“Taking it with you” Sermon for Oct. 30, 2011, 2 Chronicles 31:2-10 & Luke 12:13-21

Taking it with you

2 Chronicles 31:2-10

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Hezekiah appointed the divisions of the priests and of the Levites, division by division, everyone according to his service, the priests and the Levites, for burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, to minister in the gates of the camp of the LORD and to give thanks and praise.  3 The contribution of the king from his own possessions was for the burnt offerings: the burnt offerings of morning and evening, and the burnt offerings for the sabbaths, the new moons, and the appointed festivals, as it is written in the law of the LORD.  4 He commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levites, so that they might devote themselves to the law of the LORD.  5 As soon as the word spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field; and they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything.  6 The people of Israel and Judah who lived in the cities of Judah also brought in the tithe of cattle and sheep, and the tithe of the dedicated things that had been consecrated to the LORD their God, and laid them in heaps.  7 In the third month they began to pile up the heaps, and finished them in the seventh month.  8 When Hezekiah and the officials came and saw the heaps, they blessed the LORD and his people Israel.  9 Hezekiah questioned the priests and the Levites about the heaps.  10 The chief priest Azariah, who was of the house of Zadok, answered him, “Since they began to bring the contributions into the house of the LORD, we have had enough to eat and have plenty to spare; for the LORD has blessed his people, so that we have this great supply left over.”

Luke 12:13-21

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  14 But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  15 And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  16 Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  17 And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’  20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

The end of October here in Lower Alabama means the cotton is white in the fields, and the leaves are just starting to turn.  When I see one of those early transitioning trees, its orange and red surrounded by the green of its neighbors, I want to stop and take a picture.  Its fantastically beautiful, that’s why there are so many millions of pictures of leaves in full, fall color; but neither mine, nor any of the pictures captures the beauty of the real thing.

There is something about a tree in full color that a photo cannot capture.   When we see the changing tree for ourselves, it means that it is the end of October in yet another year of our

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lives.  Would turning leaves captivate us the same way in the middle of May when winter is so far off?  Perhaps so, but maybe what we experience in October is poignancy; that unique combination beauty and pain; October a time of transition; it’s an ending, a death. The beautifully colored leaves will soon fall.   The branches will go bare. The grass will turn brown.  Winter will come.  We too we will have gone, once more, around the wheel of another year.  One rotation closer to our natural end.

Halloween, All Saints, Reformation Sunday, combined

Many moments converge on this last weekend in October.  The kids are conscious of Halloween because of the candy.   Halloween for adults means the eve of all Hallows, or All Saints Day when we remember those to whom we have said goodbye  this past year. In Croatia and all over Europe, this is the time when families go out to the cemeteries to clean and tidy the grounds around the graves. They leave flowers and candles in red glass containers that glow so beautifully, sadly, after sunset.

The Protestant Reformation: October 1517

It was on the eve of all Hallows nearly 500 years ago when Martin Luther marked the end of an era when he nailed his 95 theses upon the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.  He was an academic; a theology professor.  He wanted a public debate.  He got it, and much more besides.  The Protestant Reformation was born on that late October day in Germany in 1517, and Christianity in the Western World changed.  We here today are the sons and daughters of that Reformation.

What did that mean for the people in those days?  A brand new intensity about being Reformed as a Christian was born all across Europe.  The printing press had been invented not too long before, and so now, people – common people, not just rich ones – could own and read their own books, including (maybe primarily) the bible.

Not to idealized it, but a change did happen.  Many Protestants were people who read their bibles and knew the stories.  Our spiritual ancestors were people who tried diligently to work out, in practical daily ways, what it meant to live a life in congruence with the bible’s teaching.   They believed in keeping the Sabbath which, for them, meant no work on Sundays, even if the grain was ripe for harvest.

95 Theses

They believed in tithing the firstfruits of their income, so the new Protestant churches were supported, even without the great landholdings whose income financed the Roman church through the middle ages.   Reformed churches were marked by their simplicity.  The Reformers shunned the ostentation of the cathedrals.  Their services of worship were not medieval pageants, but rather times of gathering around the praise of God, hearing the gospel proclaimed in Word and Sacrament, and responding through creed and songs of praise.

Ad fontes” back to the fountainhead, the source

If there was one phrase that summed up the spirit of the Reformation it was “back to the fountainhead” or “back to the original sources” (in the Latin of scholarship of that day, “ad fontes”).  They wanted to learn, not from layers and layers of church dogma, but from the bible itself; from Moses, from Isaiah, from Jesus and from the epistles of Paul, James, and John.

We are following the path they marked out as we read our own bibles at home each day, as we open up the scriptures together in group bible study, and as we do what we are doing in this moment: gathering to hear from scripture.  Reformed Christians believe that the Spirit who inspired the scriptures also actively makes the scriptures meaningful in new, relevant ways each time they are opened with sincerity and faith.   This is our quest as well.  We share the same confidence that the Spirit is at work here and now as we read the words of scripture.

That world, This world: distance

We are also aware of how remarkably odd the scriptures can seem as we read them in the 21st century.   How far removed we feel that we are today from the world of king Hezekiah.   Can you picture those piles of tithes that grew for four months?   We don’t live in a world where piles like that would last long, undisturbed.  Neither do we  live in a world in which very many people practice tithing ten percent of their incomes – despite the enormous increase in the prosperity of our days.

