Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reflections on the Gospel – “The Sheep and the Goats” Matthew 25:31-46

Read the text here: Matthew 25:31-46
We have come to the last Sunday of the church year and the last Sunday of our year of Matthew.  This Sunday is also celebrated as the Feast of Christ the King or the Feast of the Reign of Christ.  The text is the prophecy of the sheep and the goats and is a judgment prophecy.  The context of this passage is important in that it is contained in the very last teaching discourse in Matthew.  Immediately following this – in chapter 26 – we move into the passion narrative. It is important to recognize this on a day in which we are celebrating the “Kingship” of Jesus for Kingship looms large in the Gospel of Matthew.  The kings of this world (like Herod in Chapter 2) are enthroned in glory and splendor and have power and authority concentrated in them.  Some of them were considered to be gods.  But Jesus, our King, is enthroned on a cross, wearing a crown of thorns.  Jesus does hold the authority and power of God, but gives it up out of love.  The resurrection enthrones Christ at the right hand of God, but not before the Passion.  This context is very important for understanding this judgment prophecy.
Judgment is a part of our faith and certainly influences our understanding of God.  Some of us have come to understand the Gospel only in terms of judgment.  For these people the Gospel is a series of rules and regulations that MUST be followed or else.  For others of us we downplay judgment to the point that it becomes little more than a slap on the wrist. The prophecy of the Sheep and the Goats makes clear that judgment is real and that both of those understandings are incomplete.  This parable helps us to understand a couple important things about judgment.
1st – Judgment is the consequence of Sin.  Judgment is the consequence of our actions, our behaviors and our decisions.  This image of God giving out earned but basically unjust punishments that seem out of proportion to the infraction itself is simply an incorrect understanding of the Gospel.  Sin is our putting ourselves in the place of God and pushing God out of our lives; the results of Sin are the sins of hurting others as we push our selfish agendas.  The consequence is that we will destroy ourselves and others.  We bring judgment on ourselves.  Thus, earthquakes and hurricanes are NOT a sign of God’s judgment.  The goats here are not destroyed by a tornado.  We will learn that they goats are separated out and judged because they have consistently put themselves in the center of their own universe pushing God and others out in the process.
2. We are thus completely dependent on Christ’s love and grace.  As Paul states in Romans – we are all guilty and deserving of judgment.  The Gospel is about to move into the Passion during which Jesus suffers the ultimate consequence in our place so that we might be forgiven and be free to live lives as disciples which reflect this grace and love.  Think, for example, of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” (yes it’s from Luke).  The younger son deserves punishment and judgment and actually fully expects it.  What he receives instead is unexpected and abundant grace and love and forgiveness.  In fact it is so abundant that it is offensive to his older brother.  We deserve judgment, but because of Christ we are saved from it and forgiven and showered with abundant and undeserved grace and love.
3. And, it all comes as a big surprise!  The part of this prophecy I love the most is when both the sheep and the goats respond to the judgment with surprise: “When was it that we….?”  This brings it right down to the level of our everyday lives and relationships.  Our discipleship is to become 2nd nature – we do those acts of mercy and grace, we live in ways that reflect God’s love not because we are trying to be good so God will love us.  But rather this behavior comes naturally to us – so naturally in fact that we are surprised when Christ tells us that it was He, Himself that we served and cared for in love – or not!
What then can we do?  If there is not a list of things to do; if God doesn’t base our acceptance on the good and wonderful things we do and if Christian discipleship is to become 2nd nature how do we accomplish that?  The Gospel and St. Paul have answers for this question too: We pray – we study the bible – we attend worship – we partake of the Sacrament – we remember our Baptism – we practice acts of mercy – we give of ourselves in small or large ways to the work of ministry – we contribute our time, talents and money to the work of the church - we celebrate and participate in community. 
This prophecy is one of judgment and is a call for us to look and evaluate ourselves and our lives and priorities.  It is also a call to community – to be in a community to rests on the love and mercy and grace and love of Christ, who is the King of Glory.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reflections on the Parable – The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Maidens - Matthew 25:1-13

Read the text here: Matthew 25:1-13
Give Me Oil For My Lamp!

