Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Road Less Travled

Acts 8:26-41
Ice breakers can be super fun, or super scary. I want to try one with you all very quickly this morning. Nothing too scary I hope. I want you to turn to the person closest to you and ask them this question “What is your favorite word?”
Now ask “What is your least favorite word?”
Believe it or not, these two words can tell a lot about a person. For example, my husband’s favorite word is Kentucky, his least favorite word is Paterno. And Yes, I know that’s not technically a word, but in our house it’s the closest we get to cursing! From those words you can guess he is a UK fan in a BIG way.
How about my favorite and least favorite words? That’s easy- my favorite word is yes, and my least favorite is no. It’s plain and simple. I like to hear yes almost as much as I like to say yes. I hate hearing the word no almost as much as I hate saying it. And perhaps that basic underlying pull of wanting to say yes and not hear no that draws me to the scripture for our sermon this morning, Acts 8:26-40. Read text
This is perhaps my favorite New Testament story that doesn’t have a woman as a character. It begins in the usual way. Most of our journey stories start out with a visit from a divine messenger, right? no, only me?
Philip is spoken to by an angle of the Lord, a messenger, and told to go from Jerusalem to Gaza down a wilderness road. When I hear the term wilderness in the Bible I tend to think desert. But this is not a desert area. There are trees and valleys and water. I think wilderness here has something to do with being off the beaten path. It is literally the road less traveled. Remember that phrase.
Philip, not scared in the least by the appearance of a heavenly messenger, heads out down the road. There he encounters something very unusual.
There is a chariot stopped on the side of the road and inside this chariot sits a man reading the Jewish scriptures. I’m guessing it was odd to pullover your chariot to read on the side of the road, but I don’t know much about social norms of the day when it came to reading materials.
Philip hears the Spirit telling him to go over to the chariot and join the man. And Philip does it! He doesn’t ask for a background check. He doesn’t let his potential embarrassment hold him back. He goes and is obedient- definitely walking the Road less traveled.
What makes this even more interesting is who is sitting in the chariot. It is an Ethiopian Eunuch.
These terms may need a little bit of unpacking. Ethiopia is a country on the continent of Africa, the horn of Africa to be more specific.  It is where modern humans are said to have originated. It also has a special place in the scriptures.
Isaiah contains references to Ethiopia. Let’s hear from chapter 18. It is an area that God has claimed, called out and said that he will bless. I’m guessing those words might have been the ones that first led the Ethiopian to begin the study of scripture.
He sits there, a stranger in a strange land, having come all the way from Ethiopia to worship God, literally on the road less traveled, continuing to read from the scriptures. I don’t know about you, but I feel like something happened to the man while he was in Jerusalem. You see, that ties into the fact that he was a eunuch.
A eunuch is a male who has been castrated. This happened frequently with young men who were going to be put into the service of a female at court. It was seen as a necessity to make sure that there was no question about the legitimacy of children born to a ruler or noble. It was a barbaric practice that existed for centuries in many different contexts.
Because of this he would not have been allowed in the court of men at the temple. Deuteronomy 23:1 says “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. And Leviticus 21:17-21 tells us that even if the person with such an apparent deformity, even if they are a part of the lineage of Aaron, will not be allowed into the assembly.
This Ethiopian Eunuch, head of the Queen’s treasury, has traveled a great distance to worship, only to be kept from the worship he desired. And so, he sits on the side of the road, reading once more the words of Isaiah. Seeking comfort, seeking guidance, hungry for the action of the spirit of God in his life.
God hears this foreign born, not fit for the temple, man and sends a servant of the living God to stand at his side. Yes, my friends, God hears the cries of the righteous and the unrighteous, from those the world sees as worthy and those the world sees as worthless. From the lips of those on the highway, and from the mouths of those taking the Road less traveled.
This man is a spiritual pilgrim who is seeking earnestly to understand. He is not in need materially- he runs the treasury of a nation! But he is as needy as anyone you’ve ever met. And what has kept him from the throne of grace? Not his social standing, not his spiritual education or piety. But his forbidden castration and perhaps his nationality.
It was the rules of man, not God, that kept him from the throne. His sexuality and his nationality didn’t keep him from seeking God, but they kept people from seeing the Holy image of God the father in him.
He has traveled the Road less taken in search of a relationship and been turned away by the gatekeepers. This has happened to far too many. There are people who will not darken the door of a church, even for a funeral or wedding because they have been so damaged by those who were supposed to offer aid. There are those who will never spend time with Christians because Christians are judgmental, hypocritical. .  you fill in the blanks. And we have taught them to see us this way. Just like the Ethiopian Eunuch was shown that he was not welcomed.
