do to protest that thus we can do nothing at all, and that Jesus must therefore do it in our stead.  It takes theological nerves of steel to read the Sermon on the Mount and come to such a conclusion.  After all, we were created in Christ Jesus for good works, which is to be our way of life (Ephesians 2:10).  And Paul tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).

There is danger in believing that somehow we have "arrived."  This little parable is really an allegory followed by an immediate explanation.  Jesus identifies the first son as "the tax collectors and prostitutes".  The second son is the chief priests and the elders, as identified in Matthew 21:23.  They did not listen to John the Baptist when directly exposed to his challenge.

The tax collector and prostitutes could not pretend that they had "arrived," that they belonged at the table.  The chief priests and the elders, on the other hand, came from generations of folks who claimed precisely to have arrived.  That sort of public identity can backfire on us.  I say "us" because this allegory certainly has applications for those of us who are pretty sure we belong in church.

In a series of experiments, psychologists studied the relationship between public identity and subsequent action.  In each experiment, subjects declared intentions to study harder.  Some subjects believed those intentions were public.  Others believed they were private.  We might think the "outed" students were more likely to follow through.  But the opposite was the case!

"When other people take notice of one's identity-relevant behavioral intentions, one's performance of the intended behaviors is compromised" (Gollwitzer, et al, 2009, p. 616).  If I share publicly that I will study harder, be more compassionate, be more generous, I am less likely to do those things.

How can that be?  The intention may serve as a substitute for the action.  Adam Grant describes an experiment where participants were asked to write about themselves using either "generosity" words or neutral descriptions.  Then they were asked to donate to their favorite charity.  "Those who wrote about themselves as givers," Grant reports, "donated an average of two and a half times less money than those who wrote about themselves with neutral words" (Give and Take, page 247).

What in the world is going on here?  "Other people's taking notice of one's identity-intentions," Gollwitzer concludes, "apparently engenders a premature sense of completeness regarding the identity goal."  As Master Yoda told Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back, "Do...or do not. There is no try."

Could it be that the second son suffers "a premature sense of completeness" when it comes to obeying the father?