Nor do we feel close to the world of the New Testament, do we?  Take the parable we just read: to us, the most natural, responsible thing a successful farmer should do is to make sure he has adequate barn space for his produce so that he can bring it to market in good time.   In our times, it is hard to see what this poor man in Jesus’ parable did that was wrong.  If we could figure that out, then the larger question would be, “What does that have to do with us, who are not farmers and who live in such different times?”

So, we feel the distance.  Nevertheless, we are Reformed Christians; we want to go back to the fountainhead, the source, the bible, because we want to hear from the Spirit, speaking in a new way to our days.   So on Reformation Sunday, let us celebrate the Reformation by returning to this odd text from Luke’s gospel.

The Problem to the Answer

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We notice first that the parable of “the rich fool” that Jesus told was a response.  It was the answer; what was the question?

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 

Someone in the crowd? Who?  A younger brother?  A sister?  We are not told – that cannot be the point.  Rather the point is that people are starting to look at Jesus like the new Moses.  Probably many of our Reformed ancestors would recognize the connection with the story from the book of Numbers.   Because we live in different times now, let me remind us:  During Israel’s wilderness years, the five daughters of Zelophehad came to Moses, after their father died, to ask him to allow them to inherit their father’s land, even though no male heir was born to the family (Numb 27).  Now Jesus is being cast into the role of Moses, making inheritance law decisions.

“Adventures inmissing the point” (a nod to McLaren & Campolo’s book)

For Jesus, this was an “adventure in missing the point.”  Moses’ role was all about taking the liberated Israelite slaves from Egypt to the Promised Land.  Jesus’ role  was about liberating the mentally and spiritually land-locked, land-obsessed people of Palestine for the borderless Kingdom of God.   It wasn’t about physical assets.   The issue of material resources is crucially important in the Kingdom of God, only it is important in a different way.  It’s importance is not in accumulation, its importance is in mission.   Jesus is difficult on this subject; almost embarrassingly so.  His words are tough and direct as they can possibly be.  To people who think that the main goal in life is to acquire and acquire and acquire, Jesus says,

15 “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

Hearing it today

How do we hear this today?  Jesus’ words may be the fountainhead, but can we drink from it anymore?  It seems that our culture is committed to exactly the opposite view.   We get the message a million times a day in a million ways that our lives indeed do consist in the abundance of possessions.  We have been called “consumers” so many times, we don’t even notice how scandalous that name should be – as if consumption defined our being, our self, or in the words of Jesus’ times, our “soul.”   That is exactly the one single defining characteristic we know about the main character in the parable Jesus tells next – it’s about a “rich fool,” who said,

17 ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  18 Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’

The danger of folly in late October

Believing that his life consisted in the abundance of his possessions made him a fool.  Why?  Because, it was already late October in his life; the end was near.  He had not calculated the value of his life on the right scale.  The parable continues:

20 But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 

Whose will they be?” is the question, because he isn’t taking any of it with him.    The point Jesus comes to is this:

21 So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

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He is not taking anything that he hoarded.  What could he have taken with him?  Only  those things that would have have made him “rich toward God”?   What would those things be?  Clearly, they are the things given away in love, in compassion, and in generous mission for others.  Those demonstrate where the heart is and make a person “rich toward God.”

A message for the “church militant” from the “church triumphant”

This is the perfect text for late October; for All Saints Day, and for Reformation Sunday, all together.  On this day we remember with gratitude those who have left, as they used to call this life, the “church militant” – the living church, which is still engaged in the epic battle with evil, and who have joined the “church triumphant” whose victory is won, whose race is finished, who now rest from their labors.   What would they tell us today about the things they took with them?  Would they not tell us about the compassion they showed, the acts of kindness and generosity, would they not mention their faithful stewardship of their abundance, as they listed how they were “rich toward God”?   It is late October for many of us – for some much nearer the end than we know.  As the 90th Psalm prays, so our prayer is:

“So teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (90:12)

So that we might not end up as those who believed the mythology of the 21st century, the mantra of consumerism: that life consists in the abundance of possessions.  In other words, that we might not end up as as rich fools.

“The Best Thing You Will Ever Hear,” Lectionary Sermon for 30th Ordinary, Pentecost +19 AOctober 23, 2011

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18  

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord.
 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Matthew 22:34-46

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

The Best Thing You Will Ever Hear

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Most of you know how much I love the Old Testament, or as it might be better called, the Hebrew Bible, or Torah.   It was not just because I taught Old Testament for so many years at the Bible college in Croatia – though that only increased my love for it.   I love the Hebrew Bible because Jesus loved it.

Jesus “got” Torah

It comes out of his mouth all the time as an adult; it was already deeply inside him as a boy.  Remember the story of when Jesus 12, he was already astounding the adult men in the temple with his grasp of Torah.

There are those amazing kids that sometimes you see on TV who have incredible memories, who can memorize huge amounts of material.  I saw a program that showed a boy in Pakistan (I think) who by age 11 or 12 had memorized the whole Quran.

I don’t think that Jesus merely memorized Torah and impressed the temple adults by simply reciting.  Luke tells us:

47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.  

Those words, “understanding” and “answers” seem to go way beyond reciting from memory.  Clearly Jesus had already begun to internalize the meaning of the scriptures of the law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings, as Jewish people describe them.

God as “Father”

Remember how he replied to his parents who were upset to find him not with them on their return trip but still in the temple?

48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.”  49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 

That last phrase, “my Father’s house” already shows that Jesus had come to understand Israel’s God, Yahweh, as his “heavenly Father.”   Jesus knew God, not just a vengeful, wrathful, distant angry deity whose main job was smiting the wicked, but as his “Father.”

