This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Belonging, Then Believing.

            The standard pattern of church membership has been that we expect people to believe before we accept them as belonging.  We see this in the usual way Presbyterian churches receive members.  Part of the process of becoming a member is making a reaffirmation of faith.  We assume that the active members of a church are all people who have made this statement of what they believe.  We are a gathering of people who believe in Jesus.
            I wonder if this whole way of behaving isn’t wrong, or at least very unhelpful.  Isn’t it kind of like expecting someone to know calculus before they take a calculus class?  Or to play the trumpet, or speak Italian, or knit a sweater, before being allowed to participate in the group where those skills are learned?
            Isn’t it rather presumptuous of us to somehow expect people to be Christians before we welcome them into the church?  Isn’t the gathered community a place where we learn together how to follow Jesus?  Is there anyone in our church (or any church) who is willing to say they have it all together and don’t have anything left to learn about this?  Doesn’t requiring that people already believe/trust in Jesus before we will deign to make them a member exclude people from membership who may be on the way to becoming disciples?
            I am coming more and more to the view that people need to belong first.  We need to welcome and embrace people into our fellowship whether they are “Christians” right now or not.  The church that allows itself to become a closed club of people who already believe is not going to grow very easily.  First of all because even the people who have come to believe are not completed and finished as Christians.  Secondly, a lot of people have learned that they have to say they believe in order to be included… but really don’t trust in Jesus just yet.  Thirdly, often it is the ones who have the most trouble believing who end up with the stronger faith when they do develop a relationship with Jesus.
            When Jesus calls his disciples, he does not have them make complete statements of faith in him.  Peter does not make his confession of who Jesus is until deep into his relationship as a disciple.  Thomas doesn’t make the kind of confession we require of new members until after Jesus’ resurrection!  Jesus does not require anyone of his disciples or wider entourage to sign on to specific beliefs about him.  Indeed, he welcomes sinners of all kinds, and people will all kinds of diseases, without regard for what they do or don’t believe.  It is their relationship with Jesus, and the community gathered around him, that brings people to faith in him.
            Neither did Jesus bother with keeping detailed membership rolls, or deciding who was or wasn’t welcome at his Table.  Everybody was welcome: Pharisees, Roman soldiers, women, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, working people, children, and so on.  He knew that faith in him was not based on what their opinion was about him, but on what kind of relationship he had with them.
            Church, in other words, is not just for Christians.  I hope no one avoids gathering for worship with us because they “don’t believe all that stuff.”  I’ve got news: some of us who do gather also have serious questions about “all that stuff.”  And some of us who do accept it, do so in very different ways.
            The church is not a gathering of people who already believe.  It is a gathering of people who are open to a relationship with Jesus, through his followers.  In our life together, we are developing this relationship with Jesus and his followers, and anyone interested enough in hearing what Jesus is about to get themselves to a church on Sunday morning.  The people of the world are not divided into believers and non-believers.  Rather, there are people who are in different places in their relationship with him.  And those who say they “believe” are not necessarily “ahead” of those who are able to give the most orthodox opinions.  I have known atheists who were better followers of Jesus than some Christians.
            My point is that the church needs to be a place where people feel welcome and know they belong.  Then we can show each other the love of Jesus, and grow in it together.  We can build each other up, learn forgiveness, practice encouragement, pray with and heal each other.  After all, every week we’ve been singing, “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  We don’t sing that they will know we are Christians by the correctness of our theological opinions.
            The “they” in the song are the people we meet in the world.  Our little fellowship must be so welcoming, and our love for each other, and for the world, so apparent, that “they” will want to be a part of it.  We have to be a part of that love first, before we can talk intelligibly about it.  We have to be doing it before we can say we believe it.    

Friday, October 28, 2011

Love Is Everything.

Matthew 22.34-46.

