Thursday, October 16, 2014

Reflections from the Pastor - Matthew 22:15-21

Read the text here: Matthew 22:15-22
Our texts for today give us the opportunity to explore 3 stories.  Two of these stories come from our texts for this morning, the final one from our own experience.
The first comes from our Isaiah 45 lesson for today and it is the story of a captive people - a people who had not only lost their identity as a community, but who had also lost their hope of ever being able to cast off the Babylonian yoke and return to their land.  To this hopeless people, in the midst of the darkness of their captivity comes a new word from God through the prophet.  And this new word is a word of hope, a word of promise, a word of salvation.  The Lord God of Israel has chosen a deliverer, the Lord God has chosen someone to free the captives - the Lord God has chosen Cyrus, the Persian King, to overcome the Babylonians and set the people of God free from their oppression.  And just who is this Cyrus?  Is he an Israelite?  Is he a man who fears and reveres the God of the Israelites?  Is he a man who believes in the God of Israel?  Has he ever even heard of the God of Israel?  No!  The person whom God has chosen to be God's agent is a person who has never even heard of the God of Israel.  But yet, Cyrus was chosen by God.  And Cyrus succeeds in freeing the people of Israel. He even allowed them to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem.
God sometimes chooses unlikely people to carry out God's will.  God sometimes chooses people who may not even be aware of this choice - but God still works through them.  Because God is involved in the lives of God's people.  God is an active player in the events of our lives.  Sometimes things happen during the course of our lives that are contrary to God's desires for us, but yet God does not abandon us, God will never leave us.  God is involved with us, because we have been chosen by a God who loves us and is committed to us.
The second story, which comes from our Gospel lesson for today, is also a story of oppressed people.  A people who, 540 or so years after being liberated from the Babylonians now find themselves under the yoke of the Roman Empire.  And within the nation of Israel there is much diversity of opinion about how to deal with all of this.  There are on the one hand the collaborators - those who would try to get along with the Romans.  People like the tax-collectors, many of the priests, and the Sadducees have all taken the position that the way to handle this situation is just to accept it, and try to make the best of it.  Besides, there are many benefits that come from being under Roman rule: highways, police protection from thieves and highwaymen, increased trade and consequently a stronger economy. All of this translates to personal benefits in terms of money, position and power for the individual supporters.  Then there was the group on the other side of the political spectrum - the Zealots, the Essenes and the Sicarii - the revolutionaries.  These are the folks who felt that the only good Roman is a dead Roman and who embarked on a variety of terrorist resistance tactics in order to force the Romans out.  It was this group who eventually grew strong enough to spark the Jewish revolution which resulted in the entire destruction of the nation of Israel, the temple, the city of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Judeans throughout the world.
The tension between these groups was great.  The collaborators considered the Zealots to be fanatic terrorists, while the Zealots considered the collaborators to be traitors.  Caught in the middle was the middle of the road group.  This group was perhaps the majority of the population who, on the one hand, did not approve of the Roman occupation, and so would refuse to do anything to support it (like paying Imperial taxes), but who also refused to pick up arms and join in the violence.  This group is perhaps best represented by the Pharisees.  They became the scholarly group, studying the scriptures round the clock trying to discern God's will in the belief that if they, or the majority of the people of Israel would just keep the Torah, the law of God, then God would intervene and wipe out the Romans for them.
