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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?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Take What is Yours

Meditating on Matthew 20:1-16...

"Take what is yours and go away!" (Matthew 20:14a).  How many ways can we read a sentence?  Let me begin to count them.

Yes, the early-chosen agreed to the normal daily wage.  And they received what they were promised. They got that to which they were entitled.  There is no room to complain.  Get out of my face; I have other things to do.

Yet, it is clear in the parable that the landowner is treating these wages as a generous gift--at least when it comes to the late-chosen. So what really "belongs" to the laborers?  Nothing.  The parable is clear that it ALL belongs to the landowner.  So the landowner is entirely in the right when he is generous.  "Is it not proper for me to do what I want with what is mine?" (Verse 15a).  Indeed, it is.

No one buys a place at God's table.  No one works their way into God's family.  No one, by genealogy or longevity, is entitled to a position in God's new order.  Life in the vineyard is a gift freely given, both at dawn and at sunset.

This is true if we read the parable as a commentary on first century Jewish politics.  The early-chosen may be read as the Jewish religious establishment.  They are the ones who, in John 8, protest, "we are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!"  Jesus' view on this is stunning.  God can raise up children of Abraham from the stones in the street.  So such claims to fame are worth precisely nothing.  God's gracious gift is worth precisely everything.

Many of us, however, are the humble and self-effacing children of Luther, Calvin and the rest.  We know that we do not deserve a place at the table on our own.  We struggle with having a place at the table at all.  We have an allergic reaction to the pride and presumption of the early-chosen.  Don't they know that no one deserves to be there?

We are more likely to protest that God's standards are far too low.  Yes, it's all well and good that God is gracious to all those other people.  But my failings are so much worse!  I cannot believe that God has lowered the bar so far as to allow me admittance.  Clearly, Jesus, you have made a serious error in allowing me into the family business.

The landowner's response is no different.  Am I not allowed to do what I want with my grace?  Or will you also instruct me in the proper use of theology?  This theological self-loathing is the same desire for control, simply written in a different spiritual key.  Who am I to tell Jesus that I am not good enough?  And why do I believe that even matters?  Jesus knows that far better than I and welcomes me into God's reign anyway.

We long to have a guaranteed contract with the universe.  If we cannot get a guarantee based on our goodness, then we will get one based on our depravity.  In either case, we can hold Jesus at arms' length.  We can avoid the costs of a real relationship with the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer of all things.  We can take what belongs to us and go away.

That is the most fearful line in the story...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

On Giving and Taking

Still more on Matthew 20:1-16, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard...

In most of my interpersonal transactions, I am a giver.  I can give to others without much thought of any return.  But the closer I am emotionally to another person, the more I (unconsciously) expect a ROEI--a return on my emotional investment.  I don't make that deal up front.  The other party never agrees to any particular terms.  The contract is entirely inside my head.  But it is no less real than a written, witnessed, and executed agreement.

When I am disappointed, the truth comes out.  For all my delusions of altruistic generosity, I expected payment for services rendered.  I expected acknowledgment, respect, and--most of all--gratitude.  Oh, and the gratitude needs to be more than a polite thank you.  It needs to be a warm and willing deference for the long haul.  In the dark recesses of my tiny mind, the debt will never be repaid.

At the deepest level, we humans are all takers.  Takers, as Adam Grant writes, "like to get more than they give.  They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others' needs" (Give and Take, page 4).  Taking is the basic human rebellion against God.  The man and the "took" the fruit and ate it.  They would not trust God the Giver.  They were afraid that God was withholding some of the goodies.  And the Enemy played on that fear.

Taking is just what it sounds like--a narcissistic form of theft.  When we deal with takers, we often feel cheated and used.  So most of us function most of the time as "matchers."  The early workers in the vineyard function in this way.  We worked more, so we should get more.  We are entitled to that.

So the first workers carried with them an internal contract.  The ones who work least should set the baseline wage, and the rising tide will lift all boats.  After all, that's only fair, right?  And if I get paid more, then I certainly must be worth more.  That's really why we measure and compare incomes. How else can we determine who the really important people are?

The early-chosen are obviously the most productive and thus the most valuable in economic terms. They are like the kids who always get picked first on the playground at recess.  We know that system can get twisted by favoritism and friendship.  But generally it works out.  So the early-chosen have a sense of entitlement.  When they get paid the same, they accuse the landowner of cheating, of holding something back.