But God heard his cry in that wilderness space and sent Philip to his aid. Philip asks, “Do you understand what it is you are reading?” That seems so condescending to me. Of course, he knows what he is reading, he is reading it!! He’s literate, educated, reading in Hebrew for Pete’s sake Philip, get yourself together!
But I don’t really think it was a malicious statement. It was a sincere question. Do you understand the book of Isaiah that you are reading? A book filled with prophecy and promise. A book that in Chapter 56 verses 3-8 says “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
    “I am just a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
    to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
    and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
    and hold fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
    and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices
    will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord God,
    who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
    besides those already gathered.
A book that offers hope to all, even to the Eunuch. He answers, with pleading eyes, “How can I understand if no one explains it to me?” This is what makes me think he wasn’t allowed in the temple. No one had taken the time to talk about the scriptures with him. They had refused, and he needed someone to help him understand this “strange warming of the heart.”
He invited Philip to join him in the chariot and together they read from Isaiah 53
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people.
This man, sitting on the road less traveled is hoping that these words mean something. He has discerned from Philip a willing spirit authorized by God even to share the meaning of the scriptures. He holds on to the hope that this might actually be a person who can help him find what he seeks. Salvation, hope, healing.
Philip begins to speak and shares that the one spoken of is Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. He responds so well. But that should not surprise us. We always say God equips those God calls. And God has clearly called Philip to take this particular Road less traveled.
Philip teaches about Jesus’ love, grace, forgiveness, healing, death and resurrection. And It meets its most willing target. They pass by some water, we are not told if it was a lake, a pond, a river, a well. All we know is that there is water present and the Eunuch cries out “Look, here is water! What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”
What is to prevent him from being baptized? What is to prevent him from entering the covenantal relationship with God that Philip experienced? Apparently, nothing, because they pull the chariot over and go to the water right then and there.
What is it that keeps people from making professions of faith today? What keeps people from being a part of the covenant people of God? What keeps people from joining Church Street and Christ Church in their missions?
Perhaps, just perhaps it is us, and other Christians like us. Those who expect a lot out of other people. We expect them to dress right, to act right, to know the rules and etiquette, to know the language of the church, when they have never been a part of it before.
Perhaps its people like us who have spoken judgement instead of forgiveness, wrath instead of love, purity instead of submission.
Philip could have easily turned aside from this impure man, a stranger from another country. But instead he offered to sit beside him, not over him. He listened to his concerns and addressed them. He took the Road less traveled, the road of grace.
Immediately upon coming out of the water the spirit whisks Philip away to another land. The Eunuch celebrates, praising God and continues home. We are left to assume that while Philip and the Eunuch go their separate ways here, they both go with a purpose, to engage in Christian mission no matter the path they wonder down.
The road less traveled- that’s the one that makes all the difference. The word yes, in a world full of no’s, that’s what allows grace to infiltrate our hate filled hearts.
Let us be ones who choose the road less traveled. Let us seek out the lonely, the lost, the hurt, the battered and bruised. Let us trust that the Spirit will do the work. Let us rejoice when God is made known to anyone, man, woman, child, elderly, black, white, brown, straight, gay, poor or rich. Let’s take the road less traveled- the road of Grace, that leads us all back into the fold of God.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Wasteful Worship

John 12:1-11
Waste not want not. It’s a phrase most of us are familiar with. Depending on when you were born it may mean different things to you than to your neighbor. When I was growing up my mom used this term usually to refer to the food on our plates. When my grandmother was a young girl it would have been used to talk about flour sacks, tin foil, hose, pieces or wood or scrap metal, glass, etc. 
Waste is a very different concept for different people. My grandmother never used Ziploc bags for anything. She found their very existence wasteful. She had Tupperware, the good kind, and cloths to wrap food in. My Mom on the other hand loved plastic Ziploc bags. She had them in every size and style. She loved that they were disposable because it meant less time washing dishes. What was wasteful to my Grandmother signified freedom for my mom.
In today’s scripture we are told about a woman, named Mary, who uses a very extravagant gift on Jesus’ feet. No, she doesn’t give him a pedicure, she washes his feet with this costly perfume and the dries it with her hair.
While in our day and time this would be seen as odd, quirky, personal space invading behavior, it had completely different connotations in Jesus’ world. First, the disciples and Jesus are spending time in Bethany and Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ home. This is this same family that a chapter before has experienced the miraculous return from the dead of their brother. Jesus has been said to love these three. They are close to Jesus and he has reunited them. 
