Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Monday, October 30, 2023

YEAR A 2013 pentecost 22

Pentecost 22, 2023
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.  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!)  And I love God more than I love my country.  And, if I had to choose, I would definitely pick my family over my cat, because I don’t think our cat really loves 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 or 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.  And they change over time.

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 I love watching the Buffalo Bills win?  Or some other kind of love?

The Gospels were written in Greek, as I've told you 1,000 times.  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 defined 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 important 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.  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.  So 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 I said, 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 that 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 with 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. We are commanded to love God, which is very different from a feeling of love for God.

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 is like loving God?  What if loving your neighbor as yourself is 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.  God loves the people in this 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 that it accomplishes something 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.”  This past Wednesday night, as we discussed ethics, we looked at the Baptismal Covenant. which you can find on page 305 of the prayer book.  Here’s the second question:  Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  And we answer . . . I will with God’s help.  I will with God’s help.  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 say with confidence, I will, with God’s help.  With God’s help, we will love God and our neighbor with an unconditional love.  WITH GOD’S HELP.

Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 21

Pentecost 21, 2023
Exodus 33:12-23
Psalm 99
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.

So first, let’s look at the people in the room in today’s gospel lesson.  There are the people called “the crowds.”  These are just people.  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 this crowd turns against Jesus, he’s a gonner.  But 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 big crowds 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 since Herod was the puppet governor for the Romans, sending them 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.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes.

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.  And then they ask him The Question:  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”  If Jesus says, “Yes, pay taxes,” the crowd will turn against him, since no one wants to support the occupying Roman forces.  If Jesus says, “No, don’t pay taxes,” then the Herodians will have him arrested for treason against the Emperor.  It’s a good little trap they’ve set, and either answer will have consequences.

Now 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 forbids the establishment of religion.  And even after that, it took a couple hundred years more for us to start 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 heard that word around.)  Second, the Emperor was always called, “son of God,” and 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 did not carry coins of the Roman Empire, because to carry them was blasphemy.  

And you’ll notice that when Jesus wants to show them one of these coins, he does not reach into his own robe and pull out some change.  And why not?  Because Jesus is an observant Jew.  He is not carrying around idolatrous images of the occupying Roman force.  But when he asks for a coin, they bring him one.  I’m not going to judge anybody here, but it sure seems like somebody is carrying around blasphemous images of the Emperor.  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.  He doesn’t say give to the government your entire paycheck and give God your prayers, right?

It’s not about the value of the coin.  It’s about the eikon.  Whose image is on the money?  The coin 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.  Hold that thought.

I want to read you something from the Prayer Book, on page 845.  This is way back in the section called, “Parts of the Prayer Book I’ve never seen before.”  Actually, this is a subsection of that part 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 what?  In the image of God.  An eikon of God.

You are an eikon of God.  Let’s imagine the challengers ask Jesus a different question.  What if they were to 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 call them an animal or a monster?  Is it lawful for me to hate someone because they have a political sign in their lawn?  And Jesus asks, "Whose image do they bear?"  A denarius is made in the image of Caesar.  And you are made in the image of God.  And your neighbor is 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.  It’s hard sometimes, isn’t it?

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 people think, or how you are treated, or how much money you make, or who you vote for.  Your worth is based on bearing the eikon of God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen.  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.

All of which fits nicely with St. Timothy’s Church and our Stewardship Campaign, which kicks off today.  We usually think of a Stewardship Campaign as being about money, and it mostly is.  Gotta keep the lights on.  However, true stewardship, truly giving back to God, means giving yourself to God.  Your time, your talent, and your possessions.  That is why on this year’s pledge card, we included space on the back for you to list ways you want to share your time and talents.  Even if you don’t want to fill out the front and make a financial pledge, we ask you to prayerfully consider that section on the back, where you can offer back to God the other gifts you have been given.

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, 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 will always be welcomed by God because you are made in the very image of God.  You belong to God.   

Amen.

