Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Sunday, October 29, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 21

Pentecost 25, 2017
Deuteronomy 34:1-12
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Matthew 22:34-46

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We use the word “love” a lot in our culture.  We say we love all sorts of things.  As C.S. Lewis points out, we use the same word for a huge list of different loves:  I love my new shoes; I love my cat; I love my family; I love my wife; I love my country; I love God.  One word covering everything from my shoes to God.

Now, of course, these are not all the same kind of love.  But we don’t have multiple names for love in English, do we?  We have to add modifiers about size or amount or something in order to make the distinction.  I love my new shoes, sure.  But I love my wife a whole lot more than my shoes.  (Because I am a hopeless romantic, right?)  And I love God more than I love my country.  And, if I had to choose, I would definitely pick my family over my cats, because I don’t think our cats really love us anyway.

And we also don’t have ways of distinguishing between different kinds of love.  I definitely love my wife in a completely different way than I love my country.  In fact, those two kinds of love have very little to do with each other.  But we’re stuck with just one word having to fill in for all these different kinds of love.

And what’s interesting is that you can see the difference between these loves based on how much they are rooted in emotion and effort.  On the one end, my love for my shoes is purely an emotional reaction; and on the other end, my love for God has very little to do with emotion.  And then if you follow through on that, the more my love is emotional (like my shoes), the less lasting it is.  I don’t make any kind of effort to love my shoes, and when it comes down to it, I could do without them.  And, if I’m honest, it takes some effort to love my country sometimes.  My love for my country isn’t based on emotions; it’s something deeper.  And, if I’m really honest, my love for God takes the most effort of all.

Because lots of times, I spend entire days being angry with God.  If I got angry with my shoes, I’d just get rid of them.  When I’m angry with my children, or with God, getting rid of them is not an option.  I have to “work” at those relationships.  My love for my family isn’t based on how I feel.  Same thing with my love for God.  Because my family and God are too important to me to be based on simple emotions.  Too important to love based on how I’m feeling on a given day.  Emotions are real, of course, but they come and go.  They change over time.  And thank God for that!

So why all this talk about the different types of love?  I mean, you already know that I don’t love my shoes the same way I love my family, right?  Well, the limits of our English language are exposed when we have a gospel text like this one today.  Jesus is talking about love, and we need to know what kind of love he’s talking about.  Does he want us to love God and our neighbor the way we love our new car?  Or that most-fleeting of loves, the way we love watching the Browns win?  Or some other kind of love?

The Gospels were written in Greek, as you probably know.  And the Greek language has many different words for “love.”  Four of them, in fact.  And the four kinds of love are very different.  There is philia, eros, agape, and then a fourth one that wasn’t around in Jesus’ day, so we’ll ignore it.  Philia is the kind of love you have for your friends and family.  Philadelphia is called the city of brotherly love because that’s what the name means.  Eros is passionate love, the kind of love you have for someone you’re dating, or hoping to.  And, most importantly to us, agape is unconditional love. 

Agape love is the kind of love God has for the world.  Remember that familiar John 3:16 verse?  You know, like the guy with the sign at the football games?  For God so loved the world?  That’s the agape love.  God’s love for the world is unconditional agape love.  A love that does not rely on emotion, or good behavior, or anything else.  Unconditional means unconditional. 

So . . . the point of all that explanation is so that we can look again at how Jesus answers the lawyer who is assigned to trap him.  The lawyer asks Jesus to name the most important of all the commandments.  The question is not about the 10 commandments; it’s about the Law of Moses, which is really plural, because there are 613 of those laws.  613 rules to guide one’s life at every single moment, and he asks Jesus to pick the most important one.  It’s yet another test designed to trap him, because he can’t possibly pick the right one out of 613, right?  I mean what are the odds of that?  Well, I guess 1 in 613.  But nevermind.

Jesus, however, knows the most important command.  It even has a name for faithful Jews.  It’s called, the shema, which is the first word of the sentence in Hebrew, meaning “Hear,” as in listen.  The shema is used at morning and evening prayer for the Jewish faithful, and the second verse is, “you shall love the lord your God with all your heart and soul and strength.”  Jesus picks that as most important, which also subtly connects his answer to the act of worship, since this verse is used at least twice a day in worship.  But then Jesus makes an astonishing further move . . .

