Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Oct. 23, 2011

Matthew 22:34-46
34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" 37 He said to him, " "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." 43 He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44 "The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet" '? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

When I was a young boy, there was a trick that my father liked to play on me. I would be outside playing doing whatever it is that little kids do.  I would then my father’s voice, loud and stern, yelling: “Justin, come inside, now!”  Given his tone and volume, you can better believe that I thought I had done something to get in trouble, and figuring out what that thing might have been was typically my anxious task as I made my way back into the house.  With much fear and trembling, I would open the front door and go to my parents who were in the kitchen, feeling like I was probably in trouble for mistreating my brother, not doing my chores or something else (let it be known that I never went to these meetings with a totally clear conscience.  My own question was not if I had done something that merited punishment, but rather if I had been caught).  However, when I would get into the kitchen, I would find not an angry parent, but rather a delightful surprise, typically a bowl of fresh raspberries from a bush out in our backyard.  Now, I have no idea what motivated my father do this, but I can say that the impact was to make me, a middle child who from time to time did not get as much attention as his siblings, feel loved and noticed.  In that instant, absolute terror would turn to laughter, fear melted away by the love of a father for one of his children.  Sometimes, then, getting exactly what we do not expect is actually precisely what we need.
            What is so very interesting about today’s story is that this is the same position in which the Pharisees and other religious elite find themselves, dealing with something, rather someone, who is quite unexpected, their own bowl of raspberries.  The contentious dialogue from the last several weeks continues. Having seen their interns rebuffed by Jesus’ answer about paying taxes to Caesar, and having seen the Sadducees thoroughly worked over in their misunderstanding of the resurrection, the Pharisees put in one last attempt at stumping Jesus, asking him, in essence, what is the heart of the Jewish faith?  Now, the answer that Jesus gives is not all that controversial; this time he avoids the trap set for him by showing the Pharisees that they stand on some common ground, that love of God and love of neighbor is the heart of their common faith, though they disagree mightily on what constitutes this neighborly and godly love.  However, on a very basic point they are in agreement. 
            But Jesus, mischief maker that he is,  cannot let things be, for under their seeming agreement, there is a deeper issue at work and it has everything to do with expectations and their denial.  Yes, for Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter in asking whose son is the Christ, the messiah.  What may sound a lot like word gymnastics and meaningless chatter to us is actually the real question.  For when the Pharisees answer “David,” they are doing more than reciting a bit of Jewish orthodoxy; instead, they are giving voice to a whole series of expectations as to what the Messiah, God’s chosen, would be and what he would do.  Yes, to say that the Messiah is David’s son is to suggest that the Messiah will be something of a warrior-king, throwing off the cruel rod of Roman oppression, shedding unrighteous blood as Israel’s enemies are finally exposed to the anger of God.  Yes, the Messiah as David’s son would liberate Israel, hopefully by the most wrathful means available.  
            And this, this, is really the heart of the matter for the Pharisees.  Jesus simply does not conform to their expectations; in fact, he rather disappoints them.   He forgives without limit and insists that his followers do the same.  He spends his time with the weak and weary, the poor and the unforgivable, with tax-payers whose hands are filthy with extorted cash, and women whose bodies are tired and used, telling them of the eternal tenderness named the Father.  In fact, his only sharp words have been pointed at them, the Pharisees, and not at the Roman occupiers that he, by this point, certainly should have taken up arms against.  The Pharisees just cannot wrap their minds around the notion that God could look like Jesus, could behave like Jesus, and could be in the places where Jesus puts himself.   And this is their tragedy, this is why, as Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God in front of the Pharisees.  Can you imagine a more offensive word for them to hear?  These men, so blinded by their own sense of self-righteousness, so convinced in their own moral superiority and religious correctness can find Jesus to be only a threat, only someone who does not live up to their expectations.  Like children who, perversely, would prefer punishment to gift, a grounding to a fresh bowl of raspberries, the Pharisees want  Jesus, as David’s son, to be a lot more fierce, a lot meaner, though certainly they believe that they will not be on the receiving end of that holy anger.  Indeed, they want, expect, nay, demand that Jesus, if he is really going to get the Messianic testosterone flowing, will indeed stamp out Israel’s enemies and crush them under foot.
            Though t there is considerable historical distance between the Pharisees and us, this does not mean our expectations are any more hospitable to Jesus than were theirs, clamoring as we do for God to take up arms against our enemies, be they geo-political or simply someone whom we find annoying at work.  Yes, we, too, want Jesus to put our enemies beneath his feet, and this he will do, but not through drunken violence and suffering.  Instead, Jesus will put his enemies and indeed ours,  under his feet as his broken body is hoisted upon the cross, bidding his Father to forgive even those who conspired to plot his destruction, which means that there is room even for sinners like us at the divine banquet.   Yes, this is how God, in Christ, will chose to subdue hatred, fear and sin, by submitting to it, by suffering the Father’s anger against it,  and by offering only peace and forgiveness, nothing more.  Nothing ever more.  This is how God has chosen to reign, in defiance of human expectation, contrary to our anger and fear that God’s love would reach our enemies, God, in Christ puts us under his feet, puts us at the foot of the cross, and tells us that here, here beneath this broken body, here on that blood and tear stained hill called Golgatha, here is forgiveness, here is newness of life, here is the end of human striving and here is the peace eternal.  Is it what we would expect from the God who created the universe out of nothing?  The God’s whose strong and faithful Word brooded over chaos and made of it the lovely song called cosmos?  No, this is a God, a Messiah, that we simply could not have anticipated or expected,   This is a God who does not despise our frailty and weakness, but comes to you as you are, fragile and just trying to hold this mess call life together.   But take heart, dear people of God, for to be put under Christ’s feet means to be placed at the banquet that echoes through eternity and that awaits you here in the body and blood; a goodness that, thanks be to God, does not conform to our expectations.  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

