Saturday, October 21, 2017

20 Pentecost Proper 24 Yr A Oct 22 2017

The Compass Rose at the Canterbury Cathedral
photo by Kathy Monson Lutes

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 scripture and our commitment to follow Jesus definitely informs us on these things, and today's reading from Matthew is all about these things, so, let’s talk.

Money, give to the emperor what is the emperors’.
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 do it all the time. At least I do it all the time, should I eat that doughnut because it is good, or should I eat that apple because I know it is good for me? 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. How we act has to do with the priorities we choose for our lives. And how we act has to do with our baptismal promises to follow Jesus, to seek and serve Christ in everyone we encounter.

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. Jesus’ answer is 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, and 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 in 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. God wants us to know that we are enough. 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 14, 2017

19 Pentecost Proper 23 Yr A Oct 15 2017

This is an window in the Durham Cathedral, Durham, UK.

19 Pentecost Proper 23 Yr A Oct 15 2017 Audio

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. And, the parables we have been hearing from Matthew have been terribly troublesome. 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, formerly 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.

For those who follow Jesus, that is not our answer. Our answer is that the kingdom of God is like a God who can love all of the characters in this story.

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 in the park. 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 lived 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.

Unlike the response of the people in our story from Matthew today, Who 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 eventually 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 saying no 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 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 move toward compassion, mercy, justice, kindness, and the kingdom of God comes near.

Friday, October 6, 2017

18 Pentecost Proper 22 Yr A Oct 8 2017

This is not a pretty parable. Matthew is talking mighty tough. A landlord purchases land, makes some improvements, and then leaves. After an undetermined amount of time, he sends his representatives to collect what is owed him. Instead of the tenants handing over what is owed, they beat and kill the landlord’s representative, not just one, but two, and then they kill his son. How can this even begin to reveal the kingdom of God?

This absent landlord, who knows how long he’s been away, finally sends in some of his people to check on the place. Maybe the tenants thought he’d permanently gone away, maybe they thought he’d just never return; maybe they thought he was dead. You’d think that after the first murder, the landlord would quit. Well, that landlord is just crazy. And, what’s even crazier is this landlord sending his own son, after all this violence, as if something about that is going to change. As if people who have been beating and killing are just going to stop being violent because they just decided they don’t want to do that anymore.

Crazy indeed, crazy love. It’s not just crazy; it’s crazy love. The kind of love that brooks no reason, that will listen to no counter argument, and that will never, ever give up, risking even violence, rejection, and death in order to testify to God’s commitment to these tenants…and to us.

It sounds to me a lot like us, as tenants I mean. Such violence, such injustice, such foolishness. And God’s crazy love for us never, ever, ends. Makes me want to cry really, and I believe God weeps every time we, God’s children, turn to violence to solve our problems or to exert power. How can we go on being so violent, when we have a God whose love for us, for all creation is so amazing, so abundant. How can God continue to love us, when we keep on falling down, when we keep on blaming, mistreating, and hurting one another?

But we really are just like these tenants. The tenants carry on the work of the vineyard. It’s not fair is it? To do all the work and the landowner gets all the profits. The tenants are entitled to a piece of the pie, the tenants are entitled to some of the profit, why not kill the landowner’s son and get the inheritance? This parable highlights our own human sense of justice and righteousness and even entitlement. We are the tenants. But in this parable, that is not the landowner’s, God’s, sense of justice and righteousness.

We hear this story all the time. About how unfair this life is. It’s that transaction with God again. If you work hard, and do everything right, your reward should be wealth and happiness and blessings from God, we think that’s what’s fair. But that’s not the truth. The truth is that many of us work hard, and pain, and suffering, and tragedy is still part of our lives. We are not entitled to success, or happiness, or even blessedness. We sometimes even talk about what we deserve or don’t deserve. We work hard, we deserve a good life, we deserve recognition. We deserve a life free from pain, free from heartache. But that’s not the way God works, it’s not the way scripture shows us and it’s not the way our lives show us. We experience pain and heartache, and we experience happiness and fullness of life.