Occasionally in this business I encounter people who rationalize their lack of involvement in the church by saying things like, “Since God is everywhere I believe I can worship God on the golf course on Sunday morning as well as I can in church.”  There are many other ways this sentiment gets expressed.  Often it is an excuse for skipping church: “God wants me to spend more time with my family,” “I am worshiping God when I read the newspaper,” “God is glorified when I sleep late after a hard week at work,” “I worship by watching a preacher on TV while I’m making pancakes.”  That sort of thing.
At that level it is relatively harmless.  But by this reasoning any human activity becomes worship simply because we say so.  And that can become a huge problem, and often has. 
A couple of centuries ago, some Americans actually claimed they were glorifying God by owning slaves.  Others have claimed they were expressing their obedience to Christ by dropping high explosives on people from 30,000 feet in the air.  Many Germans during the Second World War thought killing Jews was a way to glorify God.  Some are very overt in their belief that making money glorifies God.  I have heard it said that exploiting natural resources — from meat, fish, and fur to water, wood, coal, and oil — actually glorifies God.
Thus, while the commandment calls upon us to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind, our interpretation and behavior drains those words of all meaning.  We have turned this commandment on its head so that anything we want to do is by definition an expression of our love for God simply because we want to do it.
So, to prevent this kind of abuse, Jesus, like many other wise rabbis of the time, appends a second great commandment to the first.  He says we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Thus it is impossible for us to say we love God while expressing hatred, violence, exclusion, or anything else that would be offensive to us, against other people.  Our love for God must be made real, can only be made real, in terms of our love for others. 
Of course, we have found many ways to get around this as well.  We justify and rationalize our violence towards our neighbor by saying it is really a form of tough love.  Thus we may say, when we inflict suffering and injustice on people, that we are assisting them in developing their own self-discipline, or that we are helping them see the error of their ways, or that we are aiding them in cultivating their own entrepreneurial spirit, or that what we do to them will aid them in character-building.
The real meaning of what is going on here has nothing to do with love for God.  In fact, God is out of the picture entirely.  All we have are our own desires, needs, fears, hopes, and dreams.  These have become our god.  The bottom line of this reasoning is that “God wants me to be happy, so whatever I do to make myself happy right now must make God happy too.”  In other words, if we think like this I wonder if any God larger than our own ego exists for us at all.

To counteract even this rationalization, Jesus goes further by reminding the Pharisees that the Messiah is not dependent on David or any other human lord.  Rather all human lords and purposes are dependent on the Messiah.  Even the great King David is not superior to the Messiah.  This means that we do not get to decide how to love God or how to love our neighbor.  It is not up to our ingenious reasoning.  What we think doesn’t matter.  Loving God and loving our neighbor are not morally relative things that we get to define according to our present needs and desires.
No.  The criterion is not us but the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  He gets to decide and inform us about what is real love for God and what is real love for others.  The Messiah is our Lord; he is the One who defines what these things mean for us.  He shows us what real love is.
And once we consider the example of the Messiah we realize that all rationalizations and convenient explanations are empty and false.  For the example of the Messiah is of one who emptied himself for us even to the point of giving up his own life, even to the point of dying humiliated and cursed on a cross.  That example, and not our self-serving, self-indulgent sentimentality, is what love really means.  The Messiah, Jesus, defines love for us.  We do not get to decide this for ourselves.
God does give us the world... but not to do with it as we see fit.  God does give us each other in relationship... but not to exploit, abuse, manipulate, and control.  Rather, we are to do with the world and with others only what God wills, and only what brings glory to God, and only what expresses love for God as we see this love revealed in Jesus Christ.
That is to say, we are to express our love for God in our love for others by following the example of Jesus.  Only by living according to what he says in the Beatitudes, to which we have repeatedly returned, can we truly say we are living in his love.  Only by purity of heart and poverty of spirit, only by righteousness and mercy and gentleness, only by peacemaking and even suffering persecution, can we truthfully say we love God and our neighbors.
Jesus shows us that love is a sacrificial, self-emptying movement in which we die to our own selves, our own agendas, our own desires, our own need to control and possess.  And in so dying we find ourselves reborn to eternal life, a life of profound abundance, a life of connection and unity with all things and with God.

This kind of love is impossible for us.  On our own, we should not even attempt it.  Even the example and explicit teachings of Jesus are subject to misinterpretation.  More horrible atrocities have been committed in Jesus’ Name than I care to think about.  Following Jesus is impossible for us.  It is not something we can decide to do on our own. 
But God can do this.  And we can do it when we are united in purpose and spirit with God in Jesus Christ.  In him, by the power of the Holy Spirit, because we are one in him and with him, it is now possible for us to follow God, and even more.  The only way to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, the only way to love our neighbors as ourselves, the only way to love with the love God gives us in Christ is to become one with Christ. 
This why God gives us the church, the communion of believers, the gathering of those who place their trust in Jesus Christ, to function as Christ’s on-going Earthly Body in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The church is here so that we may support each other in the work of discipleship.  For the calling we have, to love God and to love our neighbor, is something that requires mutual listening and encouragement, criticism and prayer.  We become one with Jesus Christ when we enter into true communion with others and gather together in his Name, to hear his Word, to do his will, and to celebrate his Sacraments. 
This is why God gives to us the Sacrament of Baptism, so we may symbolically, spiritually share in Christ’s death and experience rebirth in him.  He shows us what love is in coming into mortal existence to dwell among us.  In this he shows his love for the whole creation by becoming one of us, even to the point of death.  Therefore, it is when we express the same kind of love, a love that empties ourselves of our own prejudices and biases, that we share in Jesus’ love.     
This is why God gives us the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, so that we may actually participate in Christ’s own Body and Blood, remembering his sacrifice and anticipating his return.  He loved God fully and completely and in so doing showed his love for us.  
Everything we do in the church serves to remind us of the basic purpose for which we are placed here on the Earth, which is summed up in those two commandments: love God with all our being, and your neighbor as yourself.  Christ gives us this ability.  It is something we do in him, and together with each other.