Here they sit at a meal together, reclining at the table. Martha is serving, and Lazarus sits with Jesus. In walks Mary with a pound of perfume made from pure nard. Judas tells us it is worth 300 denarii- 300 day’s wages. She takes this perfume and pours it all over Jesus’ feet. 
Have you ever been in a room where someone sprayed on perfume? It doesn’t take long for that scent to waft towards you, even in a room as large as this sanctuary. Scents are powerful. When I served as a hospital chaplain and later as a hospice chaplain, scents were forbidden because they could affect people in so many ways. Not only are people allergic or sensitive to them, scent is also one of the most powerful connections we have to memory. Just a hint of Oil of Olay original scent brings my Grandma into focus for me.
Here, a pound of the stuff is poured out. The smell would have overpowered the room. Everyone would have taken notice. No one could have ignored or not recognized that this was happening. What Mary did was not a private hidden act, but a public bold statement.
To add to her boldness, Mary dries Jesus’ feet with her hair. To do this, her hair would have had to have been uncovered, and more than likely loose. These things were not done in mixed company in those days. Women kept their heads covered. It was proper, dignified, required. Here, Mary uncovers her hair and drapes it over a man’s feet. And a man she is not married to or even related to! The horror. This was a huge huge social no no! This kind of thing wasn’t done. Period.
In other versions of this story people watching are amazed that this loose woman, a stereotype based on the loose hair, would dare to approach Jesus in such a manner, and that Jesus would allow it to occur. In John’s version no one seems shocked that Mary has unbound her hair, but they certainly take issue with the use of the perfume.
There are always the fiscally conservative among any group. People must keep an eye on the cost of things. Within most religious institutions there is a treasurer, perhaps a finance committee or even a Board of Trustees that is responsible for giving an accounting of funds received and funds used. In most cases this is an accountability issue. We want to make sure that funds and facilities are being used to their fullest potential. There is nothing wrong with that. We should be good stewards of what we are given to be stewards over. 
Judas was the treasure of the group. It makes sense that he would call this use of resources into question. Three hundred days wages was a lot of money. Nothing to laugh at. Of course, he would want to know why it was being, in his mind, waisted like this. 
John throws in the snide comment that Judas used to steal from the common purse and that’s why he was so interested in the value of the perfume. Could be truth, although none of the other Gospel writers tell us this about Judas. It could be character assassination, to keep Judas solidly in the betrayer category John seems fond of. 
So, there is Mary, sitting on the floor, wiping Jesus’ feet, her hair, hands, whole house covered in the scent of her worship. And there sits Judas judging her. 
Mary didn’t just stumble upon this costly perfume. This was the kind of perfume used to anoint the dead. It was used to keep the body from smelling. She had this perfume, not because she kept a store of such extravagant and expensive things. She had it because her brother was dead, had died, and it was needed. 
But, but she hadn’t had to use it for its intended purpose. Her brother Lazarus is alive! Sitting at the table with Jesus and the disciples, eating and drinking with them. Out of her extreme gratitude, an act of worship, she pours it out over Jesus’ feet. This extravagant, wasteful act is anything but wasted. 
Jesus holds her up as an example saying that this perfume was to anoint him for his burial, which would come in a few days’ time. Mary might not have known at that point that her gift would be one to and for a dying Jesus, but it was a gift of worship. 
Thursday night I went with Chrissy to the Winning Women gathering at Restoration church. Pastor Angela told a story at the beginning about a time she was speaking at a women’s event and she felt the Lord telling her to bring a rose for every woman in attendance. Her first thought was, that’s going to be expensive. But she did it. She bought dozens of roses and handed one out to every woman there. When she was done she had three left over. She felt pretty good about that. Then she heard the Spirit urging her to give all three of those roses to a woman seated near her. So, she did. The woman began to cry and left the auditorium. Years later she ran into this woman at the store. The woman recognized her. She called out to her to thank her for the roses. She said that she had never been given a flower in her entire 46 years of life and that those roses had shown her she was valued, special and loved.
Because of this encounter, Pastor Angela likes to give things away at the women’s meetings. I thought it was a very sweet story but put it out of my mind. Then another leader asked us to pick up our purses and prepare to be the first ones to bring an item to the front. 
Now, you all know I don’t carry a purse. Chrissy had already commented that I wasn’t going to win anything because I don’t carry a bag with me. The very first thing called out for was an expired drivers license. While I don’t carry a purse, I do carry a wallet. And in that wallet are two expired drivers license along with my current one. So, I went to the front to claim my prize. Pastor Angela was holding up a box filled with cooking things and I looked at it and reached in for the oven mitt and started to pull it out to take. Then she shook her head and said, “No honey, you get the whole basket.” 
