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Monday, October 30, 2017

October 29, 2017    

Gospel: John 8:31-36                      
1st Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34  
2nd Reading: Romans 3:19-28
                Today we commemorate the 500th Anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  Because of the reformation, we focus on God’s word in scripture as a primary way God reveals God’s self to us. 
Today the word that has been jumping out at me from the scriptures is “heart.”  In the reading from Jeremiah for this morning, God is going to write God’s law on the hearts of the people.  And in the reading from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart.
Both of these scriptures involve an ideal that God has in mind, a vision of what someday will be, a realm of peace and beauty, of community and love and belonging.  It will be something we won’t even have to think about.  Instead we’ll automatically know we belong to God and what we are for, which is to love. When Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, and he tells them to love God and neighbor, he is laying out his vision of the peaceable Kingdom, the beloved Community, a picture of heaven itself.  This is a vision of balanced priorities and focus, it is a vision of selflessness and sharing, it is a vision of love and belonging.
500 years ago Dr. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses for debate, because he saw a major way the church was not matching with the vision of love that God puts forth in these scriptures.  His act began a questioning of church authority and motives.  So eventually the Lutheran Church was born from this struggle and the world was changed.
However, today we are having a commemoration of the Reformation, rather than a Celebration of it, for a couple of reasons.  One is that the Reformation was not all good.  People used violence against one another as they began to react against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.  And Martin Luther later wrote and preached against Jewish people, not as a race, but in frustration that they didn’t convert once he had corrected the errors in the Roman Catholic Church.  Later these writings were used by the Nazi Party in persecution of the Jews.  In fact I only recently learned that Kristall Nacht (the night of broken glass) in which Jewish businesses throughout Germany were attacked in 1938, was carried out purposely on Martin Luther’s Birthday to make the connection between what he wrote and the Nazi’s murder of millions of Jews. 
Another reason this is a Commemoration more than a Celebration is that we haven’t yet arrived at God’s vision of unity and peace.  Our reality is still very, very far from the loving community that Jesus articulated.  The Protestant Reformation has changed the world and the church, however God is not done with us yet.  The reformation is not a one-time event, but ongoing.  We are always turning away from God and God’s vision, but God is always turning us back toward God. 
The problem is, we always forget is that we are the apple of God’s eye, that God made us in God’s own image, names us, claims us, redeems us.  We forget how much God loves us.  And we forget how much God loves our neighbor. 
The heart is the symbol of love.  It implies longing, connectedness, attachment, focus.  I’d like to propose today that maybe the heart is the part of us that is most in the image of God.  We are made in God’s image, but what does that mean.  There is such variation among people, in personality and appearance.  Maybe it is our hearts that are like God’s, if we would just listen to our hearts.
Our hearts, like God’s cause us to dream, to envision, to hope for what might be.  God’s dream is to create a universe in harmony and peace, to create a being to relate to, to let love reign above every other value.  Martin Luther had a dream, even though I don’t know that he ever articulated it that way.  He dreamed of a church that took away barriers between people and God.  He dreamed of a life free from fear of an authoritarian father and angry God.  I don’t know that he really fully connected to this dream, until he had been excommunicated, gone through all the religious courts, the reading of his works banned, and hidden away in Wartburg Castle.  It was only through the severing of all ties that he was able to fully see what might be.  In other words, he couldn’t see the dream or allow himself to fully dream until he had nothing to lose.  And he had lots of time which he chose to spend with God’s word in Scripture, translating it, and hearing it again as if for the first time, absorbing it, putting it into his own words, imagining how it would sound in people’s ears hearing it for the first time, seeing how completely different God’s vision was from the reality of the Roman Catholic Church and many priests at that time.  He had a lot of time to dream and for his dream to connect to God’s dream.  It was no longer about indulgences.  And Luther began putting out one treatise after another against the hypocrisy and greed of the Church.
God gave us hearts to dream, too.  When we’re invested in the current reality, it is hard to let ourselves hope for something so disturbing to our own comfort.  But our hearts must dream.  There has to be more than this!  And not just a little more.  We are assured our dreams are not in vain, that God is powerful and will bring that dream of peace and love to reality.
God gave us hearts to connect.  God would not go on alone, so God created humankind to relate to, to talk with, to listen to, to co-create with.  Our hearts produce a longing in us that won’t let us go on alone.  We seek community.  We seek communion.  We need each other.  Together we are the body of Christ.
God gave us hearts to break.  I think of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.   He finally gets his heart, only to have it breaking as Dorothy is leaving.  Certainly God’s heart breaks.  Reading the scriptures we can hear it breaking.  We can hear it breaking in our Old Testament reading for this morning when God talks about the people breaking the covenant, “a covenant which they broke, though I was their husband.”  It sounds like a pout, but it is an expression of a broken heart, of unrequited love, of that feeling when the reality doesn’t match the dream.
And God gave us hearts to break, as well.  It’s called compassion.  Our hearts break when we really let our eyes see our own brokenness and sin, and the injustice in this world.  Our hearts break when death seems to win the day.  The pain we feel motivates us to do something about it, so that we or someone else don’t have to go through that kind of pain again.
                Jesus loved a party, so I think it’s ok to go ahead and celebrate this Reformation Day.  There are certainly things to be proud of, and which do lead humanity in a good direction, namely peace and love.  Let these be the hallmarks of being a Lutheran rather than the Liturgy which Martin Luther fought against establishing because he was afraid people might think it was the only way to worship God, and rather than Lutefisk and Lefse which the rest of the world is baffled about, since our denomination is not one race or ethnicity.  Let love and grace be our hallmark.  Let Jesus’ heart be transplanted in us.
                And let us continue reforming.  I think we have operated under the myth that the church was reformed 500 years ago and we’ve arrived, however Jesus is offering new life each day.  Let’s be honest about where we are not matching God’s dream for us.  Wouldn’t it make sense to be in constant reformation, to have a process of evaluation and accountability so we quit making the same mistakes, of building deeper relationships so that we can be honest and forthright?  Wouldn’t it do us good to always be letting go of what is selfish and sinful—barriers for our neighbors to worship with us?  Wouldn’t it do us good to be dying each day with Christ to our own comfort and interests and rise again to new life to serve our neighbor in love?  Jesus modeled it for us, by dying and rising again.  We say we believe in death and resurrection, but do we live as if we believed it?  Are we willing to let go, to die with Christ so that he might raise us to new life, to that vision of the Peaceable Kingdom where love is at the center? Maybe it is time to act on our beliefs and let God reform us again and again and again. 
                That’s one exciting thing about these anniversaries—500 years since the Reformation began.  It is a chance to look back and give thanks for the Reformers and all who have come before, to evaluate where we’ve been and where we’re going.  It is a chance to listen to our hearts, the deepest longings within each of us and in our neighbors. It is a chance to dream again the dream of God and look with hope to where God is leading us.  It is a chance to remember who we have been and be honest about the good and bad of it.  And it is a chance to consider who we want to be and to let God shape us into what this world needs for the reforms that are yet to come. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