He says, “And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.”  A second one is like it.  Huh?  Loving God with all your heart and soul and strength has nothing to do with people whatsoever.  God is one thing, and people are another thing.  Sure, these might be the greatest two commandments in the Law of Moses.  But where does he get off saying “And a second is like it?” 

Let’s just let that question sit for a second and go back to love.  The word Jesus uses here, as I mentioned is agape: unconditional love.  And, as you may remember, unconditional love is an act, not an emotion.  Unconditional love does not change because circumstances change, or because people do things we do not like.  As a matter of fact, you can have agape love for people you don’t even like.  People who drive you nuts, your enemies if you will, those are people you can still love.  Those are people you can still wish the best for.  Your enemies can still be loved with agape love, even if you would sooner move out of state than talk to them.

This agape love is the love that is commanded in the shema.  You are to love God unconditionally, with all your heart and soul and strength.  Some days you may be very angry with God, or disappointed in God, or disconnected from God; and that may make you feel like you don’t love God . . . if you make the mistake of thinking love is an emotion.  But agape love is not an emotion.  It is an action; it requires effort, or at least intentionality.  Loving God is a decision you make, not an emotion you feel.  And that is why it is a command:  You SHALL love the Lord your God.  Hear, oh Massillon: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

And now you’re saying, but uh . . . how do I possibly do that?  How will I know when I am doing that?  How can I decide to love God with all my heart and soul and strength?  I don’t even know where to begin, let alone know that I am doing it . . . What if I don’t feel anything for God?  What if I’m angry at God?  What if I feel like I am just going through the motions?  How do I love God in this way?

Jesus said, “And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.”
I don’t want to overemphasize the word “like” there, but for a moment . . . let’s give it a shot.  What if loving your neighbor was like loving God?  What if loving your neighbor with all your heart and soul and strength was like loving God with all your heart and soul and strength?  Remember that John 3:16 verse I mentioned?  For God so loved the world?  As we heard last week, the people around you are the eikons of God.  Made in God’s image.  God loves the world.

Maybe this is all just a perfect circle . . . If God so loves the world that God is willing to die to redeem the world, and if God commands us to love God, then maybe loving people like God loves people is how we know we are loving God.  If God loves people that much, maybe trying to love people at least gets us on the path to loving God. 

Have you ever noticed that when you pray for other people you feel better than when you pray for yourself?  Like praying for someone else sometimes puts my own problems in perspective.  Or, sometimes, praying for someone else reminds me that God loves them, even when I may not necessarily even like that person.  The power of prayer isn’t in what it accomplishes elsewhere; the power of prayer is that it changes us, and molds us into the kind of people who are the hands and feet of God in this world.

Loving your neighbor IS loving God.  And loving God IS loving your neighbor.  A second command is like it . . .

But before you get concerned that you will be heading home with an insurmountable task of loving God and your neighbor, let me remind you of this . . .

Every time we make a promise to do what God says we should do, we always promise “with God’s help.”  If you look in the Prayer Book on the Baptismal Covenant, you’ll find a series of questions on page 305.  Here’s the second question:  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  And you answer . . . I will with God’s help.  I will with God’s help is the key to it.  God guides and directs us . . . we only need to be willing to be guided and directed.  And in making the promise (and adding, “with God’s help”), we have put things in the right order.  God says, love your neighbor, and we can say with confidence, I will . . . with God’s help.  With God’s help, we promise to love God and our neighbor.  With God’s help.  And I ask you, what could be better than that?

Amen.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Massillon Tigers Prayer Service

Massillon Tigers Prayer Service
October 28, 2017
Hebrews 12:1

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

What a week you all have had!  So much going on.  It makes me tired just reading the schedule, to be honest.  And all week long there have been people yelling for you and yelling at you.  I would guess it all feels pretty overwhelming, and might even make you ask yourself, “Wait.  Who’s the person who’s actually playing this game today?”  And . . . that’d be you.  No matter how much people encourage or discourage you from doing well, it’s still going to be you out there on that field.