They gave away at least 6 baskets or gifts, each beautiful, filled with goodies and extravagant. 
I’m sure there are some who might say these gifts are wasteful. They don’t take up an offering, the women who come all attend different churches. There is not a mention of regular worship times. But to this group these gifts are an act of worship. A way of sharing the love that they have received and continue to receive from God with others.
What is wasteful worship? I am sure, if we were to look closely we could find ways that others see our worship as wasteful. Perhaps in the time spent on praises and prayer requests could be better used, or the passing of the peace could be streamlined. But these things are not here just to take up time. They are a part of our worship. A time for connecting with God and with one another as God’s children.
To Judas, it was Mary’s worship, pouring out something that could be used in other ways onto feet, onto hair, onto the ground. Jesus doesn’t agree. 
And I’m sure Mary was reminded of the approval of her worship throughout that week, Holy week. The smell would have clung with her, to her hands, in her hair, as she watched Jesus walk the path to Calvary. As she watched him hang on the cross, the scent of her worship surrounded her. As she saw him laid in the tomb, the scent lingered. When she heard the good news of his resurrection, the scent turned from mourning to dancing. Her wasteful worship lingered as a witness of the power of Christ, yes even power over death.
Worship with a purpose is anything but wasteful. May our worship be extravagant, loving and overpowering so that it stays with us throughout the trials and suffering of our lives. May our worship bring witness to Jesus’ power, yes even the power of resurrection and new life.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

When Jesus comes into your church

Mark 1:21-28
The Devil made me do it.
It’s a famous catch phrase from Flip Wilson, an icon in the comedy world. This phrase became a part of our American culture very quickly. When he talked of a woman buying a dress at the store, the third one that week, she used the excuse “The devil made me do it.” And we laughed.
It has become a very common theme in our thoughts, comedy, even children’s cartoons. You all remember the angle and devil siting on Tom or Jerry’s shoulders influencing their behavior? Would they listen to the saccharin sweet voice of the angel or the gruff fun-loving guy in red? And we laughed.
Because its easier to laugh at those things that make us uncomfortable. Because we deep down don’t want to admit that evil is real, that bad things happen to good people, that demons don’t always dress in red. To quote author Tucker Max “The devil doesn’t show up dressed in a red cape with pointy horns.  He comes as everything you’ve ever wished for.”
In our world, yes even in the world of the church, it is easier to poke fun at evil than to address its reality. We Presbyterians like to do things decently and in order, we don’t have time for this “supernatural stuff.” I remember discussing whether spirits/demons still existed with a fellow seminary student. He told me that demons or unclean spirits were just the way that ancient people dealt with things like epilepsy, cancer, migraine headache and mental illness. It was a catch all to explain the unexplained. After sitting there for a while I asked, “Then why does Jesus waste time talking to them?”
In the gospel of Mark Jesus spends a good deal of time dealing with these unclean spirits. Specifically casting them out of the people they have held captive.  And while I do believe that some of these instances are probable explained by some of our modern medical issues, that doesn’t make them any less real. And I think we still encounter them today.
In our scripture this morning, Jesus has gone into Capernaum and is teaching in the synagogue. Mark moves his narrative of Jesus along very quickly, with a heavy use of the word immediately. In Mark Jesus’ public ministry only lasts a year, so he keeps things a quick pace.
We are not given the details of his teaching, this teaching with authority. In Matthew and Luke, we get detailed notes on Jesus’ teachings, like the sermon on the mount and sermon on the plain, but Mark doesn’t take time to do that. Instead he tells us Jesus taught with authority. Then he shows us what that authority looked like.
Jesus is on the synagogue, the center of worship and faith for the local people of Israel. This is where they came to learn, to discuss, to worship, to celebrate, to mourn, to question. It was the place where the faithful gathered to hear the word of God interpreted and to seek guidance. Sound familiar?
It was the church, the local community of believers doing the best they could to follow the rules of the faith in a world oppressed by the romans and filled with all sorts of potholes. SO, the faithful gathered, in theory, to keep one another accountable, to encourage one another. But the leaders of the day had gone from encouragement to perfectionism. It had become a museum for saints instead of a hospital for sinners. It became a place to show how holy you were, instead of how holy God is.
I can’t imagine the wonder people would have felt to hear Jesus teaching, a new teaching, with authority. He wasn’t quoting the past leaders of the synagogue, or the great former priests. Instead he spoke with his own level of authority- interpreting the scriptures directly. If this was a shock, what happened next was unbelievable.