   

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Tigers Prayer Service

Tigers Prayer Service
October 21, 2023

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

This is the 7th time we’ve had the pleasure of hosting this prayer service for the Tigers on the day of this Rivalry Game.  (We had to take one year off because of COVID.)  And, there’s only so much I can say, you know?  So this morning I want to return to something I’ve spoken about in the past: your coaches.

There’s a distinction that writers make between transactional coaches and transformational coaches.  A transactional coach only cares about winning; a transformational coach cares about people, and inspires them to win.  A transactional coach might help you win a game; a transformational coach will help you for life.  This is important stuff, to be honest.  Especially because you are fortunate enough to have transformational coaches here in Massillon.  I want to read you something written by Coach Steve Weidl, because I think it applies to today’s game.

Transformational coaches not only look at the present, but they also make an emotional investment in young athletes’ long-term development. A transformational coach will aim to develop leaders who are not only good athletes, but also better people, and better ambassadors for the sport they participate in. They strive to inspire young athletes to achieve their goals and make them truly believe they can achieve anything they set their minds to. If a coach believes their only job is to make athletes strong and fast, they should think again. Coaches should also strive to build their athletes’ character, to help them improve as athletes and as human beings, because better people make better athletes.

I don’t want to take your focus off today’s game with all this talk about coaches.  But on the other hand, yes, I definitely do want to take your focus off today’s game.  Because your coaches at Washington High School care about who you are, and what kind of person you will become.  And because your coaches care so much about you as a person, that has an impact on everything you do, both on and off the field.

The UCLA Coach Red Sanders is quoted as saying, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”  And, sure, that’s kind of funny.  But it’s not true.  Winning is not the only thing; it’s not even the most important thing.  No.  Becoming the best person you can be is the most important thing; that’s the only thing.  Learning to be yourself with the gifts you have been given.  To do the best you can to make this world a better place.  Your coaches spend their time and effort helping you become the best person you can be, because—as I have seen with my own eyes—you have transformational coaches.  Above everything else, they care about you as a person, they care about your future, and they care about teaching you to be true to yourself.

And so, as players on this Tigers football team, being your true selves on this day, in this game, in this year, that’s the thing that matters.  I know that your coaches support you today, and I know that you will support each other today, and I know for a fact that this entire city supports you all the way today.  And all of that is what truly matters.  It is my hope and prayer that each of you will see and know how important you are to this town, to this team, to your coaches, and to the world.

May God bless you this day and every day.  Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 20

Pentecost 20, 2023
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.

Well.  To put it in theological terms, that reading is what scholars call a doozy!  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 imagine ourselves in three different scenarios.

Scenario number one: 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.  The works!   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.  Here endeth the first scenario.

And now, a complete change of scene.  Whole different set up in scenario number two: 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 wedding 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 tux 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.  Here endeth scenario number two.

And now the lights come up on scenario number three: There is a banquet happening here today.  You are 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 or not you partake of 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.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 19

Pentecost 19, 2023
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Psalm 19
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

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

I have to begin this morning with a disclaimer.  This sermon was mostly done before the events of yesterday morning.  So it is in no way a response to the horrible violence in Israel and Palestine.  We continue to pray for peace in the Middle East.

Now, before we do anything, we once again have to talk about the theological heresy of supersessionism.  I know, you were hoping I’d get right on that.  But first, let me just explain why we have to talk about supersessionism.  The readings today lead us to having to talk about it, yes.  But also, the ongoing and increasing anti-semitic attitudes in our country and around the world lead us to have to talk about it.  In a nutshell, supersessionism is the belief that Christianity replaces, or supersedes the Jewish faith . . . and, in extreme cases, replaces the Jewish people.  This is dangerous, and this is also heresy.  So, yeah, we have to talk about it.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the section we just heard has him bragging about how good he was at following the Jewish law.  “Circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”  And then he says, “I regard them as rubbish.”  And if we’re not careful, we might draw the conclusion that Paul is saying, my belief in Christ replaces—or supersedes—the faith I was once so diligent about.  But that is not what Paul is saying.  We don’t have time to break that down right now, but please believe me until we do.