And I’m guessing everyone you ran into this week had some piece of advice for you, from how to play the game, to what to eat this morning.  Just because some of all that noise is helpful, doesn’t stop it from being noise. And you all know that everything is going to get a lot louder this afternoon.   And that’s why I want to tell you this:  The annual service here at St. Timothy’s is a chance to just stop all the noise for a minute.  A chance to sit and rest in the presence of God and one another.  For this time here today, it’s okay to just be silent.  To give yourself time to think and reflect and just sit, without taking notes, or yelling back to me, or bracing yourself for somebody running into you at full speed from the side.

A few minutes ago, I read to you that verse from the letter to the Hebrews:  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, in the faith and on the field.  Some who have played on this team before you, like our own John Muhlbach, who met you at the door.  And some who are destined to simply watch the game, like me.  But you are also surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and who cheer you on from a different place.  Some cheer you on from another part of the country, and some cheer you on from another place entirely.

But there’s another part of that scripture verse that I want to be sure you notice.  The writer says, “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  The race marked out for us.  Because, sure, all those other people are cheering you on, happy to tell you what this game meant for the team in their day.  But today’s game is not their game; it is your game.  Today is the race marked out for you.  No one else will play this game, on this day, against that particular team who shall not be named.

This game is yours alone.  But you are not alone.  That’s the thing that I hope you’ll remember today.  This game is yours alone.  But you are not alone.  Go Tigers!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 20

Pentecost 20, 2017
Isaiah 45:1-7
Psalm 96:1-13
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Matthew 22:15-22

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Render unto Caesar.”  We use that phrase a lot, right?  “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”  And what we usually mean is, “Vote for the bond measure so our kids can have good schools.”  Or, actually, what we usually mean is, “You better pay your taxes, my friend.”  And like most cases when we borrow phrases from the Bible, we completely mess up the point of the story, and we render unto Jesus a disservice that does not belong to Jesus.

But first, let’s look at the people in the room in today’s gospel lesson. . . . “the room” meaning where they are standing, I suppose.  There are the people called “the crowds.”  These would be basic people of the city.  All walks of life and so on, but for the most part they would be Jews, living under the brutal occupation of the Romans.  If the crowds turn against Jesus, he can be executed without causing a big uprising.  If the crowds are with him, on his side, then it is too risky to have him taken away.  At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has attracted quite a crowd wherever he goes.

And then there are the people who come to trick him in this scenario.  The Pharisees have cooked up the plan, and they send their disciples to do their dirty work for them.  But, what’s really shocking is that they also send the Herodians with them.  We only hear about the Herodians a few times in scripture, and we don’t know much about them.  What we do know is that they were big supporters of Herod (which is why they’re called, Herodians, of course), and Herod was the puppet governor for the Romans, so . . . sending them along is like sending spies for Rome.  The Pharisees hated the Romans, and also hated Herod, even though he was their ruler.  But on top of all that, the Herodians were followers of the Sadducees, and the Pharisees and the Sadducees hated each other.  (Hatred is complicated stuff!)  So the Pharisees are sending their disciples to meet with their own enemies in order to trap Jesus.  Which means, they hate Jesus even more than they hate their enemies.

Okay, so that’s who’s there when all this takes place.  And then they begin.  They start off by complimenting Jesus, saying what a fine teacher he is.  A man of God.  One who treats everyone equally.  And then they ask him The Question:  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  Clever, clever fellows.  But in a sense, their own ignorance is what gets them into trouble here.  If they’re just talking about money, then they totally have him trapped.  Because if Jesus says, “Yes, pay taxes,” the crowd will turn against him, since no one wanted to support the occupying Roman forces.  If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay taxes,” then the Herodians can easily have him arrested for treason against the Emperor.  It’s a good little trap they’ve set, and either answer gets Jesus killed.

But as I say, their own ignorance backfires here.  And we’re liable to get into the same trouble if we don’t look at Jesus’ actual response.  Because it’s tempting to think that this is a lesson in the separation of Church and State.  In fact, for many people, that’s the whole point of this text:

That Jesus wants us to maintain the separation of Church and State.  The first problem with that interpretation is that it’s off by about 1800 years.  There is no such thing as separation of Church and State until the U.S. Constitution talks about not establishing religion.  And even after that, it took a couple hundred years for us to start thinking of using the phrase, "separation of Church and State."  To the group of people standing around Jesus—first century pious Jews—the separation of Church and State is unthinkable.  Their ultimate goal is the union of Church and State, into a theocracy ruled over by The Messiah . . . which they are certain is not Jesus.