It is into the midst of this uncertain and volatile world that Jesus appears with a new way: a way that is neither collaboration nor revolution.  But it is a different way - the way of active love.  A way which called the people to love and care for others, even the hated Romans; it was a way which called the people back to consider God's will and God's law, but not with the idea of bribing God to intervene, but of acting in love because that was God's will for all the world and would in and of itself bring about a transformation of the society and the individual.  The result of this ministry was that Jesus was rejected and hated by both the sides since he refused to join one or another but rather had forged an alternative to them.
This division is all on display in our text for today as the questioners attempt to trick Jesus.  And what a trick it is.  These questioners were trying to trick Jesus into indirectly declaring for one side or the other.  If he had said yes pay the tax he would have been accused of being a collaborator - if he had said no don't pay the tax he would have been accused of being a revolutionary.  For the leaders – this was a win/win no matter how he answered! But Jesus again reveals a new and different way of being, a new way of thinking about the world which is neither yes or no, or black and white, or right or left, or conservative or liberal.  This coin belongs to Caesar since it has his image on it, so if Caesar wants it give it to him. BUT we must also recognize and ascribe to God all that is God's.  Caesar in this instance happens to own the coins. But what belongs to God? What is under God's divine ownership?  EVERYTHING!  EVERYTHING is accountable to God - even Caesar.  "The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof," writes the Psalmist.  God is creator, and the creation belongs to the creator.
The last story is the story of our own time.  It is set in time like the others where people are divided, a time which is pervaded with a sense of hopelessness and fear and a sense of that we have to circle the wagons and look after ourselves.  But the oppression under which we live is not so much a political oppression such as Israel experienced under the Babylonians and the Romans, but rather it is a different kind of oppression.  It is an oppression that is born of a human desire and struggle to master the environment, to master the universe and it is an oppression where the threat under which we live is the threat that we will destroy ourselves and our environment through global warming, violence or rampant disease. I suppose that many of us would just as soon ignore all of this stuff and pretend it doesn't exist. 
But there is hope.  Into the midst of the darkness the prophet speaks God's word of promise - God continues to be involved in our world, and in our lives. Just as God delivered the Israelites from their captivity by the hand of the Persian king Cyrus, so will God deliver us from our bondage.  One of the great promises of Baptism is that we are chosen by God to be a part of God's plan.  And God never abandons God's people.  Through Jesus we are grafted at Baptism into the tree of life and given the promise of God's abiding presence with us now and always.
But most importantly Jesus directly addresses our own situations in his words to the Pharisees – “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God's.”  We belong to God.  No matter how messed up they may seem to us at times, no matter how many things we do of which we are ashamed, our lives are lived in God, through Jesus.  We are loved and we belong to God.  In fact everything belongs to God.  All that we have, and all that we are, are gifts to us from God.  The earth and this nation are gifts to us to care for, not to abuse.
When we think of stewardship I suspect that most of us think about money.  But our Gospel text calls us this morning to think about stewardship in a different way.  We are called and chosen by God to care for the creation, we are given gifts by God throughout our lives - all that we have and all that we are.  Everything is God's, even Caesar is God's, nothing is outside of God's realm. God is involved with every aspect of our lives; God cares for and about us.  We and all that we claim as ours are all God's, and part of our call to be Christians is a call to be good stewards of these gifts.
How do we care for these gifts?  How do we care for the earth and our environment?  How do we use the gifts of time, talent and possessions that God has given us?  In what ways do we give away our gifts for the sake of others?