Every so often, God sends a tsunami of change into the world and into the church.  The point is to blow away our complacency and our self-satisfied attitudes, and return the people to what the prophets call the love they had at first.  Periodically we are called back to our original calling to love God and our neighbors.  These are times of reformation and renewal in the church.
I think we are in one of those seminal periods now, when God is thrusting aside the old order and something emerges that really expresses in our own time this eternal good news.  It is a time when we are being brought back to face very basic questions, and to remake very basic affirmations.  Like loving God with all our being.  Like loving our neighbors as ourselves.                 
But in the church, the essence of reform has always been a return to basic and essential truths, practices, beliefs, and spiritual experience.  They may explode into each generation in new ways, but the basic core is always to tap into the original energy, the original spirit, the original message of God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ.
I would like to be a part of that.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Belonging to the Emperor.

Matthew 22.15-22

Jesus is still in the Temple during the final week of his mortal life.  The religious and political authorities seek to trap him.  They want to arrest him.  They want him to say something that will get him into political trouble with either the Romans or the people.  So they ask him this famous question about taxes.  “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”  If he says it is not lawful, he has the Romans on his case for undermining their authority.  If he says it is lawful he risks alienating the people.  They think they have him between a rock and a hard place, in a no-win situation, a position from which he will be forced to alienate somebody.
They ask the question, then I imagine the whole place going silent, waiting for his answer to this thorny question.  It seems like there’s no way out.  It seems like he has to say yes or no.  It seems like this is it, they finally have him where they want him.
But Jesus just shakes his head and asks to see a coin.  You’ll notice that he isn’t carrying any coins himself.  This is not just because Jesus is famously poor, owning almost nothing, as far as we know.  And it’s not because he didn’t carry any cash on him, but relied upon Judas to manage the cash-box.             
It is for a deeper theological reason.  A coin was technically, and literally, a “graven image.”  The Jewish Law specifically prohibits touching, having, or making any such thing, let alone worshiping it.  For a strictly religious Jew, it would have been considered idolatry even to use graven images such as coins.  But they had to use them out of economic necessity.
Those who are testing him don’t appear to have had many scruples about coins.  He asks for a coin and someone produces one immediately.  They, who were supposed to be so strict and rigorous about the Law, had no compunction about coins.  They probably saw coins in much the same way we do: as neutral economic tools.  Coins in those days had value because of their metallic content; they also had abstract and symbolic meaning because they made wealth more portable and standardized than real estate or livestock. 
But coins also meant something else.  Using them indicated your participation in the emperor’s economic, political, and social system.  Jesus’ question when he is shown a coin is, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”  The coin, of course, had an engraving of the emperor’s profile and his name. 
The coin clearly belongs to the emperor.  It is embossed with a picture of his head.  It is made of his copper, from his copper mine, mined and minted by his slaves.  He says how much it is worth.  And he decides how many of these coins you have to pay him in order to have the privilege of using any of his coins at all.  To use such a thing would seem to indicate some level of loyalty to the emperor.   
So, simply having one of these coins could be construed as an act of blasphemy against God’s Law, and it is an act of loyalty to Caesar and all he stands for.  Just using these coins is nothing less than a participation in their own oppression.