October 22, 2017

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22
1st Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7
2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
   This morning's Gospel is very pertinent to some of the discussions we've been having lately about kneeling during the national anthem.  The question I think our nation is discussing, along with a lot of help by some Russians stirring up the pot, is how to express our patriotism or what makes a good patriot.  Jesus was asked this very question.  He was being tested about whether he was a good patriot or not, whether he loved his country more or his religion more. The question that was going to reveal that answer was whether one should pay taxes or not.  It was of course a trick question.  If Jesus said not to pay the tax, he would have been committing treason and could have been arrested by the Romans before he had a chance to complete his ministry.  If Jesus had said to pay the tax, he would have alienated his audience, because he would have been saying that he supported their oppressor, Rome, who was demanding the tax.  This tax was specifically used to control and oppress the Jewish people.  He would have been saying that he approved of this oppression.
    Jesus did not give a clear answer.  Not because he was trying to be evasive and protect himself, but to hold up a mirror to the people asking him and to the society.  He wanted to get a discussion started rather than answering and closing debate.  No matter where they stood on this matter, they could have interpreted Jesus' words in any way they liked.  They went away confused and amazed. I like when Jesus doesn't give us the answer, but makes us think for ourselves.  And we are always faced with choices, where there is no clear or right answer, or sinless answer, but only shades of gray and confusion and traps in every direction, unless you're Jesus and you're not.
    We received our property tax bill yesterday in the mail.  I opened it with trepidation, because I'd heard from my neighbors on Facebook that I was going be shocked by how much it went up.  I don't know what kind of mansions my neighbors live in, but I was pleasantly surprised.  It was a very small increase.  I understand if you're on a fixed income that any increase might hurt, but I was feeling like we're getting a pretty good deal.  I explained to Sterling that the taxes we paid funded his school and that I was happy to pay them, because look how much he's already learned after 6 weeks of kindergarten.  I'm a good patriot when my taxes match my values and my faith.  But I don't feel that way about all my taxes.  When I write my check for my federal taxes, I play a game with myself.  I imagine the money going to things I care about, like WIC or FEMA or SNAP.  I pretend that I am not writing a check that will result in someone's death or the destruction of this beautiful planet, even though I know that so much of our federal budget goes to military and weapons.  I feel complicit.  I am part of something terrifying, the military power of the United States, secretly used for air strikes and to secure the financial gain of corporations.  I know I am accountable for my actions, for paying for this.  I am doing something I disagree with, that is against my values.  Yet, what choice do I have?  Could I possibly make any difference?  If not me, then who?  What should we do when God and Ceasar are both calling for our allegiance?
    At the same time, I am keenly aware and appreciative of all this country has given me.  I was born in a military hospital.  I think my parents paid less than  $20 out of pocket for me to be born, and my mother was flown in a helicopter from the army base in Illisheim to Nuremberg, because there was a woman who had a previous C-section who had also gone into labor, who was in quite a hurry to get to the hospital, so my parents rode along, and good thing they did because my mom said I was crowning about the point they put her in the wheelchair at the hospital in Nuremberg.  So add free helicopter ride to the cost of a birth.  I got a free, public education.  My family received WIC, food stamps, free lunch, a veteran's loan to purchase our home. My undergraduate education was free because of Pell Grants and scholarships.  I have received privileges all my life that have taken me from poverty to the middle class.  Maybe I sound ungrateful for all I've received.  Maybe I should just look at my taxes as repaying all those benefits our family received.  But it is because of my love for my country that I want to make it better, and because my values, many of which come from my faith, inform my life and don't always match with those of my country. 