Maybe Matthew tells this kind of a violent story because we cannot hear, truly hear, the stories that show us God’s compassion, God’s mercy and justice. Maybe Matthew tells this kind of a violent story because Matthew knows we are a violent people. But you know what? I don’t want to be that way. I don’t want us to be a people who don’t pay attention to God, to Spirit, to Love. I don’t want us to be an entitled people, an exceptional people. I don’t want us to be a violent people. I don’t want us to go on and on watching people getting killed, and begin to accept that as normal. I don’t want to see it anymore.

I want us to be a compassionate people. A merciful people. A just people. I want us to be people who love one another and care for each other, whether or not someone deserves love and care. I want us to follow Jesus, the one who shows us how love, the one who shows us how forgiveness and healing work. The one who gave everything, so that we may have life. So that we may have life, not wealth, not happiness, but life.

So how do we do that? How do we be a community of compassion, and of mercy, and of justice? Do not be afraid. Indeed, it is fear that gives rise to violence. Fear of the ones who are different from us, fear of losing what we have, fear of losing our loved ones and fear of losing our very lives.

You see, we are all broken, and it is that very brokenness that makes us compassionate, or hateful. I’m reading a book, Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. When we gather at Diocesan Convention, we’ll take time to talk about this book. In it are many stories of incarceration, and many times I have cried as I listened to the stories of people whose lives have turned for the worst, and yet who continue to have faith, hope, and compassion. One story in particular though illustrates our brokenness, and the compassion or hatefulness that results.

Bryan Stevenson tells the reader about a guard at the prison where he is visiting a client. The client, Avery, is there because after a life of foster care filled with emotional and sexual abuse, he hears the demons in his head and that results in stabbing a man and killing him. Mr. Stevenson regularly visits the prison as the legal counsel, he reports to the warden and then is signed in, all according to the proper procedure. The first time Mr. Stevenson encounters this particular prison guard, he is questioned extensively, bullied, and then subjected to a strip search, all against the law. Mr. Stevenson had seen a truck in the parking lot, a truck with confederate flag stickers plastered all over it. The prison guard makes sure Mr. Stevenson knows that is his truck. Mr. Stevenson listens to Avery, but the only thing Avery wants is a chocolate milk shake. Each time Mr. Stevenson sees Avery in prison, Avery asks for a chocolate milk shake, and Mr. Stevenson replies that he cannot get a milk shake into the prison. After many visits and much work, a court date is set for an appeal of Avery’s conviction, with the evidence of Avery’s upbringing in the foster care system. That same prison guard is the one who brings Avery to court each time, and he listened to the proceedings. When Mr. Stevenson encounters that guard again at the prison, he approaches with trepidation, but the guard is a changed man. He tells Mr. Stevenson of his own abuse in the foster care system. He says he thought he was the only one who had been treated that way, and realized Avery was treated even more poorly and violently than he. The guard learned compassion as he looked into the eyes of the one he had judged a loser. He learned to respect the Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer who was helping so many on death row. He even stopped at a Wendy’s on the way back to the prison after court one day, to buy Avery a chocolate milk shake.

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. It is in that place of our brokenness, that makes us compassionate or hateful. Our brokenness is the source of our common humanity. We have a choice, to be compassionate or to be hateful. Embracing our brokenness, leads to mercy. Jesus comes into that place of brokenness and says, let go of the hate, let go of the bitterness. Do not take revenge or retribution. Instead, know that we are all in this together, you have been dealt a life that is yours, filled with good fortune or bad, filled with love or abuse. You are capable of extreme compassion, you are capable of forgiveness.

Jesus’ love is the love that is unreasonable, it is the love that will never, ever give up, risking the violence showered upon him, the rejection of his friends, and death on a cross. And on that cross, Jesus loved, saying, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.

