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.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Reflections on the Feast of St. Matthew - September 20

Making the Grade 
I don’t think I realized how complicated it would be to become a Pastor.  Sometime in 1982 I began to feel a call to become a Pastor.  At the time I was a very active member of the LCMS mission in Caracas, Venezuela.  But after speaking with my Pastor, I began applying to seminary and soon realized that my two degrees in music performance were suspect and might not qualify me to be admitted to seminary.  So I was required to demonstrate proficiency in a wide range of other disciplines before they would accept me – including philosophy and writing.  I had to join an LCA congregation and then apply to the synod committee for professional leadership for approval.  I had to take a battery of psychological and vocational exams.  And once I was accepted and started at seminary I had to maintain my grades, demonstrate that I had the skills to be a pastor, participate in at least one summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at a hospital.  I had to do a year of internship, which I completed in Pasadena, CA.  And then I had to endure two separate evaluations – one from the seminary and the other from the synod approval committee.  This evaluation had two parts: 1. A written exam that took me 3 days to complete; 2. An oral exam that had multiple parts and took a full day.  At the end of it all, I was approved for call and ordination.  And then I entered into the call process which also took about 6 months.  Finally, I was called to serve Bethany Lutheran Church in Akron, Ohio, and on September 19, 1987 I was ordained and began ministry.
I have often thought that if the disciples whom Jesus had called had been required to endure a process similar to the professional leadership process in the, now, ELCA Jesus might not have had many disciples.  “Follow me!”  Is all that Jesus says and according to all 4 Gospels we know that 12 men did give up their livelihoods, left their families and followed Jesus.  And not only that, but they continued to follow Jesus even after the crucifixion and resurrection.  This seemingly random call process did not include any examinations or interviews, there seems to be no minimal qualifications, there does not even appear to be any religious or moral standards either.  The 12 disciples are a curious mix of men from different backgrounds, social status and affiliations.  We have fishermen – hard working men from the Galilee who barely made enough to feed their families (Peter, Andrew, James and John); we have radical revolutionaries (we might call them terrorists today) – Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot; we have deep thinkers, men who might have been Pharisees – Philip, Bartholomew and possibly Thomas; and we have a Roman collaborator, a tax collector named Matthew.
Wait, what?!!!  A tax collector!!!  Now, I know that few of us even today much like paying our taxes.  But tax collection today is a completely different business from the Roman process of tax collection during the 1st century occupation of Palestine.  The Romans enlisted local men, usually men who were educated a little and who had a some community status and gave them the authority to assess and collect whatever taxes they thought appropriate.  The Romans of course did not pay these men.  They were required to submit a certain amount to Rome, but anything over and above that amount they could keep for themselves.  So the tax collectors became notorious for their assessments especially on landowners, charging them huge amounts and then pocketing a large part of it and making themselves rich which others fell deeper and deeper into poverty.  And if you didn’t want to pay, the tax collectors could invite the local Roman garrison to pay you a visit to help you make up your mind.  It is obvious why these men were despised and hated.  Not only were they collaborators with the hated Romans, but they were fleecing their own people.  They were despicable and they were excluded and shunned.  It is not an accident that in the gospels tax collectors are lumped in the sinners – “tax collectors and sinners.” 
But Jesus sees this hated tax collector and says, “Follow me!”  It must have been a shock not only to Matthew, but also to the others – especially the revolutionaries in the group.  I can only imagine how well they all got along at first.  But it does beg this question – What criteria did Jesus use to pick these disciples?  What qualified them to be disciples?  The answer is – nothing! They were not qualified to be disciples, to be followers.  The only thing that was necessary is that they “left their nets and followed him,” or that “he got up and followed him.”