Friday, October 10, 2014

Reflections on the Parable – Matthew 22:1-14 - "The Great Banquet"

Read the lesson here: Matthew 22:1-14
Have I Got A Deal for You?
This wonderful parable comes in the middle of Jesus’ contentious debates with the Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians and others who are trying to undermine Jesus so they can eliminate this troublemaker once and for all.  But it is not so easy.  Jesus is clever and quick witted and, not only that, but he knows the law backwards and forwards.  Besting Jesus in a debate is not working out so well.  And to make matters worse Jesus has picked up a large crowd of followers who are hanging on every word! This raises the stakes as well and also threatens riot.  So into this highly charged atmosphere Jesus tells a parable about a King who has invited all of the nobility to the wedding feast of his only Son, but those who were invited reject the invitation twice! And the 2nd time they mistreat the servants, even to the point of killing some of them! So, the King sends retribution against them and sends his servants out to the highways, the town squares, the streets of the city to round up everyone else – “the good and the bad” – who are invited in place of the original guests.  It does not take a brilliant exegetical mind to see that Jesus has cast his opponents in the role of the 1st invitees who have rejected the invitation and murdered the servants (Jesus and the prophets!).
First a couple of historical notes: To be invited to the wedding of the King’s son was the greatest honor a citizen could have expected to receive.  If such an invitation arrived it was a circle the date and do not miss this event.  In a poor agrarian society the regular diet would have consisted of mostly grains and bread, olives, leeks and so on.  Meat was saved for special occasions – notably religious festivals and weddings! That these 1st recipients would have refused this invitation for rather mundane things would have provided some chuckles. Who in their right mind would refuse an invitation to a wedding feast of a King where there would be free food (meat!)?  But the sending of a 2nd invitation would have also brought nods of recognition.  Sometimes an invitation would have been put aside in order to wait to see who else is going to be there.  After all, if you are going to a major society event you want to know that the celebrities and big names in the society are actually going to be there. The beating and murder of the servants bearing the 2nd invitation would have provided the shock. And the retribution that follows would not have raised eyebrows.  Of course the King had to respond to such an affront to his honor.  But equally shocking would have been the King’s extending the invitation to everyone else –people of a lower social class – both the good and the bad!
So the King fills up the hall with guests – the poor, the outcasts: losers of various stripes and flavors. And wedding garments were provided.  There was a superstition that was very common in the entire Mediterranean region that concerned itself with a jealous or envious wedding guest putting a curse on the new couple by means of an “evil eye.”  To counter this danger the host would provide special wedding garments that could disarm the curse and protect the couple.  So when the King finds a guest who is not wearing the wedding garment that had been provided it is seen as more than just a fashion faux pas. This was an affront, an insult and a threat. No wonder the King has this guest thrown out into the outer darkness (the “Suburbs of Hell” as one writer calls it).
In closing some thoughts about the application of this parable.  It is on the one hand a judgment parable.  We cannot pretend that it is not about judgment simply because we don’t like to think of the judgment side of God.  But note, first of all the original invitees brought the judgment upon themselves. The King does not send violence after the first rejection instead he sends another invitation.  He really wants these folks to come to the Banquet.  It is only after they beat and murder the servants that they bring this judgment down upon themselves as a consequence of their actions. 2nd, it is the King who is in charge of judgment.  The King, who went out of his way to invite folks to the great wedding banquet, and who opens up the invitation to all.  So, if we begin to see ourselves as the invitees we also need to recognize that whatever judgment may be in the future is up to God and is not delegated to us!
On the other hand, this is a parable to Grace. The King really wants these folks to come to the wedding banquet and goes out of his way to send two invitations to try to get them to come and then when rejected the King extends the invitation to all – the good and the bad. The only expectation is that we accept the invitation, that we humbly put our self-centered need to be in the center of our universe aside so that we can put on the white garment of Baptism and come to the banquet. And guess what? It is free. The gift of God’s love, grace, forgiveness is free. Even the garment is free and the food at the banquet is free.  What a deal!!! The invitation has arrived. How will you respond?