This is, of course, the insight that beings the prayer that Jesus, years later, would teach his disciples to pray.  “Our Father who is in heaven….”

It is as if the 12 year old Jesus had just read the first chapter of the prophet Isaiah in which God, as a father, speaks of his people Israel saying,

 “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.

The “Great Shema” – Israel’s Creed

As a boy and then as a young man, I’m sure that Jesus spent hours in meditation on the scriptures of the Old Testament.  Certainly he, like every faithful Jewish person, would recite, several times a day, the central creed that proclaimed Israel’s unique assertion of monotheism: there is only one God alone.  They called it the “Great Shema” and it come right from Moses in Deuteronomy:

 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and

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with all your might.   (Deut. 6:4-5) 

This is the exact verse that Jesus quoted when he was tested by the Orthodoxy Police, the Pharisees who sent their best Torah scholar to Jesus that day.  Of course he got it right, it was easy.

But it makes me curious: why would they send in the heavy guns of a Torah scholar to ask Jesus the easiest question in the book?  I’m speculating here, but I think there must have been a reason.  Surely they all knew that every Jewish boy of 12 could tell you what the greatest commandment was.  Everyone knew the right answer.

Did Jesus Abandon Orthodoxy?

Could it be that after having observed Jesus for a coupe of years, the way he lived, the people he chose to be with, the things he said, they expected that he had moved away from Jewish orthodoxy?  Of course he would know what all the real Jews would say is the right answer: the Greatest Commandment is

 “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

But here is someone who has treated some of the laws as optional!

  • He has touched unclean people, even lepers.
  • He has done work, like healing on the Sabbath.
  • He has had table fellowship with notorious sinners: prostitutes, tax collectors and the like.
  • He has consorted with Roman soldiers and non-Israelites like a traitor.
  • And as a final act of abandonment of Jewish orthodoxy, he came to the House of God in Jerusalem, the temple, and shut it down, at least temporarily.

Clearly, the orthodoxy police surely thought, this heretic has abandoned our core values.

Indeed; if the whole point of the faith was to keep the 613 laws, as the Rabbi’s counted, then Jesus looked like he had missed the main point about what God wanted from his people.

So maybe he had indeed rejected the Greatest Commandment.

“Getting” the prophets

But of course Jesus had done nothing of the kind.  Rather, as he had reflected, for example on the message of the prophet Isaiah, he knew that God was capable of looking at his people’s behavior and saying, as Isaiah recounts:

 “Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile… I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen…” (Isa 1:12-15).  

What in the world had they done to get God so angry that he rejected worship; sacrifice and even prayer?  Isaiah goes on to recount God’s next words:

Wash  yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isa 1:16-17)

What is important to God?

Through Isaiah the prophet, Jesus learned what was important to God and what was not.  Worship; sacrifice and prayer were meaningless and unwanted by God if they were brought by people who were dirty and needed to wash.

What made them unclean?  In Isaiah, God said the oppressed were going un-rescued, the orphans were going un-defended, and the widows had no one to plead for them.  The people had stopped seeking justice; they had stopped being good.

What does God want the most?  That we love him with our all of our hearts, our entire souls, and all of our minds.  How can you see into a heart and know if love like that is there or not?  Not by counting sacrifices or hearing prayers; but by watching how people who claim to love God treat those in need.

The Heart on Display in Actions

With words such as those burning in his heart and mind, Jesus quickly adds to the greatest commandment, the second, which he say, is exactly like it:

 “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Lev. 19:18)

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This too is from Moses – which is where Isaiah learned it.  There is, in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, a clearly discernible trajectory of teaching that gets started with Moses, developed and filled out by the prophets, and arcs through the teaching of Jesus.

There may indeed be 613 laws about what to eat, what to sacrifice, what it is that makes you ceremonially impure and what you need to do about it; there are special days that must be observed and annual pilgrimages to make, but the best news you will ever hear is that these all hang on two central pegs, two commands at the heart of it all:

 “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Primary and Secondary

Jesus understood that to love God with all of the heart made the temple and all of its sacrifices secondary.  One day it would come to an end anyway.   Jesus understood that true love for God was demonstrated, just as Isaiah had written, in acts of justice toward the weak, the poor, the and the vulnerable; the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.

The “neighbor” you were to love could wear the recognizably local clothing of, and speak with the local accent of a fellow Israelite, or the neighbor could be a Samaritan, or a Roman, or Canaanite – because the One God of Monotheism, celebrated in the Great Shema, was Heavenly Father to them all.

So what about the other commandments?   Does God care if we honor our parents?  Of course: Jesus taught that.  Does he care if we lie or murder, steal or commit adultery?  Yes, Jesus affirmed those commandments.  Does he care if we tithe?  To Jesus, where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  To Jesus, the tithe was the starting point.

And what about worship and prayer?  Were these important to Jesus?  Of course!  He is the one who taught his disciples to pray

“Our Father who is in heaven, holy is your name, Your kingdom come; Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  

Jesus prayed and fasted, and practiced all of the classical spiritual practices that characterize everyone who takes their faith seriously.

Not losing the forest for the trees

But he did not lose the forest in all the trees; he never lost sight of the end game.  He always knew what all of those practices and commandments were there to accomplish.  All of it gets down to loving God with everything we have in us, and loving our neighbors near and far with acts of justice and mercy.

