Saturday, October 18, 2014

19 Pentecost Yr A Proper 24 Oct 19 2014

Audio 10.19.2014

Money, politics, and religion, the only missing ingredient for impolite conversation is sex. So why is it we're not supposed to talk about these things? Maybe because these things are felt to be too personal to discuss in public, and too divisive. People feel very strongly about these things and don't want to be told what to think. Unless, of course, you are in some churches, that tell you exactly what to think about just about everything. I'm not going to tell you what to think about any of these things, but, our faith definitely informs us on these things, and today's reading from Matthew is all about these things, therefore, well, there you are.

Money, give to the emperor what is the emperors's.
Politics, everyone has to pay taxes.
Religion, give to God the things that are God's.

But as we well know, it's never easy, or clear, or straightforward. So what's really going on here? What is the kingdom of God like? 

What we have is actually one of the oldest tricks in the book. Entrapment. That’s what the Pharisees are about in this story, pure and simple. They know very well the Jewish law against creating images. We read all about that last week in Exodus. The Israelites took all the gold from their ears, their sons’ ears, and their daughters ears, melted it down and made an idol out of it. Not making and worshiping idols is the commandment second only to loving God. 

The Pharisees know what they ask of Jesus creates what we today call cognitive dissonance. You can’t act one way without compromising your morals; it’s the slippery slope. We go about rationalizing these things all the time. I do it on a smaller practical scale all the time, should I eat that doughnut, or should I eat that apple? I want the doughnut because I believe it will make me feel good, because I like it, because I deserve it, because it’s fun… But I eat the apple because I believe it’s good for me, because it tastes good, because I need the vitamins, because it will help me in the long run. What we do has to do with the priorities we choose for our lives. If you’re a list maker, you’d list the pros in one column, the cons in another, and make your choice.   

The Pharisees are trying to entrap Jesus, if Jesus says we don’t pay taxes to the emperor he’s guilty of sedition, but if Jesus says we use these coins with an image on them to pay taxes to the emperor, he’s guilty of breaking the commandment. Caesar or God? This is not just a slippery slope, it is a no win situation. But Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees' question, as is his answer each time they ask him questions about wealth is really simple. It’s all God’s. It’s all God’s. There is no hierarchy, there is no priority list, and there are no top ten things that belong to God. The question is pointless. It is all God’s. You see, there is nothing that is the emperor’s. We live in this world as God's beloved, we are God's image, we do not live in the image that the world will make us.
So what Jesus may be doing here is showing that wealth is not ours. All wealth comes from God. And wealth includes so much more than money. There are some ramifications of this for us today. All wealth comes from God, we live in a land in which order is kept by a mutual agreement that everyone shares in the responsibility of government and infrastructure and protection. Therefore we pay our share. But all we have still comes from God. 

So maybe what Jesus might be doing is inviting us to declare our allegiance. Perhaps the key question to preaching this passage isn’t, after all, whose image is on the coin, but rather whose image is on us. We indeed are made in God's image and marked as God's own forever. And that’s what always seems to get lost in conversations about money and politics. For while we may feel strongly about our political loyalties, before we are Democrat, Republican, or Independent, we are God's beloved. And while we may be confident that how we spend our money is our business an no one else’s, yet if we forget in whose image we have been made we may succumb to the temptation to believe that we are no more than the some total of our possessions and that our bank accounts tell a true story about our worth and value.

So, there are no easy answers here. There are elements of our lives that are, indeed, part of the world order and should be “rendered to Caesar.” But, our deepest self belongs to God, and if we remember that, all of life takes on greater focus and meaning. And our identity as God's beloved, will, in turn, shape our behavior, urging and aiding us to be the persons we have been called to be.

So today, I'm inviting you to a way of reminding yourself of your identity, as God's beloved, take
out one of your credit cards, (and if you don't have a credit card, use one of the cards in the pew) and mark it with the sign of the cross. Every time you use it, or see your card in your purse or wallet, you may think about how your faith, your belovedness, impacts your decision about spending. 