Point being, this is not the place in the Bible where Jesus teaches the crowd the importance of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.  So if Jesus isn’t giving an American civics lesson, what is Jesus saying?  Well, as they say, follow the money . . .

The coins used to pay the tax to Rome were called denarii.  A single coin was called a denarius.  So, Jesus says, “Show me the coin used for the tax.”  And they bring him a denarius. Then he says to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"  And they say, “the Emperor’s.”  Now, two things about this:  First, the word we get translated as “head” or “image” is the Greek word, eikon.  (You’ve probably heard that around.)  Second, the Emperor was always called, “son of God,” and it is likely the case that the coin Jesus held in his hand would bear the eikon of the Emperor, with the inscription “Son of God.”  For this reason, observant Jews of that time would not be carrying coins of the Roman Empire, because to carry these coins was blasphemy. 

And you’ll notice that when Jesus wants to show them one of these coins, he does not simply reach into his robe and pull out some change.  And why not?  Because Jesus was an observant Jew, right?  He is not carrying around idolatrous images of the occupying Roman force.

And when he asks for a coin, they bring him one.  I’m not going to judge anybody here, but it sure sounds like the Pharisees’ disciples ARE carrying around blasphemous images of the Emperor.  You know, just saying.

So Jesus holds up the eikon of the Emperor, son of God, and says, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.”

And here’s where we really need to put on our thinking caps.  If Jesus is saying, “Give the government all your material goods, and give God all your spiritual offerings,” well . . . first of all, that would make for a very difficult Stewardship Campaign, wouldn’t it?  Jesus is not suggesting that God and money should be separated, any more than he was saying Church and State should be separated.  Plus, even a socialist government doesn’t ask for all your money.  He doesn’t say give to the government your entire paycheck and give your prayers to God, right?

It’s not about the value of the coin.  It’s about the eikon.  Whose image is on the money?  The money is identified by the eikon that is stamped on it.  The one in whose image it is made dictates where and what happens to it.  You cannot spend a coin that bears the image of the Emperor outside of his realm.  The coin bearing his image belongs in his realm.

Now, if you like, you can pick up your Prayer Books and turn to page 845.  Or, I can just read it to you.  This is way back in the section called, “Parts of the Prayer Book I’ve never seen before.”  Actually, this is a subsection called, “An Outline of the Faith.”  It’s laid out in question-and-answer format, which is why it’s also called “the Catechism.”  When we look at the very first question:  What are we by nature?  And the response is, “We are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God.”  Made in the what?  The image of God.

You are an eikon of God.  Made in the image of God.  Let’s imagine the challengers of Jesus ask a different question.  What if they ask, is it lawful for me to use and abuse another human being?  Is it lawful for me to mistreat my neighbor, or belittle them, or treat them as though they are worthless?  And Jesus says, "Whose image is this, and whose title?"  Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's.  A denarius is made in the image of Caesar.  And you are made in the image of God.  Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.

This is not a story about paying taxes, or the separation of Church and State.  Those are paltry, insignificant arguments.  No, this is a story about you and me, being made in the image of God.  Your worth is not based on what society thinks, or how you are treated, or how much money you make.  Your worth is based on bearing the eikon of God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen.  And the title you bear was given to you in baptism: claimed as God’s own, and living members of the Body of Christ, and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom.  Whose image and whose title?  The image of God, and the title of redeemed child of God, claimed for all time, living in the hope of the resurrection.

So, sure, give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, the taxes that are required.  But, give to God the things that belong to God: your self, your time, and your possessions.  Since you are made in the image of God, then all that you are belongs to God.  You live in the kingdom of God, you belong in the kingdom of God, and no one can take that away from you.

Is it lawful to pay taxes?  Yes,  (And it is required, in case you haven’t noticed.)  But you are not made in the image of the IRS.  You are made in the image of God.  And what is made in the image of God belongs to God.