Friday, October 3, 2014

Reflections on the Gospel - The Parable of the Wicked Tenants - Matthew 21:33-46

Read the text here: Matthew 21:33-46
Crazy Love
One of the challenges to interpreting the parables is that many of them have long established interpretive traditions and these tend to color and influence our reading of them, even if unintentionally.  In some cases this is a good thing.  In some cases, not so much.  The parable for this morning is one of these latter.  The parable of the wicked tenants has a long, sad and violent history as being a proof-text for anti-Semitic activities.  This interpretation suggests that the Jewish people, like the wicked tenants, have destroyed the servants (prophets) and the son (Jesus) and because they are guilty of killing Jesus they should be put to the sword and persecuted. This is NOT what this parable is about.  That interpretation completely misses the mark and, more than that, is thoroughly anti-Gospel.  So there is no misunderstanding: I completely reject that interpretation! 
As is common in most of Jesus’ parables they tend to focus either on God (the land-owner in this case) and/or on US.  WE are the wicked tenants.  WE are the ones who have rejected Jesus, and killed the servants and the son.  WE are the ones who are always trying to get something for nothing (see ELW hymn #349 – Ah, Holy Jesus – verse 2!).  God, the landowner, has called us to work in the vineyard of the world.  But we decide we want the fruits of the land for ourselves and we refuse to give back to God that which is rightfully God’s.  And we beat and mistreat and murder those who would call us to be responsible.  And what does God the landowner do in response?  God keeps sending servants, until finally God sends God’s son.  In other words, God never gives up on us.  This is the amazing part of the story, and the part that is too often missed.  Certainly the attitude of the tenants is kind of crazy.  Do they really think they can get away with this plot to take over the vineyard?  But what about the landowner’s constant efforts to establish a relationship with the tenants and never giving up, no matter how many servants are badly treated?  Well, that is kind of crazy too.  That’s the thing about God’s grace – it isn’t sensible, it isn’t logical – it just is – abundantly!
So, after all that they do, how should the landowner treat the tenants in the end?  “They should be put to the sword and utterly destroyed!”  Now, who says that?  The Pharisees and scribes who are listening to Jesus tell the story.  Jesus doesn’t say that!  And in speaking those words of condemnation the Pharisees and scribes condemn themselves! And…
“…that's part of Matthew's narrative strategy, I suspect, to have his opponents voice their own condemnation. But it invites us to consider a different question: not what will that landowner do, but what did that landowner do. And to that question we have Jesus' own answer: the landowner sent his son, Jesus, to all of us who have hoarded God's blessings for ourselves and not given God God's own due. And when we killed him, God raised him the dead, and sent him back to us yet one more time, still bearing the message of God's desperate, crazy love.”       Dr. David Lose, Philadelphia Lutheran Seminary
This parable is, like the others, about the abundant and extravagant grace that God has for us!  In this parable Jesus is illustrating how God goes to extravagant and excessive, even illogical and crazy extents to shower this love and grace upon us.  And no matter how many times we reject God, God keeps at it.  God keeps working on establishing a relationship with us!
This parable is paired in Matthew, with the Parable of the Two Sons (from last week).  Jesus’ words of interpretation that conclude that parable make it clear that ultimately it is all about faith (see 21:32).  So too does the Parable of the Wicked Tenants point us to issues of faith.  A loving, patient and forgiving God freely and abundantly showers God’s grace upon us.  How will we respond? Will we accept this gift?  Will we respond to the gift with faith and trust that leads us to act in responsible and generous ways towards God and others?  Or are we content, like the tenants, to assume that we can get something for nothing?  And to take God’s crazy love for us for granted?”

Please note - this is a repetition of an article I wrote in 2011 during a sermon series on the parables...

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Reflections on the text – Matthew 21:23-32