Jesus’ famous answer takes them all off guard, not because it is so ambiguous, but because it is far more radical than anything they were hoping he would say to get himself in trouble.  He says, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
From Psalm 24 we learn what are “the things that belong to God.”  “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and they that dwell therein.”  I say it nearly every week leading up to the offering.  The point of Psalm 24 is that the whole Earth, all creation, everything that exists belongs to God.  Everything that exists is to be used and managed only according to God’s Law and will.  Everything we have we hold in trust for God, we are only like tenants and managers of the Earth, as in Jesus’ recent parables.  We are only stewards of this property for the owner who has left it with us.  Our job begins and ends with doing what God wants with these resources.  Period.
And what God wants is spelled out clearly and in great detail in Scripture.  We may summarize this desire as justice and kindness, humility and love, sharing and equality.
The question remains, however, concerning what belongs to the emperor.  Jesus implies that something belongs to him.  He seems to say clearly that at the very least the coin he is shown belongs to the one whose image and name is stamped all over it.
I think Jesus would deny that even the coin really belonged to Caesar, the emperor.  After all what is a coin?  It is metal.  Metal comes from the Earth, and the Earth belongs to... God.  The people who mined and minted it also belong to God.  The knowledge of metallurgy and engraving also comes from God. 
What does not belong to God or come from God is this economic and political system of which Caesar sits at the head, which is based on violence, exploitation, oppression, fear, greed, inequality, bigotry, and war.  This system creates vast inequalities of wealth between rich and poor.  This system is contrary to God’s will.  It is a product and expression of human sinfulness.
Remember that the whole religion of Israel is based on a single event: the liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt.  In that event, God took the people out of a system in which they were exploited, oppressed, imprisoned, and forced to work to enrich someone else.  God took them out of a system in which Pharaoh and his friends owned everything and gained the benefit of all wealth, labor, and resources. 
God delivered them to the Promised Land, and on the way God gave them the Law, the whole point of which was to prevent and obstruct and reject the development of a system like that of Pharaoh.  Instead of Pharaoh, instead of Caesar, God’s people were to be governed by God through God’s Law.  God’s Law applied to everybody, even the most powerful.  Even Pharaoh and Caesar.
And God’s Law has to do with the creation of a holy people whose economy would be based on sharing in the fullness and generosity of God.  

When someone presented the coin for Jesus to look at, he might as well have said, “If you use the emperor’s coins you are expressing your loyalty, allegiance, obeisance, and subjection to the emperor and his system of greed, inequality, and violence.  Good luck with that.”
If people participate in the emperor’s system, with all its “benefits” and conveniences, all its opportunity for enrichment and growth (albeit to a very few), then they need to pay for it in the emperor’s coin.  This tax is only the cost of doing business in the emperor’s regime.  If you don’t want to pay it then you can’t play; that is, you can’t participate in the system.      
And let us not fool ourselves by rationalizing, “Well, that was then, and this is now.  He’s not talking about us!  We don’t live under any emperor, we live in a democracy!  We live in a free market system!  Rich people don’t get rich by violence  or empty speculation today, they get rich by working hard, making good investments, and producing good things for people!  If anything Jesus is criticizing taxes!  Yeah, that’s it: Jesus hates taxes!”
Well: This self-serving mythology tends to pervade the minds of many, especially those comfortably situated at the top of the system.  The ruling class of every generation has always found some way to avoid or exempt themselves from Jesus’ teaching. 
But this approach is always belied by the facts on the ground.  Our system today is different from that of Jesus’ time only by degree and complexity.  The same basic principles that motivated Pharaoh and Caesar continue in effect today, and they achieve basically the same results, only now it is global.  Granted, it never would have occurred to people in Jesus’ day to invent the “credit default swap.”  But that’s not exactly to our credit. 
God’s commandments are about spreading the wealth of God’s creation, distributing it in such a way that the poor are lifted up and no one was allowed to become too wealthy.  God’s commandments are designed to prevent the rise of a privileged class, and to prevent the descent of any of the people into poverty and servitude.  God’s commandments lift up the poor and even resident aliens.  Jesus practices the restoration of outcasts, the empowerment of the powerless, and the healing and inclusion of those suffering from diseases.
The system of Pharaoh and Caesar does just the opposite. It causes a tiny percentage of the population to control nearly all the wealth.  Which is where we are today, globally.  A small percentage of the population of the planet controls and consumes the lion’s share of the resources.