There amid the people of God, immediately, Mark says, there is a man with an unclean spirit that cries out "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
Take a step back. There is an unclean spirit possessed man chilling in the synagogue? Say what? There were so many rules and regulations about who could and who could not worship, where people could sit, or stand, how they washed their hands, feet, even whole selves, so how did a known demon possessed man get into the synagogue?
I read several commentaries about this lesson and without fail they said that someone with an unclean spirit, even a suspected demon possessed person, would have been ostracized. They would have been shunned, considered unclean. People, respectable people at least, would not associate with them. They speak as if this well-known demon possessed man just happened to sneak into the worship service without notice.
That doesn’t ring true to me, or to my reading of the scripture. I think something much different, and perhaps more disturbing is happening here.
The man is in the community, a part of the community. Possibly even an upstanding part of the community of faith. From the outside he looks pulled together, righteous even. But within him is an unclean spirit, a spirit contrary to the will and works of God. Faced with the real honest truth of the word of God he can no longer hide his possession. The unclean spirit is threatened and cries out "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
When Jesus shows up in church it is challenging. When Jesus shows up at church it is life changing. When Jesus shows up at church, even there he exposes the spirits that are contrary to the work and will of God.
Throughout the remainder of the Gospel of Mark Jesus will encounter unclean spirits, demons. He will call them out, he will cast them into the abyss or into the swine herds. He will not let the people of God to remain infected with these spirits. But the first one he calls out is in the house of worship. This is important to Mark, and important to us.
When Jesus comes into your church he comes to set you free. This is good news, but it is not always welcome news. The liberating power of Jesus rubs against the powers that be in such a way as to cause disruption, fear, and push back.
"What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."
Have you come to destroy us? The answer is a resounding yes, and step by step in the Gospel of Mark Jesus goes about destroying any and all unclean spirits that come into his path, whether they be in the church, or in the political sphere, in homes or by tombs.
What does this have to do with us today? Plenty. You see there are still unclean spirits around today. And just like in Jesus’ day they are not always easy to spot. You don’t always find them in expected places. They lurk in places that from the outside appear healthy, clean, even good- like places of leadership and power, schools, capitals, and yes, even churches. They can hide because as a society we have reduced them to a joke, a punch line “The devil made me do it.” But let me assure you all, they are not a punch line, they are real.
They manifest in many different forms. I don’t think that any of us can look at the current addictions crisis in the USA and honestly think there is not something more than meets the eye. These are not isolated individuals who were born bad and therefor some how deserve the pain and anguish caused by addictions.
I hope that none of us can look at the increase in mass shootings and school shootings in this country and think there is nothing more than bad parenting and poor security at its roots.
I hope that in this city, where just this month, at least 4 people have been killed and 4 others wounded by gun violence, one of whom is a member at our sister church, Church Street, and think that there isn’t more going on then living on the wrong side of the tracks.
Institutional demons or racism, poverty, sexism, they are real. I believe at my core that they are not just policies and procedures that have become bad or harmful, but that at their root there is an unclean spirit, a spirit against God and the will and work of God.
Demons are personal as well. Individuals face demons, created by others, created by hate or loss or pain of course. But also, those with an honest to goodness spiritual component.
I know, its not something we talk about, but its real. Just look at this scripture.
Jesus, who just verses before is confirmed as being possessed by the Spirit of God comes into the place of worship and the Spirit of God is so powerful it causes the demon to cry out, to expose itself.
If I could talk to each of you, one on one, I could tell stories of encounters with unclean spirits, with demons. Those where I have witnessed the power of the holy spirit to cast them out. I could tell you of places where you walked in and knew something was not right. I can tell you of thin places, where the space between heaven and earth seemed to all but disappear.
And my guess is that many of you have these same stories, you just don’t talk about them in polite conversation because our modern world is somehow above all of that spiritual non-sense.
But here is the truth, and we will hear it a lot in the gospel of Mark, just like the line between sacred and secular doesn’t exist, everything every aspect of our lives is sacred. Likewise, every aspect of our lives is spiritual. We are not just flesh and bone, but spiritual beings. To deny that reality is to enter into a type of dualism that winds up denying the power of God all together.
As Ephesians 6 v 12 tells us “12 For our[b] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

This new teaching with authority that Jesus brings about shook the foundations of not only the synagogue, not only the Roman empire, but the whole of the world. Its still shaking the powers that be, be they earthly or spiritual. The good news is that we know who wins, that the darkness cannot and will not put out the light of Christ. SO, let us carry that light with us into the darkest of places, casting out the demons, the unclean spirits, the things contrary to the work and will of God in Jesus name. Amen.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Image Matters

Matthew 22:15-22
Who do you look like? Who do you favor? It’s one of the first things we ask about newborn babies. Whose eyes do they have? Whose chin? Whose hands or feet? I remember praying that my oldest might resemble me in some small way when we were expecting her. Zanna has my feet by the way.