Read the text here: Matthew 21:23-32
Will You Work?
Well, things are beginning to heat up.  Immediately before our passage for today Jesus has entered into Jerusalem in triumph – Hosanna to the Son of David!  He immediately goes to the Temple, enters it and begins to push over tables - …you have made (my house) a den of robbers – Jesus yells at them.  The next day Jesus is confronted by a group of the leaders of the Temple with an obvious question – Who gave you this authority to do these things?  It is of course a trick question.  Jesus cannot answer it without getting deeper into trouble.  If he says God is the source of his authority he would be immediately denounced as a blasphemer; if he names a teacher or a human source for his authority he would be denounced as misguided and dangerous.  So, he turns the question back on his questioners – Where did John the Baptist get his authority?  Wow!  This is an even harder and thornier question.  If the authorities agree that John’s authority came from God, then why did you oppose him; and if from a human source then that response would anger a large part of the crowd, for in death John has achieved a bit of celebrity status.  So – they refuse the answer the question.  And Jesus refuses to answer the question.  And the question of authority goes unanswered… but not really.
For what happens next is that Jesus changes the focus of the question with this simple little parable that he tells them: A man had two sons.  The man also has a vineyard, and if you know anything about vineyards you know that they require a lot of work.  The vines need to be pruned constantly, and when the grapes are ready they have to be picked right away in order to have the right sugar levels for good wine.  It is a tricky business.  So the day has arrived – the grapes need to be picked and the man needs all the help he can get.  Son #1, will you come and work in the vineyard today?  Yeah, sure – comes the answer.  Great!  Son #2, will you come and work in the vineyard today? No, I’m busy!  Fine.  The father does not argue.  He accepts the commitments of his sons as they are and, presumably, goes himself to work in the vineyard.  And there he is joined, not by Son #1 – who had agreed to work, but rather by Son #2, who had declined to work.
What is Jesus saying here?  As with all of Jesus’ parables there are any number of possible interpretations that are possible.  But for today this is what I suggest.  Think of the vineyard as life in this world, and the work to which the sons are called as the work of the Gospel.  This work also represents the future, my future and your future, and the future of the community of Christ, the church.  The invitation to work in this vineyard, in this context is in fact an invitation to enter into the future. Of course the future is uncertain.  Anyone who has ever grown grapes can tell you that you will not know if they are any good until after they are harvested.  So the work has the potential to lead to failure and to hard times, disappointment and loss.  But, at the same time, the work has the potential also to open up a wonderful and productive future, which is successful and filled with promise - and perhaps also a little of both.  So will you work in the vineyard – will you enter into the future – will you trust and take a chance?
Son #1 seems to want his father to believe that, yes he wants to participate, that he wants to enter into this unknown future and that he will do the work, even though there is no assurance that it will be successful.  But, wait.  Things are fine the way they are.  Why take the chance; why entertain the risk when I can just ignore the present work and hold on to the past.  The past is set.  I am familiar and comfortable with it.  I have a vested interest in maintaining it.  It makes me feel secure. There is no risk there – maybe.  So, I will not go to work in the vineyard of the future, because the past is so much more comfortable.  Even though I have promised to work, even though I am pretending to be all for doing the work – I really have no interest in it.  It is too scary.
Son #2 has an initial reaction that is probably pretty familiar to all of us.  You can just see him rolling his eyes and hear the sigh.  I don’t really want to do that.  It sounds exhausting; it sounds tiresome; there is no assured benefit.  I really have better things to do.  But, as he reflects on it he begins to realize – the work represents the promise of the future.  Son #1 thinks by ignoring the work, refusing the work he can forestall the future and maintain the past.  He is wrong.  The future will come; change will come regardless.  The question is really whether or not I, Son #2, will be a part of the work; will enter into and take hold of the promise; whether I will step into the future or take refuge in the past.
Jesus asks the Temple authorities at this point to tell him which of these sons is doing the will of the Father; which of these two sons is acting in harmony with God, the Father.  Well, they answer, the 2nd son, the one who went to work.  Right, says Jesus, the one who is willing to step out of the past and embrace the gift of the future.  You Temple authorities are the 1st son, you are too rooted in the past. This past is where you get your authority and so you have a vested interest in maintaining this past.  But God, the Father is inviting you to step out beyond it and into the uncertain yet potentially glorious future.
What about us?  Which of these two sons do we identity with?  How many of us are more like Son #1, who is afraid of change, refuses to try new things and just wants to hold on to the past even as that past is crumbling around us.  How many of us can join Son #2 and enter into the future, going to work in the vineyard of the world, the community – working to build a new future – trusting in the promise of the Gospel?  These are the questions this parable confronts us with.  It is scary and uncomfortable to accept change and to be willing to move beyond the chains of the past.  But no matter how wonderful the past was it is now gone and we must be willing to step into the future no matter how uncertain it is and embrace its potential.
So, will you go and work in the vineyard?  And when you get there I think you will find that God is already there working and ready to work with you and support and embrace you as you move forward into the future.