Oct. 9, 2001

Matthew 22:1-14
1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, "Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.' 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, "The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, "Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' 14 For many are called, but few are chosen."

When I was younger, say about 12, my family and I took a trip out to the East Coast.  Now, when were in Washington DC,  touring the White House, my younger brother had to use the restroom, like desperately, like we might be risking incredible public humiliation and embarrassment if this situation was ignored, desperately. Making this information know to the tour guide, my younger brother somehow managed to get led by White House security, behind locked doors, mind you, into a staff bathroom. He actually had the guards watching the bathroom doors during all of this. This, of course, got my whole family wondering if maybe he would run into then President William Jefferson Clinton, and by some happy accident, my family would be invited to dine with the President and first lady.  Now, the point of this story is not about political affiliation, because I am confident we would have responded in the same way had this in during one the Bush presidencies.  The point, though, is that the allure of power and prestige is nothing short of intoxicating to us mere mortals.  To be near those whose lives seem to occupy a different plain than ours, this is the stuff of dreams and fantasies. Think, if you will, about the response to the marriage between Prince William and Kate Middleton.  If, for some random reason, you received an invitation, including airfare and accommodations, to that splendid event, do you think you could have resisted?  Resisted the chance to see Kate walk the aisle, or watch Sir Elton John enter Westminster Abbey?  Or see all those ridiculous hats in person?   I think not.  It would be absurd and insulting. 
            And it is with that in mind that we turn towards those who, in Jesus’ parable for today, do just that, turn down an invitation from the king for his son’s wedding.  Now, to hear this story more fully, we have to rehearse a few details from life in ancient times.  What is at stake here is more than good manners and whether or not one fills out an RSVP on time.  Instead, what we are dealing with is an issue of honor.  Those who turn down the king’s invitation, given the flimsiness of their excuses, they might as well have told an eager young man that they were washing their hair that night, they are intend in sending a message to the king.  Their goal is to dishonor him, which may account for the escalating violence that we see in the text, in which they quite literally end up shooting the messengers.  For whatever reason, their hatred of the king will not allow them to recognize the king’s rule over them.  Their desire to be free of his rule will keep them from feasting with the king, enjoying the best of his prime rib and lobster, and drinking from an endless bottle of vintage wine.   Their goal is not to keep their weekends open for whatever else might come up; instead, their goal is war with the king, and it a war that they are intent on waging until their city gets burned down. 
            Now, if all this strikes as you a bit extreme, this is probably the point.  We are in a portion of Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus is very near his death, and the tension between him and the religious leaders is thick. This is the third straight parable that Jesus has told in the Jerusalem Temple, and he just refuses to stop his verbal attack on their authority and hypocrisy. But, there is another reason that this parable makes us a bit uneasy, besides the exaggeration, and I think it has something to do with God’s own authority, with the fact that God is beyond our attempts at manipulation, and ultimately, what God says, well, that is what happens.  This is not a God that we can box up and control, and yet, this is the God in whom all of our fates rest.  And that, that combination right there, that is terrifying.  Our illusions of freedom, of self-determination and the rest, all of that is called to question by this king.   By this king who, frankly, can do whatever he pleases, our egos fiercely disregarded.  He can invite and cancel invitations, he can take those who refused his invitations and replace them with the first 500 people that he sees.  And to be frank, there is nothing we can do about it, and this fact makes us crazy, because it means that we do not have the control that we so crave.  And there is nothing more frustrating than giving up control.  