At any family reunion we compare relatives to one another, looking for similarities. Searching for Aunt Wanda’s nose or Uncle Tony’s hair, we comb the room trying to find what characteristics hold us together, unite us, identify us as belonging to one another.
Where you are a chip off the old block, a carbon copy, or a doubleganger a generation removed, there is comfort in finding a similar trait. Even in adoptive families there is a need to identify with a personality trait or habit that ties you together.
Image has a different connotation in our society. People cultivate their image. They want to make sure that what they present to the world sheds the best light. When we post a selfie online we rarely pic one that makes us look bad. We cultivate, pick and choose, what we will show the world, and what we keep to ourselves. We have family friends in Memphis and Steve often says to me “I wish I had the life Will and Angie have on Facebook.” It’s not their real life, their real life with two full time jobs, one serving a church, and three kids in High school, Junior High and Elementary is complicated, messy and hectic. But the image they have cultivated is enviable.
In our Old Testament lesson reading from Exodus, Moses asks to see God’s glory. He doesn’t ask to see God’s image, that would be too much for anyone to handle, so he asks to see God’s glory. And the image the writer of Exodus gives us is one of Moses standing in the cliff, covered by the very hand of God until God walks past and Moses can see God’s back.
It’s an odd picture, Moses seeing the back of God. What good does it do to look at something from behind? It doesn’t do too much good, unless you are following them, then its exactly the view you need. Moses was going to return to the people and tell them to follow his lead because he was following God’s. Behind God was exactly where he needed to be so that he could follow faithfully.
The Gospel Lesson has Jesus dealing with an image problem as well. He is still in the temple, teaching and preaching. This is still Holy Week and his death is looming large. He has been very clear about the fact that the religious leaders and political leaders of the day were not acting in the people’s best interests. They were not helping the people live the lives God was calling them to live.
This had upset those in power, as speaking truth to power often will do, and so they began to plot to harm him. The Herodians, supporters of Rome, came and stood among the crowds. The Pharisees sent their disciples over to listen. Politics makes strange bedfellows, doesn’t it? The leaders of the temple in cahoots with the biggest Roman nationalists you’ve ever seen, uniting to get rid of this teacher, this Jesus. This guy whose image has gotten to big.
They begin to ask questions in order to trap him in something. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?”
That seems like a fairly straight forward question. It’s a yes or no answer. Or is it?
Jesus is in the Temple, a place set aside for the worship of God. A place where you were to give your offerings, your sacrifices and acknowledge that God has first place in your life. That whole first commandment thing was a big deal.
It was such a big deal, in fact, that you had to change your Roman money for Temple money when you came through the gate. You gave sheckles to the Temple, special coins, not Roman ones. Why? Because Roman money had other symbols on it, other images.
So when Jesus asks what coin is used to pay taxes he is handed a Denarius, a Roman coin. He asks “Who’s head is this, who’s title.” He actually asks “Who’s image is this? Who’s title?”
The people responded, “The Emperor’s” It is an image of the Roman Emperor, with the inscription “Caesar Augustus Tiberius, Son of the Devine Augustus.” A claim of deity. An idolatrous coin, there in the Temple.
“Give to the Emperor what is the emperor’s and to God what is God’s” The Emperor can have his Roman money, it is printed in his own likeness. But what then will be given to God?
Hypocrites, Jesus has called them. Why? Because they are so concerned with image that they forget the most important image.
Genesis 1:27 “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.
God’s concern is not with earthly wealth and the power that comes with accumulating that wealth. God’s concern is for how those with wealth treat the people made in God’s own image. God’s concern isn’t that taxes get paid or tithe’s get paid, but that the people made in God’s image give themselves back to God.
Give to God what is God’s. We are made in God’s image, every one of us, and we are to see and recognize that image in others. But too often we choose instead to see the cultivated image. Whether its one the individual has crafted, like the images we post on social media, or an image that our prejudices have created; we have a hard time seeing past them to the God-image inside.
Sometimes we have such a deep belief in the images other’s share, that we don’t even realize we are blind to God’s image, in us and in others.
A woman told me a story about one of her son’s this week. I’ll call her Laura. Laura and her husband have two biological children, boys, Jack age 9 and James age 11. They love these boys with their whole hearts. Through some interesting circumstances they are also raising two other boys, mixed race, Michael age 9 and Patrick age 11. These boys have made their way into their home and into their hearts. And while they are not biologically or even legally related, they are family.