The parable of the 10 Bridesmaids is perhaps one of the best known, but also one of the most difficult of all of Jesus’ parables. Perhaps this is because it really takes aim at us modern Christians – right where we are most vulnerable: the pace of life! On the one hand we live in a very fast-paced and impatient world.  We hate waiting; we are uncomfortable with silence. We need to have something going on all of the time. We get impatient with waiting at the doctor’s office or standing in long lines or with an internet connection that isn’t as fast as we would like.  We can hardly wait – we can hardly stand to wait!  But then on the other hand we are procrastinators. I don’t feel like it.  I’ll do it tomorrow. I’ll finish that model with my son tomorrow, I’ll visit my mom in the nursing home tomorrow, I’ll start reading the bible and praying tomorrow, I’ll give a little more of my time and money to the church tomorrow, I’ll…. (You can fill in the blanks.)  So, to us busy, faced-paced procrastinators, Jesus has a parable – one that really focuses on the issue of time and raises some important questions about how faith is reflected in our lives.
The setting is a wedding.  Jesus apparently likes weddings.  In john his whole ministry begins at the wedding of Cana and in Matthew the settings of two of Jesus’ most challenging and difficult parables are weddings. Why? Well, weddings were very important in the ancient world. In many ways the future health and well-being of a community was dependent on weddings.  And so these were major events.  In a smaller village everyone would be invited and everyone would be involved.  The wedding events would begin with the groom and his party calling on the bride’s father and concluding the arrangements – dowry, wedding gifts, and so on.  Following that the bride would be presented to the groom, who would escort her to his home, then they would enter the bridal chamber alone for a while.  After all of that was concluded they would go in procession to the wedding banquet/party, which could last for the better part of a week.  So the 10 young women in our parable for today have been chosen to be a part of this final procession to the feast.
Now, apparently these young women are assuming that the procession will begin sometime around dusk.  Perhaps from previous experience they figure that all that other stuff will be concluded by then.  But for whatever reason it is not.  And they have to wait, and wait, and wait and wait.  So far in the story there is nothing to distinguish these girls one from another.  Each has been chosen to participate, each is prepared for the procession, each is waiting and each one of them ultimately falls asleep waiting.  It is only when the cry arises announcing the advent of the bridegroom that we realize there IS something that distinguishes these girls from one another.  Five of them had anticipated that the wait might be longer than anticipated and had brought extra oil, just in case.  The other five, well, they didn’t.  They thought perhaps that surely it can’t take that long and they were too excited and in too big a hurry to bother with extra oil.  But now, at midnight, the groom is coming, the procession is beginning and they are out of oil.  “Can we borrow some of yours?” They ask their sisters? “No, there isn’t enough,” comes the reply.  And so the five “foolish” girls rush out to search for oil in the middle of the night, trying I suppose to get it and get back in time.  But they fail, and they are then locked out of the party! Please note – these 5 “foolish” girls have brought “judgment” upon themselves, and it is administered by no less a person than the groom himself (not the servants!).  The foolish girls have excluded themselves from the party because they were not prepared to wait; because they ran out of oil and so their light went out. And without a burning lamp they cannot participate in the procession and they cannot enter the feast! 
This parable should by this time be easy to interpret: Jesus is the delayed Bridegroom; the Maidens are the disciples/believers of every age and the oil is faith active in the lamps of lives so that it burns brightly.  And, not surprisingly, there is a baptism connection.  In baptism we always conclude the baptismal liturgy by lighting a candle and handing it to the newly baptized (or to his/her parent) with these words: Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your father, who is in heaven.  This line is based on a teaching of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:16). The light is the light of faith in Jesus Christ.  Faith in our Lord whom we expect at any moment, but faith that calls for us to expect and prepare for delay; faith in the crucified and risen Messiah whose light shines forth in the gift of faith that is bestowed upon us at baptism.
And remember faith in the bible is not just mental assent; faith is not passive. Faith is not a personal private thing; faith is not being religious.  Faith is always active; faith is public and visible to all – like a burning lamp; faith is always reflected in one’s life and priorities; faith is the light of Christ shining forth brilliantly through the lives of Jesus’ disciples of every time and place.
So are you prepared for the wait? Are you prepared to let the light of your faith, the light bestowed on you at baptism, are you prepared to allow it to shine forth in your life? How does your faith manifest itself in the way you live and the choices you make? How is the light of Christ shining forth in your life?  Are you in touch with the bridegroom though constant prayer? Are you participating actively in the life and ministry of your community of faith – through your giving of your time and talents and money? Are you ready to join in the procession and join the saints of every age at the wedding banquet of our Lord?  For ultimately this parable is not really about oil or lamps it is about being ready to meet the groom; it is about being ready to meet Jesus and join Him at the feast!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Reflections on the Text – Revelation 7:9-17

Read the text here: Revelation 7:9-17
Who are These…?