    If we are honest with ourselves as Americans we will admit that sometimes the greatest patriots among us have been those who, out of loyalty to a higher calling, have refused to be silenced by the repressive laws of our own land. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., the guard at Abu-Graib who broke silence regarding the torture of Iraqi prisoners--all were true patriots, because they believed deep down that there was a more God-like way in which to treat human beings.  They are role models who we can look to when our faith/values and our patriotism are at odds, when Caesar and God are not in alignment.
    I don't know how often we consider the name of our church:  King of Kings. It has a nice ring to it, invokes the royalty and loyalty.  It puts Jesus in his rightful place above the kings of this earth.  It reminds us who we owe allegiance to.  And it reminds us of why we need a king over the kings of this earth, the Caesars, the Obamas, the Trumps, the Clintons, the Merkels, the Putins, the Gates, the Kochs, etc.  There is some overlap in the good that human governments provide, and God's Kingdom, but there are a heck of a lot of differences.  If there weren't so many differences, we wouldn't need God, and sometimes we conflate the two and make a god of our nation, believing people owe ultimate loyalty, without criticism or honest assessment.  Caesar and the governments of this world use weapons and war and fear to show their power.  Jesus never even defended himself, when people came to kill him.  Caesar used power over to make people do what he wanted.  God uses power with, to empower us as the Body of Christ to participate together in sharing all that is good.  Ceasar declared himself a god.  Jesus became flesh and lived among us full of grace and truth.  Caesar received taxes.  Jesus gave up everything. God listened to the people's complaints and incorporated their suggestions, Caesar killed those who questioned him.
    Caesar put his image on a gold coin to show how important he was--a sign of how desperate he was to be worshiped and recognized.  God was assured of God's place and authority--God created it all, us all, new our names.  In the Isaiah reading, God is clear, "I am the LORD, and there is no other."  God, who is self-assured, strictly forbade any graven image be made of him or anyone else.  God didn't need that--was aware that images might become a way to exploit weakness, might confuse.  Furthermore, just as Caesar put his image on that coin, lifeless, and cold, God created humankind in God's image, living and full of love.  We are all people of worth, in the likeness of God, bearing God's image, not the image of greed and hate and destruction which is a heck of a lot of what we see in this world. Remember that when you look in the mirror--here is God's likeness, someone beloved by God, made by God, who is known by God, who calls us by name.  And when we meet others, lets not be concerned with their social status or riches or eloquence, but here is a person, beloved by God, made by God, named, known, treasured.  When we throw each other away, that's when we really render unto Caesar that which is God's.
    When I thought of this story this time, I pictured Jesus flipping the coin, the anticipation to see which side he would choose, God or patriotism.  I picture the Herodians and Pharisees leaning forward in anticipation.  But instead he polishes it and holds it up.  They see their own reflection, a mirror to their own trap.  In their fear and power-grabbing, they were so threatened and afraid of losing power that they missed the Messiah right in front of them.  They had their chance to talk to Jesus, to hear his teaching first hand, to see God in him.  I have to wonder how often we get distracted by these false choices and miss the Messiah right in front of us.  Furthermore, we miss the whole point, which is not who we choose, but who chooses us.  God chose humankind to reflect God's likeness and God chose humankind to reveal God's saving power, not because we deserved it, not because we chose correctly Republican or Democrat, Herodian or Pharisee, but to reveal to us God's love and mercy that God freely bestows.  God chooses each of us as God's children and calls us by name.  Whether we kneel or salute, we are the Lord's.  Whether we are soldiers or conscientious objectors.  Whether we are gun owners or pacifists.  Whether we are important or expendable.  Whether we are Puerto Rican, or North Korean. There is one God and King of us all who knows us all by name, calls us all beloved children and invites us to live in newness of life.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