One day Michael the younger of the boys not biologically theirs, came home upset from school. He had heard another little boy talking about his church and how his pastor had said that God was black. Michael disagreed with the boy. He told Laura “I don’t think God is black. I think God is just regular colored.”
TO this little boy “regular color” meant white. Something he was not, and would not every be. He couldn’t imagine God looking like him, he was other, different, not regular.
This is what comes of praising images that are not God. This is what comes in a world that values what is the emperor’s over that which is God’s. The world becomes a place that can dehumanize an entire group of people because of their skin color, their gender. The world revolves around commodities to the point where even the people we see are reduced to commodities.
Think about it. We rank people’s looks on a 1 to 10 scale.  We send aid quickly to one section of the population, but delay sending it to other citizens who don’t have the same voice or power to be heard.
It’s a powerful thing. You and I are made in the image of God. So is everyone else. What might it look like to live into that image? What might it look like to truly give to God what is God’s?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Fallacy of the Bootstrap Gospel

Matthew 20:1-16
“That’s not fair!” It’s something cried out in the playground every day.
“That’s not fair.” Something mumbled at the dinner table when brother gets a bigger piece of the much loved lasagna, or when sister gets a smaller piece of the much disliked broccoli.
“That’s not fair” words tumbling out of the mouth of a student who slaved over a paper only to learn that another student got an extension.
“That’s not fair” thrown about in the breakroom when talking about another person’s promotion, perhaps one you felt you deserved.
To quote my father, and I would guess most of your father’s “Life is not fair.”
Only, we expect it to be, don’t we? We expect to get from life what we put into it, and we expect others to be rewarded the same way. That is part of what our American, pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, mentality runs on; the premise that if we work hard enough, do the right things, then we can all arrive at the same destination.
And perhaps that’s what makes this morning’s teaching so displeasing, uncomfortable, down right yucky. I have even heard that there are people who avoid coming to church on the Sunday this story comes up in the lectionary. They dislike it that much!
Jesus is teaching, talking really, to his disciples and he again picks up this theme of the kingdom of heaven is like. . .
We’ve heard these phrases, the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.
-the kingdom of heaven is like a shepherd looking for a lost sheep.
-the kingdom of heaven is like a woman searching her whole house for one coin.
- the kingdom of heaven is like yeast
- the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field.
Here we get the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning. . .
With all of these kingdom of heaven phrases we have a tendency to take some literal interpretation. God is the landowner, we are the servants. God is the shepherd we are the sheep, God is the woman we are the coin (or perhaps that’s a bit of a stretch)
There is a huge problem reading these passages in this manner. Not one of these parables, in fact not all of the parables put together, actually describe the literal kingdom of heaven. Not one! Not all! Parables are comparisons, they are stories, and they are used to illustrate an idea, a concept that we really have no words to describe.
When we say March came in like a Lion and out like a Lamb, do we literally mean that the beginning of the month of March started with a lion coming down the streets and ended with a lamb walking away? Of course not. We mean the weather was rough at the beginning and calm at the end.
That is what parables do, they explain an idea or concept, not the actual kingdom of God. A picture is worth a thousand words, and parables give us a picture, a glimpse into the upside down, tables turned kingdom of God.
There was a landowner who went out in the morning to hire workers in his fields. And right off we have something that should cause us to pause. Landowners didn’t hire their workers, managers hired the workers. What was this landowner doing out in the marketplace looking for workers himself? That’s odd. His HR person should be holding interviews for him.
He finds workers, agrees to the normal day’s pay for a normal day’s work and sends them on to his fields. He’s a just landowner, he doesn’t try to cheat them; he agrees to pay the daily rate, not more, but certainly not less. The workers agree and go on to their jobs.
Later in the day the landowner goes out again and finds people waiting for work. I don’t know how many of you have experience with this, but growing up in Lubbock, Texas I remember groups of men, usually Latin American men, would gather outside of the local hardware store that my bus drove past on the way to school each morning. Construction foreman would pull up in their company trucks and load as many workers as they needed into the back of the truck, with promises of a day’s pay.
Driving home past that same hardware store there were occasionally still people standing around at 4pm. They looked tired, desperate, some older, some more frail, but still waiting for someone to hire them.
This landowner goes out at 9 am and hires a group of workers and agrees to pay them what is fair, or right, or just. Then he is out again at noon, then three with the same offer. And then at 5 pm he goes and finds people still waiting to be hired and says “Why are you here not working?” And they respond “Well I slept in too late.” “Well I didn’t feel like working this morning.” “Well, my parents didn’t teach me how to fill out the proper paperwork to get a job.” “Well I’m freeloading.”