So.  What are we supposed to do?  What does Jesus require of us?  That we not use money?  That we not participate in the dominant economic system?  Is that even possible in a world of economic globalization?  Are we supposed to go live with the Amish?  Live by bartering and exchange?  How am I supposed to pay my car insurance?  What about my medical expenses?  I can’t expect to go to the doctor and pay for a blood test with a basket of tomatoes I grew in my garden, can I?
I think we need to be honest: on the one hand, Jesus is saying just that.  And some of us are called to take him literally and live in self-sufficient communities, off the grid, in absolute sharing.  The early church certainly understood Jesus this way, as we see in the book of Acts.  The community of disciples in Jerusalem expected people to sell their possessions, give the proceeds to the leaders of the church, who would distribute it as any had need.
On the other hand, that practice did not hold for everyone for very long.  We don’t see this as a permanent requirement later in the New Testament.  Not all of us are necessarily called to that high a level of discipline. 
But this does not let us off the hook.  It does not mean we get to ignore Jesus’ teachings and do as we please.  For it remains the case that all of us are called to live in a way that shows that we know that everything really belongs to God.  All of us are called to separate ourselves from the corrupt and deadly values that characterize the emperor’s economy.  In our hearts and minds, and especially in our practice, in our daily lives, we need to have God’s economic values rule for us.
 Giving “to God the things that are God’s” means that everything we do and have needs to be dedicated to the One “from whom all blessings flow.”  We live in the world, interacting with people and other forms of life, managing and using objects, allocating and developing resources, only according to the will of the Creator.  This will is revealed in the Scriptures, which point to Jesus Christ.  He is our standard.  His life of justice, healing, truth-telling, simplicity, humility, joy, peace, and sacrifice, needs to be reflected in our life, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We have to live in this world; but we must not be of it.  We must not let it define us.  And we are to bring the values of God’s Kingdom into our lives; first in the church, and also in the larger society.  
This will be difficult and costly.  It could make us annoying, eccentric, and unpopular.  It will likely cause us to be less successful by the world’s standards.  But it is to be in harmony with the God who created the whole universe, and it is to place yourself within that destiny.  It is to begin to reflect in our world the life of love, the life of the Creator, the life of eternity.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Transformation Invitation.

Matthew 22.1-14.

Jesus is teaching in the Temple during the last few days of his earthly life, and his parables are getting more and more severe.  He is apparently deliberately inciting the anger of the religious and political authorities.  And his critique will get even more pointed and explicit in the coming couple of chapters. 
This parable is about a king who gives a wedding banquet for his son.  Those who were originally invited refuse to attend.  The king sends out his slaves to personally invite them a second time, this time providing details of the spectacular menu for the banquet.  But the original invitees are too busy.  Some of them even abuse and kill the messengers!
What is going on here?  The king is God, and his son is Jesus.  But who are the originally invited?  Why do they not want to come to a great banquet?  Why would they be so annoyed at the king that they go so far as to commit murder?
The subtext of what Jesus is saying has to do with the leaders of his own people.  These are the folks who knew themselves to be the chosen people.  If God was ever going to have a banquet, they knew that they would top the guest list. 
In our context, who is most likely to assume they are God’s closest friends?  Who proclaims most loudly that they are the tightest with God and that they will be translated directly into heaven when the “rapture” comes?  Who seem to automatically believe that in any coming heavenly banquet with God’s Son, they will be the first invited?  Well, I’m afraid it is usually different kinds of Christians who make these assumptions today... even some Presbyterians!
And there is some justification for this assumption.  Like the Jewish authorities of Jesus’ day, many Christians pride themselves on being good people.  They go to church regularly and frequently, supporting it with their time, talents, and money.  They lead the respectable, upright, exemplary lives.  They are the acknowledged leaders of the community.  They are successful at work and at home, with stable, beautiful, decent families.  They have investment portfolios, they own their own homes, they have life insurance, and they can afford the occasional vacation.  They don’t make political trouble, usually supporting the ruling parties.  And they are often very patriotic, even to the point of equating their religion and their nation.
Why then, when the invitation finally comes to the event for which they have been waiting all their lives, do they refuse it?  Why do they not flock in pride and gratitude to the king’s palace?  Why do they not drop everything and do whatever they can to get to the king’s banquet?  Why are they apparently so angry with the king and the king’s son, that they do not show up at the banquet?