And in the gospel reading we just heard, if we’re not careful, we can misinterpret that parable to mean that God is going to replace the faith of the Jews with the faith of Christianity.  As though Christianity is the new true religion, and somehow supersedes the Jewish faith.  And, in fact, this very parable has been used over the centuries to claim just that.  And this is the heresy called supersessionism.

There is a way of thinking among some Christians that everything in what we call the Old Testament was just setup for the New Testament.  Like the Jewish faith was a placeholder for the “superior” Christian faith.  That Christianity supersedes the Jewish faith.  Supersessionism is sometimes called “replacement theology,” and is declared heresy.  And anyone who proclaims it is a heretic.  

The Jews did not stop being God’s chosen people when Jesus showed up.  For one thing, Jesus himself was a Jew, as were all twelve of the disciples.  Jesus says he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill the Law.  The Jewish faith informs our faith, and we can only understand Christianity by having one eye on Judaism.  One way to think of it is that Christianity is grafted onto Judaism.  

So, okay, now let’s look at that parable, about the vineyard and the wicked tenants.  Remember, Jesus is telling this parable to the Chief Priests and Elders, the religious leaders of the Jewish faith—the faith of Jesus.  Jesus tells this story about the wicked tenants, and then he asks them the question:  Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?  And they answer, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

And that is the spot where people misread the parable and assume that Jesus is saying, Christianity will replace Judaism.  But that is not what is going on here at all.  Remember: supersessionism is heresy, and Jesus is no heretic.  But their answer does tell us something very important about the Chief Priests and Elders themselves.

Because Jesus lays out a scenario where the tenants are clearly guilty, and then asks, What would you do if you were the landowner?  The Chief Priests and Elders jump right in and say what they’d do:  “Kill the tenants horribly, and then lease the vineyard to people who will pay the rent.”

In psychology terms, we could think of this as one of those Rorschach tests.  You know the ink-blot ones?  You look at it and then you tell the psychologist what you see.  The truth is not in what is actually there; the truth is in what you see.  See?  So Jesus asks the question, and in their answer, the Chief Priests and Elders tell Jesus what kind of people THEY are.  They are the kind of people who respond to injustice by putting those wretches to a miserable death and leasing out the vineyard to someone who will give the produce to the vineyard owner as agreed.     

And that’s a crucial point to notice here.  Jesus is not the one who says that the landowner will kill people and give the land to someone else.  Jesus does not judge the Chief Priests and the Elders.  Jesus doesn’t judge anyone here.  He lays out the facts of the story, and he asks a question.  And the answer to the question tells everyone what they need to know.  And, according to the Chief Priests and Elders, the vineyard should be taken away from the bad tenants and given to someone else who will give him the produce at harvest time.

And here is where we need to slam on the brakes again.  I want you to notice the actual people having the conversation here.  This is Jesus, an observant Jew, talking to the Chief Priests and Elders, also observant Jews.  There is a very old and very wrong way of viewing this story as something like this:

God will take away the vineyard from the Jews and give it to the Christians.  This is completely wrong, and utterly dangerous.  That view of this story is the interpretation that the Nazis used to justify their atrocities.  The very term “replacement theology” brings to mind the horrible chant in Charlottesville, “Jews will not replace us.”  Nowhere in here does it suggest God will take the kingdom from the Jews and give it to the Christians.  If anything, God will take the vineyard from the unfaithful and give it to the faithful, whether they are Jewish or Christian or something else entirely.  This is not a story about all the Jews because, again, Jesus was Jewish.  This is a story where the Chief Priests and Elders condemn themselves, plain and simple. 

So then, what about you and me?  Imagine Jesus talking to us, and telling us this parable.  Imagine Jesus lays out a scenario where the tenants are clearly guilty, and then asks, “What would you do if you were the landowner?  What would you do to those tenants?”  Think about how to answer that question, because it reveals a lot about how we view the world, and how we view justice, and how we view . . . well, God.

Because here’s the sneaky thing about this parable:  Jesus never gives the answer.  He quotes a Psalm, and then he talks about himself as the cornerstone.  But he never says what the vineyard owner would do.  Or should do.  Or might do.