We live in a society that places high value on qualifications and certifications (and, I hasten to add, there is nothing wrong with that – we need people to be qualified for the work they do), but we tend to apply this to our faith life and our relationship with God.  We think that in order to follow Jesus you have to believe x, y z – you have to have these specific moral values and live this kind of lifestyle – you have to do this or that or hold these political views and so forth.  Not true! Not Biblical!  To follow Jesus, to be a disciple of Jesus, all that is required is that you are willing to get up and follow.  And the fact is that Jesus has called to each and every one of you as well: “Follow Me!”  It happened in your Baptism; it happen at confirmation; it happens each and every time you receive bread and wine and here the words: “given and shed for you;” it happens every time you voice your affirmation to “Go in peace, serve the Lord; Thanks be to God;” It happens each and every time you open your bible and read about God’s amazing Grace; It happens each and every time you utter a prayer to God in Jesus’ name; It happens each and every time you offer someone a drink of water, or a visit, or some food, or kindness.” 
Jesus is constantly speaking these works to you: “Follow Me.”  I suspect that Matthew did not think well of himself, that all of the hostility and hate shown to him during his time as a tax collector probably took a huge toll on him.  He probably was just trying to get through the day, accumulate as much as possible so he could use that money and the luxury it purchased to shut the hateful world out.  But then he heard that voice – “Follow me.”  And his life changed completely. Not that there still wasn’t hardship and suffering and even hostility.  But it was different now.  He was a part of a community, he had experienced God’s amazing unconditional love and that enabled him to continue on even when it required him to pick up his own cross.

What happens to Matthew after the events of the Passion and Pentecost?  We do not know.  The Gospel that bears his name is attributed to him.  Some of the early church fathers suggest that he travelled to Ethiopia but others say Persia.  Traditionally it is believed that Matthew was martyred, but the circumstances are unknown.  Ultimately it doesn’t matter.  What matters though is that on a hot day in Palestine while Matthew was working at his collection table he encountered Jesus, who looked at him and said these words to him: “Follow Me!”  And “he got up and followed him.” 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Reflections on the Holy Cross

Read the text here: I Corinthians 1:18-31
Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross
     It was a dark Friday afternoon and the Romans were again proceeding with the execution by crucifixion of 3 men they had determined were a danger to Pax Romana – or the imposed “peace of Rome.” Two of these men were “bandits,” which is the term the Gospels use to refer to those who are insurrectionists or, we might call them, terrorists. The other man was Jesus of Nazareth, a prophet who many had proclaimed as Messiah. Messiah means King to the Romans, so he was to be dispatched for there would be no Kings in Palestine except Caesar! The method of execution to be used would be crucifixion. Now, crucifixion had become a standard and we might even say favorite method of dealing with insurrectionists and troublemakers during the Roman occupation of Palestine. The Romans crucified literally thousands upon thousands over the years of the occupation. One historian – Josephus - recounts that after the sacking of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70 the countryside was littered with the crosses of crucified men. I will spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say that it was not a pleasant way to die. For the Romans, public crucifixion was effective because it maximized the pain and suffering and this then sent a message loud and clear – “Don’t mess with us!” If any of you saw the Mel Gibson film a few years ago you will remember how the crucifixion of Jesus was depicted. Crucifixion meant extreme pain, suffering, humiliation and degradation. The point was to terrorize the population into submission. If you were planning to oppose Rome this method of execution might give you pause in order to reconsider. To the peoples of Palestine living during the Roman occupation during the time of Jesus the cross inspired terror and fear and symbolized a horrible death. Everyone knew this.
     So with this in mind we can understand why the reaction of the disciples was less than positive when Jesus starts talking about being crucified and picking up your cross and so forth. Jesus tells his disciples in no uncertain terms that he will be going to Jerusalem to be crucified and tells them that they are to pick up their cross and follow him. The disciples are horrified. “Are you kidding me,” Peter reacts, “God forbid! May it never be.” We sometimes are a little critical of the disciples and especially Peter for this reaction – but can we blame him given what crucifixion meant at that time.
     What the disciples did not understand is that God seems to like turning things upside down; God likes to create beauty out of chaos; God can take the pain and suffering and extreme darkness and hate and alienation of the cross and turn it into love and grace. God loves to create surprises! There is an old Ken Medema song in which the chorus goes:
  Turn it over, turn it round, raise the humble and free the bound, down means up and up means down – this world looks different to ya when you’re flying upside down!