October 15, 2017         

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14           
1st Reading: Isaiah 25:1-9
2nd Reading: Philippians 4:1-9
                I remember when I was a kid, the excitement of being invited to a party, the anticipation, the expectation.  Now that I have Sterling, I relive that time.  The last 2 Sundays I’ve had to keep him from announcing and inviting you all to his upcoming Birthday party, he’s so excited and he loves you all so much.  You’re his family in a way.
                At my age, I’m not as excited about parties.  I know it takes a lot of preparation and some expense.  I have to see what other events are important in our schedule.  I know that one must understand expectations about how one dresses, is it casual or dressy and how dressy.  I sometimes worry about who I will talk to, or what gift I will bring for the host.  We have to figure out transportation and babysitter and whether we will be out late on a school night or on a Saturday when I have to get up somewhat early the next day and feel somewhat rested.  Parties can be a pain.
                But when Sterling invites you to his party, he has no expectations.  He only wants to celebrate with you and express his love for you.  He has no expectation for anyone to bring a gift.  He has no idea how many cupcakes or cartons of ice cream that is.  He doesn’t care what you wear, except of course that you come dressed like a robot and be willing to join in on the fun!
                Matthew’s story of the wedding banquet has its share of expectations, and violence, and a troubling temper-tantrum.  I have to think that the king in this story is more Matthew than God.  Matthew has done so much inviting and there is only so much rejection he can take, especially when he’s just trying to give people something good, the Good News of Jesus’ love.  And then even when they come to the party, even then a few refuse to get fully invested and wear the robe!
                But there are some parts of the Kingdom of God that are revealed, through Matthew’s anger.  One is that there is a celebration feast.  It is a marriage feast, the joining of two families, two groups.  Is this the marriage of heaven and earth, in which the two are joined in one vision, hopeful and beautiful?    Is this the marriage of the church to Jesus, the groom?  Is this the joining of all people into one family so that everyone realizes we’re all related and have to take care of each other? 
Next, it is a celebration, a party!  Sometimes we think we have to be somber and sad and serious to be a Christian.  But Jesus loved a party and he’s inviting us to his party.  It is not about having the right friends or being good or bad.  The invitation goes out to absolutely everyone.  God’s love, God’s Kingdom is available to all.   You are invited to the party and yes, you can bring your plus one or plus twenty.  Yes, your crying baby can come and your grandma with dementia.  There are ramps for the disabled, and gluten free cake for those who need it.  No presents are necessary.  Come as you are, no matter who you are.  You don’t have to answer questions about what you do for a living or how you know the bride or groom.  Just come and have fun.
The next thing to remember is that the party is happening now.  The feast is ready.  The decorations are on the table.  The King is waiting.  We have a chance to set down whatever tedious boring ridiculous task we were focused on and head to the party.  For us, too, the Kingdom of God is here.  We are invited to participate in it.  We can dawdle.  We can hem and haw about whether to go.  We can keep on doing what we always do, but what are we missing?  We miss out on participating in what is happening, what God is bringing, the feasting, the music, the community, the love.
The next thing to remember is that this feast and party is costly.  God is the one who prepared it, put in the time and the expense setting it all up for us.  It wasn’t just a snap of the fingers, easy peasy, but it took time to imagine what it would be like, and God put effort into it, all the time imagining all of us children showing up and getting along and being part of something wonderful.  So it isn’t hard to imagine that there isn’t at least disappointment when refuse the invitation or when we take our time getting there.
Finally, we might see ourselves as the ones who have accepted the invitation and might find ourselves judging those we don’t see as having accepted it.  However, in case we get smug, Matthew invites us to take one more look at ourselves.  Even those within the banquet need to be sure they are continuing to participate in the Kingdom work.  Are we willing to wear the wedding garment?  Do we continue to evaluate ourselves, to keep learning, to keep stretching our faith, to keep reaching out, to keep loving others, and to keep studying God’s word and keep living in community, relating to people different from us?
One thing that is hard about accepting an invitation to the party.  It is undignified.  People make fools of themselves at parties.  At home, you know what to expect.  At a party, the chance that you’ll forget someone’s name or say the wrong thing or drink too much and talk too loud, goes up considerably.  It is risky.  Also at a party you admit that you need recreation, play, laughter.  That isn’t very dignified, but it is very life-giving.  By going to a party, you also admit that you are not self-contained, that you can’t do it all yourself, that you need other people. 
I heard a story on the radio the other day about how people show other people they are important.  It used to be a Gucci bag or fancy car.  Now it is by how packed their calendar is.  When someone tells you they have one half hour slot to fit you in their schedule, they are saying they are too important, because of course if that person is important enough to you, you would clear your schedule, correct?  We fill our lives with appointments sometimes, and forget that our relationships with each other are important to God and to the building up of the Kingdom.
You are invited to the most amazing wedding dinner.  Come on over!  It is ready right now!  No need to bring a gift unless you want to!  There is plenty of room for everyone!  The menu is simple, bread and wine, and Jesus.  The guest list has been written and revised.  There might be some people you know and approve of, but there are some you might not expect, loud or quiet, low-hanging pants or velour leisure suits, gang tattoos or freckles, green hair or white hair or no hair, ex-cons, undocumented, young, middle-aged and old as the hills, people whose every other word is an expletive, people who say the wrong thing, wear the wrong thing, people with PhDs and who are illiterate, those who have never broken a bone and those whose skin is covered with sores.  And we find ourselves, despite all our shortcomings and all the invitations we’ve slipped into the round file, here we are invited again to be with this strange and beautiful mob.  And we’re invited to go whole hog, to dance, to sing, to share, to let go, to love and to allow ourselves to be loved.  This beautiful wedding banquet made more beautiful by the utter joy on people’s faces who have never been invited to anything, by the lack of expectation that people will do anything other than be themselves, by the lack of judging and shaming, by the welcome.
We’re all here and there are so many competing priorities in our lives.  However there is only one who gives life and gives it abundantly.  So we’d do well to drop some of our areas of focus and let God bring us that life.  It has already been prepared for us to experience and share, we might as well open ourselves to receiving it.  We’ll have to admit we can’t do it all for ourselves and that we are lacking, but come on, everyone already knows, what’s the use pretending? 