And I hope this is not a burden, but rather an empowering reminder of your identity as a child of God, something no amount of spending or saving could change. Maybe it will help to actively reflect on how your faith shapes your daily life and particularly your economic life. God wants more from us, in the end, than polite conversation. God wants for us abundant life. Because while Benjamin Franklin may have once said that death and taxes are the only two certainties of this life, each week we have the opportunity to declare that the one who was raised from death shows us that God’s love is more certain than anything else.

The story that informs us and transforms us is that we are created by God in God’s image, and we are related to all of creation. God’s abundance in creation is already bestowed upon us. Our job is to hold it in trust, and to care for it. This is what we call stewardship. Give to God the things that are God’s, and everything is God’s.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

18 Pentecost Yr A Proper 23 Oct 12 2014

Audio 10.12.2014

In the gospel of Matthew, we have been reading the stories of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem, Jesus' final entry into Jerusalem, and Jesus working incredibly hard to teach the disciples every thing that he thinks is essential for them to know when he is gone. Jesus seems to be tired and impatient as he finishes this task of imparting knowledge in the form of parables. The parable we hear today is unfortunately difficult. The preacher is faced with a choice, tackle the difficult parable, or preach on something else. So, first, I'll tell you about the context in which this story is first told. 

David Lose, of The Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, is helping me here. In this parable, as with the one we preached last week, we are catching a glimpse of the low point in an intense family feud. I want to emphasize the word “family” here because Matthew and his community are caught up in a struggle with their Israelite kin about how to be faithful to the God of Abraham and Sarah and, in particular, whether Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah Israel’s prophets had promised. This is not a Jewish-Christian dispute – though in the centuries that follow Christians will use this passage to further their anti-Semitism (which is one of the things that makes this passage dangerous) – but rather represents the pain of a community sundered from its family and trying to justify itself. 

So, maybe this parable really asks the question, what happens when people we love, our brothers and sisters, our friends and family, believe differently than we do, or do not believe at all? What does the kingdom of God look like in this case? Matthew, because of his context, answers this intra-family dispute with a king who resolves this difficult matter in a very dark and violent way. We have seen in our own culture, and in the diverse cultures and religions of the 21st century, the dispute answered similarly. If you believe differently than we do, we have every right to capture you and kill you, which is the extreme, a bit less extreme but as violent, is that we have the right to condemn you and hate you.

Our answer is not that. Our answer is that the kingdom of God is like a God who can love all of the characters in this play.

Weddings these days are fascinating. In the last few years I have attended weddings as a family member, as mother of the groom, and I have been the presider at a few.  Weddings are varied, they can be in the church, at the lake or like my niece, in a church where the church itself did not matter. And, we've witnessed amazingly varied wedding wear on the diverse people that have been gathered for these weddings. The most interesting wedding wear was at the wedding of my nephew the actor who lives in New York, there were many New Yorkers there, young like him, 30ish, very well tattooed and pierced. The wedding attire ran the gamut from amazingly dressy to jeans and t-shirts, there didn’t seem to be any expectation of appropriate dress.   
In my life, the invitation to a party is an exciting thing. Part of the fun of a party is the expectation, the anticipation. Part of the fun of a party is being included, belonging. 

It’s a bit unlike the response of the people in our story from Matthew today, they made light of the invitation, and even killed the messengers who delivered the invitation. The king may have shrugged and said, well then, if the chosen are not interested in the wedding celebration, then go and invite any one you want, they went to the outer reaches of the kingdom, they went to the margins, and those who came to the celebration were honored to be there. The God of abundance has made a great offer, come to the feast. The God of abundance has set the table, has prepared a wonderful banquet. 

The thing about an invitation is that we can choose to come, or not. The thing about this relationship with God is that we can choose to be in it or not, we are never compelled. As all these people arrived, people from all over the kingdom, people who were honored to be there; the ones who were tattooed and pierced, the ones who were curious and doubtful, the ones who were questionable and the ones who were upstanding, the ones who loved and hated, but all people who respected the king and the occasion for which they gathered, these people received a wedding garment, a robe. The people gathered for this wedding banquet mostly were the people gathered from the margins, they were the people who responded yes to the great offer made to them. The wedding garment was provided for them, and they put on the wedding garment with honor and respect to the King.   