Remember, you are God’s eikon, whether or not you believe it, and whether not others believe it, it is true.  You are God’s eikon, and no one can take that away from you.  You are welcome in God’s house because you belong to God, plain and simple.

Amen.

   

Sunday, October 15, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 19

Year A, 2017
Pentecost 19
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Such good readings we have today.  That first reading, about Moses convincing God not to kill everyone, there is so much to say about that.  But there isn’t time, because we really need to look at the Gospel lesson we just heard.  Because if you’re like me, you’re asking yourself, what in the world was that about?!?  So let’s start with a wedding.

Imagine an idealized President of the United States.  Not the current one, and not a previous one.  Not a President you agree with or disagree with.  Just, you know, “The President.”

Now, if that President had a child, and that child were getting married here in northeast Ohio, you could expect a pretty big party around here, right?  This would be a celebration on the level that you and I have never seen.  Food we’ve never heard of, from the best chefs in the country, if not the world.  Desserts that would make our children’s heads spin.  Wine from California, and seafood from Alaska, and roasted nuts from Heggy’s.  The works!  All the local sports stars would be there, all the local politicians, and anybody who’s anybody from across the country.  It would be the event of the year, in fact the event of the lifetime.

And now just imagine that you have received an invitation.  Sitting in your little mailbox in Massillon, or Canton, or wherever, you find the invitation on the most beautiful paper, the best ink, with extra postage to make sure it arrived.  You have been invited to the party of the century!  Your first thought is obviously, “What am I going wear?”  But then you see the invitation clearly says, “wedding clothes provided.”  Hmmmm . . . . And your second thought is, “What kind of gift should I bring?”  Then you see at the bottom that the invitation says, “Please do not bring gifts.”

So, now you’re at a crucial juncture on whether you should attend.  Do you trust that invitation and just show up empty-handed in your work clothes, expecting that the hosts really have something suitable to wear?  Or do you wear the best clothes you’ve got, and hope that’s good enough?  And what about the gift?  Can you really trust the claim that no gifts are expected?  I mean, people say that all the time, and we still bring something, right?

Now you’re stuck, thinking: If I do accept the invitation, I’ve got to bring something, and it can’t be cheap.  And that means I’d better get busy earning some extra cash so I can hold my head up high when I meet the living stars of the age.

The invitation clearly says, do not worry about affording any kind of gift . . . The President sends out his (secret) servants and says, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, trying to earn enough to bring a worthy gift.

And then, because this is a parable, and parables are stories on hyper-drive, the invitees seize his servants, mistreat them, and kill them.  The mail carrier brings you the invitation to the wedding banquet.  You think your options are just yes or no, but it seems there are more possibilities in this case.  You could say, “Yes I’ll come, but first I need to make a little extra money at my business or farm so that I don’t show up empty-handed because . . . well, I really don’t trust you when you say not to bring anything.”  But then, though it probably didn’t cross your mind, you could also react like those in the parable:  The mail carrier shows up at your house with the invitation, you swear at them loudly, you slap them around, and do them in.  (Remind me not to invite you to my daughter’s wedding.)

Understandably, the President is enraged at your actions.  He sends his troops into your town, destroys the murderers and burns down the city.  (Remember, a parable is a story on hyper-drive.)  So, since all the people who were supposed to be the guests are either working overtime or are dead, you’d think there would be no party right?  You’d think they’d just call off the wedding and have it somewhere else, wouldn’t you?  I mean how embarrassing for the President’s child to get married and have an empty reception hall.  Better to just donate the food to the poor and have a private wedding down at city hall or something.

And now, a complete change of scene.  Let’s say you were not on that first list of guests.  Let’s say that you’re not even aware the President had a child, let alone getting married right in your neck of the woods.  Let’s say you’re just struggling along trying to make ends meet, minding your own business, and only mistreating the mail carrier by avoiding her, because you know she’s bringing more bills you can’t pay.