October 8, 2017    

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46         
1st Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7
2nd Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

                In our Wednesday morning Bible Study group we’ve just started on the book of Deuteronomy.  We just finished Moses first sermon of 3, where he is handing out the parts of the promised land to the twelve tribes of Israel, and griping a lot because he can’t enter the promised land with them.  Every tribe has their allotment.  The land is all claimed, shared as equally as possible so that all may prosper and find abundant life.

                The people enter the promised land, a people who have only known desert wandering.  What a shock for them to even begin thinking about putting down roots and living in community in a whole new way.  Everything they learned in the desert has prepared them for this moment.  They’ve learned to rely on God.  They’ve learned not to stockpile the manna.  They’ve been learning to live in freedom and what their freedom is for—the abundant life of the community.

                Fast forward to the Isaiah reading for this morning.  This love-song is a sad song that God is singing because people forgot what their freedom was for.  They began adding house to house and field to field.  They have stolen from the poor and abandoned the orphan and the widow.  In Isaiah’s time, real-estate developers were squeezing the poor.  They were making loans to poor farmers and when there was a bad year, they would take their farms and turn those farmers in to tenant farmers.  God’s anger in Isaiah was about folks forgetting that the point of it all is the thriving of the whole community, not one’s personal prosperity.  God is reminding them that God gave them the land, and now they are claiming it as their own, or taking it from others through laws the rich set up to take from the poor.  God made plants to grow on it to feed each person and now the rich are saying they want the land to produce to line their own pockets.  God drew the boundary around it, and shared it generously tribe by tribe and now the rich tear down the boundary and say it all is theirs.  God did all these things for the good of God’s people and expected grapes, a beautiful community full of life and sharing.  Instead, God got sour-grapes, that set God’s teeth on edge, leave a bad taste in God’s mouth, something useless and divisive.  Something destructive and violent.