We don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t say in the parable why the invited folks don’t want to attend.  Maybe they were upset with the person who is not mentioned in the parable at all, which is the bride.  Maybe they did not like the woman the prince had chosen to marry.  Maybe he had chosen someone not like them, but someone of a lower class, someone they considered a sinner, someone not up to their standards.  Maybe this choice, or something else, revealed the king to be different from what they wanted and expected.  We don’t know.
But we do know that this is one of the main things people complained about with Jesus.  He was hanging around with the wrong people.  He was associating with sinners.  He was forgiving them.  He was not exhibiting a loyalty to the establishment, their State, their economy, their morality, their values, or their preferred status.  Maybe they felt that since the king and his son had shown such disloyalty to them, they could reciprocate with their own show of disloyalty.  
But we do know the excuse they gave: work.  They have farms and businesses to attend to.  They have more important things to do than attend this banquet.  They do not have the time for a king who doesn’t support them and their view of things.  The king had become less and less of a priority.  It gets so that anything takes precedence over the king.  I can’t come to the banquet because my kid has soccer practice, or I don’t want to miss House on TV, or I have to wash my hair.... 
And they also express their disgust and disappointment with the king by abusing and even killing his slaves who have been sent to invite them to the feast.
These slaves, of course, represent the prophets whom God sent to call the people back to God and to God’s Law; and who were often rejected by the leaders of the people.
Neither do we have much regard for the prophets sent to us.  We’ve seen a few killed, like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others.  But mainly we marginalize and trivialize them.  At most we will honor them and their memories... while carefully avoiding putting into practice anything they talked about.
The king’s response to this rejection is rather violent.  Jesus says that “The king was enraged.  He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.”  Clearly this looks ahead to the destruction of Jerusalem, about 40 years after Jesus speaks those words. 
But this shows us a side of God that we would usually prefer to leave out of our New Testament.  In Jesus Christ we know that our God is not a God of death and punishment and destruction....  But... let us never forget that it remains possible to reject God and to cut ourselves off from God and thereby to draw down upon ourselves definite consequences.  God does not suspend the laws of nature — including the laws of political and economic nature — to suit us.  God is love.  But to separate yourself from that love is to attract back from the world what you send into the world.  If you do acts of idolatry and injustice, violence and exploitation, destruction and murder, then that is what you will receive.  If you live by the sword, Jesus says elsewhere, you will die by the sword.

When it is rejected, God’s love can turn into an annihilating wrath that consumes everything before it.  This is what happens to the people in the parable who refused to celebrate the wedding with the king, who were too busy, who abused and killed the king’s servants. 
It happened literally 40 years later.  And it happens over and over again in history as generation after generation reject the commandments of the God of love, and choose to live instead in hate, fear, anger, violence, injustice, and corruption.  Empire after empire, regime after regime, system after system, kingdoms and republics, dictatorships and democracies... they all fall, they all collapse.  They all flourish briefly, sucking whatever energy they can out of people and the earth, and then crumble into dust and fire.  And if Jerusalem, God’s holy city, was not exempt from this fate, having been leveled not once but twice, how much more will every other earthly system or order be liable to destruction?  If Israel was not exempt, no one is exempt.
In the parable, the king then invites the second-string people to the banquet.  The king says, “‘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.”
If the original guest list doesn’t show up, then the king invites everyone, “good and bad,” interestingly enough.  It is now a radically open invitation.  It is not reserved just for the chosen, just for the believers, just for the good people.  Now the banquet is open to everybody.  The king rejects his original friends, who had rejected him.  Now he is willing to accept anyone as friend.  Everyone is invited to the banquet.           
But this blanket invitation does not mean that standards are thrown out the window.  It does not mean that this broadly inclusive gathering, hauled in like fish in a net, gets to set its own agenda.  For it is still the king, and it is still the king’s banquet for his son’s wedding.  Being invited to this banquet is a big deal.  It is a humbling experience to be responded to with deep thanksgiving.  It is a tremendous act of grace and inclusion, where people who were nobodies have been made into somebodies through no act or merit of their own.  People who were once lost are now found. 
One does not come to this banquet unless it is in profound awareness of the honor involved.  You need to come clothed in your loyalty to the king, and endued with the virtues the king requires, and dressed in the garb of a new, transformed, forgiven, redeemed life.  You do not come still wallowing in your profiteering, your exploitation of others, your use of threats and violence to get your way.  You do not come in arrogance and superiority.  For to do so would be another way of rejecting the invitation and dissing the king.  The response to the king’s invitation, whether you are on the original guest list or the revised guest list, is transformation.  This invitation makes you a new person.  That’s why the establishment rejected it, and why the outcasts accept it.  To come to this banquet is to be made new.  Redeemed.  Changed.