Here we are, back in a garden...

And here is where the parable blows up our assumptions.  God is not a matcher.  God is the Giver. God wants you and me to have all of God's goodness--right away and without conditions.  

Trusting God means trusting God's goodness.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Like Rocks to be Crushed

More on the Parable of Laborers in Matthew 20:1-16.

In the "real world" we treat one another as means to our ends.  The landowner is a means to wages for the workers.  The workers are the means to harvesting products for the landowner.  Each party uses the other to in order to attain a personal goal.

In a profound sense, then, they are enemies.  They hold one another hostage.  They are kept at peace by the necessities of enlightened self-interest.

The landowner, however, is very strange.  The workers are not valued in terms of what they produce.  They do not receive wages.  In fact, they receive a calling and a gift.  The landowner has no concern about an exchange, a quid pro quo.  The workers are valued rather than evaluated.

The parable subverts completely our individualist consumerism.  God cannot and will not be treated as a means to our end.  We cannot game the system to get more because we get it all at once.  Paul says it so well in Romans 8:32--He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  Of course God will!

So jockeying for prestige and position is beside the point.  Staging a protest at the vineyard gates is an exercise in missing the point.  Will we complain because God is good?  Will we let God be as good as God wants to be?  And will we take part in that goodness?

Our culture "has turned us ever more quickly into anxiety-laden, functional atheists needing ways to use God to make our lives work" (Alan Roxburgh, Missional, page 73).  Our consumer culture is based on the dissatisfaction that results from comparison.  We have no sense of what "enough" might be.  The fear is that if we did know how much is enough, then we might stop buying things.  And our consumer-driven economy would collapse from the weight of mindless overproduction.

We as consumers are rocks to be mined, crushed and processed for the sake of the system.  Yet, Jesus makes clear in this parable that no one is a resource to be mined for the gain of another.  God is not at our disposal as a means to our comfort, serenity and sanity.  These are fringe benefits of a proper relationship with God.  Our neighbor is not to be mined as a way to calm our fears--even if that neighbor is a spouse, a child, a parent or a friend.

Is the problem in the parable that Jesus doesn't understand business?  Or is it that we don't understand Jesus?  We should be cautious any time we find ourselves trying to correct Jesus.  We should be worried any time we find ourselves trying to rebuke Jesus.  No, Lord, we want to say, the world doesn't really work this way.  We must defend ourselves at all times from the predatory desires of others.

Of course, we know how things worked for Peter when he tried to correct Jesus and put things back on a practical footing.  He was called Satan and told to step back for a while.

Dodos for God

This Sunday we will read and pray our way through Matthew 20:1-16.  This is the Parable of the Laborers in the vineyard.

Whenever a vineyard is mentioned, we should listen for the politics of messianic hope.  This parable all seems to backwards to us.  "First come, first served," we say.  "The early bird gets the worm," we solemnly intone.  Everything is a race to the finish, a game for winners.  We laugh at systems that operate according to the Dodo verdict: "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes."  That seems both foolish and unfair.

Commentators generally treat this parable as a generic morality tale carelessly slipped into the middle of the Matthean narrative.  That can't be right.  The context is all about what we must "do" to inherit the kingdom of God..  This is not about the desire for personal perfection producing individual immortality.  We Lutherans struggle to remember that neither Jesus nor Matthew was a Lutheran. Instead, the questions are all about how to be included in God's Next Big Thing.  In particular, the context before and after the parable is about sitting on the thrones when the kingdom comes (see Matthew 19:28 and 20:21)!

It seems that the latecomers will receive just as much as the early birds.  This makes no economic sense.  This is a formula for bankruptcy.  But if the laborers are first the Jews and then the lost sheep of the house of Israel and perhaps even the Gentiles at five, things make a bit more sense.  

The parable narrates and enacts Paul's words in Romans 10:12--"For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him."

God's invitation entitles us to nothing and endows us with everything.  The landowner leaves no one idle while there is work to be done.  We have suspicions that we are not getting our fair share.  And we are absolutely correct!  The landowner is not fair.  The landowner is generous. With God, it is not first come, first served.  It is not only the early bird who catches the worm.  With God, it all pays the same.

If we are among the early risers, can we celebrate God's generosity?  Or will we have stingy eyes, higher standards than God, resentments toward the latecomers?  If God's gifts are abundant, then why should we worry?  If God's heart is good, then why fret that we might be missing out?