When judged by those standards, how are we doing?

Two Opportunities for Self-Evaluation

Two special times of the year are just around the corner: both of them will provide us opportunities to review our lives and to make re-alignments according to the two greatest commandments.  Our challenge is to use both of these moments to examine ourselves before God, and to commit ourselves to being his faithful disciples.

The first is our annual stewardship season in which we examine where our hearts are in relation to our earthly treasure.  It is now already time now to start

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the personal spiritual discernment process, asking God what kind of response he is leading us to make this year.   In stewardship season we intentionally draw the connection between our hearts and our treasure, as Jesus did, and ask ourselves how we can love the Lord with our whole hearts, and what that will mean about our treasure.

The second is the season of Advent which is the start of the new year for the the church, as we await the coming of our Lord.  Advent starts the Sunday following Thanksgiving.  In advent we examine our lives to see if we are living in such a way as to anticipate the coming of the Lord.  We use the opportunity of a new years beginning to re-start spiritual practices that have fallen into disuse or neglect.

There are helpful resources if you would like devotional guides to walk through Advent, and there is time now to order them.  It is time to be as focused as we can on aligning our lives with the two Greatest Commandments.

This is our high and holy calling: we are here to live as Jesus’ disciples, according to the two greatest commandments:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

“Currency With God” Sermon for 29th Ordinary, Pentecost +18 A, Oct. 16, 2011

Currency With God

Matthew 22:15-22

Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

My youngest son is about to become a driver, which, of course, he is looking forward to, but that brings up the need for a car.  So, we were

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discussing cars, and car repair costs, and he made the comment that he didn’t want to get a “fixer-upper” car that would always be needing repairs.

I told him he didn’t have a choice.  Until he can afford a recent model, he will have to count on repairs.  That’s just the way it is; cars and their many parts wear out and break down.

Everything wears out and breaks down. Lawnmowers do.  Refrigerators do.     Computers do.   People do.

Insecurity

Life is uncertain and scary; our own lives are fragile.  The lives of our children and grand-children are fragile.  There are no guarantees attached to the umbilical cord.  We feel vulnerable.

We should feel vulnerable; we are.  Even if a person has been blessed with decent health, intelligence, and a job, and enough good sense and discipline to plan and save for the future, other people’s selfish, risky, greedy behavior can plunge the whole economy into a tailspin and ruin it all.  It’s scary.  We feel insecure.

This is old news; as old as humanity.  The specific threats we face today may be new, like a pension funds invested in mortgage-backed securities, and terrorists on airplanes, but the basic fact of vulnerability and insecurity goes all the way back to the cave-men.

Seeking Security

So we do what humans have always done: seek security.  The cave man takes a tree branch and makes a club and rolls big rocks in front of the cave entrance to keep out the dinosaurs.  Later, people make cities surrounded by stone walls.  Stone barriers are good against triceratops and arrows, but they cannot keep the locusts off of your grain nor can they guarantee the rain.

So, insecure people have always gone to the gods.  They go to the gods that make all that noise behind the dark clouds and throw down those

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alarming lightning bolts when they decide to send the rain.

They go to the gods of the ghosts, beyond the land of the living, who seem so  insatiably hungry for more colleagues.  The objective has always been to figure out what the gods wanted and to give it to them, to keep them fed and happy.   It’s always been about survival; about security for vulnerable mortals.

Enough for security

But no one has ever been secure enough.  How could we ever be?  Even emperors die.  Even if the walls we built  have kept back the bad guys, and even if the food has never run out, even if every drought has been survived and every winter has passed, eventually, we all know it’s going to end.  No one has ever been able to overcome the ultimate insecurity of mortality.

And that is why there is never enough to achieve security. There is no such thing. No matter how high the wall has been built, no matter how much is in the bank, no matter how much the estate is worth, in the end, it wont’ have been enough.  Even Bill Gates will die.  Even Warren Buffett will die.

It has to leave us asking what then really matters?  If we mistake what matters, then the quest for security in “enough” will consume us.

Currency

Once humans were clever enough to create currency as a symbolic stand-in for  real “stuff” the currency took on a god-like quality.  It makes perfect sense; the provider of security ultimately must be divine.

Coins in the ancient world had a location commonly called the “god spot.”  The face of the god or his or her symbol was engraved there.

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When Jesus asked the ones who came to entrap him for a coin, he was specific.  He asked to see the one that was used to pay the emperor’s tax.  So they produced a denarius coin.  Whose graven image do you suppose was there in the god-spot?  Well, surprise, surprise: the emperor Tiberius himself.

Many of those coins have been found.  There, in the god-spot, is the profile of  the face of Tiberius, surrounded by the words, “Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus.”

Rome’s gods

For all the “lucky” people of their empire, Rome was doing what the gods had always done: providing security.  As a matter of fact, the emperors were actually destined to become gods when they died.  As a matter of fact, they were very nearly gods while they lived – this “divine-emperor” concept was spreading like mold on a dark, damp wall in those days.

So Jesus asks for the coin and has two specific questions about it.

20  “Whose head is this, and whose title?  21 They answered, “The emperor’s.

The coin bears the image of Tiberius, and proclaims

Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus.

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“Tiberius Caesar” son of a god; destined to be a god.   The graven image alone makes the coin blasphemous – a direct violation of the second commandment; the inscription leaves no room for doubt.

Asking the right question

The question they came to Jesus with is not a tax question; this is a theological question.  If Caesar is God, pay homage to him with the cash he is claiming credit for providing.  So, Jesus says:

“Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.” 