The President says, “`The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' So they went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.”  Gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

One day you were struggling along, wondering how you could stretch those leftovers for a third night’s dinner, and the next thing you know you’re standing around with your friends at the most lavish party you will ever see in your lifetime!  You didn’t have to bring anything.  You didn’t have to buy anything.  You didn’t even have to get that suit or dress dry-cleaned because the host provided all the clothes you need.  You did nothing to deserve being here, and you couldn’t have afforded the cost by any stretch of the imagination.  The only thing that merits your being in the party is the fact that you didn’t say “no.”  You’re there, not because you said yes; you’re there because you didn’t say no.  And this is a very strange way to throw a party, don’t you think?  A guest list consisting of all the people who didn’t say “no?”  It’s ridiculous!

So there we all are, standing around in our beautiful expensive provided clothing, enjoying the food and the company and the string quartet and chocolate when all of a sudden, the music stops, and everyone turns toward the door to see the host saying “`Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, `Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen."

What just happened?  Last we knew everyone was happy and chatty.  That one guy really put a damper on things, didn’t he?  But what happened?  He was obviously on the guest list, because he didn’t say no.  (Remember, that’s the qualification for being at the party: not saying no.)  So he wasn’t a party crasher, since being there means he was invited.  What was different about him?  And, more importantly, is there a chance we might get treated like that?  You know, bound hand and foot, and thrown into the outer darkness?

The answer is a question: “What are you wearing?”  If you’ll recall, when the servants came to round us all up for the party, we didn’t have clothes that were good enough for a party like this.  But we trusted that the host would provide everything we needed.  When we arrived, we put on the wedding garments, and partied on!  This poor fellow, the one who gets thrown out, he’s not wearing the wedding garment, you see?  No, he showed up at the party wearing his own clothes, thinking they would be good enough.  He came to the party dressed in his own righteousness.  He thought the fancy clothes he had worked so hard to get would make him worthy of the party.  He didn’t say no to the invitation, but he did say no to the gift of the wedding garment.

The man who is thrown out does not trust that being there is enough.  To give away the parable: He does not trust that God will do for him what he cannot do for himself.  He does not trust in God; he trusts in himself.  A self-made man, who relies on his own efforts to make himself worthy of the heavenly banquet.  And, thus, a fool who is bound to be thrown into utter darkness.

There is a banquet happening here today.  You were invited because you didn’t say no.  The clothing that is required is the baptismal gown, which was provided for you when God claimed you forever in Baptism.  You are called and chosen by God, and that is what makes you a guest at the banquet.  You will not be turned away.  And you are always welcome in this place, whether of not you eat the meal.

The servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.  You are on the guest list for this meal, and it is a foretaste of the Feast to come.

Amen.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Luther 500 Festival, October 2017

Luther 500 Festival, October 2017
Psalm 67
Romans 6:3-5
Luke 23:39-43

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Remember your baptism.  Has anyone ever said that to you before?  Remember your baptism?  Maybe you do remember, if you were baptized as an adult.  But given that most of us here are Lutheran (with an occasional Episcopalian thrown in for seasoning), I’m guessing that most of us were baptized as infants.  Without going into the theology behind the justification of baptizing people who have no idea they are being baptized, I just want to raise an obvious question.

Remember your baptism, great, but can you remember a thing you never saw?  And what is it to remember a thing anyway?  Although we tend to  connect remembering to memory, there are other aspects of the word.  And we can see that separating it into the prefix “re” and the root word “member.”  In the simplest terms, to remember something is to put it back together.  To re-member it, which is the opposite of dismembering something.  Which is a gross thought, so let’s not dwell on that.  To re-member a thing is to bring it back into being.  Bring it back to reality.  Give it form.

In the United States, there was a time when people said, “Remember the Alamo.”  And here in Germany, during the 30 Years War, people said, “Remember Magdeburg,” for a similar reason, and to create a similar reaction.    In those cases, calling people to remember something meant reminding them to consider the implication or the danger being faced, and inspire people to violence and vengeance.  Bring their slaughter of our people to mind, and see how that makes you feel.  Now go and do likewise.  Remembering is powerful stuff.

For Jewish people, being remembered is life itself.  As long as you are remembered, you are alive.  The Hebrew scriptures are full of references to being remembered by God.  Since God is eternal, being remembered by God is to have eternal life.  Forget me not, oh God.  So many of the psalms talk of seeking God’s face, of asking that God would not forsake us, or turn away from us.  Remember me, oh God, turn your face toward me, and do not forget me.