                The Social Justice Committee has been working on housing issues in Clackamas County for over a year, and we’ve been doing some research on landlords and tenants.  There are many landlords who know that the point is healthy community and thriving people, some even in this congregation, who haven’t raised their rents even though they knew the market would bear it.  People who have resisted the temptation to try to bring in more money, people who may have endured scorn and mocking for doing the right thing by their tenants.  Some in this congregation have been faithful and sold their home for a good enough price instead of waiting for the bid that was $20,000-$50,000 above asking price.  This is because they know the point is community, not money, and because God has been so generous to them.  But there are also a lot of landlords, many from out of state that do not have an investment in the community, who are doing violence to the poor, taking food from the mouths of children, displacing seniors from their support systems, putting people on the streets, in order to add field to field. 

                But we’re not going to give up making changes to state and local laws to protect the poor and vulnerable.  We’ve run up against the landlord lobby, which is very rich and afraid to let go of any power.  But we’re not giving up, on the social justice committee and we’d love to have you join us as we figure out how to shape our communities into ones that give life instead of take it away.

                So now we come to the Gospel.  It is a parable, but notice it never says this is what the Kingdom of God is like, like so many other parables do.  This is a story of tenants and the landlord.  To us maybe who have been trained to associate the landlord with God, it seems the landlord is entirely innocent, so we read this and we think it is about how God has let us borrow this land and we shouldn’t abuse the gift God has given us.  That’s a good take-away.  But it is problematic to think that God is putting those wretches to a miserable death and other not-so-Godlike things.  So we try to look a little deeper.  Jesus’ listeners were the tenants and landlords of his time, some of them chief priests and elders who had been adding farm to farm and field to field and trampling widows, taking people’s livelihood and dignity.  When they all heard Jesus’ opening sentence this morning, they would all have thought of Isaiah and known that it was about this behavior, the destruction of the beloved community, the stealing of land by perfectly legal means.  Jesus is calling the priests and elders out for the violence they were doing in the community. 

We might wonder about the mistaken logic of the tenants who think that if they can kill the son they will inherit the land.  However, in that day and age, if tenants press their claim for 3 years in a row, they may have a chance of converting the tenancy back to ownership in court.  We might shake our finger at the tenants who seem to think that 2 wrongs make a right, that violence is also ok, who beat and kill the messengers.  However, let me point out that they are defending their right to feed their families.  They are thinking that if they lose this fight, their whole family will starve without the land to feed them.  Remember all the land had been handed out.  There was no where else for them to go except to be under the thumb of a landlord who may or may not care if they had enough to eat.  So if these tenants so mistreated the messengers, why would the landlord send the son in the third year?  It was because the landlord needed a representative in court to defend his interests.  Why would the tenants kill the son, thinking the land would become theirs?  Because maybe the landlord has already given the son his inheritance, and if so the land would go back to them.

However, everyone knows what is going to happen when the landowner finds out—put those wretches to a miserable death.  In other words, violence begets violence.  When we act violently, when we tear the society apart by taking from another person their means of survival, when we attack those who have taken from us, no one benefits.  Insurrections almost always fail because the rich and powerful have weapons and army and the poor will be crushed.

Both of these stories are inviting us to firstly put the needs of the community before our own and to remember why we’re here and what our freedom is for—for the thriving of the community.  Secondly, these stories are reminding us that when we meet violence, instead of responding by escalating, to be creative in our response.  It is an appeal to us and it is an appeal to God who may or may not be acting violently in the Isaiah text as God pledges to tear down the wall and hedge of the vineyard and make it a waste.

But maybe it is an example of one creative way of responding to the violence of the Israelites who are destroying the poor.  Maybe it is death and resurrection.  That land will be stripped bare, but for how long.  Soon enough, something will be growing.  The seeds lie dormant in the soil waiting.  New life is waiting to grow. 

This week we have been grieving with Las Vegas in the violent attack there.  I have seen examples of people responding creatively to violence.  Some shielded others from the shots.  Some helped people from the venue.  Some have stood in line for hours to give blood.  Some offered free counseling services for the victims and families.  Some have written to their senators and representatives.  Some have called someone they know who is lonely.  Some have turned off the TV and gone out to volunteer.  Some have attended forums to better understand the issues.

In the same way, God’s son didn’t respond to violence with violence.  Someone was violent to a woman who had committed adultery and Jesus was creative in pointing out that we all have failures.  He held up a mirror to all who would condemn.  He stood up to the violence of the community against lepers by forgiving and healing them and ordering them back to community life.  And he didn’t defend himself when he was handed over to be killed.  Instead, he used that as an opportunity to join with all the suffering who have ever lived and show them that God does not abandon us even when there is silence when we cry out.  God is there.