To the world the cross means pain suffering, humiliation and death – but God transforms this – God turns it upside down – because of Jesus the cross means forgiveness, grace, love and life – abundant and everlasting life! Let me repeat this – God takes a hated and feared symbol of death and subjugation and turns it into a symbol of love and life! Amazing!!! Our God is an Awesome God….
     So when Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross and follow him – they are hearing pain and suffering – but Jesus means love and forgiveness and life. Jesus is saying “come on folks – pick up love, accept love, carry love, display the love which comes through me.”
     I think we sometimes still may hear those words like the disciples did. Sometimes I have heard people talk about this or that struggle in their lives as being their “cross to bear.” What they and we need to understand and accept is that this in only the first half of the story – the other part is God’s surprise: the cross we have to bear is Love and grace, which is showered upon us no matter what. God’s presence is with us at all times no matter what. And God’s call to us is for us to show this forth in our lives and ministry. We all live under the shadow of the cross of love; we all have been signed and sealed on our foreheads in Baptism with the cross of love!
     But we humans have a hard time accepting this. We like things to be in a neat organized box; we like to think we have God figured out. And earning God’s favor or climbing the stairway to heaven is more logical for many of us. It was during Martin Luther’s time too. As a young Augustinian monk Luther had the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to Rome. While he was there he did all the usual pilgrimage things: he visited and adored the various relics such as pieces of the true cross of Jesus and he ascended a special staircase on his knees. All of this was believed to bestow a special blessing. But it left Luther feeling incomplete and unfulfilled. It just didn’t seem to him that adoring pieces of the true cross of Jesus was all that useful and besides, he later wrote, if you assembled all the pieces of the “true cross of Jesus” in one place it would provide enough wood for a forest. As he reflected on this experience later he concluded that being sealed by the cross in baptism was all the true cross of Jesus that was needed - because that cross meant we are sealed in God’s love and grace.
     So then what are the implications of this for us and our lives? We live in the shadow of the cross of God’s love; we have been sealed by the cross of love – what does this mean? It means it is our call to love as Christ loved us. It is not up to us to assume we have God all figured out and that God does things the way we expect or even like. Always remember - God likes surprises! It is not up to us to judge others and expect others to fit inside some orderly box we create. God’s job is judging - our job is loving and finding ways of sharing this love with others. It means that we are called to participate in and support the ministry of love of our church – the wider church, this parish and this congregation, and it extends into our daily lives as we encounter others in the course of going about our regular lives. It means that we are called to participate and support the ministry of love through our giving of our time, talents and treasure. It is not an option – it is a calling that comes from living in the shadow of the cross.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reflections on the text – Genesis 45 - Joseph, Part 2

Read the text here: Genesis 45:1-15

“I Am Joseph”
We have come to the final installment in our summer series on the stories of Genesis.  Last week in the first part of the Joseph story, he heard how Joseph was favored by his father and had developed into something of a brat.  Jacob had shown his favor for Joseph by giving him a special long-sleeved ceremonial robe and Joseph begins to have and share dreams about how one day his brothers and family will all bow down to him.  Well his 10 older brothers (not including the youngest Benjamin who is only a small child) have come to hate Joseph and so out in the fields one day they attack Joseph intending to kill him, but eventually take the opportunity to sell him into slavery to some Ishmaelite traders, who then take Joseph to Egypt and sell him into the household of a high ranking official named Potiphar.  Initially Joseph does well, but he catches the eye of Potiphar’s wife and when he resists her seductions she has him framed and thrown into prison, where he languishes for years.  While he is in prison he entertains himself and the other prisoners (notably a baker and a butler from the Pharaoh’s household) by interpreting their dreams.  Later when the Pharaoh himself begins to have troubling dreams the Butler (now released) tells Pharaoh about Joseph who is then commanded to interpret these dreams.
Joseph tells Pharaoh that the dreams are a warning for all of Egypt.  There will be 7 years of abundant harvests followed by 7 years of famine.  And this warning allows you (“O mighty Pharaoh”) to prepare during the years of plenty for the famine.  Pharaoh is impressed and appoints Joseph to oversee the preparations for the famine.  Joseph has now gone from prisoner to a high-ranking official in the Egyptian government and he sets about the task of preparation.  When the famine finally hits Egypt is prepared and through the rationing that Joseph has instituted the people have food and are saved from starvation.