It is as if fear had settled like a cloud over the whole world. People who had been so used to living carefree lives now were wracked by fear of a host of terrifying threats.  Perhaps the most prevalent of these threats was pervasive the threat of violence.  The nation as a whole was now threatened from the outside by violence. There was a fear of being overrun by violent outsiders and this fear was now terrifying the population.  In response the government had itself become much more heavy handed, utilizing violence itself more readily in order to respond to any and every perceived threat, no matter how small.  So pervasive was the fear that even individuals had started to respond to the slightest provocation with violence. This led to more vigilante violence and consequently simply heightened and intensified the fear that hung over the whole population.  It is not too surprising that in such an environment crime and criminal gangs would flourish.  The net result was that now all strangers became suspect, all ideas that were out of the ordinary became suspect, any “religion” or interpretation of religious ideals that offered new ideas were suspect and condemned.  But this wasn’t all, economically things were difficult, there were fewer jobs and people were buying less.  Poverty and hunger were more rampant. Infighting, special interests and weak and ineffectual leaders paralyzed the political leadership.  And if that weren’t enough the threat of sickness and disease was an ever-present danger.  Is it any wonder that fear had taken hold of the people and was driving them forward?

2014 America?  Nope, the paragraph above describes the beginning of the 2nd century in the slowly disintegrating Roman Empire, especially as it was experienced in the Mediterranean basin where a new faith had taken hold and was challenging the old ways of doing things.  This new faith was centered on a Jewish Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, who had been executed by the Romans in Palestine as a political troublemaker.  This new faith, which had emerged out of Judaism, proclaimed things that many found very threatening.  God loves everyone! God’s forgiveness is for everyone!  God doesn’t play favorites, except that God is most intensely present with those who are in need.  And when the darkness seems to overwhelm, God enters into that darkness to provide light.  God was incarnate in Jesus – entered into human experience through the painful process of being born to poor peasants in less than ideal circumstances.  And Jesus was 100% human and 100% divine! (This would prompt some major fighting – and I mean physical violence - in the years to come).  But perhaps most insidious was the fact that these Christians met for worship in the early mornings and shared bread and wine, they also bathed new adherents in a bath of water and then they spent their daily lives finding ways of helping others – providing food and clothing for the poor, caring for the homeless, visiting the sick and generally loving others.  These were dangerous people.

There is a pervasive myth that these early Christians were systematically persecuted by the Roman state.  This may have occurred a couple of brief times, but the Roman state had many more important things to concern itself with (like barbarian hoards massing troops and weapons on their borders for example, not to mention power struggles and political infighting in Rome).  No, the problems for Christians were centered in their own communities, and came from their neighbors.  Their suspicious behavior was a threat and a challenge to many local leaders.  And so the persecution suffered by early Christians was much more localized and also harder to bear.  These were one’s friends and neighbors who were going to the authorities to complain; these were families that grew up together and who shared a lot of past experiences who were now shunning you.  And it was to these Christians to whom John of Patmos wrote the book of Revelation, as a word of encouragement in the face of a society racked with fear, in the face of being rejected by friends and neighbors and threatened with the loss of livelihoods and even lives.

There are too many who want to interpret the book of Revelation as some kind of secretly coded blueprint of the future and there are too many whose own wild imaginations have created fantastic scenarios that not only have little or nothing to do with this letter of encouragement, but (more importantly) completely contradicts the Gospel.  Bottom line – The Gospel of Jesus, the proclamation of Jesus crucified and risen FOR US trumps everything, even our clever and creative scenarios for the end times.  If an interpretation does not have God’s unconditional love and grace in the center – then it is not consistent with the Gospel. Period.

So, who then are these multitudes?  These are those who have come through the Great Ordeal!  What great ordeal?  Well the ordeal I have been talking about, and if at first you thought that perhaps I was talking about our own times then you are right – because we too are also experiencing the great ordeal.  An ordeal of contending with fear, which too often leads to violence and then in turn leads to hopelessness.  A fear which causes us to turn inward and look to ourselves and our own and to disregard the needs of others; a fear which separates us from the neighbor, the others whom we are to love.  This text is for us and it reminds us that our experiences are the same experiences that have been shared by Christians of every generation in one way or another and that then, as now, God is present, God’s grace is still unconditional and available and that God’s love and still abundant and is for us – for you!

But that is not all, there is a calling embedded in all of this for those of us who are called to be Saints and who have received the gifts of God which enable us to step past our fears and open ourselves up in order to give back to God in the forms of finding ways of reflecting God’s love and grace in the way we relate to others and the way we treat and accept others.  Did you notice that in the Gospel Jesus proclaims that those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek, hungering for justice, merciful, pure in heart and those who are shunned and rejected because they choose to act in love – rather than in fear – are themselves blessed NOW.  Not in the future, not in the afterlife – NOW!  And this Sermon on the Mount has a not so subtle message to us that this is our calling NOW.  That is: to work in the vineyard, which is the Kingdom of God; to love our neighbors as ourselves, to allow God’s love and grace to flow through us to all whom we encounter and to give of ourselves in every way to the work of the Gospel.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Reflections on the text – Matthew 22:34-46