We want the face of God turned toward us, and not away from us.  And yet, no one can see God’s face and live.  The only one to have seen God was Moses, and from behind, through a bush, and shielded by a rock.  We cannot see God’s face, but we want it turned toward us.  Because to be remembered by God is the pathway to everlasting life.

Remember your baptism.  Having memory of your baptism is impossible if you were an infant at the time  But the act of re-membering it—to bring it back into being, bring it back to reality, give it form and purpose—that we can do.  And we do it in this way:  By reminding ourselves that God remembers your baptism.  God’s face was turned directly toward you as you passed through the water.  Not through a bush behind a rock from the back.  No God’s face was turned fully toward you as you were baptized by name—and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  On that day you were claimed as God’s own.  Forever.

And for that reason, like the thief on the cross, we too can turn with confidence to Jesus and say, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  And Jesus does, will, and always will, and you too will be with him in paradise.

May God give us each the strength to remember that our baptism is remembered by God, the same God who will never leave us nor forsake us.

Amen.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

YEAR A 2017 pentecost 17

Pentecost 17, 2017
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Have you ever tried to explain something to someone, and you think they’re following you, but then they come up with the exact wrong meaning?  For example, you say, “You know, it’s like two plus two, right?”  And the other person says, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean!  Zero, right?”  As Jesus might’ve said, “Oy vey!”

That’s kind of what’s happening in today’s Gospel reading, except not for the people in the story.  No, the people who get it wrong are, well, you and me.  Because the first step to understanding this story is clearing away our American Folk Religion understanding of it.  You remember the basic gist of the parable, right?  One son says he will not go into the vineyard, and then he goes.  The other son says he will go into the vineyard and does not go.  Simple right?

And now Jesus says to us:  NOW do you understand where my authority comes from?  And we say, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean!  Actions speak louder than words, right?”  And Jesus says, “Oy vey!”  You see how that happens to us?  We take a story like this and we filter it through all our clich├ęs, pithy sayings, and Ben Franklin wisdom, and we just kind of mistranslate it.  But it’s not a story about actions and words.  It’s a story about the authority of Jesus. 

As we heard in the set-up, when the Chief Priests and the elders are trying to trap Jesus, they’re asking about his authority.  And so we know that “Actions speak louder than words” can’t be the point of the parable, because that doesn’t answer the question about Jesus’ authority, right?

So, if this parable doesn’t mean, “Actions speak louder than words,” then what does it mean?  I have no idea.  Okay, I’m kidding.  Kind of.  Let’s go back to the set-up for the parable, before Jesus starts talking about sons and vineyards.  As the reading opens, the Chief Priests and elders are working on a way to trap Jesus.  They’re guessing he does not have a good answer to the source of his authority without blaspheming God in some way.  So they ask, “with which kind of authority are you doing these miracles and wonders?”  (They understand that there are many sources of authority, and they’re hoping he’ll pick one of the wrong ones.)

And, of course, Jesus taunts them with a question in return:  Was John’s Baptism from heaven or from earth?  They cannot answer this question without offending the people, or condemning themselves, so they pass.  Jesus says, then I’m going to pass too.   (Clever Jesus.)  But he doesn’t let it rest there; he goes on to tell the parable about the two sons. 

And before we even look at the two sons and the vineyard, we need to back up to last week, with the laborers in the vineyard.  (September/October is Vineyard season, it seems.)  Remember that story?  Everyone gets the same pay, whether they worked one hour or ten hours.  And then they get paid in reverse, so that the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Point being: the amount of time you spend in the vineyard has nothing to do with God’s reward.  God’s reward for you is the salvation of Jesus, same as for me, and it is not based on what we do between now and then.  It is based on the love of God and the resurrection of Jesus.  And believe me, that’s a good thing!

So, back to today’s parable.  The first son says he will not go into the vineyard.  He refuses to go.  The other son says he will go into the vineyard.  He claims he is going.  And the son who says he won't go ends up going, and the son who says he will go ends up not going.  Kids today.  Can’t make up their minds, right?  Hey, maybe that’s what this story’s about?  Indecisive youth?  No, afraid not.  This is not really a story about the sons of a vineyard owner.  Turns out, this is a story about prostitutes and tax collectors!  Who knew?