Except the one in our story. He won’t put on the wedding garment. Not putting on the wedding garment is the very same thing as not saying yes to this relationship into which he was being invited. In this case, the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, is of his own choosing. Putting on the wedding garment, putting on the robe, reveals a willingness to respond to the abundant banquet that is available to us now, and available to us at the fulfillment of time. 

When I reread this story, I was reminded of the garment each of us puts on at baptism, figuratively and literally. The baptismal garment re-presents to us that new creation we become when Jesus calls us over the tumult of our life’s wild restless sea, day by day his clear voice sounds, saying “Christian, follow me.” We are dressed as one ready, ready to follow, ready to be a voice in the cacophony, ready to dive into the relationship that is offered to us by the one who prepares the banquet of abundance, the one whose heart's desire is to be in relationship with us.   

When we put on the wedding garment, or the baptismal garment, it does not signify that we are finished, that we have arrived, or that we are perfected or done, because we are only beginning. We are saying yes to the abundant and amazing love that waits for us. We are saying yes to the journey of life and yes to the knowledge that the journey is not by ourselves, but with the one who creates us, the one who reconciles us, the one who revives us. Life is not a journey that should be taken by oneself; it is a hard and treacherous journey, as well as a joyful and exciting journey. It is a journey of love and forgiveness; it is a journey of grace and mercy. And it is a journey that our creator God desperately wants to accompany us on. 

So much so, that God came into this time and space, to be just like you, just like me, with all the joys and hopes, all the pain and the suffering, that human life has to offer. And so much love, that Jesus was willing to put himself in our place, to offer himself to suffering and death, so that you and I are not condemned to pain and sadness and tragedy for ever. This abundant banquet is there for the taking. Nothing is held over our heads, no strings attached. The love that provides the banquet flows in and through and among us, and we have the opportunity to respond. We have the opportunity to pay that love forward. We have the opportunity to show forth the love that has been offered to us, and to be people of love and forgiveness ourselves. The response to this abundance that God offers to us through God’s son Jesus, is to offer that same love and forgiveness to others. It is not to hoard, it is not to keep to ourselves. It is to offer ourselves, as Jesus offers his life to us, we offer this love to others. 

The hard part is that Jesus offers this love to everyone, sinners included. Thank God for that, because that means you and I have a place in this amazing kingdom too. But that was the sticking point for the gospel writer Matthew when Matthew first heard this story and then interpreted it in his own way.  And equally exciting is the abundant banquet that is in store for us at the fulfillment of time. We get a foretaste of that banquet in the bread and the wine that we share together each Sunday we gather. We get glimpses of grace, and those glimpses are powerful. 

So one of those glimpses of grace is that everyone is included. You and I are included, the liar and the cheat are included, the tax collector and the sinner are included. I think what is hard for us is that we come to believe that the abundance is the reward for right behavior, so that those whose behavior is not up to a particular standard can’t be part of the banquet. But that’s not the way it works. It’s the invitation that changes us. It’s the abundance that transforms us. It’s the anticipation and the expectation of seeing our friends and our loved ones that causes us great joy. Once we put on that wedding garment, or baptismal garment, we are not the same. We are made new, God’s love, God’s power, God’s abundance changes us. We can love others, we can forgive others. We no longer live for ourselves, or for greed, or for power. We no longer live for ourselves, but we live in relationship, and in relationship we find joy and peace. 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

17 Pentecost Yr A Proper 22 Yr A Oct 5 2014

Audio 10.5.2014

Listen to another parable. The Kingdom of God is like a... actually, in this one it is easier to say what the kingdom of God is not like. The Kingdom of God is not like those who extract a profit at all costs...the Kingdom of God is not like the kinship of honor and privilege of possession. Jesus said to them, "What? Haven't you read the scriptures? Haven't you paid attention? The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom." 