            But, that this God remains outside our attempts at manipulation, what if that little secret is actually the relief that we require?  Yes, this God will frustrate and ultimately defeat our attempts at trying to live apart from God, but what that is ultimately and finally wonderful news ?  What if, it is our pride and our fear, our rejection of this God’s invitation, our fable that we can somehow resist the goodness of this God’s banquet, what if that is the stuff that gets singed off of us by the consuming fire of this God’s love?  Yes, for if you pause to consider it a bit more, what is really going on here is that God refuses to be refused, and this is good news for us. And, make no mistake, this is costly, for both God and for us.  It means, in those words of St. Paul and Martin Luther, that we must die to ourselves, as we do in baptism, so that we might rise into Christ’s love.  But again dear people, this death, no matter strange this may seem, this is the beginning of genuine life.  For it the death of those things that would keep us from God and the absurdly lavish banquet that he throws.  It is the end of all those things that would keep us from the belief that we need to go to war against this God in some misguided attempt at freedom.  Yes, it is the end of trying to do things on our own, for in the end, we, and the whole creation, we are in this God’s loving hands.
Yes, God refuses to be refused, and this, too, will cost God something in the bargain. For it will mean that God, in Christ,  will be tossed into the outer darkness, the one chosen to bear the world’s sin and unbelief, so that the banquet might begin in the most unexpected of places. Yes, in God’s refusal, in God saying “no” to humanity’s attempts to living apart from God, Christ himself, having been found not in his righteousness but rather clothed in our fear and greed, he will be thrown out so that even our darkness, our pain, our fear may be a place where we feast on the goodness of his love.  Yes, for in his ascent to the cross and his descent into hell, he has joined us deep in our misery and our strivings, so that there, even there, his love may be known, and this is so very different from how our culture of celebrity functions.  No VIP passes or security escorts are required at this banquet.  Come, then, dear people, for you have been called and chosen, and please do not be surprised by those whom you find next to you; for the king loves those from whom we try to distance ourselves, calling all from the highways and byways to the feast, and calling us to deeper bonds of love with all those whom we meet, especially those of whom we might be a touch suspicious.   Yes,  your king awaits your presence with giddiness, longing as he does for you.  Here, at this table, you will be clothed and fed with Christ’s righteousness, blessedness and the peace that passes all understanding.  What, then, are you waiting for?  In Jesus’ name, amen. 

October 11, 2011

Matthew 21:33-46
33 "Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34 When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, "They will respect my son.' 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, "This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.' 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" 41 They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time." 42 Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: "The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is amazing in our eyes'? 43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls." 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