So, what would the landowner do?  What would you do?  What would God do?  And that’s, finally, where we DO know the answer.  We know what God would do when God's son is killed.  We like to think that the Chief Priests and Elders killed Jesus.  Or we like to think that the Romans killed Jesus.  It’s easy for us to see this parable and imagine that we are the people who produce the fruits of the kingdom.  You know, God takes the vineyard away from the ones who kill the Son, and then gives the vineyard to us.

I am reminded of one of the most powerful hymns that we sing during Holy Week . . .

Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas,
my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
'Twas
I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.

Now I ask you again, in the words of Jesus, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?  You and I would answer the same as the Chief Priests and Elders, wouldn’t we?  We’d say, He will put those wretches—meaning us—to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.

And what does God actually do?  Here’s the crazy thing:  God raises the Son back to life.  The one he sends to collect what is due, the one we kill, God raises him back to life!  And in doing so, pardons us of every offense.  Every offense.  It’s a completely new beginning!  And you and I did nothing to deserve this fresh start.  If that is not good news, I sure don’t know what is!

We’ve had a lot of these vineyard parables the past few weeks.  Sometimes the meaning is obvious, and sometimes the meaning takes some work to uncover.  But in all of these parables, there is a clear thread of mercy rather than punishment.  A clear thread of the undeserving getting what they don’t deserve.  Jesus never says what the landowner should do, and let us  take our cue from Jesus, and seek after mercy and forgiveness.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.

May God give us the grace to always seek after mercy, the humility to remember that we are part of a larger story, and to always keep our eyes on Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith.

Amen.

Monday, October 2, 2023

YEAR A 2023 pentecost 18

Pentecost 18, 2023
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.

Today’s first reading ended with this:  He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”     Is the Lord among us or not? 

Maybe you’ve been asking yourself the same question lately.  We look out at a fractured, partisan, bickering, flooding nation and ask ourselves, “Is the Lord among us or not?”  Part of the answer to our question lies in those two names, Massah and Meribah.  Because those words mean temptation and contend.  They don’t mean “you bunch of ingrates,” or even, “haven’t you been paying attention during the last five chapters of Exodus with the passover, and the Red Sea, and the manna from heaven and all that?”  No.  Massah and Meribah mean temptation and contend, which is the cvery place God shows up.

Is the Lord among us or not?  We can’t help but ask that question these days.  I was surprised to read that people’s faith in God actually increased at the height of the pandemic.  I mean, I can see how that may be true.  Because some days I have felt that way, but then, some days I don’t feel that way.  The times I do feel like my faith has increased are when I put my trust in God, and the times I have my biggest doubts are when I put my trust in commentary and arguments and politics.

When I look at our parish life, and ask myself, “What am I going to do about this?”  I tend to panic.  But I definitely feel more at peace when I ask myself, “How is God at work in the midst of this?”  Massah and Meribah: the place where God shows up.  Panic comes when I trust in myself.  Peace comes when I trust in God.  Or, put another way, pounding on a rock with a stick by ourselves to get water is hopeless.  Trusting in God to provide our needs with our neighbors, and for our neighbors, and through our neighbors . . . that is what brings hope.

And speaking of trusting in God, let’s look at today’s Gospel reading.
The first step to understanding this story is to clear away our American Folk Religion understanding of it.  You remember the basic gist of the parable, right?  The one son says he will go into the vineyard and does not go.  And the other son says he will not go into the vineyard, and then he goes.  And I’m afraid our takeaway is, “Actions speak louder than words.”  Right?

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 trusting in Jesus.

So, if this parable doesn’t mean, “Actions speak louder than words,” then what does it mean?  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.  (Autumn 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 working has nothing to do with God’s reward.  God’s reward for you is salvation in 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. 

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?  But 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 go 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 biggest 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.  You still need Jesus.  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 and in need of Jesus is good news!  Because we have admitted that our valuable good deeds are never going to make everything alright, no matter how hard we try.  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 any more than God does.  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.  

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.  May God give us that trust, even when we have doubts.  Especially when we have doubts.  Because Massah and Meribah are the very places where God shows up.

Amen.