Humanity has often used violence to control and keep power, to add field to field, garage to garage.  We’ve often rejected the way of love and shalom, wholeness, thriving, community.  We were so threatened by Jesus’ refusal to live within our violent system that we put him to death.  We let our greed become the god, instead of building the beloved community, the Kingdom of God.

We thought we knew the goal, to gain wealth and power, have the most people in church, the nicest car, the biggest pay check.  But them we met Jesus and saw how he let go of everything in order to share abundant life with those who were willing to follow his way.  He invited us to set down our fancy stuff and go to work in the vineyard, to work on something that mattered and gave life to everyone, the Kingdom of God.  So we stand here, afraid to set down our stuff.  Afraid that the emptiness of our arms will feel like failure.  But if we don’t all we’ll feel in our hearts is emptiness and brokenness as we perpetuate and escalate the violence.  We know the old system isn’t working, isn’t healthy for anyone, but we’re not sure yet of where God is leading us.  We want assurances.  We want a map.  We don’t want to look like fools, like we don’t know what we’re doing.  Will we forsake our violent ways?  Will we use this holy creativity, God has given us?  Will we let Jesus lead us to empty ourselves?  Will we let go of death and find our arms not empty, but filled with the love of God?

I pray that as we consider our gifts, our estimates of giving and of our time, we will remember that it all comes from God.  God made the vineyard, put the hedge around it etc.  Remember that God has a vision for creativity, that we don’t just give and volunteer for the continuation of all our favorite things, but for the new ministries that God is spurring us toward.  Remember to give of time and money out of love and generosity rather than out of fear. 

September 24, 2017   

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16      
1st Reading: Jonah 3:10-4:11
2nd Reading: Philippians 1:21-30

            “Amazing grace how sweet the sound.”  It is a pretty sweet sound when it rewards me, when it confirms that I am a good person deserving of God’s grace, when it rewards people like me who work hard, when it keeps track of every Sunday I’ve been in church and every door I’ve held open, every smile I’ve shared with someone at the checkout stand, every dollar I’ve given to charity, every coat I’ve donated to the poor, every prayer I’ve said at dinner. 

            “That saved a wretch like me.”  That part’s not so sweet.  I don’t want to sing that in church.  There’s already so many with poor self-esteem.  What good will it do to call ourselves wretches.  Doesn’t that just heap on the guilt and shame?  But when I lay awake at night, and there is no one to impress, I know it’s true.  My shortcomings flash in front of my eyes, what I said that I shouldn’t have said, what I didn’t say that I should have, my own helplessness watching the news while they pull children from a collapsed school in Mexico City, my own contribution to the world’s misery from what I buy and how I live and where I drive and what I wear, and what I should have done but didn’t get to, who I alienated, who I favored and why, and on and on.  But at least Jesus forgives and loves me.  Maybe there’s a chance I can forgive and love myself.  Maybe there’s a chance I can change and do better next week, and then I never do, even though I know exactly what I should do.

            Amazing Grace.  This is the song that Jonah sang when he went running away from God’s call.  He was happy with what God had done for him and the Israelites.  He liked being in the special group of graced people.  He was glad God was generous to him, but that was where it was going to stop.

            The Disciples were enjoying their place of privilege next to Jesus.  They were also reveling in God’s amazing grace.  They accepted the call.  They walked by his side.  The learned from him.  The shared the good news.  The touched his hand and side.  They heard his words.  They gave up everything to be with him.  And their lives were threatened because of their proximity to him.  What grace to stand in God’s presence.  What grace for a wretch like me, they all thought, knowing their shortcomings, their lack of education, their propensity for sticking their foot in their mouths, their inability to get it, the way they kept shooing off people Jesus valued.  They knew they were struggling numbskulls, but they were doing the work and they were earlier to the harvest, so they wanted to make sure Jesus was keeping track, that their ledger was full of all the reasons why they deserved God’s grace.

            Except that’s not grace at all.  Grace is God’s mercy to undeserving people.  We’re all undeserving.  So now we’ve got people vying for the spot of least undeserving. 

We could say that the Old Testament was a time when God was keeping tabs and trying to help people obey the law and find their salvation that way.  I tend to think that may have been the human understanding of what was happening.  But you can’t record everything on a ledger sheet.  You can keep track of numbers and values, but you can’t record the quality of interactions and relationships.  You can’t keep track of history and conversations.  Even if humans thought that was the point from the beginning, two things.  One is that there never was a righteous person, not a single one could keep the whole law.  Secondly, if accounting could save the world we wouldn’t need Jesus, because Moses would have been the savior, or we would all have been our own saviors and done it all ourselves! 