Of the great many lies in which our lives together are imbedded, perhaps there is none more seductive than that of ownership.  Now, please hear me correctly on this, there is such a thing as actual ownership in this old world of ours.  I do not think that I could convince the bank that currently holds the lien to my car that they should hand it over without me completing my payments, as great as that might be for yours truly.  But that things belong to us, that we own them, in this provisional and limited way, in the way of banks and loans, mortgages and receipts, this is not what is at stake for us today.  Instead, we are grappling with something far more fundamental, meaning that we have to chase this question a bit further before it will begin to make any sense to us.  For while we do indeed own things, in the sense that we are given the skills and abilities to make a living, to provide for ourselves, and the like, even what we think of as “ownership” in this regard remains a gift from the God who gives without end.  In a way that is more real than can be attested by these mortgages, deeds, and receipts, we own nothing in the sense that we generate it for ourselves.  Everything is actually and genuinely a gift.
            But, this is a fact we were born forgetting, and I wonder if the most common first word for children is not some form of mom or dad, but rather “mine.”  I have no intention of attempting some sort of psychoanalysis as to why this is, but suffice it to say this need to own, to have, to control, this gets us into an incredible amount of difficulty; it is the difficulty of the tenants whose lust for ownership will lead them to do extraordinary things, adding spilt blood to split blood to defend the property in which they have worked and toiled.  And before we make them out to be people of a distinct and artful ignorance, I mean, really how could they forget that they merely work in the vineyard and do not own it, let’s look a bit at their situation.  They are working for a landowner, an absentee landlord, who sets up the shop and then takes off on a long journey.  Which means that while the landlord might have had the start up capital, the hard cash necessary to buy the land and build the fence, watchtower and the rest, it is the tenants who are actually doing all the work.  With the actual landowner out of sight and out of mind, it is easy enough for the tenants to start to believe that they deserve much more than they are getting.  It is their sweat and effort, after all, that is building this harvest, and at some point, in that potent mixture of entitlement and resentment, that myth of ownership overtakes them.  They have forgotten a crucial fact, and in their forgetting, they act in appalling ways, killing and stoning the true owner’s servants, and then even the landowner’s son.  So intent are they on protecting what is not actually theirs, that a terrible irony results.  Rather than ending up the owners, the ones in control, the precise opposite occurs.  They end up owned, utterly determined by their bloodlust, property of their darkest desires. 
            What, then, are we to make of this?  Surely, if we could enter this story, we would wish to talk with the tenants, to remind them that their work is a gift, that they are being paid a fair wage, and that constant killing is not only a poor business strategy, it is something very near madness.  But how do you reason with someone who has lost all control?  And while today’s parable is an extreme example of this, I suspect that, if we are really honest with ourselves, that is a question that is all too relevant. And dare I say we can see perhaps a small bit of ourselves in these tenants.  No, not the murder and the bloodlust, but the singularity of their understanding of the world, the terrible reality of losing control to pride or addiction or anger or fear and anxiety, the realization that we will, in very subtle ways no doubt, do whatever it takes to protect me and mine. Especially when we believe we are undervalued, underappreciated.  
            Well, as bleak a picture as this paints of what it means to be human, there must be someway out and to be sure, a drastic problem requires a drastic solution. How, indeed, do you reason with someone who has lost all control?  Well, maybe you don’t.   Listen again to these words of Jesus: “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls."  What initially sounds like violence added to violence, broken pieces and crushing stones after all, this is how the madness stops. This is how God will put an end to the violence, by enduring it.  For please remember that this stone is Christ, and he will break us by making us whole, and when he falls on us, it is not for the sake of simply falling, but so that the madness may finally come to an end.   Yes, what is being broken here is nothing less than our resentments and our pride, our fear and addictions, our need to be in control and have ownership over the gifts that we constantly receive.  In the cross, these things are extinguished, put to rest so that we may no longer be their property, but that we may be given back to the God for whom we were created and in whom lies the only genuine security.  Yes, we are broken to pieces by this Christ, for he takes from us our fear and minor madnesses, and gives us his righteousness, joy and peace.  Yes, we are crushed by this Christ, but that is not our end, it is our beginning. 
            For when this occurs, when this Christ claims us, as he does again and again, and as he preparing to do again in the Supper, we are given back to God, to one another and to the world that Gods loves so dear.  If you would like an example of this, look no further than sweet St. Paul.  Yes, this man had it all: a great family name, a prestigious education, a dedication to the good and virtuous life, and yet in his pursuit, in his ownership of such things, he ends up persecuting the very God to whom he believed he had professed his allegiance.  But he, too, on the road to Damascus, ends up broken open by this same Christ.  And now, now, Paul can count all as that he has as that which is to be given away, for he has been found by the Christ whose broken body makes us whole.  In the blinding light of Christ’s love, and in the unceasing hope of the resurrection, Paul recognizes who he actually is.  And though it may be less dramatic for you, that Christ, the same Christ who was hoisted upon the cross, outside the vineyard mind you, the same Christ whose love so compelled St. Paul, that Christ is yours, or more aptly, you are his.  He has taken you as his own, and in the shattering of our fears, doubts, and sins, he has made us whole.  We cannot, do not own him, nor is it ours to say who is invited to his table.  But we are given the freedom to forget about this nonsense of ownership and go bear Christ to a world that needs desperately a word of hope and forgiveness, a world that longs to hear that we are more than what we own, and that our very lives are held by a God who does not refuse us. Yes, in the gifts that Christ gives, he then gifts us to the world, to the hungry and the lonely, the sad and the vulnerable.  It is to them that we now belong.   So come now to the table and take in the broken body and the shed blood that alone makes you whole.  For it is amazing to all eyes.  In Jesus’ name, amen.