Read the text here: Matthew 22:34-46
The Work of Love

Jesus has been on the hot seat from the moment he entered Jerusalem.  It was not so much because of the enthusiastic entrance as what happened next.  Jesus enters the Temple courtyard and creates chaos, turning over tables – “You have turned my father’s house into a den of thieves.”  This does not endear Jesus to the Temple authorities.  After all the tables Jesus turned over were there for a good reason.  People needed to convert their Roman and provincial coins to Temple currency in order to pay various expenses, including purchasing animals for sacrifice.  The folks who are the customers are only trying to be faithful to the expectations of their faith, they are trying to follow the law.  And the vendors? Nowhere does it explicitly say they are gouging their customers.  That is the assumption, I suppose, but it may be unfair.  These men were only trying to make a living so they too could live their lives in a faithful manner.

So it is not too surprising that on Monday when Jesus arrives at the Temple courtyard to teach he is confronted by a group representing the Temple leadership with demands and questions about his calling, his mission and his theology.  This confrontation is the focus of most of chapters 21 and 22.  “By what authority?” “Should we pay the Imperial tax or not?”  “What about the resurrection, how does that work?”  “Which is the most important of the commandments?”  Jesus’ responses include not only teachings, but a series of parables also – The Parable of the 2 Sons, the Wicked Tenants and the Great Banquet.  Jesus begins his responses with a response to the question about authority and ends with a not so subtle discussion about the Messiah. 

It is common for us to divide up the characters into good and bad camps; Jesus and disciples = good; the Temple leadership and the Pharisees = bad.  But I think this is a little unfair and simplistic.  The questioners certainly have an agenda and this agenda is not only to trap Jesus, but I think it is also to sincerely try to understand where he is coming from.  They also are trying to be faithful to their traditions and faith.  And this means they look to the Law of Moses to provide guidance and direction.  To them, Jesus seems to be disregarding the Law and this is perplexing and disturbing.  Jesus seems to be attacking the very foundations of their society.  For them Jesus is a sinner who does not keep the law and disregards the traditions of Israel.

Jesus’ responses are on the one hand a response to the traps his opponents are setting but can also be seen as an attempt to move his listeners to open up to seeing that there is another way of understanding and interpreting the law and the traditions.  Jesus says himself that he has not come to abolish, but to complete, that is to fulfill.  Jesus is saying to them, that instead of seeing the law as a rigid set of requirements, perhaps there is another way of looking at it.  That at its core the gift of the law is about love. God’s involvement with God’s people has been all about love and that going forward, it continues to be about love. 

Now when we hear that word – “love” – I think most of us associate that word with feelings.  For us in our society, Love is an interior experience for the most part.  But this is not what Jesus is talking about.  He is not lifting up feelings as much as he is pointing to action.  Love is action; love is manifest in the work of the Kingdom of Heaven!  In Jesus’ responses to the earlier queries he lifts up work and love together within the context of the Kingdom of Heaven that God has established in our midst.  The two sons of the father are invited to go to work in the Vineyard/Kingdom; the Landowner is so anxious and desperate to have a relationship with the tenants that he continually sends messengers to them; the king wants his banquet table filled with guests so much that he opens the table to everyone; Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, but remember that everything is God’s and you are entrusted to care for God’s beloved possessions as stewards; Remember God is the God of the living – God supports, care for and loves those who do the work of the Kingdom here and now.

And which is the greatest commandment?  The answer is Love.  Love God, and your neighbor.  This is a call to action; a  call to work. How do we love God with all our hearts minds and souls? We love our neighbors as ourselves.  And as we reach out to others in love, this reflects our love for God.  The work of love includes respect, it includes seeing and defending the human rights of others, caring for and giving ourselves to others.  The work of love includes the 10 commandments but goes beyond the obvious to include many other dimensions.  Luther sees this clearly and lays this out in his explanations to the commandments in the Small Catechism. For example, in his explanation of the 5th commandment (do not murder),  he says, “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not hurt our neighbor in anyway, but to support him/her in all their physical needs.”  Luther makes it clear that it is not enough to just NOT do something, but we have a positive calling as well – to DO something, and that something is the work of love.  And this has implications for every dimension of our lives.

Like those who encountered Jesus in the Gospel stories, we too are trying to live our lives faithfully.  And to us, Jesus speaks these words: “Love God… Love your neighbor as yourself.”  These words are a call to action.  Like the father in the parable of the 2 Sons, Jesus is looking us in the eye with this question – “will you work in the vineyard today?”  For there is a lot of work to be done!