No; they respond “no one has hired us.” Plain and simple. They have been waiting for a job and none has been provided. And so the landowner sends them on for the last hour of work. He doesn’t even promise them a fair wage, just an hours’ worth of work. But an hours’ worth is better than nothing, and so they go.
An hour later the owner calls to his manager (he has a manager, so why was he hunting down workers) and has him gather the workers to be paid beginning with the last and going to the first.
Everyone who has lined up for kindergarten or concert tickets or Black Friday specials knows that this is NOT how things are done. First come, first served. But that is not the way this landowner chooses to act.
The last shall be first, it didn’t endear him to his workers then, it wouldn’t endear him now.
They workers begin receiving their pay. Those who worked an hour received a day’s wage. The gossip spread to the back of the line. “If they worked and hour and got that much, imagine how much we will get.” They begin to think. And as they received their wages, their faces fell. They received a day’s wage for a day’s work.
It was exactly what had been promised. They had agreed to it in the early hours of the morning. But now it was not enough. Now they felt cheated. Now they felt taken advantage of.
Why? They made a contract and it was honored. Why feel put out, angry, cheated?
The landowner replies “Why are you upset? I paid you what was due. Are you envious because I am generous?”
Yes, they are envious. And yes we often are as well. It isn’t so much that other people get things from God that we don’t get. It’s not that they got more or better rewards. The problem seems to be that they got the same, and they don’t deserve it.
That’s the issue these workers have. They did the work, so they deserve the day’s wage. The other’s didn’t do as much, as hard, as good what have you work and therefore shouldn’t get the same things.
It’s not that they have been cheated, they got exactly what they had originally expected. It’s that others got the same amount. “You have made them equal to us.” Is their response.
Dr. Ira Brent Driggers, an Associate Professor at Lutheran Theological Seminary puts it this way “Even the workers hired early in the morning . . . roll out of bed unemployed. But the owner finds them and gives them work. I imagine they were, no less than the nine o’clock hires ‘standing idle in the marketplace.’ Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t working. There was no real livelihood prior to the owner seeking them out. But by the end of the day they seem to have forgotten this. Or maybe they never really understood. What is clear is that, come payment time, they are thinking only in terms of just reward. Pay must be commensurate with the hours worked – as if the work itself was not the real ‘reward.’”[i]
The workers do not recognize the gift of grace they have received in order to have work in the first place. They have become convinced that they are being treated unfairly because other’s received the same amount. And so the landowner asks “Are you envious because I am generous.”
Rev. Doctor Emerson Powery says the landowner’s question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (verse 15), is the translation of a Greek idiom which literally translates as “Is your eye evil because I am good?” An “evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) suggested a deeper problem than meets the eye. As Jesus taught earlier, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy (ophthalmos poneros; so, if you have the “evil eye”), your whole body will be full of darkness” (cf. 6:22-23). In this account, the “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity (e.g., jealousy, greed, stinginess, etc.).[ii]
Viewing someone else’s good fortune as our demotion is ridiculous at best, and evil at worst. We have not earned our place as children of God, we can’t do that. It is grace, a gift, unmerited favor. Yet there are those who would act as if they somehow deserve their standing with God. I think that Matthew shares this parable to remind us that whether we are 7th generation Christian, or just walked in off the street to hear the Gospel for the first time, our status is the same, laborer for God, child of the king, beloved.
Who do you identify with in the parable? The laborers who worked all day, received enough to feed their families, and yet feel cheated? The workers who were only there an hour and yet were blessed with enough to feed their families?
How we see this parable tells us a lot about how we see our role in the kingdom of God. “Faced with God's boundless love for the world, especially when it is lavished upon others, we reveal whether we view our own labor as a gift from God or as benefit to God, as the joyful fulfillment of our created purpose or as the mere endurance of scorching heat.[iii]
The Gospel Truth is that we are all equal recipients of God’s gifts. The truth in our hearts is that sometimes we are jealous when such gifts are shared with others in equal measure.
To quote the great theologian Louis CK,
“The only time you look in your neighbor's bowl is to make sure that they have enough. You don't look in your neighbor's bowl to see if you have as much as them.”
The kingdom of heaven, my friends, is like a generous landowner, who went out every hour seeking to give people a job, a calling, a vocation; and never stopped seeking even when there was little time left to work. And then gave them all enough to feed themselves and their families.  Let us not be evil eyed toward the gifts other’s receive. Let us rejoice that they too have their daily bread.

[i] Ira Brent Driggers Working Preacher September 21, 2008
[ii] The Reverend Doctor Emerson Powery, Working Preacher September 21, 2014
[iii] Ira Brent Driggers Working Preacher September 21, 2008