We know, that love takes a decision. We know that compassion means doing something. Look into the eyes of the ones you are afraid of, and be transformed. And then, get to work. Work to relieve the suffering and pain of another, and your problems will begin to feel small. Work to change laws that are unjust, work so that our community is compassionate. And bring a chocolate milk shake to someone this week. Amen.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

17 Pentecost Proper 21 Yr A Oct 1 2017

"By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them. "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you." The Pharisees are astounded at this. They are the authorities in Jesus' world. They hold the power. Who is this Jesus who says that his authority comes from someone or something other than them? Who is this Jesus who eats with tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners? Who is this Jesus? 

Let’s remember that we have been hearing about forgiveness and reconciliation in the gospel of Matthew, as well as in the Old Testament Exodus stories for quite a few weeks now. What follows in Matthew’s story is this series of parables. We know something about parables. They are about describing the inbreaking kingdom of God; they are about showing us what the kingdom of God looks like. We know that the kingdom looks nothing like what anyone is used to or what anyone expects. God’s kingdom is something absolutely new, something no one has any experience with, that’s why there are parables, they make us and the original hearers think in ways not before imagined. This new kingdom is nothing like what had come before.

So what we hear today follows from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, and he asks the disciples to get him a donkey. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on that donkey, not a stallion as would be expected of a Messiah. Jerusalem is in turmoil. The question among the people in the crowd that day is who is this? They were saying this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. Then Jesus enters the temple, tosses out all who were selling and buying and he overturned the tables of the moneychangers. Jesus healed the lame and the blind, and the chief priests and scribes became angry, they asked Jesus “Do you hear what these people are saying?” Jesus knew what they were saying. Jesus went out to be by himself, he came back to the temple, and there were the chief priests and elders again. Then comes the question, this all-important question. By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority? The chief priests and elders end up arguing with each other, nobody can answer the question, and nothing really gets solved. By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority? The tax collectors and the prostitutes know something about this authority, but not the chief priests and the elders.

The chief priests and elders were concerned, understandably so, because if they went along with Jesus, who is doing something – they’re not quite sure what - with authority they can’t identify, the chief priests and elders also may be brought up on the same charges Jesus is. They too may be tried for misaligned loyalty. They could be held liable for the damage Jesus has done in the temple throwing things around and turning the tables over.

By whose authority? By God’s authority, not the Roman authority, not the Jewish authority, but God’s authority. Jesus heals, forgives, includes, feeds, by God’s authority. Jesus changes the system. Truly I tell you, we hear, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom before you, because they get it. They understand that the arc of God’s love in this kingdom is toward mercy, healing, and forgiveness.  

So we finally get to this parable of the man who had two sons. In Jesus' time, a father had ultimate authority. He could decide the fate of his children in a moment. He can give and he can take away. This father has asked his sons to go out into the vineyard to work. The first son says no, but eventually changes his mind and goes, the other son says yes, but in the end doesn't go to work. What is this about?

Maybe it’s about the surprising possibility of hope that someone who has refused to listen to God may yet change their mind. Hope that it’s never too late to respond to the grace of the Gospel. Hope that our past actions or current status do not determine our future. Hope that we are never beyond the reach of God. What does the kingdom look like? I think it looks like the possibility that God is willing to meet us right here and now, no matter what we think about how worthy or unworthy we may be. I think it looks like forgiveness and healing. I think the kingdom looks like each one of us who walk forward today ready to love those with whom we agree, and to love those with whom we disagree.

We live at a time of such division. I think following Jesus, living under Jesus’ authority, partnering with God in bringing about the kingdom is about reminding ourselves that beneath all of those differences is a profound commonality and solidarity in that we are each a child of God whom God loves, adores, and is speaking to right here and now. In God’s kingdom we take a little more time to listen to each other, we try to understand each other, and try to listen for God’s calling for ourselves and our community together.

And in this particular room in God’s kingdom we gather together to experience the awesomeness of God in the bread and the wine, the mystery that heals us and makes us whole. We gather together to experience the awesomeness of God in the midst of our humanity and in the forgiveness of the hurt we’ve caused ourselves and others.

By whose authority? By the authority of the one whose love calls us into being and blesses us. The one whose Word lives among us, in us, and through us. The one whose love forgives us when we are greedy and full of ourselves. The one into whose life we are baptized, the one whose love wins. Amen.