But for Jesus, there is an either-or condition at stake here that goes way beyond taxes.  Either emperor Caesar is God, as the propaganda on his coin proclaims, or he is not.  And if he is not, then,

“give to God the things that are God’s.”

What belongs to God?

What things are God’s?  To God belongs our trust, for he alone is our security.  Just as he is the provider for the “birds of the air” and the “lilies of the field,” only more so, God is our provider.   He is “our Father who is in heaven,” who alone is the source of our “daily bread.

He is the one who:

makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”  (Matt. 5:44)

It is:

in him we live and move and have our being.”  (Acts 17:28)

Security Changes Everything

This security in God, our Heavenly Father changes everything.  For us, it changes what matters.  Because we rest secure in the knowledge that we have a Father in heaven who loves us and cares for us, we are set free from the anxiety of accumulating “enough.”

This security we have in a loving God affects everything from our personal use of time to our family budget.  It affects our perspective on our neighbors and our concept of who is our neighbor.

It affects our view of everything from how we care for people to how we care for the planet we share and which our children and their children will inherit.

It affects our sense of personal as well as national priorities, even our understanding of foreign policy and criminal justice.

Thankfulness

Because God is the source of our security, we will be thankful for everything: for doctors and hospitals and advances in medicines and therapies,

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but in the end, our security is not in them.  In the end, they make no one immortal.

We will be thankful for every good material gift we are able to enjoy in this life, for food, clothing and shelter, for toys and technology, for trips and recreations, knowing that none of it really matters.

Because our security is in God our Heavenly Father, because he is both our Source and our Destination, then what matters to us is what matters to him.  We value what he values.  We  honor what he honors.  We love what he loves.  We grieve when he grieves.  We rejoice when he rejoices.

Learning from Jesus

We look to Jesus, to learn all of this.  What mattered to Jesus is what matters to God.  He taught us to rejoice in finding lost sheep and including them into the fold.  He showed us how to honor the poor, the weak, the young, the sick and to be instruments of peace, healing, justice and reconciliation for them all.

He taught us to know and love God as Heavenly Father, to practice prayer and generosity, forgiveness and hospitality, generosity and peace-making.

Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s,”

– because that’s not what ultimately matters anyway.

and to God the things that are God’s.”

Notes on Matthew 22:15-22, Paying Tribute To Caesar

Paying Tribute to Caesar 

Matthew 22:15-22 ; Mark 12:13-17; Lk 20:20-26

The coin Jesus asked to seeCoin of Tiberius princeps AD 14 - AD 37

TI.CAESAR.DIVI.AVG.F…

“Tiberius Caesar son of the divine Augustus”

CoinTiberius.jpg

http://cliojournal.wikispaces.com/Roman+Empire+coins

NT Wright: JVG, p. 502

“The coin bore an image and superscription which were, from a strict Jewish point of view, blasphemous.  The image was prohibited [by Torah] (even the cynical Antipas, as we say, had stopped short of using an image of himself on his coins [out of deference to Jewish scruples, substituting instead a wheat stalk]), and the superscription proclaimed Caesar in divine terms, specifically as the son of a god.  Jesus’ questioners were thus themselves already heavily compromised by possessing such an object.” p. 503

According to Wright, Jesus is intentionally echoing the closing line of a speech by the great leader of the Maccabean hero Mattathias.  His dying words to his sons who took up his cause and won the revolt, establishing Israel’s independent state were, “Pay back the Gentile in full, and obey the commands of the law.” I Macc. 2:68

Wright:

“I propose that Jesus’ cryptic saying should be understood as a coded and subversive echo of Mattathias’ last words.”  p. 504

“Jesus says, in effect, ‘Well then, you’d better pay Caesar back as he deserves!’”  p. 505

Meaning what?  Wright continues,

“Had he told them to revolt?  Had he told them to pay the tax?  He had done neither.  He had done both.  Nobody could deny that the saying was revolutionary, but nor could anyone say that Jesus had forbidden payment of the tax.” p. 505

“But in context, when Jesus is faced with a coin bearing a blasphemous inscription, [he is saying] ‘give to YHWH, and to him alone, the divine honour claimed blasphemously by Caesar.” p. 506

“If Tiberius Caesar is, according to the coin, the son of the divine Augustus, Israel is, according to scripture, the son of the creator God YHWH” [citing Exod. 4:22] p. 506

Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son.”

“The real revolution would not come about through the non-payment of taxes and the resulting violent confrontation.  It would be a matter of total obedience to, and imitation of, Israel’s god; this would rule out violent revolution , as Matthew 5 makes clear.” p. 507

from Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: a Sociopolitical and Religious Reading(Orbis, 2000)

“Since Roman occupation in 63 B.C.E., Judea paid tribute (Josephus, JW 1.154; Ant 14:74).  Tribute was a means of subjugation, of establishing authority (1 Macc. 1:29)….  Judas the Galilean [a failed Jewish revolutionary] had in 6-9 C.E. exhorted the nonpayment of tribute to Rome since not Rome but “God with their Lord” [citing Josephus again], a viewpoint apparently revived by his son Mehahem in the 66-70 war [which resulted in the Roman’s destruction of the Jewish temple and state].  Josephus has Agrippa tell the people in revolt against Florus (66 C.E.) that not paying the tribute is ‘an act of war’ against Rome (JW 2.403-4).” p. 439

See also:

Jesus and the Politics of His Day

 By Ernst Bammel, C. F. D. Moule

Ridiculous Tragedy at Table, Sermon for 28th Ordinary, Year A , Pentecost +17, Oct. 9, 2011, Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14

First, the texts:

Exodus 32:1-14 

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him,

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“Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

Matthew 22:1-14  

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

 

Ridiculous Tragedy at Table

In  my adult Sunday School class we were discussing which book of the bible to study after we finish Jonah.  I mentioned that there was some fun

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humor in the book of Esther, and  that was all I had to say – everyone wants a good laugh, so we agreed, Esther it will be.