Do I trust God's heart?  That's one of the challenges of this parable.  Can I accept my role in the kingdom?  Or will I always gaze with longing at the greener grass on the other side of the gate?

Will we make room in our lives for the latecomers?  Or will we lock the gates and keep the goodies to ourselves?  These are questions worth a prayer or two.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Coming in Third Place

Our youngest son has a new job at Spielbound, a "board game cafe" in the Midtown Crossing area of Omaha.  He works as a board game specialist and barista.  We visited him at work last Sunday and enjoyed a great cup of coffee.  The cafe features a few traditional board games which would be about my speed.  The real focus is on a huge collection of role-playing and battle games that attract a younger demographic.  You can find more details about Spielbound at 

I was fascinated by the culture of the place.  Patrons sat at a variety of tables with their refreshments  and their game of choice.  The cafe is a parade example of what sociologists would call a "third place"--a place that is neither home (first place) nor work (second place).  People were smiling.  Community was happening.  Social capital was being created right before our eyes.  The media were frappuccinos and game boards.  The real product was connection.

This week I attended the monthly meeting of our local neighborhood association.  It's a highly active, energetic and involved little group.  We meet in our church building, and that is a great gift to our congregation.  At that meeting, I was reminded that Emanuel Lutheran Church has the opportunity and the calling to be the "third place" in our north Council Bluffs neighborhood.

The neighborhood still grieves the closing of their beloved Gunn Elementary School.  For decades, that school was the third place that created and strengthened ties between neighbors in our part of the city.  Now it is a shadowy hulk which may or may not be developed in the near future.  But it will not recapture that role as a third place.

I was reminded that our church has had some of that function in the past.  People shared memories of attending events at Emanuel where they made connections with neighbors--some of which last to this day.  While many congregations reject the role of neighborhood church, it is clear to me that part of Emanuel's calling now is to examine and to embrace that role on North Broadway.

In this era of virtual relationships, it is clear that the next generation is craving real connections with flesh and blood people in safe and welcoming spaces.  We do not meet on our front porches or in our parks.  So Emanuel must explore ways to create a place where connections can be born and nourished.  It's an exciting prospect!

The challenge is two-fold.  Can we embrace the intimidating opportunity of getting out on the streets of our neighborhood and meeting people where they are?  Can we identify the right kinds of spaces that will enrich the lives of our neighbors rather than simply meeting our own desires for survival and comfort?  I'm glad we're in that kind of conversation.

Here are a few more articles for reflection.

"When Third Place is the Right Place"

"The Church as Third Place"

And here's the latest book I'm reading--the book that primed me for this latest reflection.  It's called Slow Church, and it's worth the time.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Two Way Street

This Sunday we will read together the "Parable of the Unforgiving Slave."  You can find that passage at  The punch line of the parable is jarring.  "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you," Jesus tells his disciples, "if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."  Is this a simple exchange of goods and services?  Is our reconciled relationship with the Creator of all things conditional on our willingness to let go of the sins of others?

If so, it seems that grace has gone out the window.

In fact, forgiving and being forgiven travel the same road.  This is the real basis of the punch line. When I hang on to my desires for revenge, when I cling to my self-justifying stories, when I put being right ahead of being in relationship, I will find it difficult to receive and experience forgiveness--whether that is from God or from another human (or even from myself).

It isn't that God will refuse to forgive.  It is instead the case that I will be unwilling and ultimately unable to accept forgiveness.  I will cease to have resentments.  Instead, I will simply become my resentment.  When that happens, the good things in this life will be swimming against the tide of righteous self-absorption.  And that tide will sweep the good things of this life back out of my heart.

This is what the Evil One desires--that I would be so resentful, so suspicious, so defensive and so fearful, that I will cut myself off from all others.  This is what the Evil One desires--that I will live and die afraid and alone, isolated and alienated, but self-justified to the end.

The path to life is, instead, rooted in humility and paved with compassion.  It is possible that the other person might be right.  It is possible that there is more to the story than I imagine.  It is possible that if I see things from another perspective, my mind and heart might change.  It is possible that even if the other person is really, really wrong, I might at least develop some empathy that will cure me of the worst of my hatred.

Forgiving is first of all about removing the roadblocks of resentment and rage.