Well, it’s also a story about the people standing in front of Jesus:  The Chief Priests and the elders.  Because remember what Jesus says after the parable?  The first son, the one who said he would not go into the vineyard, is like the prostitutes and the tax collectors.  And the second son, the one who said he would go but does not, he is like the Chief Priests and elders.  And now, if you’re paying attention at all, you’re saying, “Can’t we just go back to actions speak louder than words?”

Here’s what Jesus is saying to us:  The so-called “good people” will enter the kingdom last, and the so-called “bad people” will enter the kingdom first.  And that is scandalous to us, isn’t it?  And why is that?  Because the good people, the ones who have it all together, who come to church every week, who follow the rules, and rescue kittens from trees, these “good people” might just be relying on their good deeds to earn them a place in the kingdom. The scandal of the Gospel is that the undeserving get rewarded; but that’s only a scandal if you think you are among the deserving. 

You probably have heard someone say, “I’ve lived a pretty good life, so when I die I think God is going to take me to heaven.”  Wrong.  And you’ve probably heard other people say, “I have lived a horrible life, and God is never going to accept me into the kingdom.”  Also wrong.  It is not about what we say or do; it’s about who we are, because of whose we are.  God has claimed us in the waters of baptism by the authority of Jesus, and that is what makes everything different.

If you think your good behavior is going to make everything alright, well . . . you are like the second son:  You’re saying you’ll go into the vineyard, but you do not go.  As Paul writes, all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Our good deeds are certainly commendable and important, but they are not enough to restore the brokenness between us and God, and between us and our neighbor, no matter how hard we try.  That sounds like bad news, I know.

But in truth, accepting that we are broken is good news!  Because we have admitted that our valuable good deeds are never going to make everything alright.  Once we see that we cannot earn our way into heaven, once we see that we have no right to expect God’s mercy . . . well, then we are the ones who say no . . . I will not go into the vineyard today.  When I truly admit that I am who I know myself to be, I am not worthy of going into this vineyard.  I am the one who says no to God.  I will not go into the vineyard.

Jesus said, “What do you think?  A man had two sons . . . which of the two did the will of the father?”  Which indeed . . .

One says, “I will surely go,” and does not.
One says, “I cannot possibly go,” and does.
One trusts in himself; the other trusts the father.

This story today is about authority and—more importantly—trust.  The authority of Jesus is certainly central, yes.  But you and I are probably not questioning the authority of Jesus.  The authority of Jesus is the part of the story we get, I’m guessing.  But the part of the story we need to hear clearly today is the trusting part.  Where this story speaks to you and me is in trust.  Trusting that Jesus is enough to reconcile us to God and to one another.

Let me put it another way:  There is nothing you can do to make God love you.  And there is nothing you can do to make God stop loving you.  Your relationship with God is not dependent on you.  Not dependent on whether you say yes, or no.  That should come as a relief.

Going back to the parable we heard, saying yes or no does not matter.  The will of the father is that you go into the vineyard.  The will of the father is that you rise from the grave when your name is called, and go into the vineyard.  Whether or not you say you are going is not the point.  You notice that didn’t seem to matter in the parable.  What mattered was that the one son went into the vineyard.  And that son is compared to the tax collectors and prostitutes, not the people Jesus was talking to: the Chief priests and the elders.

So, how is that about trust?  It is trusting that Jesus has the authority to do the things that only Jesus can do.  We trust in Jesus’ authority, and that trust leads us to a most crucial spot:
The empty tomb on Easter morning.

When you and I are no longer walking around, taking up space and saying yes or no, we will be waiting for Jesus to call us up out of death.  We will be waiting to go into the vineyard, whether we spent our lives saying yes, or saying no.  We trust that Jesus will meet us in that most crucial place, and raise each of us to new life.  We know he has the authority; we just need to trust.

And in the meantime, we all will share a meal at this altar.  A foretaste of the feast to come, as we sometimes say.  Whether you’ve spent this week saying yes or saying no, does not matter now.  What matters now is that you come into the vineyard, stretch out your hands, and say yes to the one who comes to you in bread and wine, body and blood.  Jesus is calling you to this table.  Come and see that the Lord is good.

Amen.