That is not the only place where there is humor in the bible.  Humor is a useful tool in a writer’s hands.  If you can get someone to laugh, or at least make a wry grin, their defenses lower.  The subject of the bible is so important, so serious, that sometimes, in order to get past people’s defenses, the writers reach for the humor tool and use it to full effect.

Writers, or storytellers will use all kinds of techniques to get their point across: exaggeration for effect is one that Jesus used millions of times (that was an exaggeration).  Shocking people with bizarre plot twists is another tool he uses.

In both of the texts we read today, incredibly important messages are given; so important that humor, exaggeration, and shocking plots are used to get past our defenses.  Let us look into these texts.

The Golden Calf and the Grumpy God

The first is the famous “Golden Calf” incident.  Maybe it would be better to call the part that we read “the story of Moses and the Grumpy God.”  God just seems like a grumpy older person here.

The setting is Sinai: God has just liberated the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  They miraculously crossed the Red Sea, and came to Mt. Sinai.  Moses goes up on the mountain to get the Ten Commandments, but he stays too long.  People down below have no idea if he will ever come down.

They get antsy; they need help.  They go to Aaron and tell him to make them a god to worship, he asks for their gold earrings, melts them down and makes a calf, announcing to everyone that this is the god that brought them out of Egypt; time to get the party started, which they do.

Moses meanwhile has no idea, but God sees it all and tells on them to Moses. Listen to how he describes it, shifting all of the blame onto Moses:

7   “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;”

I can just hear Moses: “Excuse me; whose people?  Who brought them out of Egypt?”  It’s like when the father says to his wife; “those unruly children of yours need some discipline!”  Whose children?

On God not getting what he wants

By this time, God can just predict what is going to happen: he is going to tell Moses that he intends to bring down wrath and judgment on the people, and then Moses is going to beg and plead, and then God will back down and change his mind and be merciful, but he doesn’t’ want all that to happen this time, so before Moses can even say a word of objection, God says,

10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.

It just seems grumpy to say “let me alone” when the guy has not even started.

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But anyway, after telling Moses to let him alone, Moses does just exactly what God was trying to prevent: he starts pleading with God – notice now Moses gives the people back to God and puts the responsibility for leading them out of Egypt back on God’s shoulders:

11 “But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” 

And, again, just what God was hoping to stop from happening, happens.  He relents.

14  “And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” 

“It just came out that way, dude!”

You cannot help but smile as you read this.  It gets even better.  We didn’t read that far, but in a little bit, Moses will go down the mountain, see what is happening, and confront Aaron about it.  Aaron says to him,

24  “I said to [the people], ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” 

I can just hear Moses: “Out came this calf?  What kind of fool do you take me for?”

Questions after laughing

The humor is clear, and we smile, but there is a serious question here.  How is it that so quickly after such great mercy was extended do the people abandon faith?

As a matter of fact, why do people still do that to this day?  As a matter of fact, why do I do that?  Why, after receiving such blessings from God, am I so quick to deny him by living in ways contrary to his will?

Why, after being blessed with so many gifts from God, am I so selfish?  Why after I have been so freely forgiven do I hold grudges and nurse anger in my heart?  Maybe this funny little story is actually a tragedy – maybe it’s my tragedy story.  Defenses are down; I’m listening.

Jesus’ Story Tools

Well Jesus also tells a story that doesn’t put God in such a great light.  He uses bizarre plot twists and the humor of the ridiculous as well as gross exaggeration to make a point that needs to get through.

He tells of a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.  In those days, wedding banquets lasted for several days.  You had to slaughter animals enough to feed everybody, so you had to know how many were going to come.  It took a lot of preparation.   The host would always send out two rounds of invitations: invitation round A asking who is coming, and then invitation round B saying, OK, it’s all prepared, come now.

So in Jesus’ story, the king asks all the right people to come, and it’s ridiculous: nobody wants to go to the king’s feast.  This would never happen in real life as everybody hearing this parable knew.  For one thing, everybody wants a feast, especially a king’s feast, and second, even if you had just turned into a tea-totaling vegetarian, you would never turn down an invitation from a king, if you wanted to keep body and soul together.

The King of Rage

But it gets even more ridiculous; these invited people go so far as to kill the servants bringing the invitations.  Now, if Moses could picture God as grumpy, Jesus can picture him as a rage-aholic.  He’s definitely got anger-management issues.

7 “The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”

So to go from ridiculous to absurd, with the city in ruins, the king sends out more servants to bring in people from the places where the paved streets turn into donkey-track dirt roads, and bring in everybody they can find, good, bad, it makes no difference.  So they do.  One assumes that when they burned the whole city they must have had the foresight to spared the palace, so that’s where the banquet will be held.

These people who never got picked for Red Rover, never get rushed for the fraternity or sorority, never get invited anywhere, suddenly find themselves as guests of the king at a banquet.