That is always what the banquet, the Kingdom of God, is about.  It is about bringing people from one way of life, characterized by greed, violence, fear, anger, selfishness, and narrow-mindedness, to a way of life that reveals love and forgiveness, peace and joy, goodness and humility.  This new way of life exhibits the virtues that Jesus lifted up in the beatitudes and that God outlines in the Ten Commandments. 
This Kingdom of God was not meant to be something we only inhabit at the end of time or when we die.  God clearly intends it to be reflected, anticipated, and instituted here and now, in the living relationships of contemporary people.  Perhaps we do not experience the total fullness of this banquet until the end, but we do begin to know it and celebrate it in this life.
I think the church, the gathered community of believers, is meant to be the place where the Kingdom of God begins to break in and spread among us.  When Jesus is talking about those who work or refuse to work in the vineyard or who attend or refuse to appropriately attend the wedding feast, I think he is talking about the church, in some form.
When we celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we announce it as “the joyful feast of the people of God.”  It is a small token or anticipation of the Kingdom of God, which Jesus often represents as a banquet.  In a sense the sacrament defines us, and the values of Jesus Christ, expressed and remembered and embraced in the sacrament need to become the values embodies in the church.  His life — his love and healing and humility and peace — needs to inform and shape all we do together in the church. 
That’s what it means to show up at the feast wearing your wedding garments.  It means to come together at the Lord’s command and to say with our voices and with our actions: “We are yours!”  


Monday, October 3, 2011


Matthew 21.33-46

This is the third vineyard parable Jesus tells during his last week, as he is teaching in the Temple.  It involves a landowner who established, planted, and cares for a very productive vineyard.  Jesus makes the point of telling us that he “put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower,” meaning that he has invested in the vineyard, provided for its protection and its continued prosperity.  The owner has done everything necessary to make the vineyard fruitful and profitable.  It is a self-sufficient, balanced system, designed to produce good grapes and fine wine. 
Here, the vineyard reminds me of the Earth itself.  The beautiful garden, the perfect environment for life, the only place we know of in the whole universe where life exists, a living, balanced, changing, growing system, designed for beauty, joy, delight, and fulfillment.
Then the owner goes away on a long trip and leases the vineyard to tenants.  All the tenants have to do is keep the vineyard going and it will serve them, and the owner, very well.
Our time on the Earth is like this.  God often seems absent.  At least God’s presence is not obvious and visible to everyone. 
The vineyard has been left in the care of some tenants.  That is, the community — whether it be Israel as God’s people or even the planet itself — has been left in the care of human beings.  All we see is the beautiful vineyard and its amazing productivity.  We don’t see the owner.  
Seasons pass and harvest time comes.  The owner sends slaves back to the vineyard to collect the produce.  It was only being managed by these tenants on the owners’ behalf.  The produce of the vineyard belongs to the owner.
These slaves of the owner represent the prophets who came and called the people back to peace, righteousness, and justice, which are supposed to be the fruits of the vineyard.   
But the tenants don’t want to hear about what the owner wants.  They are doing very well living off the produce of the vineyard themselves and they see no reason to send a portion back to the owner.  So they abuse these slaves.  They even kill them, and send the others away empty-handed. 
The owner then has an idea.  He will send his own son, the heir, whom he thinks, for some reason, that the tenants will surely respect.  The owner is apparently very naive, patient, forgiving, and trusting.  What is he thinking?! 
But, somehow, the tenants think that if they kill the son they will somehow come into possession of the vineyard themselves, possession being, as they say, “nine-tenths-of-the-law.”  So that’s what they do.  They kill the owner’s son. 
Jesus then stops the parable and asks his hearers, which include priests and elders in the Temple, what they think they owner will do to those tenants.  “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.’”