            Throughout the Old Testament, God uses the refrain we get this morning from grumpy old Jonah, God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  God has always been this way, even under the law.  But some people only thought it applied to them, namely the Israelites, even though we have a ton of examples where foreigners are included in this.

            Now Jonah is singing another song, “Offensive grace, how awful the sound the saved a wretch like them!”  He cannot stand that God shows grace to the people of Ninevah!  These people are not deserving!  How long will it be until they screw up again!  They’ve only been faithful one minute and that’s good enough for God?!  Ridiculous!

            Paul is concerned that the Philippians will fear that he is getting what he deserved because he is in prison and he doesn’t know whether he will eventually be executed or go free.  He’s showing them that God’s grace doesn’t always look like a usual reward in this life looks.  Paul is afraid they will be ashamed of him, that they will assume God has abandoned him.  But he points out that his imprisonment may actually be helping spread the Gospel because people see what he is willing to give up because of his faith.  They can see he truly believes what he is saying, or he’d have recanted it all by now.  This grace is offensive, because the one who should be most rewarded doesn’t appear to be, at least not in the ways we expect in this world.  Paul’s a laborer who has been in the field all day, yet his wages, his pay is a prison sentence.  It just isn’t right.  But he doesn’t mind, because he is experiencing another kind of reward.

            The Vineyard workers who worked all day are also singing about offensive grace, or maybe they are too mad to sing.  They were glad to get hired, glad to participate in the harvest—they who were out there early, who had transportation to the market, who had child care so they could get away, who had able bodies, who weren’t lazy, who weren’t hungover.  They were getting what they deserved.  What they were paid, showed what they were worth.

            So along come these lazy drunks, these late-comers, undocumented, pierced, lazy losers, and they all get paid the same.  “You have made them equal to us, who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” 

            That’s the problem.  Paying them more than they are worth.  Making everyone equal.  I had a barbecue I needed to get rid of.  I put a free sign on it and it sat there for two days.  Then I put a sign on it $10 and it was gone the next day.  Until I put a dollar figure on it, people thought my barbecue was worthless.  Too bad we value ourselves and one another by dollar figures, too—how much money we make and what job we have.  We even say refer to people by how much they’re worth, that is how much money they have.

            The problem is, when we keep ledgers, we assume everyone starts at zero.  That’s not so when the vineyard owner is God.  In this case, we start out owing him everything.  What do we owe that God gave us life, this earth, food, shelter, family, opportunities to learn, everything we have.  If we want to keep tabs we’re so far in debt, we can never repay God’s generosity. 

            For us and for the undeserving lazy slob, occasionally the same person, God wipes it all away.  Because God knows you can’t earn enough to pay God back.  You can’t follow the rules enough to pass the test of godliness.  You can’t earn your way into a family.  You can’t earn eternal, abundant life.  Only God can give us that, the true generous gift of grace, for all of us undeserving jerks.

            So why would anyone ever go to work a whole day in the vineyard, if they know they can get paid the same for a single hour of work?  I’ll tell you why.  Think of the volunteering you do here.  You don’t make a dime.  So why do you do it?  It’s the community you’re building.  It is because of the friends you are making and the friendships you maintain.  It is the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile.  It is the chance to learn and grow your gifts.  It is the chance to spend time in God’s presence and to learn from the vineyard owner.  It is the chance to be equal to each other—no one is better than anyone else, we can all move chairs around, we can all hold someone who is in tears, we can all plunge a toilet.

            If we feel offended when those we see God’s generosity to the undeserving or startled about others being equal to us, let’s remember that Jesus invites us to be adopted into God’s family.  We are made equal with him.  We don’t deserve it, but that’s not the point.  God wants the family to be together, so God is drawing us together.  Now is our chance to appreciate that our flawed system of ledgers is thrown out the window, cancelled by God, and that instead of keeping tabs, we are part of the Kingdom where we leave our resentments and jealousy behind, where we realize that what is good for our neighbor means good things for us all, and where we realize there isn’t a limited amount of God’s grace, so someone else getting some doesn’t need to be a threat to us. 

            God is throwing a party.  We’re all invited.  The guest list is all losers and wretches like us.  But God is elevating us to sons and daughters, every last one of us.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved brothers and sisters period.  I hope we’ll accept the invitation and not be too concerned about the rif raff on the guest list, and just be glad that even rif raff like us have a place in God’s Kingdom.