Minor Mistake: Wrong Clothes

If that is not unbelievable enough, the next part goes even further.   The king looks around at all these accidental guests, and notices one with no wedding garment.  The king confronts the poor soul who five minutes ago was out working in the field expecting to be eating stale bread for supper, and the king says to him:

12 ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?

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Matthew tells us that the man is speechless; well of course he is. What’s he going to say?  He’s thinking “I never get invited to wedding banquets and I had no idea I was going to be invited today, and why didn’t the door man tell me there was a dress code anyway?”  But you just cannot back-talk to a king.

So now, the king who started his day by burning down the city he governs has this poor man thrown out – not just out of the banquet, but out of land of the living, into:

“outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Crime and Punishment

The cause of the punishment is minuscule, probably accidental, and the severity of the punishment is draconian and brutal.

All of this Monty-Python stye absurdity is meant to put us off guard and lower our defenses so that when the punch line comes, it will penetrate our hearts, and here it is:

14  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Called but not chosen?  I can just see the head-scratching going on among Jesus’ audience as they try to grasp this.  They are thinking, “Wait a minute; are we not the chosen people?  Doesn’t it say in the bible that God chose us, the descendants of Abraham, to be his treasured possession?”

Can you get un-chosen?

And then, as the point sinks in, they being to ask themselves, “How could we ever get from chosen to un-chosen?”

“OK,” the audience is thinking, “so the story is a little crazy, and maybe the poor man without the proper garment had his excuses, but nevertheless, the point is, he should have been dressed properly. It would have been dishonoring to show up at a wedding banquet in work clothes.  Does dishonoring God get you un-chosen?

Indeed; sitting at the great banquet at the end of time, Messiah’s banquet of rich food and aged wines, as the prophet Isaiah pictured it,  is not a privilege without obligations.

God is honored by obedience and dishonored by disobedience.  If Moral monotheism means anything it means that God cares about what humans do.  He cares when we suffer, he cares when we, who have been so blessed, neglect the suffering around us.

Taking this parable one step further: it may seem like a relatively light matter to have neglected the wedding garment, but perhaps what seems light and negligible to us is seen as far more important to the King who cares.

Maybe nobody around us considers it a big deal, maybe the general consensus of our culture in our time is that “it’s just the way things are sometimes.”

But what matters, is what the King thinks matters.  Perhaps it is not a matter of indifference to him that some are hungry, or thirsty, or naked or in prison, while others have more than they will ever need.

If it does matter to the King at the end of time, then urgent action is required.  The  punishment given to the man who was dishonorably dressed may have been described by means of gross exaggeration for effect, but that does not eliminate the core truth.

Kingdom Rules

Those who are called to the banquet show that they are indeed chosen by the way they honor the King.  The king is honored by living faithfully to the rules of his kingdom.

In this kingdom, the rules are:

  • blessed are the poor in spirit;
  • blessed are the meek;
  • blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice;
  • blessed are the merciful,
  • blessed are the pure in heart;
  • blessed are the peace makers;
  • blessed are those who are persecuted by the followers of the general consensus who do not consider kingdom-righteousness any big deal.

They are called and chosen to the banquet of the King who cares.  The others may have a problem.

Sermon: “The Stoned and the Stunned” for Oct. 2, 2011, 27th Ordinary, Pentecost + 16 A, World Communion Sunday

The Stoned and the Stunned

World Communion Sunday

Psalm 80:7-19

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 7  Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

8 You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.

9 You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.

10 The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;

11 it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.

12 Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?

13 The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it.

14 Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine,

15 the stock that your right hand planted.

16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down; may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.

17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.

18 Then we will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name.

19 Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Matt 21:33-46  

 33“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a

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wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 34When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.

 36 Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.

37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’

38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.

40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

The Stoned and the Stunned

What in the world is God doing, and what is my part in it?  Those questions are about as fundamental as a person can ask.  A person does not know either what God is doing in the world, or how he/she fits into God’s purposes, is lost.

Our quest is to know as much as we can about God’s purpose and to understand the part we play; and this parable of the “the vineyard and the wicked tenants” is about both of those.   So, let us delve into this parable.

The parable begins like this:

33“There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and

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built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country.”

The picture this parable paints is not pretty, but it is realistic.  An absentee landlord hires subsistence-level tenant-farmers to work the vineyard on his estate in exchange for a percentage of the produce.  Of course they resent these conditions.  Parables are meant to shock us, and this one should.

Palestine, and this parable, has a lot of stones in it.  If you want to plant a vineyard, job no.1 would be to clear a field of stones.   That’s OK, however, because, you need a lot of stones.  You will have to build a stone fence, like the stone fences in the New England, to keep out foraging animals; that is what the landowner did.

Dangerous Stones 

Those same stones could also be lethal weapons.  If you wanted to kill someone, stoning would be a convenient way to do it.  That happens in this parable too.

34When the harvest time had come, [the landowner] sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.

It appears that none of the tenants protested; there was a consensus in this crime.  Everyone seemed to be OK with it.

This parable is like a mini-history of Israel.  The Hebrew bible tells us that God gave his people Torah, his guidance, his commands, through Moses, but that they continually disobeyed.  So, he sent them, it says, “my servants the prophets.”  Some prophets they ignored, some they imprisoned, some they killed.  This parable tells their story.  The servants sent by the landowner were rejected; brutally so.

So finally, the landowner sends his very own son.  What happens?

39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.”