Indeed.  Jesus has these religious authorities basically condemn themselves.  Because in the parable, they are the wicked tenants who take over the vineyard, refusing to give the owner his due, abusing and killing the owner’s representatives, who are the prophets.  And it is they who will shortly kill the owner’s son, who is Jesus himself.
What is the produce of the vineyard?  That is, what does God want from us and from the creation?  What does God expect to receive?  What is God looking for in us?  What are the desired fruits of the vineyard, that is, of the creation over which we have dominion?
Obviously, an actual vineyard is supposed to produce grapes, from which people make wine.  The creation is designed by God to produce what?  Well, the scriptures include many lists of the good things God wants from us.  There is Micah’s famous summary about doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.  And there are others.
One of the most important of these is the set of commandments we read earlier.  The Ten Commandments are God’s rule for living on the Earth in peace, justice, equity, and righteousness.  They are designed to separate God’s people from the corrupt and exploitative values and practices of Pharaoh.  God is saying, “If you live like this, if you keep these commandments, if you live together in justice and peace, you will be making a community, a neighborhood, that produces what I want from my creation.  If you live in loyalty to me, without idolatry, honoring my name, keeping my sabbaths, honoring your parents, not killing, not stealing, not committing adultery, not lying, and not desiring the things your neighbor has, you will find contentment and prosperity, and you will be giving me what I want out of creation. 
For it turns out that all God wants out of creation is our happiness.  God wants us to live together in peace and justice.  God wants us not to fall into the destructive corruption of Pharaoh, where a few people had all the power and wealth, and everyone else had to scramble to get by.
That is the fruit, the produce, the result, the profit that God wants from the Earth.  That is the whole point of the vineyard in the first place. 
Our primary example is Jesus, who keeps God’s commandments perfectly.  His life demonstrates conclusively what God wants from creation.  He shows us what the fruits of creation are supposed to be.  He reveals the desired produce and profit from creation that God is looking for from us.  And in him we see, as he identifies in places like his blessings at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, the kind of life God wants.

Instead, the tenants, that is, the people who were originally given the vineyard to manage, but who, over time, let it go to their heads, did not produce those fruits.  Instead of justice, they allowed inequity and exploitation to fester.   Instead of peace, they supported oppression and violence, propping up the rule of the Romans and making deals with kings like Herod.  Instead of forgiveness, they piled more rules on people, inciting guilt and shame, and making it so no one could ever measure up.  The tenants came to think that the vineyard, the whole creation, was there for their benefit.  They could do with the produce what they pleased.  It was for their own consumption and distribution. 
This view remains prominent today.  Many believe that the Earth exists for us to exploit and waste, to use and exhaust.  It is God’s gift to us and we may do with it what we wish.
It is amazing to me that these same people are the ones who feel, and loudly proclaim, that they are the most tight with God. They have the most confidence that God is going to save them first.  It is as if when Jesus asks his question at the end of the parable, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” many folks today apparently think that the owner will reward them with heavenly glory!
For make no mistake, God will not look kindly upon those who took the produce of the vineyard for themselves.  For they did not produce and return to the owner what the owner desired.  They did not do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.  They did not keep the Commandments, but found ways to justify their own very profitable breaking of them.  They did not lift up and cherish the values of Jesus’ blessings by living in gentleness, poverty of spirit, purity of heart, peacemaking, mourning, and desiring righteousness. 
Instead, they created and rationalized a system with which Pharaoh or Caesar would be far more comfortable.  Instead of justice, we have vast inequalities in wealth between the few rich and the multitudes of the poor.  Instead of peace we have violence lifted up as the way to solve problems.  Instead of humility we have a system based on pride and status.  Instead of caring for the Earth as the theater of God’s glory, we have gutted it for its resources, polluted air, land, and water, and kicked the climate out of balance.    
In Revelation 11:18 we find that when the owner, that is, God, returns, one of the early items on the agenda is “to destroy those who destroy the Earth” (REB).  So the complacent, wealthy, and powerful, eagerly awaiting their reward, receive instead a miserable death, a booting out of the vineyard, to watch the vineyard turned over to others who will produce the fruits desired by the owner.

We are the tenants.  We are the ones into whose care this glorious planet has been given.  We are the ones who are called to exercise stewardship and responsibility over this tremendous and spectacular gift.  The owner, the Creator — God — intends that this be a place of joy and peace, equality and love, goodness and truth, righteousness and justice.  The owner has given us meticulous guidance and specific rules concerning how to live here in peace and justice with each other.  The owner has even sent numerous blessed souls to remind us of this sacred calling, culminating with his only Son, Jesus Christ, from whom we learn conclusively how to live.
Will the owner return to discover that we have enriched ourselves and allowed our neighbors to suffer in poverty?  Will the owner return to find that the vineyard has been exhausted, polluted, wasted, and corrupted?  Will the owner return to see a world out of balance, where a privileged few own everything?  Where people chose to follow Pharaoh and Caesar, rather than the Creator?
Or will he find us joyfully living in communities of peace and justice, maintaining and cultivating the vineyard, in harmony with creation and each other, following Jesus’ commandments, living in humility and gentleness?  Will he find a vineyard where the poor are lifted up, and sick healed, and the outcast included?  Where violence is renounced?  Where economic inequalities are balanced?
I hope we are found doing God’s will with the resources that have been entrusted to us, returning them to God in the same spirit of generosity, peace, justice, forgiveness and love, with which they were given.