Remember, in the gospel of Matthew we are reading this series of stories and parables, and at the beginning of the 21st chapter, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for the very last time, and goes to the temple, and Jesus drove out all who were selling and buying. Now, the reason they were selling and buying in the temple is that there was a temple tax. But Roman coins had the image of Caesar on them, and those could not be used at the temple because there was a Jewish law against images. So, people had to bring their coins, trade them for the currency that could be used, which was doves. So what Jesus was angry at was those taking advantage of the trade, extortion as it were. It seems to me, that in these days in which these stories are taking place, Jesus is trying desperately to impart to his followers everything he wanted them to learn. Jesus sounds tired and angry, and beyond patient with his followers. And he says to them, "Haven't you paid attention to anything I've said?" 

Do you ever feel that way? Do you ever want people, your children, your spouse, your government, just to listen to you? Jesus is in that place in this part of the gospel of Matthew. Just listen to me. The Kingdom of God is available to all, not just the chief priests, or the Pharisees, not just the landowners, not just those who follow the law even. The Kingdom of God is available to tax collectors and sinners, the Kingdom of God is available even to those nasty tenants, the Kingdom of God is available to you and to me. And this is so important, Jesus says in these parables, he's even willing to risk raising the ire of those in power to show and tell the people the truth of God's love for God's people.

We know this because in this story, everyone gets it wrong. The Landowner and the tenants operate as if everything belongs to them. And the tenants are willing to kill to keep their valuable crop for themselves. And the people listening to this story get it wrong. When asked what they think the landowner will do to the tenants, they think he will put those wretches to a miserable death. But instead we hear the Kingdom of God will be given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. We hear that the Kingdom of God cannot be owned or possessed, we hear that the Kingdom of God cannot be guaranteed by might or by right, we hear that the Kingdom of God cannot be defended by violence.

This is not the story of a vengeful God, this is the story of a God whose love is so deep and so broad and so wide, that all of God's creation is included in it. Just imagine the world in which Matthew was writing. It was a world in which your power and importance and your worth was based on the household and the householder you were attached to. There was nothing you could do to increase or decrease your position. If you were the householder, the one at the top, or if you were a Pharisee, an important person in the temple, you had everything you could ever want or desire, just because that was your position in life. If you had the misfortune to be born a servant, or and artisan, or a tradesperson, your life was beholden to the person whose household you belonged to. 

Jesus changed that. The last will be first, Jesus said. Tax collectors and prostitutes are welcome at the table, Jesus said. Jesus' life and death and resurrection shows us a different way. Jesus' life and death and resurrection shows us that the God who creates us and loves us, calls every one of us, no matter what we have or don't have, to be agents of this new creation. Every one of us has the capacity to love one another. Every one of us has the ability to create mercy and compassion in our wake. Every one of us has been given all that we need to be builders of this Kingdom of God and to produce the fruits of the Kingdom. 

God has already blessed us with all that we need, that is our inheritance. That is what the Kingdom of God is like. Our work is to get on board with God in that blessing. Our work is to use all that we have and all that we are to produce the fruits of the kingdom. Our work is to spread those fruits, those blessings, into all of the places we go, to share with the people in our lives the love, and mercy, and compassion, and healing, and forgiveness, that comes with being God's beloved. 

I think sometimes we think that this is hard, carrying this Good News of God's love out into the world, but you can do hard things. We are called to do hard things. Last Thursday, a group of us gathered in my office to watch a webcast from the National Cathedral in Washington DC, to include the whole Episcopal church in the conversation about making substantial change to our structure. That webcast is now online at reimaginetec.org, and I wanted to watch The Right Rev. Michael B. Curry, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, again, well, because he's great fun to watch and listen to. And what he said has everything to do with us, right here and right know. Michael Curry reminded us that Jesus came to start a movement, not a church, not a religion. And Jesus said to Matthew, and James, and John, and Andrew and Simon, and the tax collectors and the sinners, and us, come, follow me, and I will show you a life of mercy, compassion, justice, forgiveness, healing, and dignity. We are Jesus' followers, and it is up to us to show forth a world that is transformed by God's love in Jesus Christ, that, is what the Kingdom of God looks like.