God’s Vine

Jesus told this parable about a vineyard; Israel was known, in the bible, as “God’s vineyard.”  God had rescued his little vine from the land of Egypt, from soil of slavery that had no nutrients, where it could not flourish. God  transplanted his vine in the free soil of the Promised Land.

The whole idea was to make it fruitful.  God didn’t want just vine-branches and grape leaves, he wanted lush, succulent grapes; his plans were for making fine wine from a fruitful vine.

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So, what should the landowner do now?  Jesus puts this question to his audience of Chief Priests and Pharisees, leaders (should we think of them as chief tenants and vineyard management?). Before they realize what they are saying, the guilty leaders say that the landowner, whom they imagine to be just as blood-thirsty as they:

41 “will put those wretches to a miserable death….”

But the vineyard already has enough blood soaking into its soil and staining its stones.  God’s purpose is severe, but not violent.

Now, to understand the next part of the story, we must change the picture in our minds from a bloody vineyard to a construction site.  My English teacher in high school told us not to mix metaphors, but she was not Jesus’ teacher.  He now changes the main image from a vineyard to a building – I guess the stones are common to both.

From Vineyard to Construction Site

Jesus makes this change from vineyard to building because he is about to make a word play: in his language the word for stone and the word for son are the same except for only one letter.  In the vineyard parable, the landowner’s son was rejected.  Now, in the building story, the best stone is going to be rejected.  The son and the stone are rejected by the leaders – who first were the tenants, and now, are the builders.

 “42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?”

Of course Jesus knows that the leaders of Israel had rejected him: he is telling them that he is the son who was killed by the tenants, he is the stone being rejected by the builders – and this is going to have major consequences.  Jesus says:

43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

The Purpose of Fruitfulness

Producing fruit for God is now and has always has been God’s purpose for his people, his vineyard, and we are now the

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tenants.  We who have embraced the son who came and died on behalf of the world now understand the amazing truth that the son is indeed the stone that those “builders” rejected.  This stone/son is the cornerstone of our faith and the very foundation of our lives.

What is God doing in the world?  Throughout the entire world God is establishing his Kingdom.  On this World Communion Sunday we recognize that God’s kingdom is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia, in China and Latin America.

As we break bread together in celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we will be proclaiming that the Body of Christ is a mystical unity, all over the world.  We are one in the Spirit with Lebanese Christians, Egyptian Christians, Palestinian and Pakistani Christians.

I will never forget the experience I had in Israel, in a large stone church in Bethlehem, which is now in Palestinian territory behind the huge new wall, singing familiar hymns with those Arab Christians, my English joining in with their Arabic, praising Jesus, the rejected Son, the precious cornerstone of our faith.

What is God doing in the world?  As scripture tells us, he is at work “breaking down the dividing walls of hostility” between people that we built in the days of our ignorance and immaturity (Eph. 2).

Our Role: fruitfulness 

And what is our role in what God is doing in the world?  Simply producing fruit, as he always wanted out of his vineyard.  What kind of fruit?  The fruit of obedience, faithfulness to his instruction in Torah; the fruit that his servants, the prophets spoke of, the fruit of justice and righteousness, the fruit of peace and compassion, the fruit of mercy and of recognizing everyone who suffers as “my neighbor.”

Living in Central Europe, I have known farmers who have vineyards and who make wine.  Growing corn or wheat, they tell me, is nearly automatic.  After planting the seed, you spend most of your time just waiting.  There is noting automatic about a vineyard.   There is constant pruning and tending to do if you want quality, wine-producing grapes.  It is labor intensive and time consuming.

Producing fruit for God is the same.  There is nothing automatic about it.  It takes daily disciple of prayer, scripture

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reading and reflection.

There are many adult Christians whose spiritual lives are stunted and immature, who, even after many years produce only fruitless branches.  Years alone, if they are years of neglect, are not helpful.  Only those who tend the vineyard of their lives end up with the mature fruit of the Spirit:

“love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,  gentleness, and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23)

It is not too late, but it is not automatic.  This parable calls us to discipleship as a matter of urgent importance.

Against the Current

Of course it is not easy.  Living in a country and a culture is like boating on a river.  There is a current constantly pushing in a direction.  Just because the current is pushing, does not make the direction right or just or good.  Just because the majority of boats seem content to drift with the current does not make the direction right or just or good.

It takes intensive, intentional labor to produce the fruit of justice in a consumerist, selfish age like ours.  It takes diligence and patience to work for peace against all odds, and to seek reconciliation in the face of discrimination or even violence.  It takes planning and thought to practice eco-justice for the sake of a healthy planet for our grandkids. Nothing about it is automatic.

Responsible for what we are OK with

Like the wicked tenants in the vineyard, we are responsible for what we are OK with.  We are called not to be like the wicked tenants who are OK with the selfish violence that wins the general consensus.  We are not OK with people seeping on the streets of our country.

We are not OK with poverty and hunger, neither are we OK with it here nor in Somalia.  We are not OK with the new forms of slavery that exist today in so many parts of the developing world.

On this World Communion Sunday, we assert our unity with all the people of the world that are made, equally in the

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image of God, “red and yellow, black and white,” all of whom are “precious in his sight,” all of whom are our global neighbors.

Our Calling

This is our calling; we are the tenants of the vineyard now.  This is our watch.  God expects fruitfulness.

We will commit ourselves to join Christians all around the world in  living personally and strategically disciplined lives, in anticipation of that great and final banquet at which we will sit together and celebrate the new wine of the kingdom.