But meanwhile back in Canaan there have been no warnings and as a result the famine has hit with deadly intensity.  Jacob, who has never recovered from loosing Joseph and is still deep in grief, and his family is now facing starvation.  Having heard that Egypt has plenty of food the brothers decide to go to Egypt to try to acquire some food for the family.  Jacob approves this plan, but will not allow Benjamin to accompany the other brothers (By the way, please note - Benjamin and Joseph are full brothers, both children of Jacob and Jacob’s favorite and beloved wife Rachel).  When the brothers arrive in Egypt by some chance Joseph sees and recognizes them, but they do not recognize him.  Joseph gets quite emotional, but holds it all in check as he has the brothers brought before him and questions them about their intent, their family, and their father.  Joseph finds out that Jacob is still alive and that Benjamin is not with them.  At this point Joseph devises a detailed plan to test his brothers.  He holds one of them – Simeon – as a hostage as he sends the others back to fetch Benjamin. 
When Benjamin arrives with the others Joseph can barely contain himself, he excuses himself in order to weep.  And then he orders that a caravan of food be given the brothers, but he plants a golden cup on Benjamin.  He sends them back to Canaan but shortly sends the troops to arrest them for theft.  The caravan is searched and the cup is found on Benjamin.  Joseph states that he will release all of the brothers and the food and they can continue on their way, but he will hold Benjamin as a prisoner and a slave.  The brothers are shocked, and they plead with Joseph not to take Benjamin and both Ruben and Judah offer to take the place of the young man.  (Read Judah’s beautiful speech 44:18ff).  Joseph finally cannot contain himself any longer and he breaks down weeping.  He sends all of the Egyptians from the room and then he reveals himself to his brothers who are shocked and terrified. But Joseph greets his brothers warmly, he asks after their father and he forgives the brothers for their evil actions towards him.  “God used this for good, even though you intended evil.”  It is a beautiful scene of true repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation.
This is one of the most detailed and beautiful stories in the Bible.  It is worth reading chapters 37 through 50 (though the story really kind of ends in chapter 45).  There are many things that we can learn from this story.  Let me focus on two points:
First, I think it is very important to see that while God is in the background, God is not pulling the strings in this story.  God did not inspire the brothers to the violence they inflicted on their own brother and God did not manipulate events so that Joseph was sold into slavery.  God also did not send the famine.  God is not the great puppet master in this (or any) biblical story.  Rather, we see that God is fulfilling the promise that God will be present no matter what.  whether Joseph is languishing in the dungeon or supervising the rationing of food, God is present with Joseph throughout this story.  But, God also works through these events in order to save thousands of people from starvation and to finally bring about repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation by the end of the story.  This is how God works.  We learn from this story especially and we see throughout the Bible – especially in Jesus – that God works through human history – God works through people and events.  Even through evil, horrible and terrible events, such as the violence inflicted on Joseph, God is able to work through those events to bring good and redemption and grace.
Second, Joseph was dead to his father and his family – but in the end he comes to them alive.  And his resurrection brings with it forgiveness and reconciliation and abundant grace.  Jacob is finally able to resolve his intense grief; the brothers are able to finally give up the guilt and shame at the evil act they perpetuated on their own brother.  The darkness of alienation, violence and hatred do not have the last word for in resurrection we learn that reconciliation, love and grace are more powerful.  Does this sound familiar?  It should remind us of the cross of Jesus.  The cross is a symbol of the evil that humanity inflicts on itself – alienation, judgment, hatred and violence.  But the cross also reminds us that these forces of evil and darkness do not have the last word, rather God’s last word is resurrection which defeats all these dark powers with the power of love and abundant grace and forgiveness and ultimately peace. 
This story reminds us again that God is always present and at work among God’s people and that ultimately the power of resurrection overcomes all of those powers that seem so daunting.  This is a timely word for us, for certainly there is so much darkness and violence in our world.  The Joseph story points us to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus proclaiming that the powers of God’s love and grace will ultimately prevail.  Thanks be to God!