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!

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?